Co-founder Lorraine Wallach’s legacy lives on

Lorraine Wallach, Erikson co-founder, teacher, mentor, and friend, died February 2 at the age of 85. But her contributions to early childhood education—and the creation of Erikson— will never pass away.

Born in New York in 1928, Wallach arrived in the Midwest to attend the University of Chicago, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree and master’s degrees in social work and human development and education.

She served as a teacher and educational director at the University of Chicago’s Nursery School starting in 1950. While there, she met child psychologist Maria W. Piers and educator Barbara T. Bowman. The three became fast friends, according to Bowman, often meeting socially.

In 1955, Wallach left the school to become the first social worker — and first paid employee — of the Virginia Frank Child Development Center. By the end of her 11 years at the Center, she rose to assistant director and gained a deep understanding of children with special needs, which would help inform Erikson’s thinking.

Founding Erikson

By 1965, Piers and businessman and philanthropist Irving B. Harris had a radical idea: they wanted to found a graduate school to educate and train leaders in child development.

The two recruited Wallach and Bowman, and as a group, they began the hard work of getting a graduate school off the ground. One year later, the Chicago Institute for Early Childhood Education, later renamed in honor of psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, opened in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.

From the beginning, Piers, Bowman, and Wallach were affectionately referred to as the “troika,” the Russian term for a three-member committee. The three worked as one to overcome many challenges, especially in the early years, to make their shared vision a reality. Piers served as the external face of the Institute, while Wallach and Bowman managed the administration and the curriculum, respectively.

Each brought a unique set of skills and perspectives to the interdisciplinary framework of Erikson. Ideas flowed into the Institute from early childhood education, administration, cultural anthropology, clinical and developmental psychology, and pediatrics. Wallach brought her strong social work and clinical perspective, as well as an emphasis on professional reflection.

“Lorraine was an indispensable leg of the troika, along with Maria and Barbara,” says Aisha Ray, M.Ed. ’72, an early faculty member who now serves as Erikson’s senior vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty. “All three had enormous intellectual flexibility, which enabled them to pull together the best from a variety of disciplines.”

Erikson began with 15 students and the troika as faculty members in 1966. By 1993, the year Wallach retired, Erikson had grown to some 140 students and 10 faculty members. During those 27 years, Wallach served in a number of positions including executive director, acting dean, and faculty member, teaching the class on the role of play in development.

Wallach was instrumental in helping cement Erikson’s national reputation through her work with Native American and migrant Head Start programs. With her colleagues, she helped the Institute earn one of its first national grants, the Child Development Associate Pilot Program. That work sent Erikson faculty into Native American communities across the United States to develop a model of culturally relevant teacher preparation.

“Lorraine brought cultural sensitivity into the conversation before it was popular,” says Peg Callaghan, M.Ed. ’74. “She lived it through her work with Native Americans and then brought what she learned into the classroom to raise students’ awareness of it.”

Wallach was also active outside the Institute, serving as president of the Chicago Metro Association for the Education of Young Children and on the advisory committees of The Field Museum, Chicago Children’s Museum, and DuPage Children’s Museum.

When she retired, the Board of Trustees honored her with the title of distinguished service professor emerita. Alumni and faculty still remember Wallach’s retirement party with fondness. Attendees wore buttons sporting Wallach’s photo and a small red heart, and Polly Podewell, M.Ed. ’73, led the group in a tribute song to the tune of Sesame Street’s “Rubber Duckie.” The lyrics included, “Lorraine Wallach, you’re the one. You made Erikson lots of fun. Lorraine Wallach, we’re awfully fond of you.”

One-liners and a sympathetic shoulder

Everyone who knew Wallach remembers her wry sense of humor. Laughing at irony and human foibles was her favorite. “She always had a one-liner ready,” says Bowman. Professor Fran Stott, who joined Erikson’s faculty in 1979, recalls that Wallach used humor both to make people laugh and to make a point in her teaching, explaining, “She was full of clever stories illustrating developmental achievement.”

Wallach’s humor was even on display in her remarks at the 1993 commencement ceremony. She reflected, “A great deal of thought and effort has gone into your education from those first entrance interviews through your classes, conferences, and seminars. I bet we spent more time thinking about you than your mother did.”

But her humor was never hurtful. “I remember how really kind she was. She loved people and was concerned about what you thought,” says Perry L. Taylor, Jr., chair of the Board of Trustees from 1992 to 1995. “She had an innate way of drawing people out and talking with you in a way that made you feel comfortable, not intimidated or challenged.”

Students and alumni saw her as a mentor and could count on her support in their professional and personal lives.

For Sarah Sivright, M.Ed. ’96, an admissions interview with Wallach was her first introduction to Erikson. “I was very nervous about being up to the task of graduate work,” says Sivright. “Lorraine was warm and supportive, and the interview was more like sitting in a friend’s living room, having tea and good conversation. She set the tone for my entire Erikson experience, and helped launch me into a treasure of an education.”

Maureen Patrick, M.Ed. ’73, and Wallach became lifelong friends when Wallach offered to help during a difficult time in Patrick’s life. Patrick asked Wallach if she could take her son to an appointment for eyeglasses; eventually they spent holidays and everyday occasions together.

Occasionally, Wallach would attend meetings of an Erikson alumni book club that called itself the Book Club That Doesn’t Read. Members included Patrick, Callaghan, Mary Irene Dernbach, M.Ed. ’77, Valerie Feldman, M.Ed. ’76, and Gayle Mindes, ’75.

On summer weekends, Wallach would retire to her house on the beach in Stevensville, Michigan, often inviting faculty and alumni to visit.

A never-ending legacy

Wallach — along with Piers, Bowman, and Harris — created something special in Hyde Park, and dedicated much of her professional career to ensuring that Erikson, its students, and its alumni continued to thrive.

“Lorraine’s work was instrumental to Erikson’s success in the early years. She helped make Erikson what it is today,” says Bowman.

Taylor, the former board chair, adds, “Her contribution to Erikson and the fields of early childhood development and education will benefit children and families — and the world  — for time eternal.”

In sum, Wallach’s legacy is Erikson: a national model for the highest quality education of early childhood professionals.