Alumni Features HDFS

It’s a beautiful life, built by a hardworking Beaver

Home economics alum visits campus 70 years after graduation

Graduation photo of Jeanne Erickson Armstrong

By Kathryn Stroppel

It’s June 1954. Poodle skirts and cat-eye glasses are all the rage, and Elvis Presley is about to begin his singing career with Sun Records. It’s the early years of the atomic age and Cold War, and the country is experiencing a cultural upheaval. In its midst, and standing on the precipice of her future, is Jeanne Erickson Armstrong, a freshly minted Oregon State graduate in home economics who was too busy finishing her courses and caring for a family to pay much mind to the zeitgeist.

During her time as a student, Jeanne had four children and made lifelong friends. Her college boyfriend, who was drafted into WW II, became her husband of 74 years because as a sophomore she had the pluck to ask him to marry her. As a student, she lived in Waldo Hall, met a lifelong mentor, was part of Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority and worked as hard as she studied. She had anticipated graduating in 1949, but the war, and life, had other plans.

It’s now 2024, WW II and Elvis live only in the annals of history, and Jeanne is nearly 98 years old, back on campus revisiting memories and familiar places, such as the OSU Child Development Center, with impeccable recall.

Attending Oregon State “was a high-level experience for me,” she says with a bright smile. And how did she feel upon returning to her alma mater? “Like the OSC Grad of the 20th Century.”

Jeanne first was introduced to Oregon State through 4-H, where she spent a few summers on campus as part of 4-H Summer Camp. It was through 4-H that she met her future husband, first in Portland and then as OSU undergraduates.

After graduating from high school, Jeanne wasn’t sure she could afford to attend college, but her friend Katie convinced her she could do it and that they would live in Waldo Hall, a dormitory for women.

Gathering her courage, she thought, “I’ll just jump in,” she says. She did, and the two lived in Waldo for two terms before moving into the Kappa Kappa Gamma house.

The summer before graduating from high school, in 1943, Jeanne worked at the Shipyard Ferry in Portland selling tickets, cigarettes and sandwiches to workers.

“I did two shifts, early morning and swing, riding my bike about five miles each way twice a day, sleeping at home between shifts,” she says. The next summer, in 1944, she worked at the Kaiser Co. Swan Island Shipyards, which was located on an island in the Columbia River.

After enrolling at OSU, she worked in the kitchens in Waldo Hall and the Kappa Kappa Gamma house, then in the chemistry building doing inventory and “counting beakers.” She also worked with former history professor Joseph Ellison grading papers.

“I was always working,” she says.

During her education, her classmates worked at home management houses, where they “practiced” homemaking, including food preparation and caring for a baby. Because Jeanne was already married with children, she was able to skip that experience.

Instead, she enrolled in “Supervised Experience” at the Nursery School on Orchard Street, now the site of the Child Development Center, and loved spending time observing and later working with children.

Through it all, she was influenced by child development professor Katherine Read Baker, a role model who later became a friend and lifelong mentor.

About Katherine Read Baker

During her tenure at Oregon State, Katherine helped establish child care centers with federal funds, served as Child Development Center Director and headed the Department of Family Life and Home Administration from 1952 to 1965. In 1950, she published The Nursery School, considered the first textbook for nursery school teacher education.

Katherine modeled appropriate behavior, Jeanne says, being soft-spoken and firm with the children and tough on her students. That experience “was critical,” she says, adding that she emulated her style when working with preschool students, as well as her own children.

Life after graduation in 1954 has been no less a learning experience. After having four children, Jeanne and her husband, Ed, adopted 2-year-old Lisa, found malnourished and wrapped in a blanket on a staircase in Hong Kong, in the late ’50s.

A little over 10 years later, in 1969, she earned her master’s degree at 40 and taught child development courses at Lane Community College. She also taught at the University of Oregon.

During her career, she founded a couple of preschools and worked directly with children for five years. She now volunteers her time at a preschool in Eugene that she helped establish in 1958. It serves about 86 families each year, and Jeanne is currently writing the preschool’s history. She also manages a 1,000-book library at the over-55 independent living facility where she lives in downtown Eugene.

The OSU Child Development Center turns 100 years old in two years, and she says, “I’ll be back.”

See you in 2026, Jeanne.

While on campus, Jeanne met with faculty and staff at the OSU Child Development Center, as well as College of Health Interim Dean Rick Settersten. She’s pictured here with (l-r) Assistant Director Dana Crawford, Director Kathleen McDonnell, and daughter Mary Lou at far right. The CDC was funded by Home Ec alumna Mercedes Bates, ’36 and sits on the site of the former 1938 Nursery School. The CDC opened in 1992 and provides Head Start and preschool programs, as well as programs for parents.