Campus Currents

A Field of Hopes and Dreams
The legacy of Gail Bigglestone '60 lives on

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Gail Bigglestone '60 was a graceful golfer—and gracious coach. She might give you a hint, recalls Marisa Didio '78, like "You need to open up your left foot a little more." But only if you asked.

Bigglestone, the first director of women's athletics at UNH, was directly responsible for bringing women's athletics from its pre-Title IX status as part of the physical education department into one of the most successful women's intercollegiate athletics programs in the country. She was, from all accounts, a shy and reserved person—the antithesis of the dyspeptic, pacing, hectoring coach. But she had a clear vision of what a women's athletics program could be, and she immediately set about making it happen. She got the president's ear, stood up to the legendary men's athletics director Andy Mooradian '48, and marshaled her own resources both inside and outside the university—all in a manner as subtle as her ability to sharpen her friends' golfing skills.

As a professor in the physical education department and head women's ski coach, Bigglestone was the logical choice to take the newly created position of director of women's athletics in 1976. At the time, female athletes were hampered by a lack of everything from locker rooms to field space and scholarships. Bigglestone acted boldly on many fronts at once, making women's ice hockey a varsity sport in 1977, for example, and arranging for her teams to travel. "She would schedule us at the Penn States, the Old Dominions, and the North Carolinas of the world," recalls UNH's current field hockey coach, Robin Balducci '85, who was recruited with an ice hockey scholarship, and played lacrosse and field hockey as well. "That was unheard of in the region at that time."

Despite the lack of facilities, which forced some teams to practice before dawn or late at night, success came quickly. The women's ice hockey team remained undefeated for its first four seasons, and in 1985, women's lacrosse became the first UNH team—men's or women's—to win a national championship. The next year, UNH was back in a national championship game, but this time in field hockey, with many of the same players and the same coach, Marisa Didio '78, on the field. The team competed in five NCAA tournaments during Bigglestone's tenure. All told, there were 12 intercollegiate programs under her supervision—and all of them thrived.

In a 1989 document titled "Women's Athletics, a Model, a Philosophy," Bigglestone laid out her philosophy of providing "equity for all teams and coaches for basic human needs and rights ... No team enjoys pregame meals and overnight accommodations while others begin their journey at 5:00 a.m. in the company of a box lunch."

One of the greatest keys to Bigglestone's success was her knack for hiring, and then supporting, excellent coaches. Perhaps in part because she had been a coach herself, "Gail was a coach's athletic director," recalls Didio. Coaching field hockey from the sidelines on Memorial Field 25 years ago, Didio could often sense the quiet presence of her boss on the hillside behind her. Bigglestone was tall, lean, broad shouldered—built like a long jumper or basketball player. (She would undoubtedly have been a multi-sport athlete had she been born a generation later.) In Didio's memory, she stands apart from the parents and students gathered there, well dressed and eating a very large maple walnut ice cream cone from the Dairy Bar.

Bigglestone attended many a game, be it ice hockey or basketball, at home or away. But she watched out of her own interest and passion for sports, says Didio, never to "hover" or second-guess the coach. When the lacrosse team won the nationals, she took them out to dinner to celebrate. When the field hockey team lost the national championship game in overtime, she and then-president Gordon Haaland comforted the devastated players.

Bigglestone got her coaches to buy into her vision of equity among the teams. The field hockey, lacrosse, and ice hockey programs all raised money for operating expenses by holding summer camps for high school students—and all shared that money with the other UNH women's intercollegiate teams. She also found creative ways to raise funds for scholarships, recruiting and special programs—cultivating the contributions of hundreds of donors through her Wildcat Winners Circle and working with local golf star Jane Blalock to establish a Pro-Am Golf Tournament fundraiser named in Blalock's honor.

From today's perspective, it's obvious that there should be opportunities for women athletes, notes J. Bonnie Newman '07H, who served as UNH dean of students in the 1970s and later as interim president of the university. But neither UNH nor most other academic institutions did much about it—until Title IX mandated gender equity in federally funded education programs in 1972. Bigglestone's quiet leadership style and keen sense of fair play won her allies in the faculty and administration. "Gail wanted to reason with colleagues about what was right, she didn't want to engage in games or power plays," says Newman.

UNH women's athletics made great strides under Bigglestone, but women's athletics nationwide continued to evolve after the NCAA took over women's intercollegiate sports in 1982 and as women's and men's programs were increasingly combined at universities across the country. Bigglestone made her case for maintaining separate departments in "Women's Athletics, a Model, a Philosophy." (a repetition from above? delete name?) "It has been 12 years since the department of women's athletics was established," she wrote, "and the hopes and dreams of young women in athletics started to become a reality." She worried about the loss of control over the women's athletic department's finances and personnel, as well as access to the president. When despite her concerns the men's and women's programs were combined, she chose to retire in 1989, at the age of 51.

After leaving UNH, Bigglestone worked in her family's real estate business. In 2001, she was diagnosed with late-stage multiple myeloma and underwent a stem-cell transplant that landed her in the hospital for three weeks. She insisted on walking a mile every day, going around and around the nurses' station with the help of her life partner, Judith Ray, UNH athletic director from 1996 to 2000. As her condition worsened, Bigglestone continued to demonstrate courage and grace—and to play golf. "When her illness made it no longer possible for her to drive the ball, she would ride in the cart and drop the ball a hundred yards from the hole and play in from there," recalls her friend Candace Corvey, who served as UNH's vice president for finance and administration for nine years. "Later, she would ride on the cart, drop the ball on the putting green, and play in. And have a good time. She never gave up and she made it work."

At the time of her death, in 2005, a number of friends and relatives established the Gail A. Bigglestone Scholarship, which is awarded to women athletes in field hockey, based on athletic ability and leadership. More recently, Corvey, and her life partner, Wendy Noyes, have made a bequest to establish an endowed scholarship fund in honor of Bigglestone. It was an easy choice, says Corvey, because "Gail was a leader in women's athletics for decades—and a wonderful human being and friend."

Today, 20 years after Bigglestone retired, the lay of the land around Memorial Field—not to mention women's athletics—has changed considerably. The Whittemore Center provides a monumental backdrop to the field, which has been upgraded to synthetic turf with architectural fencing, lights and a scoring platform. The wildcat sculpture stands at attention nearby. In 2006, UNH reached the milestone of coming into full compliance with Title IX. Bigglestone's legacy lives on in other ways as well: UNH women's ice hockey, with 632 wins in 33 years, has won more games than any other team in the country.

In 2003, despite her illness, Bigglestone was able to attend the dedication of Bigglestone Plaza on the edge of Memorial Field, on the very spot where she often stood watching as young women's hopes and dreams became reality.

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