Edith Irwin was born in Grand Rapids, MI, and lived on Wealthy St. between Paris Ave. and Union Blvd. Her father was Dr. Thomas C. Irwin, who was chief of staff at Blodgett Hospital in 1928 and again in 1934.
Because of her mother’s love of music (she originally wanted to become an opera singer), Edith and her brothers were each required to take piano lessons, starting at six years old. She said at first she did not enjoy them, but “as [she] grew older and went on to junior college, [she] did major in music because [she too] really loved it.”
After graduating from Grand Rapids Junior College (now Grand Rapids Community College) with an associate’s degree in Business, Edith went on to Katherine Gibbs, which was a “well reputed” secretarial school in Boston. “My brother Bob was in Harvard at the time, and he said he would look out for me, so that’s what he did,” said Edith, adding that she also went to that school “because it was during the depression and my brothers had gone to college, but at that time it wasn’t considered essential for women to go to college.” But [she] thought [she] should learn something that would help [her] to support [herself] if [she] had to. After earning her secretarial certificate, Edith went to New York City to work. “I wanted to get a job, and I wanted to get a job in music,” she said. Her first job was as a telephone receptionist at a radio advertising agency on Park Ave. But she confessed that “[she] had no idea how to run a telephone.”
In 1939, Edith worked as a secretary to the vice president of Railway Express Agency. “It was the best job I had. . . . My boss was a lawyer and designated to be there in case any legal problems came up, but in the meantime, I had nothing to do. It was very boring,” she said. During that time, she met her first husband, William Ferris. The couple married on May 2, 1942. Her husband was stationed in “five places before he went overseas to India [with the Air Service Command] for 2 ½ years.”
Her husband was discharged from the service in Torrance, CA, and, according to Edith, they started their married life in Bedford, CA. In 1945, their son Duke was born, but died in 1949. In 1950, their daughter Wendy was born. By then the family was back in Manhasset, NY, on the Northern Boulevard of Long Island. Edith sang in the choir of Manhasset Congregational Church and started teaching piano lessons. She had 20 students. She also served as president of the Concert Association, which ran one-week membership drives and then decided what concerts to bring to the community based on the amount of money it raised. In 1964, Edith’s first husband, William Ferris, passed away.
John Blodgett had been a childhood friend of Edith’s brother Bob and had also attended Harvard University. When Bob died, his obituary was published in the Harvard Magazine, and John read that Bob’s sister was widowed and living in New York City. Widowed himself, John wrote a letter to Edith, saying that he came to New York City and would like to take her out to dinner. After dating for a year, they were married. In 1967, Edith married John (Jack) Blodgett. The ceremony took place in the same church as her first wedding—Central Presbyterian Church on Park Ave. and 65th St. For their honeymoon, they sailed on the Queen Elizabeth I and spent 8 weeks in Europe.
When they returned to America, the couple came to Grand Rapids and moved into the Blodgett family home, called Brookby House. According to Edith, her mother-in-law had “tried very hard to have [the house] be a replica of the Georgia manor type home.”
Edith had a long history of community service. She was on the board of Aquinas College first when Peter O’Connor was president and then again when Paul Nelson was head. She was on the board of the Grand Rapids Symphony from 1969 to 1982. In the early years, Edith acted as the secretary. By the time she was board president, she and her friend, Harriet Freeman, had played important roles in the hiring of conductor, Theo Alcantara, and the building of the symphony from a four-piece string quartet to a 27-member orchestra. “The reason they asked me to be president was that I was a woman and had the time,” she said. She was also involved in the hiring of the next two conductors—the Russian Semyon Bychkov and the French Catherine Comet. About her years on the board, Edith said, “The growth was so exciting, and the personnel and guests were so wonderful. I think [Alcantara’s] final concert was with Isaac Stern. It was a very exciting period to be involved with the symphony.” At the time of this interview, Edith was an “honorary member” of the symphony board.
Starting in 1969, Edith was on the Junior Board of Blodgett Memorial Hospital. Over the years, she had served as president twice, each time for 2 years. The hospital, according to Edith, was built in 1916 by John W. Blodgett, Sr., in memory of his mother, Jane Wood Blodgett. In 1952, an addition was built. Edith had also worked once a month in the “Window Shop.” From 1984 to 1987, Edith also volunteered her time and talent on the board of the Community Health Visiting Nurses Association.
Edith passed away in 2012 at the age of 95. She made her mark on the Grand Rapids community by dedicating her time, energy, and resources to causes that were close to her heart.
This biography is adapted from an oral history interview with Edith Irwin Blodgett. Learn more about oral histories here.
Ellison, Garrison. “Death of Grand Rapids Symphony maven, feisty philanthropist Edith Blodgett, marks end of an era.” MLive, April 3, 2012. https://www.mlive.com/news/grand-rapids/2012/04/death_of_symphony_supporter_ed.html.