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Dear Mrs. Wooten

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Title IX advocate's influence was much deeper than sports

By Andrew Harner

"She would be the first to tell you that story isn't about her," Melissa Wells three times insisted during an hour-long interview about her late mother, Helen Alberta Wooten, the first coach of girls' teams at Vandalia Community High School. "She would say, 'Make sure this is about those first girls who went to state.'" That's because when Mrs. Wooten was alive, she never wanted the attention to be focused on her accomplishments; she just wanted her infectious smile to brighten the day of everyone she encountered, and by the time she died on May 25, her influence had spread so far that Wells shook hands with and spoke to her mother's friends and former students for 3 1/2 hours during visitation. Despite Mrs. Wooten's position, Wells said, the best stories rarely related to sports, and that's just how her mother would have wanted it.

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“She always encouraged people to try whatever we were doing; she never favored the athletes – she was consistent and compassionate across the board,” said Jill (Bennyhoff) Zimmer, who in 1972 became one of the first female athletes from Vandalia to participate in a high school state tournament.

As the sponsor of the pre-Title IX Girls Athletic Association, Wooten was able to spread her love of athletics – and of people – to dozens of girls like Zimmer each week, and eventually, she became the first varsity girls coach at Vandalia.

Wooten inherited coaching duties for the tennis, bowling and track teams after the passage of Title IX in the Education Amendments of 1972, earning a paltry sum for the duties, but doing them anyway, because she saw no reason that girls shouldn’t have the same opportunities as boys.

“She got a phone call from the superintendent, and he said, ‘Congratulations, you are now the coach of the track, tennis and bowling teams, and you get $100 a year. Good luck,’” Wells said. “She was still very excited, because she loved sports, and thought before that it was unfair.”

And it was.

The main passage in Title IX states nothing about athletics, but that, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

But when Wooten was in high school, it was because of athletics that she was a living example of everything that the legislation sought to eliminate.

In her final two years of high school, Wooten qualified for National Honor Society, but was denied admittance because of her passion for sports, which at the time were only offered to girls as limited intramurals.

“In 1946 and ’47, my mom qualified for National Honor Society, but two female, unmarried teachers told her that her love of athletics was not a womanly pursuit, so they wouldn’t let her in,” Wells said. “But now, those same things help get you in to National Honor Society.”

Wooten could have given up at that point. Could have quit. Could have stopped tumbling and playing basketball.

Could have.

Instead, she became the only one in her class to earn four tumbling letters, and helped lead her basketball team to the school championship as a senior, marking the third year in a row her class had won the title.

After graduating, she ignored her father’s wishes and continued her education on a scholarship at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale to become a physical education teacher, opening a decades-long chapter of life that would allow her to mentor thousands of students.

“They would tell her that anything with school wouldn’t happen,” Wells said. “But she wanted to make sure it was equal – she wanted to know why girls couldn’t play sports or go to college.”

***

Of course, there was no good answer for Wooten’s concerns.

The answers she got back in the '50s and '60s would appall people today, and the answers given today would have appalled people back then.

It seemed like a lose-lose, but Wooten made it her passion to make positive changes in the direction of equality.

Her first order of business when she moved back to Vandalia in 1970 and began teaching?

It wasn’t to run to the administration and demand change – it was to sponsor the Girls Athletic Association and turn it into an organization that would accept any girl who wanted to try.

“She made it a fun time,” Zimmer said. “At that point, I didn’t ever think about not participating in sports, because the girls had GAA, and the boys had their sports.”

Said current VCHS superintendent Rich Well, “She provided an outlet for girls to participate at the high school level when she came here, and she was a proponent of ‘let the girls play,’ and walked that walk and talked that talk.”

That walk and talk was closer to paying off than even Wooten probably realized, because change was right on the horizon, however, and it turned out that some of those same GAA athletes would become permanent fixtures in the history of VCHS athletics.

“We didn’t realize that Title IX was going to be a big thing,” Zimmer said. “That never entered my mind back then.

“Mrs. Wooten said one time, ‘Do you realize you are making history?’” she said. “And we kind of just said, ‘Oh, OK.’”

***

When Title IX passed in 1972, Wooten was one of the first people to see to it that Vandalia girls had teams represented at the varsity level.

And once she was named the coach for the three sports, she ended up finding out that she had some of the more-talented females in all of Illinois.

Zimmer and Ann Rames teamed in doubles to win the district and sectional tennis tournaments that fall, qualifying for the state event in Arlington Heights.

“I remember that Mrs. Wooten told us that this was an honor, and she just wanted us to have fun and try our best,” Zimmer said. “We had fun and did not feel any pressure like, I think, kids do today.”

The duo didn’t win that day, making the long journey home from the Chicago suburb after losing in the first round.

But Wooten was still proud, and Zimmer and Rames were still pleased.

“I wasn’t even upset,” Zimmer said. “We gave it our best and enjoyed the trip.”

The next sports season featured bowling, and a team of five – Zimmer, Jan Jones, Donna Johnson, Teresa Johnson and Kim Reams – represented Vandalia at the district tournament, but did not advance to the next round.

About 10-12 girls made up the track team in the spring of 1973, and Martha Crye qualified for state in the 50-yard dash.

“It’s amazing to think that two different sports were represented at state by girls from VCHS,” Zimmer said. “I would never have predicted how far sports for girls would advance.”

Throughout that year, it was proven that girls did belong on the same athletic fields as boys, but in reality, it was just a small step in the march to equality.

Forty years later, there are still Title-IX compliance issues, and a very wide gap exists between the amount of national publicity that male and female sports receive.

“It was just 1972,” Wells said. “That’s nothing (time-wise). It’s crazy to think that people thought that way.

“They changed the law, but it took a while to change the minds,” she said. “And they still don’t have them all changed, but if you don’t think it’s fair now, you should have seen it back then.”

***

Wooten was in her 40s when the legislation passed, and she didn’t stick around as coach too long, instead allowing younger women who had been varsity athletes in high school the opportunity to coach.

But she certainly didn’t disappear from the VCHS gymnasium.

Wooten continued teaching until 1993, and maintained her role of scorekeeper at every home volleyball game through 2006. One year later, she was inducted into the VCHS Athletic Hall of Fame.

Her defining years from an athletic standpoint may be from the early ‘70s, but her defining years as a person stretched all the way until her final days.

“When Mom retired in 1993, they said, ‘Anyone in this room who had her as a teacher, please stand up,’” Wells said. “And everyone in there stood up.”

People who knew Wooten expressed gratitude for the way she treated them while they were in school or working by her side, and there’s not a person who knew her who would turn down one more conversation.

Current VCHS girls basketball coach and PE teacher Michelle McNary, a student toward the end of Wooten’s career, said that without Wooten, she may not even have become a PE teacher.

“She was awesome,” McNary said. “She was always energetic, and I always enjoyed her class.

“She influenced me to become a teacher, because I saw how much she enjoyed her job, even at the age she was.”

Zimmer’s fondest memory of her former coach came not from athletics, but from the way Wooten handled herself around every student at VCHS.

“She was so enthusiastic and cared about the students,” Zimmer said. “It was like she didn’t know a stranger, because she knew everyone’s name, and made a point to call you by name in the hall.

“And it wasn’t just the athletes.”

Well, who began coaching boys basketball at VCHS in 1990, said that Wooten’s approach to winning and losing allowed her to counsel him after his team took a tough loss.

“She always was from the perspective that winning is important, but not the most important thing,” he said. “Typically on the guys side, it’s just the opposite.

“I was at a younger stage of my coaching career at that time, and she was there to be somebody to fall back on.”

***

Buried with a whistle on her wrist under a tombstone engraved with a Vandals logo, Wooten will never be far from coaching or the high school she loved so dearly.

And if the 272 cards Wells received following Wooten’s death are any indication, she will never be far from those who considered her a friend or mentor.

“There was one student-athlete of hers who remembered how Mom was hard on her during practices, and she wondered, ‘Why is Mrs. Wooten the coach different from Mrs. Wooten the teacher?’” Wells said. “A couple of weeks into practices, the girl was crying, and Mom told her, ‘I have to be twice as hard on you, because everyone is watching you and wants you to fail.’

“‘But I don’t want you to fail.’”

That type of story makes it clear that though she knew, Wooten wasn’t the type of woman who liked to talk about her influence on athletics, because it wasn’t about her – it was about giving girls the opportunities that she didn’t have.

“No, I didn’t,” said McNary when asked if in high school she knew about Wooten’s past contributions. “I knew that she was a special lady, anyway, but everything that she did was remarkable.”

Wooten may have left that part unspoken, but ignoring her as a local pioneer in female athletics 40 years after the passage of Title IX would be an injustice.

Today, VCHS fields volleyball, girls basketball, softball, girls track and cheerleading, and girls have also been on the wrestling and soccer teams. There are eight female graduates currently playing sports in college.

And it all started because one woman refused to listen to a single naysayer her entire life.

“I know Title IX went on, but it goes back to Mrs. Wooten,” Zimmer said. “She’s the one who promoted it to help become what it is today.”

So, yes, VCHS' Title IX story is bigger than Mrs. Wooten, but Mrs. Wooten's story is much, much bigger than Title IX.