Olive Pearl Ritter Charitable Remainder Unitrust

 Olive Pearl Ritter Charitable Remainder Unitrust

Young and Ambitious From the Start

In the navy blue cover of her doctoral diploma, Olive Pearl Ritter carefully tucked away her first teaching contract. Her agreement with the Dodge Township Board of Education obligated her “to dwell and faithfully...perform the duties of teacher” for 16 weeks. In return, Pearl was to be paid $60 at the end of each month. The contract was signed August 30, 1919, and Union County's new teacher was only 19 years old.

Almost 80 years later, Olive Pearl Ritter remained a warm and devoted teacher. Although she no longer worked in a classroom, Ms. Ritter taught by example and by recounting a lifetime of experience. The following are a few of the fond memories she wished to share from her life.

“My mother loved kids,” she said. “And I think her love for children inspired me. From the time I was little I played with buttons, moving them around and pretending they were my students. I just knew from early on that's what I wanted out of life - to work with young people.”

After graduating from Afton High School, Olive attended summer school at the University of Northern Iowa, then known as the Iowa State Teachers College. Armed with a first-year teaching certificate, she won her first job at a one-room schoolhouse not far from her home. Her younger brother was one of her pupils.

“I always kept something warm on the pot-bellied stove for the children's lunch,” Olive recalled. “Once I heard a terrible commotion on the roof. I told one of the boys to go up there and see what was going on, and he came back and said the roof was on fire. So I organized the children into a fire brigade and we put it out. They were all farm kids -they knew what to do.”

The following year, Ms. Ritter taught primary grades in Macksburg. For her nine months of effort she earned $990. The schoolhouse was unfinished, so during the fall semester, Olive taught 50 first and second graders in a large room above the Odd Fellows Hall. In 1924 the young teacher moved to Sheffield, where she taught for another three years. During the next four years Pearl worked in Sioux City, Dallas Center, and Webster City. Children flourished under her keen eye and tender heart.

Heavy Studies and a New Focus

Ms. Ritter studied every summer, and by 1931 she had earned a primary grade teaching diploma from Iowa State Teachers College, a bachelor of arts from Des Moines University, and a master's degree from the University of Iowa. During that time, Pearl decided to refocus her education on a new goal: teaching teachers. In 1932, working for the Iowa Department of Public Education, she became a traveling teaching adviser for school districts across the state.

“The state sponsored me, but the counties paid me,” Pearl said. “At one time I had 80 bosses.”

During the summers, she worked toward her doctoral degree in education in Iowa City. Pearl had collected much of her dissertation data over the years as she worked with children and other teachers. When she moved to Iowa City to begin graduate work, her moving van caught fire. Everything she owned, including her original data, was lost. But she began again, and in 1941 she finally earned her degree with a dissertation that explored the use of difficult and technical words in fourth grade geography texts.

Ms. Ritter recalled her dissertation defense very clearly. After a series of challenging questions, one faculty member asked her how many times a certain technical term was repeated in the fourth grade geography texts she examined. When she couldn't answer, she began to explain her theory of reading, which proposed the then novel idea that learning to read should be fun.

“I told them that children who see the words ‘bird nest soup’ will remember them forever,” she said. “When words have meaning for you, even nonsensical meaning, you only have to see them once to be able to read them again and again.”

For the next 27 years, Olive conducted methods workshops across the state, sometimes spending a week in a single district. Her observations of teachers in the classroom helped her develop popular teaching techniques for language development. Once, the superintendent of the Davenport School District opened an educational workshop by telling the district teachers. "This is the 17th time I've introduced Dr. Ritter to you. But don't blame me - you asked for it."

A New Outlook on Children's Education

Pearl's enthusiasm for teaching children inspired not only countless other teachers but also the teaching materials she prepared every night in her basement.

Ms. Ritter based her lively reading booklets on phonics combined with stories and illustrations relevant to a child's world. And decades before most Americans thought about integrated schools, she included African-American children in her teaching materials. She recalled with disgust the educational philosophies that were in vogue at the time.

“I used to tell teachers I'd come and help them teach reading as long as they didn't use the Beacon Method,” she remembered. “We get hearing before eyesight, so my idea was to teach reading phonics by using a lot of pictures connected with the words. But most teachers used the Beacon Method, where they would try to get children to sound out each individual letter and then put them all together.”

“I can still see some of those teachers standing up in front of the classes, veins sticking out on their necks, sounding out each sound “sssssssssssssss” “aaaaaaaaaa” “t”. Now how would a child ever come up with the word ‘sat’ after all that nonsense?”

Ms. Ritter's methods seem to have presaged modern efforts to combine the creativity of whole language, the nuts and bolts of phonics, and the fun of Dr. Seuss. When textbook publishing giant Scott Forseman, of Dick and Jane fame, got wind of Pearl's homemade books, it offered her a publishing contract.

“I told them no,” she said. “I was afraid they'd change everything and ruin it.”

Children Were Her Inspiration

Pearl’s philanthropic spirit was inspired by her work with children. She loved watching their mental processes working as they understood an idea she had presented. The Olive Pearl Ritter Endowment and the Olive Pearl Ritter Charitable Remainder Unitrust at the Community Foundation will continue to carry out the work that she began by giving future children the advantage of having an education that will provide the tools necessary for them to succeed.

"Our fund allows us to support programs that enhance the lives of children, individuals, families and businesses."

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