June 17, 2012

Women persevered, even when doors were closed

By Steve Solloway ssolloway@pressherald.com

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Sharon Reishus, former chair of the Maine Public Utilities Commission, recalls not being able to use the weight room even though she threw discus for girls’ track.

2010 MaineBiz photo

Jo Dill returned to her hometown of Kennebunk some 40 years ago to teach physical education. Field hockey was the new sport at the high school and Dill was the new coach. Sixty girls tried out for the team. Dill went to the school board and asked for help. She had no assistant coaches, little equipment and few uniforms.

"They gave me $150," said Dill. "They didn't get it. There was so much interest, such a turnout."

The extra money couldn't possibly pay for what she needed.

About the same time, Deb Smith signed up for the new girls basketball team at Penquis Valley High in Milo. At the end of the season, the team gathered for its awards presentation. Instead of the ubiquitous plaque or trophy, Smith got a paper plate. Her coach made the awards, writing phrases like Most Valuable or Most Improved in felt marker on the plates and attaching a piece of ribbon to each.

"I didn't care," said Smith. "That meant the world to us. I think I finally threw mine away about 15 years ago." She had kept them for 25 years.

In 1971, Carolyn Court was the only girl at her high school in Wethersfield, Conn., who wanted to run. She wasn't allowed to use the track when the boys practiced. She coached herself, running around the block where she lived.

There was a state track meet for girls in Connecticut, but Court needed a qualifying time. She contacted the directors of a large invitational meet, asking to enter the girls 440-yard dash or the 880-yard run. Can't, she was told. Those events weren't part of the meet. But if she got someone to pay to sponsor the event, she could run.

"I think they thought that would be the end of that," said Court, a retired Bates College coach. "I said, 'OK, I'll do that.' " She got $50 from her father and the Wethersfield Fire Department. She got her qualifying time for the state meet. She was Connecticut's 440-yard champ in 1971. A year later she was the 880-yard champ.

"I was very shy then. I didn't raise my hand in class. But I wanted to run so much, I went to the principal and I went to the school board. I just wanted to be the fastest girl at my school. I ended up being the fastest girl in the state."

She couldn't register for road races because she was a female. She ran without a number, stepping off the course just before the finish line, where her father waited with his stopwatch. She'd duck under the ropes and go home. She got no recognition and no prizes. The time her father kept was her reward.

Court came to Bates College in 1979. She started the women's cross country program and later, women's track. She was one of the few female coaches in the country in any sport and served on an NCAA rules committee. One of the first meetings she attended some 30 years ago was at a Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, Wis.

The work sessions were very productive, Court remembers. During the social hour, Playboy Bunnies in their scant costumes served drinks. Yes, it was a bit absurd to her.

"In the NCAA's defense, this conference was scheduled two years out when there were no women on the committee," said Court.

Patsy Wiggins, a Maine journalist, grew up in White Bear Lake, Minn., some 40 years ago, and joined her school's Girls Athletic Association, which offered competition on an intramural level. Never mind that she didn't compete against girls at other schools. She was a happy girl.

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