Evelyn Echols, travel school founder, business pioneer, dead at 99

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Evelyn Echols, who co-founded travel schools across the nation at a time when women were often relegated to the kitchen and nursery, was famed for pleasing her clients — even a certain lipsticked Gorgon of the silver screen.

If travel arrangements weren’t exactly right for Hollywood movie queen Joan Crawford, “You were in the soup,” Echols said in an interview last month with the Chicago Sun-Times.

Mrs. Echols was found dead Wednesday morning at her home on the North Side. She was 99 and, until shortly before her death, was still blogging and doing public speaking, though macular degeneration made her legally blind.

Her Echols International Travel and Hotel Schools turned out tens of thousands of graduates over a decades-long span before the Internet, when people often arranged trips through travel agents — people, not websites.

She grew up on a farm in downstate LaSalle, and her youth was molded by the Great Depression.

“I learned fear the day my best friend’s pony was sold in an auction for $7,” she recalled in a memoir. “She clung to it and screamed hysterically as it was loaded on a truck.”

As the Depression worsened, “we were now seeing men walking the country roads offering a day’s work in exchange for a meal and the opportunity to sleep in our straw stack in the barn,” she posted on evelynechols.blogspot.com.

She studied to be a nurse at St. Mary’s Hospital in LaSalle. But after visiting a friend in New York City, she decided to stay and landed a job as travel director for Grant Advertising, whose co-founder, David H. Echols, would become her husband.

“David put me on a pedestal when he married me and never took me off in 44 years,” she told the Sun-Times in 2007.

She went on to own a New York travel agency and hosted a TV show, “It’s Fun to Travel,” that often focused on delegates and visitors to the United Nations. She interviewed the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, India Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, members of the Kennedy family and singer Dinah Shore.

In 1960, the couple moved to Chicago. Two years later, she and her husband co-founded her school, which trained travel agents and students wanting to enter the hospitality industry. Beside Chicago, she had schools in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

Her husband was a college friend of broadcasting legend Walter Cronkite, who said “she rode the travel boom as the jet airliner brought once remote places within reach of all.”

She counseled travel agents to tailor trips to clients. “You can’t recommend opera to a golfer,” she told the Sun-Times. Customers were to be greeted with a warm smile, and she always made a phone call after their return to make sure their journeys went well.

As for herself, she enjoyed traveling to India, and relaxing at the couple’s farm in Grayslake.

Mrs. Echols earned the loyalty of Crawford and the actress’ new husband, Pepsi CEO Alfred N. Steele, when she persuaded another passenger to give up his luxury quarters on an ocean liner so the Pepsi power couple could travel to Europe in style. The man agreed after Mrs. Echols, who had already snared a lesser berth, offered it to him — along with money to pay for his trip.

The switcheroo resulted in her first big client. Upon hearing of her resourcefulness, a grateful Steele said, “Evelyn Echols has the Pepsi-Cola [travel] account worldwide as of today.”

Mrs. Echols rose at 5:30 a.m. to exercise and ate a good breakfast before getting to work early. Always well-groomed, she believed in the basics. “Vaseline is the greatest moisturizer in the whole world,” she liked to say.

Crawford convinced her of the importance of presentation. The actress once admonished a careworn Mrs. Echols, who’d just emerged from a red-eye flight.

“I hadn’t bothered to put full makeup on,” Mrs. Echols told the Sun-Times in a 2007 interview. “I get to her apartment, and she comes to the door, opens it, looks at me, and she says, ‘Well, Jesus Christ, you look like an unmade bed. You oughta be ashamed of yourself.’

“She said, ‘I want you to raise your right hand and make a commitment to me right now — from now on, I promise I will never leave home or go out in public until I know I look so well that anyone passing me on the street will know that I’m on my way to a romantic assignation.’ Do you know I can start walking out that door today and hear that voice, and I will turn around and change?”

Mrs. Echols credited Cronkite and pioneering publisher Helen Gurley Brown with encouraging her to write her book, “Saying Yes to Life.” She wrote another book, “They Said I Couldn’t Do It, But I Did.”

Recently, she wrote to U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and investor Warren Buffett, urging greater help for Native Americans. Both men sent her letters in reply, and Buffett “was interested in talking to her,” according to her friend, Margaret Mary Conley.

Mrs. Echols is survived by her stepdaughter, Susan O’Donnell; a sister, Gloria White; a brother, Robert Bassett; four grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. She is to be cremated, and a service is being planned at Holy Name Cathedral, Susan O’Donnell said.

Always a warm presence, “I thought of her as my mother,” her stepdaughter said.

Mrs. Echols received her last wish. She had said she only had one fear — “and that is ending up in the hospital with a bunch of tubes.” After a caregiver left Tuesday night, she died in her sleep in her own apartment.

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