Berkeley - Millie Almy, a pioneering researcher in early childhood education and a professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Education, died Wednesday, Aug. 15, in her Berkeley home. She was 86.
Almy helped pioneer child development as a science on which to base early childhood education, dramatically departing from traditional views of the preschool or nursery as an institution for the physical care of children. She also was in the forefront of research establishing child's play as important and essential to healthy development.
In a 1991 interview, Almy recalled telling others in 1934 - almost 20 years after the first nursery school opened - that she was learning to be a nursery school teacher. She said, "They replied, 'Nursery? Oh, something about trees!'"
Dorothy Stewart, a former student of Almy's at the Graduate School of Education, said Almy told students that early childhood education was seen in its early days as likely to reach a par with pediatric medicine.
Although that never happened, Stewart said, the warmth of childcare practitioners, as well as the intellectual challenge of its academic research, still lured Almy.
"She was always on a straight path, she never doubted herself," Stewart said. "She always marched forward."
A native of Clymer, N.Y., Almy's family suffered during the Depression, and her father lost their farm. She won a scholarship to attend Vassar College and earned her bachelor's degree there in 1936. Almy received her Master's degree in 1945 and her PhD in 1948, both from Teachers College at Columbia University. She worked at the Guidance Nursery in the Yale Clinic for Child Development and other early programs considered landmarks in preschool education.
Almy served as head of the University of Cincinnati Department of Child Development and Family Life and taught at the University of Illinois College of Education. She also taught at Columbia's Teachers College from 1944 to 1948 and from 1952 to 1971.
She became a professor at UC Berkeley in 1971 and stayed until 1980, also serving as a graduate adviser.
"Millie Almy embodied all of the values and commitments that we try to promote here at the Graduate School of Education," said P. David Pearson, dean of UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Education.
"As a national leader in research, policy, and practice in early childhood education, she was highly respected by her peers throughout the nation and the world," he said. "But here on the Berkeley campus, she will be remembered as a revered teacher and mentor of graduate students. She will be missed and remembered with great fondness."
Stewart, a member of a small band of about 10 "Millie's girls" who were among Almy's final students before she retired, said Almy had a profound professional and personal impact on those around her.
"She had an aura around her of grace and authority. She was really more than a professor for all of us; she decided her students would be her family," Stewart said.
Almy was the author and an editor of more than 80 books and articles about early childhood education.
She was president of the National Association of Nursery Educators and a delegate to the Mid-Century White House Conference on Children.
Almy once lamented that, in her early days at the Burke Memorial Day Nursery in Newark, N.J., in the late 1930s, there was little for the children there to do and there were few toys. A major focus of the program was bathing the children and dressing them in clean clothes, Almy said.
In the early 1940s, Almy worked at the Lanham Act Child Care Center in North Tonawanda, N.Y. Childcare got a big boost during the war years because mothers and other family members, who traditionally would have been expected to look after children, were busy in wartime activities, she said.
After retiring, she was active in the early childhood education professional community, teaching at Macquarie in New South Wales as a Fulbright Fellow, and at Mills College in Oakland as a visiting professor.
Stewart said Almy also loved to travel around the world, have dinners with friends, and that she loved the arts, serving as a docent at the Oakland Museum.
A memorial service is planned at a later date.