Mary Jean Mulvaney: Trailblazer For Women Athletic Administrators

Mary Jean Mulvaney: Trailblazer For Women Athletic Administrators

When Mary Jean Mulvaney was hired as the Chairman of the Department of Physical Education, Women's Division, at the University of Chicago in 1966, she was put in charge of field hockey, women's swimming, and women's tennis. By the time she retired in 1990, she not only revolutionized athletics on the campus, but helped blaze a trail for women as administrators in all of college athletics.

She has been recognized in organizations throughout athletics, being inducted into the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA) Hall of Fame in 1990 and the University of Chicago Hall of Fame in 2003, and received a National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators (NACWAA) Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.

She discovered she possessed leadership qualities in a unique way in high school in Nebraska. "I had one of the finest teachers in the school," Mulvaney recalled. "She was a wonderful teacher and she would have the better students demonstrate how to do things. She started us all out as first class privates and she ended up making me corporal of the class. Even as a freshman, I was collecting attendance."

Her sports acumen was also evident at that time. "I remember one time our teacher gave us a soccer test and I got a 100," she said. "I took every course they had in P.E. and whenever girls got to use the gym, I was there. I loved sports even though I was average in everything. One time a five-time women's golf champion from Arizona tried to teach me how to play golf. After one hole, she said 'Why don't you just walk?'"

After graduating from high school in 1944, Mulvaney attended the University of Colorado. "At that time, the military had taken over and we were living in private homes," she recollected. At the end of her first year, Mulvaney came down with an earache worse than anything she had endured before and for that and other reasons, chose to return home and transferred to the University of Nebraska.

While there, she met a woman who would become one of the great mentors of her life, Mabel Lee. "When she talked, she got action," Mulvaney stated. Lee was the first woman president of the American Association of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, and the American Academy of Physical Education. She was also one of the founders of the National Association of Physical Education of College Women.

Mulvaney graduated from Nebraska in 1948 and immediately began working at Kansas State University, keeping in touch with Lee. "We were at a national convention and we had lunch together," she remembered. "She told me that I needed to get a master's degree. She got her postgraduate degree from Wellesley (in 1910) so she made sure I got a scholarship to go there. I got my master's in just one year because of all the great classes I had taken at Nebraska."

Photo: Mary Jean Mulvaney with mentor Mabel Lee

Lee was going to teach for one more year after Mulvaney graduated from Wellesley College. "I came back to Nebraska because of her and ended up staying 11 years. I was living with my mother and she kept telling me to go places," Mulvaney quipped. 

She knew the University of Kansas athletic director well and left to work there for four years. "Then out of nowhere, I got a letter saying there was an opening at UC. I left on a Monday and they offered me the position on Friday."

She made an immediate impact in the department, hiring Patricia Kirby to begin the volleyball, basketball, and softball programs. "We found anyone we could play," Mulvaney said. "We picked up games without worrying about any organization. The Illinois Women's Athletic Association would meet once a year and get a schedule together."

The chairman of the men's department retired in 1972, which turned out to be a key year in women's collegiate athletics with Title IX of the Education Amendments signed into law on June 23.  "I applied for the job to be over the men's and women's departments," she commented. "Another person was hired as the chair of men's athletics and he lasted four years."

Chicago had the Amos Alonzo Stagg Scholarship for men, but no scholarships for women student-athletes. That all changed when the Gertrude Dudley Scholarship was introduced in 1972. It gained national attention in 1973 when Sunday Parade Magazine published an article about the scholarship, prompting thousands of applications from all over the country. 

"I lived in the suburbs and was set to get away for a few days on spring break. Our secretary called and said we had a bag of mail. I knew I wasn't going to get that break," Mulvaney chuckled. "In three days, we received 72 letters and the one scholarship turned into two. We had to form a committee to make the selections."

The first two scholarship recipients were C. Noel Bairey, who has become a well-known cardiologist focusing on heart disease in women, and Laura Silvieus, who earned an M.B.A. and is now semi-retired from managing a law firm in Oakland, California.

Under Mulvaney's leadership, the Maroons again made history in 1974 when Kirby coached the nation's first-ever college women's basketball team to fly to an away game.

In 1976, Mulvaney became chairman of a consolidated men's and women's athletic department, thus becoming one of the nation's first female athletic directors of a coeducational department. "When I became chairman, I only missed home events when I was at some meeting away from campus," she stated. "I even learned how to score wrestling from the parents."

The first female athletic director over a combined program was Judith Sweet, who was named University of California, San Diego Athletic Director in 1975. It was the following year that Mulvaney became the first woman to oversee a combined department that included a football program.

"We both had the unique opportunity (and challenges) of directing a combined men’s and women’s athletics program at a time that there were very few women in that position," Sweet said. "It was always reaffirming to share experiences with Mary Jean and benefit from her perspective and wisdom. When I had the honor of serving as Division III Vice President and chairing the Division III Steering Committee, I could always rely on Mary Jean to bring the group discussions, when they were veering off course, back to the important issues always grounded in the Division III philosophy."

In addition to the challenges on their own campuses, Mulvaney and Sweet were in leadership positions as the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) was the governing body for women's programs, but facing challenges from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

"I went to the AIAW meeting in Houston, while the men were meeting in D.C.," Mulvaney recalled. "The AIAW president wanted nothing to do with the men. Reporters interviewed me and I told them I wasn't making any decisions this far from home and didn't have enough details. I went back home and did a lot of the work by long-distance calls. It was not an easy decision to join the NCAA, but we had always struggled to find teams to play against."

"It was my good fortune that when the NCAA began sponsoring women’s championships in 1981, (Mary Jean and I) were both appointed to the Division III Steering Committee (now the Division III Management Council) and I had the pleasure of seeing her leadership skills first hand," Sweet stated. "I appreciated her good listening skills, thoughtful contributions, and strong commitment to the Division III philosophy. She never wavered from that focus and doing the right thing for student-athletes. She has served as a strong role model and mentor to so many people, both men and women."

"Of course we couldn't keep the scholarships when we joined the NCAA," Mulvaney said. "We had one set of uniforms for all the teams, not just one for each team. One time our catcher Diane threw the ball to second base and her blouse ripped right down the middle. Pat (Kirby) had to tape it back together."

Things changed quickly for the women's programs at Chicago. "Others saw what we were doing and they would call and ask what they needed to do to have women's sports," Mulvaney said.

One of the women who noticed the difference immediately was Rosalie Resch, who is now in her 42nd year in the athletic department and played badminton, softball, and volleyball during her undergraduate career at Chicago from 1969-73. Mulvaney hired Resch on Oct. 1, 1975 to be the assistant softball and volleyball coach. In addition to eventually becoming the head volleyball coach, Resch took on administrative duties.

"If you are really fortunate in life you come under the influence of people who are great leaders, moral compasses, mentors, bosses, and lifelong friends," Resch said. "I have those people in my life, but Mary Jean Mulvaney has been all of these for me. I met her during orientation week as an entering freshman in 1969 and have treasured her influence since that first meeting."

Photos: L: Rosy Resch, Pat Kirby, Mary Jean Mulvaney; R: Judith Sweet, Mary Jean Mulvaney

"Mary Jean would take me to NCAA meetings and to the Midwest Athletic Conference for Women meetings," Resch recalled. "Mary Jean was one of the first women on the NCAA Council and she knew everyone. This was at a time when all three divisions met together at the convention."

Helen Gemmill, now an attorney at McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, played volleyball and softball at Chicago. She graduated in 1986 and then took a year off before attending law school, spending that year working for Mulvaney as Physical Education registrar.

"I did not have money growing up and went to UC on need-based financing," she said. "I had no money between graduating and law school. She would send me to get her lunch and had me pick up lunch for myself. She knew what people needed. She paid attention to the students and made sure we got it. I know a lot of it came out of her own pocket."

"I remember being in shock that a woman was in charge of an athletic program," she said. "It was amazing to me. She was always in charge. She was an incredible leader, but never in an obnoxious way. She knew what she was doing and people listened." As a testament to her respect for the former athletic director, Gemmill still to this day refers to her as "Miss Mulvaney."

Gemmill was well aware of Mulvaney's support throughout her athletic career. "She came to every event she was on campus for," Gemmill recalled. "If you weren't playing well, she let you know it. I remember her at an indoor track meet, calling to one of our runners, 'Go faster. Hurry, she's catching you.'"

In addition to taking women's sports at Chicago to a new level, Mulvaney was equally supportive of the men's teams. "She never created any hostility with the men's programs," Gemmill commented. "Everyone naturally looked to her because they knew she cared a lot about the men's programs. She had great relationships with the administration and parents, and mostly the student-athletes, especially the ones who got to know her one-on-one."

"She put incredible trust and faith in people. People jumped when she said jump. She said it so nicely," Gemmill added. "People were loyal to her forever because she was loyal to them."

One of the most common scenes at a Chicago sporting event was Mulvaney sitting in a chair she brought to the Maroons' softball games. "She would cheer so loudly sitting in that chair," Gemmill laughed. "Once the team took her chair and set it way out in left field. She went and sat in that chair. They could still hear her! She sure stood out. Miss Mulvaney was a force to be reckoned with and still is."

As a member of the school's last softball team coached by Kirby, Gemmill was one of many former student-athletes to travel to Lincoln, Nebraska for Kirby's funeral two years ago. "Miss Mulvaney was still orchestrating where we should be staying like it had been years ago," she stated. "There wasn't going to be a viewing and then she decided there should be. She had me call the funeral home and tell them we were coming. I was giving them instructions as she was dictating. It was a lovely opportunity to spend a little time mourning and celebrating together before the funeral."

Mulvaney played an instrumental role in Chicago's foray into the UAA and the discussions that preceded the official formation of the new athletic association. "Our president was not as keen about the UAA as some of the other presidents," she commented. "Our Vice President and Dean of Students Charles O'Connell went to represent her at the meetings. Charles, Pat (Kirby) and I went to a UAA meeting at Wash U. At that meeting, we agreed that the directors would have meetings, two per year, on one of our campuses."

"She is a visionary who moved the women’s athletic program from almost nothing through the years of AIAW to becoming part of the NCAA and conference membership in the UAA," Resch said. "I always believed that we were on the leading edge of every change in intercollegiate athletics and it was because of Mary Jean’s leadership that we constantly moved forward."

In 1986, Mulvaney served as host of one of the athletic director meetings and had a reception at her house. "I owned a home on the lake and they loved it. The house had 34 windows in the front and I used to say it was 38 feet closer to heaven up on a hill. I got students to drive everyone to and from my house in vans."

Photo: UAA administrators with NCAA President Dick Schultz in 1987; Far R: Mary Jean Mulvaney

One of the drivers that night was Gemmill and the night had a profound impact on her life. "I drove one of the 12-passenger vans and riding shotgun was (Washington University Athletic Director) John Schael," she stated. "He convinced me to go to law school at Washington University. Being there during the early years of the UAA was great. It was a lot of fun for me to have UC teams come in. I loved the entire concept of the UAA. When I played, we always rode in vans to play schools in Iowa and Wisconsin that I had never heard of."

"That meeting on the lake was in the very beginning," said Dave Hutter, then Case Western Reserve University Director of Athletics. "Many of us were still wondering if we should really do this (join the UAA). We were one of the schools that was concerned about this as we were in a conference that was doing fine. I vividly remember coming back from that trip saying, 'We are going to be doing this' because of the way Mary Jean welcomed us. We all saw each other in a different light and understood each other. We could see the benefits we could reap from one another."

Mulvaney and Sweet, two of the foremost women's athletic directors in history, still keep in touch to this day. "I am so grateful for time shared with Mary Jean and all that she has contributed to college athletics in such an impactful exemplary manner. And I love the fact that our friendship has lasted well beyond her retirement," Sweet stated. "I always look forward to receiving her holiday greeting card and reading of her many adventures. Her energy and spirit set the bar high during her professional career, and now in her retirement. I continue to learn from her and feel so fortunate that our paths crossed 35 years ago."

"Mary Jean was instrumental in the fact that the UAA became one of the first conferences that provided equity for men and women from the get-go," Hutter stated. "The women's programs were equally as important as the men's."

In May 2016, Gemmill made a presentation at her company's women's network entitled "Lessons From Business Women in History That You Have Never Heard Of" and wanted to invite Mulvaney. "I wasn't sure if Miss Mulvaney would be able to travel, but I spoke to Rosy (Resch) and we invited her and flew her in first class," Gemmill recalled. "I was going to make arrangements for a wheelchair, but of course she didn't want one. We did two sessions, one in Harrisburg and one in Lancaster. It was nice to give a tribute to her as a woman in business. When I worked with her, she wasn’t even close to leaving when I left for the day. She was working on the budget."

Mulvaney's appearance was a surprise to all the attendees of Gemmill's tribute. "They met at 8 a.m. and there were about 45 women there," Mulvaney said. "After they were all seated, I slipped in and sat in the back row. When she got to the 21st century business woman, she said she was pleased to announce that I was in the room."

"There was an audible gasp when I announced she was in attendance," Gemmill said. "The women gave her a standing ovation and some people in the audience were weeping."

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Photo: Helen Gemmill, Mary Jean Mulvaney, Kiandra Bair at McNees Women's Network

In July 2013, Erin McDermott, who served as Deputy Director of Athletics at Princeton University, was named as the new Director of Athletics and Recreation at Chicago, becoming the second woman to oversee the entire athletic department. "Mary Jean Mulvaney is a living legend and true pioneer in college athletics with a passion for education," McDermott said. "Her influence is still felt in the department, as is her pride and love for the Maroons. It is an honor to occupy the office that bears her name."

In addition to the athletic director office bearing her name, the athletic department also set up the Mary Jean Mulvaney Scholar-Athlete Award, presented annually to the male and female seniors who were four-year participants with the highest grade point average and recipients of at least three major department awards.

Photo: Erin McDermott, Rosy Resch, and Mary Jean Mulvaney

With her 90th birthday approaching in January, Mulvaney's love for sports is as strong as ever. She moved back to Nebraska in 1998, moving in to a house that was completed at the end of that year, and since 1999, has owned one of the most sought after items in Cornhusker country - season tickets to the University of Nebraska volleyball home matches. The volleyball program is one of the most prolific in Division I history and seeks its second consecutive NCAA title this month.

Mulvaney also volunteers at a local hospital with those who have a family member in surgery. "She provides care and guidance, helping people while waiting for their loved one to come out of the operating room," Gemmill stated. "They are very fortunate to have Miss Mulvaney in those difficult times."

"Mary Jean is a first-rate, wonderful person with her interactions, her respect for others, her willingness to help others," Hutter commented. "She had an intense desire to see that things were equitable and fair. Each person was as important as the other. The sixth singles player in tennis and the field hockey player were as important as the quarterback."

"She is treasured by former students, coaches, and colleagues at the national level and I am honored to call her a lifelong friend," Resch concluded.