During the past few years, Kitty Rogers Baird ’54 has sought out her own variety of life’s rewards. She has helped build Habitat for Humanity homes in the Dominican Republic, Alaska, South Korea, South Africa, Americus, Georgia, and Danville, Kentucky, where she sits on the boards of both Habitat and the Red Cross. She has traveled the Lewis and Clark Trail, done hiking and water sports in Hawaii, spent time with her daughter and three grandchildren, and has just been elected a deacon in her church. Although she’s not your typical activist, helping bring about profound change through logical and persistent action is her lifelong habit.

For example, Baird didn’t set out to revolutionize women’s sports, but step by step she took one college to previously unimagined levels and became part of a national sea change in women’s college athletics.

Kitty BairdIn 1959, when she began teaching at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, Baird tried to put together a women’s intramural basketball program — the highest level of athletics then open to women at most high schools and colleges. She ran into a problem: too few players. As an English and physical education teacher at Radford High School in the years following her graduation from then Radford College, Baird had helped run an intramural program of 18 teams. At that time in Kentucky, however, high schools offered little physical education for girls, so most of her students had no experience with sports. “A few girls who had graduated from private schools had experience,” she says, but 10 players didn’t add up to an intramural program. “So we played teams from other schools,” she says. Thus began the intercollegiate women’s program.

By the time Baird retired from Centre in 1999, the women’s program had grown from 10 athletes to 10 varsity teams. She had coached basketball, field hockey and tennis, held a national rating in basketball and volleyball officiating, and had founded two college women’s athletic conferences. She retired as professor and chair of health and human performance and associate director of athletics at Centre.

Asked to speak at a basketball end-of-season banquet a couple of years before she retired, Baird shared some of Centre’s women’s athletic history, which she had been piecing together bit by precious bit for 40 years. It was a history that reflected the course of women’s athletics in colleges all over the U.S. during the past century: from a time when physical activity was considered, at worst, to be detrimental to women’s child-bearing capacity — therefore undesirable — and, at best, to be unladylike — therefore allowable only in private — through times when women played sports vigorously and well but unnoticed and undocumented, to contemporary times, when through Title IX women have been able to seek their share of opportunities.
After speaking at the banquet, Baird realized young women today are largely unaware of the events that brought them to where they are, so she took her carefully gathered history and wrote a book, Women Athletes Blazing a Trail: A History of Women’s Participation in Sport at a Small Liberal Arts College. Through the history of Centre’s athletic program, the book presents the struggles women across the country had to overcome in order to compete. By surveying women who were involved in any way in sports at Centre, Baird was able to get quotes from every decade of the 20th century. She says more histories like this are needed — especially now, when the administration of the U.S. government has initiated a re-evaluation of Title IX.

Baird has received considerable recognition for her contributions to women’s sports. Awards include the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Women’s Athletic Administrators, the Pathfinder Award from the National Association of Girls’ and Women’s Sports, the Women’s Athletic Administrator of the Year Award from her region, and the Distinguished Service Award from the Kentucky Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. She is in Centre College’s Athletic Hall of Fame. She received an alumni award from UNC-Greensboro, previously called The Women’s College, where she earned her master’s degree, and from Eastern Kentucky University, where she earned an education specialist degree.

Other rewards don’t fit in a list. In her book she writes, “The inequitable treatment of our female athletes has been frustrating at times, but I revel in the joy that has come from the journey. Having known, taught, and/or coached approximately 5,000 women students through the years, I had the great reward of watching those women enjoy the thrill of human movement in competition, dance or physical fitness programs. I have also had the mission of correcting as many inequities as possible. Working at the campus, state, regional and national levels has also provided me with many professional colleagues and friends who have enriched my life. Those rewards mean more than the many tangible awards I have received along the way.”

It was a Radford professor, Ellen Philbeck, who encouraged Baird to become certified as a national basketball official, which led to the great experiences that came from professional involvement. Among other influential Radford faculty were Virginia Arnold, who always told her, “If you call it ‘phys ed,’ you’ll fizz right out of the profession,” professor Andrew Ingles, and M’Ledge Moffett, who, Baird says, “helped me grow up a lot.”

Playing sports is about more than competing or even staying physically fit, according to Baird, who is currently training for a marathon. “As I saw young women engage in competitive sports,” she says, “I watched them grow in confidence.” She says girls who compete in high school sports are more likely to graduate, and once women with athletic experience are in the workplace they make strong leaders, are effective at team-building skills and are confident in their own potential.

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