Great Aunt Helen

by

By: Shana Levine
Associate Athletic Director

One of the great things about working on a college campus is the ebb and flow of the academic year.  Students come and go and Lexington goes from busy to serene multiple times a year.  However, the odd part of working on a college campus is that students seem to think that everyone gets the same amount of time off that students do.  I love it when students tell me to have a “great spring break” or “enjoy reading days” – I just smile and nod.   While smiling, I am thinking about the rude awakening they will have when they get to their real job and look at the vacation schedule and wonder why there is no spring break, Feb break or reading days listed.  They will be realizing they just get occasional days off, like Labor Day (unless you work at W&L), Memorial Day and Christmas Eve.

Well this year, I decided to  actually take advantage of the two reading days to finally check something off my “to-do” list that has been on there for about 3 years.  I took a road trip up to see my Great Aunt Helen.  She has amazing stories about growing and I realized that if I wanted to get them recorded, I better do it sooner than later as she will be 104 in January.  Yes, 104 years old and still as alert and sharp as ever.  Her biggest complaint is the amount of pain she has in her hands and fingers, which no longer allow her to make pie crusts from scratch (this is also extremely upsetting to the rest of us, especially my husband Clark – a huge pie fan).  She said she once tried making a pie using a store-bought crust and quickly determined it wasn’t worth wasting all that great fruit on such a bad pie.  Classic Aunt Helen.

My Great Aunt Helen and Brutus the Buckeye

Helen is still able to live at home on her 6 acres and watches more basketball than anyone I know.  She has had season tickets to the Ohio State women’s basketball team since they started selling them.  Seriously, not an exaggeration.  About four years ago, our whole family actually went to an OSU women’s basketball game to celebrate her 100th birthday.  The best part of the evening was the reporter that the local news station sent to interview her at halftime – I am sure they thought they would get a few lines about how great the game was, etc., etc.  But they didn’t know Helen.  As soon as the reporter asked if she was enjoying the game, she got very animated and started giving her opinion on the game plan; “they need to drive to the basket more! I don’t understand why they keep shooting from the outside when it’s clearly not their strength!” said Helen.  The reporter was clearly taken aback and not ready for that response.  Maybe they should’ve sent a sports reporter.

At family gatherings, I had heard Aunt Helen tell her stories of growing up and her experiences, but did not really grasp what she was saying and what she had done until I started teaching my Women in Sport class here at W&L.  I knew Helen played high school and semi-professional basketball, but did not realize the time frame of it all until recently.  As a high school and college student-athlete with all sorts of opportunity to participate in sports, I rarely gave thought to how it might have been for women in generations prior.  Once I learned of all the limitations and how the large number of opportunities for women really just happened in my lifetime, I was even more motivated to get some of Aunt Helen’s stories while she was still well enough to do so.

So I took reading days to drive up to Radnor, Ohio (just north of Columbus) and sit down with her and record our conversation – it was well worth it.  One of the first things she talked about was playing in high school for both Fairfield (3 years) and Columbiana High Schools (1 year).  As a senior guard for the Columbiana team, she led the team to the 1926 state finals – unfortunately her team lost in the finals by 2 points.  However, she was named tournament MVP at a time when she was not permitted to go over half court.  The amazing part was hearing the details and seeing photos of her and her teammates in bloomer outfits – they traveled to the state finals in Ford Model Ts in February.  And she is sure to point out that this is well before interstates and before cars had heat!  As we looked back at old photos, she commented, “I still don’t know how we played in those ridiculous outfits – how miserable!”

After high school, Helen attended Mount Union College for two years before the great depression forced her back home to work.  While at Mount Union she played field hockey because they didn’t offer women’s basketball.  Helen said, “it was better to do something competitive rather than just sit around.”  Once back in Columbiana, OH she had an offer to play semi-professional basketball with the Youngstown Comets, which she jumped at.  Helen still says that she loves anything that gets her competitive juices flowing.  So, here she was playing professional sports at a time when women were not permitted to work once they were married – incredible.  So Helen played for two years and then, as she puts, was finally “talked into getting married.”  But Helen just takes it all in stride and doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about.  As we were wrapping up, she noted, “I don’t understand why everyone always wants to talk about how old I am.  It’s really not all that interesting to me at all.”

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