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Evelyn Birkby, Iowa’s Beloved Homemaker, Has Passed Away At 101

Emily Birkby and Charity Nebby.
Charity Nebbe
Iowa Pubic Radio
Emily Birkby and Charity Nebbe.

Evelyn Corrie grew up in Iowa as the daughter of a Methodist minister. Her family moved from parish to parish, starting over every few years. She graduated from high school in Sidney and then went off to college.

She was living the big city life, working as youth director at the First United Methodist Church of Chicago, when a visit home led to a romance with a former high school classmate, Robert Birkby. The two got married, moved to a small farm and started a family.

Then an advertisement in the local paper caught Robert’s eye. The paper was looking for a farm wife to write a weekly column. In a 2012 interview with IPR Evelyn recalled how he encouraged her to take on the challenge.

"Robert said to me one day, you need to do something creative. Just to be on a farm and helping with the chickens and the hogs and the cattle and separating the cream from the milk, you know all the farm wife things. You’re not going to be satisfied and I want you to be a happy wife."

Evelyn started writing the newspaper column “Up a Country Lane” in 1949 for the Shenandoah Evening Sentinel and later for the Shenandoah Valley News. In 1950 she became a “radio homemaker” joining the KMA radio program Kitchen Klatter. Homemakers may have been her audience, but she was a trailblazer, balancing a career, motherhood and marriage.

At the beginning of her career, she connected with readers and listeners by being vulnerable. She admitted that she wasn’t much of a cook and asked for recipes and advice. In return, her audience gave her helpful advice and shared their worries and needs with her.

Evelyn’s dedication to her readers never wavered. For seventy years she never missed a column, although she did allow guest columnists from time to time.

Her husband was a district executive with Boy Scouts of America and that made Evelyn’s typewriter essential camping gear as she traveled with the family, writing columns on campsite picnic tables.

Evelyn developed a strong following in Southwest, Iowa, but eventually, she also attracted attention from outside the state. She became a favorite of well-known food and travel writers Jane and Michael Stern who wrote about her in The New Yorker and other national media outlets came calling. She started writing her own books, publishing 12 over the years.

She was featured in a documentary made by Iowa PBS, but the honor she seemed to relish the most was her appearance in the 2002 novel, “Standing in the Rainbow,” by best-selling author Fannie Flagg. Her real name gets mentioned in the book, but she is also believed to be the inspiration for the main character, Neighbor Dorothy. In 2012 she shared her favorite scene in the sequel to that book, “Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven.”

"Aunt Eleanor falls off a ladder and goes to heaven, well she really doesn’t stay very long, but while she was there, she met Neighbor Dorothy and Neighbor Dorothy baked her a cake. So, when I read that I said to Robert, ‘You know I like that idea, so when I get to heaven I’m going to see if there’s a kitchen somewhere so I can go bake a cake.’”

Evelyn was always up for adventure and making new friends. She was philosophical about growing older and her failing eyesight, finding purpose in developing relationships, and supporting the people who were hired to take care of her.

She kept working and writing as long as she could. She published her 12th and final book in 2018 and published her final column in November of 2019. She continued to do monthly radio appearances on KMA Radio in Shenandoah well into her 100th year.

She spent her final months living in a nursing home, where she contracted and beat COVID19. She passed away on Sunday, February 7, of natural causes as members of her family sang one of her favorite hymns at her bedside.

Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa