A league of their own: As World War II raged, Clark’s first women athletes brought their ‘A’ game to campus

October 15, 2010

IT HAS BEEN 68 YEARS since the sneakered feet of a Clark woman first raced across the hardwood floor that now lies beneath the blue carpet in Room 001 of Jonas Clark Hall. Two poles are visible holding up the ceiling in this portion of the former Women’s Gym, a stark contrast to the grove of pillars that once made playing basketball seem the equivalent of dribbling, passing and shooting in a pine forest.

The hoops are long gone; the thump of ball on wood and the shouted instructions of Coach M. Hazel Hughes have been replaced by the quieter rhythms of academic instruction. Room 001 is now just, well, a room. In fact, the Women’s Gym has been subdivided into classrooms and offices comprising the Jacob Hiatt Center for Urban Education, with 001 a mere sliver of the total square footage that once housed the women’s winter sports and physical fitness programs.

The retrofit has left Clark with a bright, clean, efficient space to train future teachers, a valuable mission for any institute of higher learning. But on May 22, 2010, Room 001 was transformed into the Women’s Gym one more time, if only in the memories of the people who passed through its doors. That day, former athletes and well-wishers, including outgoing and incoming presidents John Bassett and David Angel, gathered to celebrate the history of women’s sports at Clark and specifically recognize those who blazed the trail before Title IX turned the equitable funding of male and female athletic programs from fairy tale into federal law.

Elyse Darefsky ’79, Pat Brissette ’68, Meg Lines ’68 and Donni Rodman ’69, who’d organized the event, spoke about the robust accomplishments of Clark women on the court, on the field and in the pool, and how the shockingly sparse documentation of those early exploits spurred them to conduct the research that provided the seed for the May 22 event.

Brissette, dressed in a borrowed red jumper that was the uniform of Clark’s women athletes in the ’40s and early ’50s, recalled the Women’s Athletic Association, which kept competitive sports afloat for female athletes at Clark after the program was stripped of its varsity status in 1952.

Darefsky recognized Pat Hassett, retired women’s basketball coach/athletic director, as “the architect of today’s women’s athletic program.”

“You could be a tough broad when you had to be,” Darefsky quipped.

“Still am!” Hassett shot back, drawing laughs from the crowd.

Among those enjoying the party was a small contingent of women, most of them white-haired, some walking with canes, a few who hadn’t been on campus in more than half a century. They’d begun arriving at Clark in 1942, looking to launch their adult lives, ready to learn, and itching to play some ball. When the Clark men began marching off to war, these women seized the opportunity to fill the void and keep the classrooms and campus churning.


Barbara Andersen '46 photographed in the Kneller
Athletic Center gym in 2010.

Barbara (Norris) Andersen ’46 was a member of that first class. She’d learned about Clark while waitressing in the summer of 1942 at The Inn in West Falmouth, Mass. Among the guests was Dr. Loring Dodd, professor of English and fine arts at Clark, who regaled her with stories about the University, which was preparing to admit its first class of women. Enamored by the prospect, Barbara filled out an application and was soon accepted as one of 50 students in Clark’s newly formed Women’s College.

But her road to Worcester was rocky. When Barbara returned home to Hanover, Mass., at the end of the summer and announced she would be attending Clark, her mother “hit the roof.” No daughter of hers was going to attend this small school in a gritty mill town.

“My mother was a Gardner from Cambridge, and all the Gardner women went to Radcliffe, and that’s where I was supposed to go,” Barbara recalls. “To her, Worcester was an old city and Clark was no good, and I was to go where I was told.”

She didn’t.

“I got a friend who worked for my mother to take my mother’s car and drive me to Clark. I had one suitcase, so I took my favorite books and very few clothes.”

Barbara’s defiance so enraged her mother that she soon disowned her daughter, and would never speak to her again. When 17-year-old Barbara Norris stepped onto the Clark campus holding her one suitcase, she was truly alone. It was here that she would have to find a new family.

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Most of Clark’s women were commuters either from Worcester or the surrounding towns; those who hailed from greater distances lived during the school year with faculty and administrators. Barbara, for instance, shared an apartment with elderly bursar Florence Chandler, who’d begun working at the University under the administration of G. Stanley Hall.

The Women’s Lounge in Jonas Clark Hall (“Jonas G.” as the women labeled it) was a haven for Clark’s newest students. Between classes or after school, they could put aside the pressures of the classroom to chat, do homework and play hours of bridge. No men were allowed, though English professor Paul Marble would regularly drop by at 10 a.m. to inform the card-flipping ladies that he was ready to begin his class.

A true sisterhood evolved in that lounge as this small corps of women began carving out their place in the Clark ethos.

Ann (McKenny) Early ’46 recalls being “thrilled” that Clark had opened its doors to women. “We were coming out of the Depression and we were starting to look at what was possible for us,” she says.

“We were rather elite, because at that time there were so few women in college,” says M. Catherine Butler ’46. “In most families, the guys always got the money to go to college, and the girls went to secretarial and nursing schools or to a teaching college. That was a woman’s role outside of getting married and raising a family.”

Clark’s newest batch of students found themselves contributing to the war effort in any way possible. From the upper reaches of Jonas G. they would monitor air traffic, listening for the trademark drone of an enemy fighter. They waved to the departing buses of Clark men who would be shipped overseas, and wrote letters to those same classmates, offering encouragement and keeping them informed about the goings-on at their school.

As the war effort siphoned most of the male students from campus, the Clark women stepped into the breach, assuming leadership positions in clubs and organizations that had long been the sole domain of men. Barbara became the editor of The Scarlet and Ann the sports editor. In the theatrical productions inside Atwood Hall, Clark women played prominent roles onstage — roles that had been performed by women in the community — and offstage as well. All the ushers, dressed in formal attire, were coeds.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” Andersen says. “The men weren’t used to women being on committees, and grudgingly they allowed us to join. But they were also going off to war, so they realized someone had to take over.”

Watch some of Clark's first women undergraduates talk about
their experiences on campus — on and off the court.

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Among the new crop of Clarkies were women who had excelled in high school athletics — competing in field hockey, tennis and basketball among other sports. They were ready to play, they just needed someone to show them the way.

Enter Hazel Hughes.

The young graduate student had arrived at Clark in 1942 with a long resume as a gifted athlete and accomplished coach. She’d served as director of girls’ basketball at Becker Business College, director of the Worcester Recreation Center and had overseen massage and physiotherapy at Worcester City Hospital. President Wallace Atwood, seeing in her the perfect candidate to be the director of physical education at the Women’s College, made an offer that she readily accepted.
No student called her Hazel. She was always Miss Hughes to her Clark girls, who came to respect and adore her.

“She wasn’t just a coach,” says Mary (Giobellina) Goretti ’50. “She was our mother confessor.”

“She was coach, mentor, model and friend for me, and, I’m sure, for all of us,” says Early.

“We all remember her gentle ways, her courage and her tact,” wrote Claire (Cassidy) Condon ’46 in a reminiscence about her time at Clark. “She taught us to stand up for our rights, listened when we crumbled and cried, and heard both sides of arguments. She taught us how to be part of a team — a lesson which we carried through our lives after Clark.”

If a student was having financial difficulties, Miss Hughes helped find her employment or recommended her for scholarship assistance. She was a counselor and confidante behind closed doors, roles that sometimes even continued beyond Clark’s gates, when an alumna in California could pick up the phone and find Hazel Hughes on the other end of the line inquiring about her welfare.

Skilled as she was in sports, Miss Hughes faced some significant obstacles prior to the start of the basketball season. Of chief concern: there was no gym.

Alumni Gym (now the dining hall) was strictly the provenance of the men — not just the Clark men’s basketball team, but also the Army Specialized Training Program, which conducted military drills there. Eventually, by a vote of the male student body, the women’s team was granted access to the gym for four hours a week, but otherwise they were restricted to the basement of Jonas Clark Hall, christened the Women’s Gym.

The Women’s Gym was relatively clean and well-lit — but, ah, those pillars. In a crowded game of six-on-six half-court basketball — the rules of the women’s game at the time — the poles were like a third team of defenders.

“It was very tough on the shoulders because you’d try to get the ball going one way and you’d hit up against the damn thing, and then you’d have to go another way. It was crazy,” Barbara Andersen recalls.

“You moved very carefully around those pillars,” says Mary Goretti. “They were notorious.”

Pillars aside, Miss Hughes put together an enviable sports program in those early years. The basketball team was an instant powerhouse, compiling a 7-1 record.

Women’s crew was made a varsity sport, and swimming, tennis and archery became popular at the intramural level.

Ruth (Butterfield) Robinson ’48 came to Clark to study geography and international relations and quickly found her way onto the basketball and swimming teams.

“I was a 5-1 forward, but because I was fast I could get around those tall girls and put up my hook shot. I had a good hook shot, just like my idol [Bob] Cousy over at Holy Cross.”

Goretti remembers a particularly satisfying basketball victory over vaunted Radcliffe.

“We weren’t very big, and they had a girl who must have been 5-10. She looked 10 feet tall to us. But we were fast, and we went there and beat them in their own gym. The Harvard newspaper had a headline, ‘Radcliffe Girls Go Down Valiantly in Defeat.’ What a feather in our cap — nobody had ever heard of us!”

By and large, the men on campus were welcoming, though Butler recalls that some professors (“I won’t name names,” she insists) were less than enthused by the prospect of teaching women. “Typically, those professors were older. The younger guys were quite accepting.”

Concessions were made for propriety’s sake. When the women players crossed the campus wearing their signature red jumpers, they were required to wear long coats to hide their bare legs.
H. Martin Deranian D.D.S. ’47 remembers some professors feared that admitting women would erode the University’s high academic standards. “It didn’t happen,” he says.

“This was a disruptive time already because of the war. And on top of it all, these beautiful women started arriving on campus among all these red-blooded guys. Yes, it was an immense change demographically, but it was a privilege to be here at that time. We were ecstatic.”

Acceptance wasn’t universal, however. An April 30, 1943 editorial in The Scarlet urged the student body to oppose adding women to the Athletic Council. “If the women want to have an athletic council, must they try to infiltrate the present set-up?” the writer asked. “Why can’t they set up their own and leave ours alone?”

The editorial also objected to women being awarded the same “Block C” insignia — the varsity letter — as the men for their participation in varsity sports.

Ann McKenny counter-punched in her Scarlet sports column, decrying “the misogynists [who] just didn’t want us,” noting that the women athletes were “insulted in assembly.” From that point on, she cheekily re-titled her column “Block C’s.”

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Barbara Norris did find a second family at Clark, with her teammates, her classmates, and a fellow student named Roy Andersen. The two met at Barbara’s first-ever dinner as a freshman in the Clark dining hall, where she encountered the tall, lanky senior working the steam table. (Her first magical words to him: “No potatoes, please.”)

They fell in love and the romance accelerated with typical war-time speed and passion. The couple married at the end of Barbara’s sophomore year, with Dr. Dodd giving away the bride, and Roy soon shipped off to serve aboard the Navy destroyer U.S.S. Mannert L. Abele near Okinawa. Barbara wrote often, and when Roy’s letters arrived at Clark, custodian and mailroom attendant Harvey Curry made sure they found their way into Barbara’s hands. Harvey was even known to interrupt class to deliver letters to Clark coeds eager for news from their soldier sweethearts.

On the afternoon of April 12, 1945, two kamikaze planes rammed into the U.S.S. Mannert L. Abele, sending the ship to the bottom of the Pacific within three minutes. Barbara read the news of the sinking in the Worcester Telegram, but for weeks knew nothing about the fate of her husband. She continued on with her studies and her sports.

“One night we were playing Fitchburg State. I was no star, but I’d made a couple of baskets, and was doing pretty well. Then Miss Hughes called me off the floor, and I was thinking, ‘Why take me out now?’ She said, ‘There’s a Navy man in the front hall who wants to speak to you.’ I thought, ‘It’s Roy. He’s alive!’ And I went tearing out of the gym.”

The man in the hall was not Roy. He was Walter Nylund, a fellow Clarkie who served on a ship that was part of the recovery effort for the U.S.S. Mannert L. Aberle. He told Barbara that Roy had been plucked out of the ocean, wounded and wet, but alive.

“He said when he saw Roy he hardly had any clothes on,” she smiles, “and he was drinking a big glass of medicinal brandy.” A letter from Roy finally made its way to Clark in early June bearing good news: he was coming home.

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Clark’s first women athletes moved on to launch careers and start families. Some returned to higher education, M. Catherine Butler as the associate dean of graduate studies at Brandeis University, Ann Early as head of the Women’s Studies Program at Southern Methodist University. Ruth Robinson and teammate Marion Erickson ’48 began their teaching careers at rival high schools in Maryland, and found themselves coaching teams that squared off on the basketball court.

After years spent on the West Coast, Roy and Barbara Andersen returned to Clark in 1961 when Roy was hired as chairman of the Physics Department.

Hazel Hughes was promoted to director of student activities at the Women’s College, and later was named dean of women. She remained a stalwart for Clark’s women until her death in 1968 at the age of 58. Upon her passing, The Scarlet wrote of Miss Hughes, “She was the force that made coeducation an established part of Clark.”

Athletic Director Linda Moulton spoke at the May 22 reunion about strides — both literal and figurative — made by Clark’s women athletes over the course of nearly seven decades.
“It’s really ironic that while the Clark tag line of Challenge Convention, Change Our World is still relatively new, the women athletes of the earlier eras … did just that during a time when challenging was not conventional,” Moulton said.

Before the party broke up, eight of the 1940s-era athletes gathered for a photo in the hallway at Jonas Clark, just beyond the doorway to their old gym. They stood in a line, chatting and laughing, some putting their arms around each other. The women are all in their 80s now, but just at that moment, in that place, they were Miss Hughes’ girls again.

This story was originally published in CLARK Magazine, fall 2010.

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