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Compensation for a Difficult Life

From Our Story

Ida Lou Anderson
By Hannalore Sudermann

From Washington State Magazine, Fall 2005


Edward R. Murrow was looking for a future when he came to Washington State College-- sophistication, an education, and a way out of a hardscrabble life. He found it all in Ida Lou Anderson '24.

That frail, tiny woman, just eight years his senior, was an admired speech instructor who carried both a cane and a magnificent voice. Beneath that, she was Murrow's guide, his critic, his moral compass.

According to one Murrow biographer, he called her his "other woman." She called him her "masterpiece."

Together they built a fine, unusual, and durable relationship that guided Murrow to success and buoyed Anderson through her physical tribulations.

Like Murrow, Ida Lou Anderson was born in the South and then moved to the Northwest as a child. At the age of eight, on a return trip to Tennessee, she fell ill with infantile paralysis, a disease that today is known as polio. Her legs curled up and her spine developed a pronounced double curvature, badly twisting her torso. Her family feared for her life.

Her sister, Bessie Rose Plaskett, described Anderson's childhood years as torturous, with casts, braces, crutches, and massage, all to tempt young Ida Lou's weakened muscles back to health.

As a teen, her will sparked into flame. She declared she'd had enough of doctors and demanded release from an awful regimen of treatments. Despite years of missed education, she cruised through Colfax High School in three years and then enrolled at Washington State College.

While her life in Colfax had been filled with love and encouragement, Anderson didn't find such warmth in Pullman. Instead, many of her classmates mocked her or avoided her, frightened by her appearance. A friend, Mrs. Roy La Follette, wrote her memories of Anderson, recalling the young woman's heartache and thoughts of quitting school.

But then speech professor N.E. Reed spotted talent in the fragile girl, and cast her in a campus play. In the pleasure of being on stage Anderson forgot her physical ailments. She could make her audience forget as well, recalled classmates and students. Thanks to Reed, Anderson became a regular of the theater, playing character roles and eventually becoming known throughout campus as a skilled orator. She won statewide awards for public speaking and took many more spots in local productions.

After she graduated in 1924, the speech department invited her to stay on as an instructor. She made a stern and demanding, but engaging, teacher, rounding out her education by taking time off to travel the world and to further her studies.

Former student Randall Johnson '38 remembers Anderson perched at the front of class in a chair with a tablet arm. She is reciting some great passage, maybe her favorite, Marcus Aurelius, he says. A magnetic voice emanates from her small body. "It was surprisingly powerful, and so well articulated," says Johnson. "I can recall her, where there's a thousand other people I've forgotten."

She was tough. "I can still remember how she would take some of those 250-pound football players and sober them up the first day," says Johnson. "We were there to work and to improve ourselves and to accomplish something and not waste time. For a young college kid, those were things I needed to hear."

da Lou Anderson '24 leads a line of hungry students at a 1924 campus event. Photo by Myron Huckle '27, courtesy WSU Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections.
Just a few years into teaching, Anderson encountered Murrow, a freshman who pleaded to be admitted to her upper-level courses. In him she saw something more than just ambition. "She was content to cause the student to do just a little better than he thought himself capable of doing," Murrow wrote after her death. The man who seemed never at a loss for words had struggled to write his favorite teacher's memorial.

The two had an unusual relationship, say Murrow's biographers. Anderson opened her home to her pupil, giving him private coaching on the contents and delivery of his speeches. He consulted with her on nearly all matters: classes, girlfriends, personal philosophy. He would escort her to campus talks, performances, and even dances, though neither danced.

Many of Anderson's students went on to careers in broadcasting, but it was of Murrow that she was most proud. After he left Pullman, she kept close watch on him and his career. Her health tore her away from her teaching. She was in near-constant pain. She took to wearing tinted glasses and avoided sunlight. By 1939, Anderson could no longer stand the rigors of leading classes and took a leave of absence. She formally resigned a year later, retreating to live near her sister in Oregon.

From then on, Anderson spent much of her time lying on a bed in a darkened room and listening to the radio. On Sundays, she looked forward to Murrow's broadcasts from London. "No one was allowed to speak or even move in Ida Lou's dark room," wrote Mrs. La Follette of those hours.

Her body would tense as if every cell were listening to the broadcast, wrote several who saw her. Afterward, she would compose a letter to Murrow, mostly filled with pride and praise, but with some critique about delivery or word choice. Though incapacitated, she continued to teach.

Small pieces of Anderson's life can still be found on campus. The University archives hold a box containing class notes, a few photographs, and reading lists, as well as memorials from students and a few of her own letters. In one of those notes, Anderson summed up her teaching philosophy to WSC president E.O. Holland shortly before her death in 1940. "If, because of me, some of our students are able to make a little more of their lives, always remember that in giving to them, I found my greatest compensation for a strange and difficult life."

The few other clues to her unusual life come in biographies of Murrow. In one by Joseph E. Persico, Murrow is quoted: "She knows me better than any person in the world. The part of me that is decent, that wants to do something, be something, is the part she created."

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