Virginia Tech Magazine
In Retrospect
Spring 2009

Maude E. Wallace: Goddess of home demonstration by Clara B. Cox M.A. 84

Whether performing as the Greek goddess of the harvest or enhancing home demonstration work* throughout the nation, Maude Emma Wallace always made an impression.

Wallace worked at Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute (known popularly as Virginia Polytechnic Institute or VPI, today's Virginia Tech) twice in the early to mid 1900s, tackling increasing responsibilities in Agricultural Extension (now Virginia Cooperative Extension) and reaping numerous state and national awards and honors for her home demonstration work.

Born and principally educated in Illinois, Wallace secured her first professional job, teaching home economics, in Miami before journeying to Virginia in 1917 to become a city Extension agent working in the World War I food conservation program. Two years later, she moved to Raleigh, N. C., and worked for the North Carolina Extension Service for nine years.

In 1929, she returned to VPI as a state home demonstration agent, and in 1937, she was tapped to be the assistant director of Extension in charge of home demonstration work, a job she held until her retirement in 1958. In the latter role, she directed a staff of 145 agents and specialists in developing "the home demonstration work in Virginia to a high level of effectiveness and efficiency," writes D. Lyle Kinnear in The First 100 Years. She also helped transform the Virginia Homemakers' Association into the Virginia Federation of Home Demonstration Clubs, one of the largest such organizations in the country.

A towering woman, Wallace carried herself regally and had a commanding presence. But, says Jo Anne Barton, who was a neighbor and friend, "If you were trying to make a decision on something, she didn't tell you what to do; she helped you work through it."

During the years of the Great Depression, President Julian A. Burruss suspended the home economics curriculum for four years in a move to save money. In 1937, he turned to Wallace to re-establish the suspended home economics curriculum as a department and to temporarily head it. After creating the department, she led it for two years, yet continued her Extension duties. The work suited her well since she considered herself "best qualified to do organization and administrative work--also supervision work."

She apparently had the knack for quickly assessing character. Jane Ewing (M.S. '74) has related seeing Wallace at a state home demonstration meeting in 1955. Said Ewing, "There was this forbidding-looking woman sitting there with people gathered around her.... Ms. Wallace looked at me with her piercing brown eyes and asked, 'Young lady, are you looking for a job?' When I said I was, she told me to go to the courthouse at 9 a.m. and talk to Margaret Svboda. I still didn't know exactly who she was, but I could tell she was somebody important, and I thought I'd better do what she said, so I went--and got the job."

 Wallace Hall
Wallace Hall

Wallace also had a flair for the dramatic. She played the Muse of History during a commemoration of George Washington's 200th birthday and appeared as Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest, in a pageant celebrating the 100th anniversary of Eli Whitney's invention of the reaper. Svboda, a former Extension district supervisor and a pageant spectator, said many years later, "She stood there robed in flowing gowns, looking like the Statue of Liberty. It's been 64 years, and I still hold that image of her."

Wallace's Extension work attracted numerous national and state honors and awards, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Superior Service Award for her "exceptional leadership, guidance, and inspiration in developing highly successful home demonstration programs in Virginia and the nation" and "for unexcelled interest in the welfare of rural people."

She also was honored twice by Epsilon Sigma Phi, a national honorary agricultural extension fraternity, receiving two Certificates of Recognition for outstanding service as an extension worker and for service and leadership in home demonstration work in the nation. Additionally, she received the Nancy Carter Award for "outstanding excellence in home economics public relations," was listed in Who's Who in American Women, and was named "Woman of the Year" in 1941 by Progressive Farmer magazine. Within the commonwealth, she was named to the Virginia 4-H All-Star Hall of Fame.

Friendly, outgoing, and curious, Wallace made numerous contributions to her profession, not just in the commonwealth, but also throughout the country, in part by serving on a variety of national committees. Among her focus areas were 4-H, agricultural communications, and public relations for home economics. She also presided for a term over the Virginia Home Economics Association and spent a term as first vice-president of the American Home Economics Association during more than 40 years as a member of both organizations.

Immediately after retiring from VPI, she became a short-term consultant to Thailand for the U.S. Department of State, serving on a committee established to make recommendations for Thailand's extension education program.

Later, she helped Laura Jane Harper, dean of VPI's School of Home Economics, to plan the strategy for gaining approval for a new building for the school. According to Saranette D. Miles in her master's thesis, "A Fighter to the End: The Remarkable Life and Career of Laura Jane Harper," "Harper listened to Wallace's suggestions and immediately began putting 'Operation New Building' into action." While raising money for the building, Harper "encouraged donors to place a contingency on their donations--that the new building be named after Maude Wallace." In 1968, the new building was completed and dedicated in honor of Wallace, who attended the festivities surrounding the event.

Toward the end of her life, Wallace moved to Miami to be near family members. In poor health the last year of her life, she died in 1972 at the age of 84 and was buried in Miami.

Today, Wallace Hall and a scholarship in her name serve as monuments to the dedication and achievements of this early pioneer in home demonstration work.

* Home demonstration work entailed teaching homemakers such skills as money management, kitchen improvement, and safe food-canning and food-storage techniques.

CLARA B. COX is director of University Publications.

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