Bess Goodykoontz was born in 1894 and raised in Waukon, Iowa. She earned BA and MA degrees from the University of Iowa, then taught in rural Iowa schools, supervised elementary schools in Green Bay, Wisconsin and taught at the University of Pittsburgh for five years. In 1929, Goodykoontz was appointed Assistant Commissioner for Education within the Department of Interior. She held this post for the next sixteen years, working to spread her ideas on progressive education.
Despite the strictures imposed by the Great Depression and World War II, the Assistant Commissioner position was a solid platform for Goodykoontz. She oversaw conferences, organized field surveys, published books and articles, gave speeches and acted as liaison between the general public and professional education groups. Goodykoontz supported adult education and retraining programs for those unemployed by the depression. She championed the use of motion picture films in the curriculum, worked to keep industrial arts available in high schools, and wrote several middle school text books on English language acquisition. Her overarching philosophy was to keep all levels of education relevant in a changing society. This focus was not confined to the class room. Goodykoontz understood the larger social and economic forces impinging on education. During the Second World War, she promoted day-care programs in schools, so that mothers could work in war industries.
After the war, Goodykoontz went to Germany as a member of the delegation from the U.S. Office of Military Government, co-authoring their ‘Appeal to the German Mind’ a book that laid down guidelines for postwar German education. Goodykoontz remained active in the field of international education throughout the 1950s: working with Association for Childhood Education International, serving as president of World Organization for Early Childhood Education and attending many United Nations conferences on education as the U.S. delegate.
These professional activities are documented by five boxes of Bess Goodykoontz papers at the Hoover Library. When donated to the Hoover in the early 1990s, Library Director Richard Norton Smith’s letter of thanks noted that Goodykoontz shared with the Hoovers a ‘devotion to child welfare and education.’