These days, when Western Carolina’s women’s athletics teams regularly win Southern Conference championships, it’s difficult to imagine that not so long ago, competitive sports for females were loosely organized and depended on the desire of coaches and players to compete.
Faculty member Betty Peele arrived in Cullowhee in 1963, fresh from her own student experience at East Carolina University. “I wanted so badly to play when I was in college, and there was nothing for us,” said Peele.
Female students could participate in “play days,” one-day events hosted at various schools in different sports. When Floyd Siewert, then head of the department of health, physical education and recreation, asked Peele to take a team of volleyball players to East Tennessee State University for a play day, she said yes. Peele ultimately went on to coach WCU’s first female teams in volleyball, tennis, field hockey, softball and golf.
Peele was one of a core group of female faculty members determined to provide more athletic opportunities for female students. Another was Helen Hartshorn ’44, who directed the women’s intramural program for 21 years and officiated women’s basketball. Betty Westmoreland Suhre ’62 MAEd ’65 began coaching women’s basketball in 1964-65. Her teams earned multiple national tournament appearances, finishing second in 1969. Susan Fields Persons MAEd ’70 coached the women’s gymnastics team to multiple state championships.
Early on, there was no budget for women’s sports. The teams drove themselves to games and paid for their own food. There were no uniforms. When Jim Hamilton became department head in 1966, he strengthened women’s athletics by apportioning it a small budget. Still, coaching was in addition to full teaching schedules and did not come with a salary.
“They just did it for the love of the game,” said Steve White ’67, former university sports information director. “We were a player at a regional and state level, and even at a national level.” WCU’s competitors included Duke University, N.C. State University and the universities of North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama.
The women have fond memories of those early days of organized sports. Peele recalled how her team members built their own softball field. “E.J. Whitmire brought his dirt-moving crew, and they cleaned my infield for me,” she said. She remembered one player, Judy Green ’84 MAEd ’85, asking at game-day meals, “Is this going to be a share-fries day, or a drink-water day?”
WCU players from that era achieved lasting success in women’s athletics. Green, a 1990 Hall of Fame inductee, is head volleyball coach at the University of Alabama. She played volleyball, basketball and softball at WCU and began coaching as an assistant in the university’s volleyball program
Nora Lynn Finch ’70 MAEd ’71 was a four-sport athlete inducted into WCU’s Hall of Fame in 1991. She spent 31 years with N.C. State University athletics, leaving to become associate commissioner for women’s basketball operations and senior woman administrator for the Atlantic Coast Conference. “My time at Western Carolina definitely put me on a path,” Finch said. Her first job was with Wake Forest University coaching the same four sports she lettered in: basketball, field hockey, tennis and volleyball. Perhaps most formative was training during her sophomore year as a basketball official at the urging of Peele and Hartshorn. That experience helped land her a spot in 1980 as chair of the organizing committee for the first NCAA Division I women’s basketball tournament, a position she maintained through seven tournaments, effectively laying the groundwork for the highest level of women’s collegiate basketball. “I point directly to Western Carolina and credit Betty Peel, Betty Westmoreland Suhre and Helen Hartshorn for involving me. It was key,” she said.
The founding coaches also established themselves in women’s athletics. In 1971, Suhre and Peele helped organize the 16-team National Women’s Invitational Basketball Tournament in Cullowhee. Neither coach ever experienced a losing season. In 1984, Peele, who held numerous committee positions affiliated with women’s athletics, was named WCU’s assistant athletics director for women’s sports.
Suhre vigorously promoted basketball. She served as president of the state chapter of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, which began governing U.S. women’s athletics in 1971, and she led the selection of players and coaches in women’s basketball for the 1975 World Games in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.
Persons’ gymnastics teams won four straight state championships in the 1970s. She served with state and national female athletics associations and was active in the selection of gymnastics coaches and athletes for the 1977 World Games in Sofia, Bulgaria. As AIAW state chapter president, Persons represented North Carolina in Washington to help pass the 1972 legislation known as Title IX, forbidding discrimination of any person based on sex from participating in programs or activities that receive federal funding.
Hartshorn pursued a passion for recreation and education for individuals with special needs, organizing a summer day camp and directing the Special Olympics regional games. She was the founding director of WCU’s community health education program.
The AIAW disbanded in the early 1980s, with the NCAA assuming governance of most collegiate-level women’s athletics programs. WCU joined the Southern Conference in 1976. The first SoCon championship for women, in basketball, was in 1984.
Both women’s and men’s athletics experienced change upon joining the Southern Conference, when WCU and other schools began shedding programs for which there were no conference-sponsored championships, such as gymnastics, field hockey and swimming. But WCU’s pioneers in women’s athletics appreciate the advances and recognize the significance of their roles. “At church, we talk a lot about pioneering things,” said Suhre, an associate pastor at New Covenant Church in Clyde. “Looking back at what happened at WCU, I think it’s the same thing. I think I was a pioneer.”