Elsie Crail Richardson had many reasons to accept her lot in life and not expect more. Times were tough – not just for Elsie, but for the country, which was going through the Great Depression. And Elsie was going it alone, orphaned with five siblings at just 14.
After her parents’ death, Elsie often heard, “Oh, that’s too bad. Now you’ll never go to college,” says her daughter, Helen. To which Elsie would reply, “I will TOO go to college!”
Because she refused to give up, she did just that.
And in years to come, future OSU Nutrition students will carry forward Elsie’s legacy thanks to the endowed fund her daughter has created in her honor.
In the early 1930s, a young Elsie, Oregon State University Home Economics degree in hand, took her passion for cooking on multiple trips with the Sierra Club in California. Traveling with the likes of photographer Ansel Adams and painter Leland Curtis, Elsie met a young Extension marketing specialist named Hilton Bebb Richardson.
“She knew how to do everything, and if she didn’t know, she would find out. Nothing would stop her. She was a powerhouse.”
It turned out Elsie and Hilton both lived in Riverside, Calif., where Hilton worked at the University of California and Elsie worked at Farm Security. Elsie planned to ride the train home; Hilton offered her a car ride instead. She accepted, and the rest, you could say, is history.
The two later moved from Riverside to Davis, where Hilton kickstarted the viticulture program at the University of California, Davis. He would later work with grape growers and wine makers in up-and-coming Napa Valley.
Elsie would raise the couple’s two daughters, Helen and Martha Ann, and serve as president of the California Home Economics Association from 1961-62.
“She would help anybody who asked. She always pitched in, was great at organizing and sewed most of her children’s clothes,” Helen says. “She knew how to do everything, and if she didn’t know, she would find out. Nothing would stop her. She was a powerhouse.”
A Beaver legacy
Elsie was born in Turner, Oregon. In fact, her parents met at Philomath College, and her father built houses in Corvallis and later during WWI worked as a carpenter on ships coming in and out of Portland. Her mother had a Victory Garden and canned food when Elsie was growing up.
“She was always proud of being an Oregonian and going to Oregon State,” Helen says.
To afford college, Elsie, who graduated in 1931, worked at Jantzen Knitting Mills in Portland during the summer and saved her money for college. “She knew how to economize. There were times she didn’t eat much,” Helen says. “Money was so tight; people were desperate for money.”
Even later in life, “She never thought she had a lot of money,” Helen adds. “It was a Depression mentality.”
Because of her mother’s positive experiences at Oregon State, Helen decided to attend her alma mater in 1961 to study Home Economics. She eventually earned a degree in art and literature.
“I loved OSU,” she says. “Corvallis is a lot like Davis. Both are land grant universities and are ag-oriented, so I felt right at home.”
Her favorite memory? Getting an ice cream cone after class in the old dairy building. “There were lots of flavors to choose from. It was great.”
Honoring “a nice set of parents”
Helen graduated in 1966, having spent one year abroad with her parents in 1962 during her father’s sabbatical. “It was the best education in the world,” she says of visiting the island country of Cyprus and touring Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Egypt and Israel. “It was an amazing experience. I’ve been in and on top of the Great Pyramid.”
After her time at Oregon State, Helen moved to San Francisco. “It was the Summer of Love! The Age of Aquarius! Hippies everywhere!” she says. “But I wasn’t one of them.”
She did, however, catch a ride on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) the first day it opened, and after a career in the insurance industry retired at 62 to return home and care for her mother, who was then in her 90s.
“Everyone in my family liked to help people. I wanted to help, too.”
“We had a fun time for a few years, playing puzzles and going on car rides. She was pretty spry – in fact, she could outrun me at the grocery store,” Helen says.
Elsie died Oct. 22, 2007, just shy of her 99th birthday.
“She worked so hard. I loved her dearly,” Helen says. “She was the most wonderful person in the world. I was lucky I had a nice set of parents.”
Her father died in 1987, so after Elsie’s death, the family’s assets went to Helen and her sister, Martha Ann, who worked in Washington, D.C. After Martha Ann died in 2012, Helen began thinking about what to do with her unexpected inheritance.
“Everyone in my family liked to help people,” she says. “I wanted to help, too.”
She decided to make plans through her estate to help students – those like her mother in the ’30s – who struggle financially to pay for college.
The Elsie Crail Richardson Nutrition Student Support Fund will ease the specter of paying for college so students instead can focus on their studies. Specifically, the fund will provide scholarships and fellowships for students who demonstrate high academic achievement in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences’ Nutrition program. Scholarships will cover up to 75 percent of in-state tuition, and awards may be renewed.
“I think she’d be really happy,” says Helen of the fund bearing her mother’s name. “While she was at Oregon State, she met Mercedes Bates, who went on to become Betty Crocker. When Mercedes gave the university $1 million, I know mother wished she could have done that, too. She was a bit competitive.
“She had a sign as a kid that read ‘Never give up.’ And she never did.”
To learn about making a gift to OSU in honor of a family member or other loved one, now or through your estate, contact Heather Brust, Senior Director of Development for Health Sciences, at Heather.Brust@oregonstate.edu or 541-737-5137.