Gail Bigglestone '60 was an excellent and graceful golfer, and a gentle coach. She might give you a hint, like "You need to open up your left foot a little more," recalls Marisa Didio '78. But only if you asked.
Bigglestone, the first director of women's athletics at UNH, transformed the department 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 a shy and reserved person who was able nonetheless to get the president's ear, stand up to the legendary men's athletics director Andy Mooradian '48, and marshal resources both inside and outside the university—in a manner as subtle as her ability to sharpen her friends' golf games.
As a professor of physical education and women's ski coach, Bigglestone was the logical choice to direct the new department of women's athletics in 1976. At the time, female athletes were hampered by a lack of everything from locker rooms and field space to scholarships. Bigglestone acted boldly, making women's ice hockey a varsity sport in l977 and enabling teams to travel to places like Penn State and Old Dominion. "That was unheard of in the region at that time," recalls UNH's current field hockey coach, Robin Balducci '85, who played three sports at UNH.
Success came quickly. The women's ice hockey team was 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, the field hockey team went to the nationals.
Didio, who coached both lacrosse and field hockey at UNH in the 1980s, could often sense the quiet presence of her boss on the hillside behind her at Memorial Field. Bigglestone attended games for the love of sports, however, says Didio, not to "hover" or second-guess the coach.
Bigglestone promoted a philosophy of providing equity among the different sports. The field hockey, lacrosse and ice hockey coaches willingly shared the proceeds of high school summer camps, and all 12 of the teams thrived. She also cultivated outside sources of funding through her Wildcat Winners Circle, and worked with golf star Jane Blalock to establish the Jane Blalock Pro-Am Golf Tournament fundraiser.
Bigglestone's quiet leadership style and keen sense of fair play won her allies in the faculty and administration, says J. Bonnie Newman '07H, who served as dean of students in the 1970s and later as interim president of the university. "Gail wanted to reason with colleagues about what was right—she didn't want to engage in games or power plays."
After the NCAA took over women's intercollegiate sports in 1982, universities across the country combined their women's and men's programs under one director. Bigglestone made a case, in writing, for maintaining separate departments. Since the inception of a women's program, she noted, "the hopes and dreams of young women in athletics started to become a reality." When the men's and women's programs were combined in 1989, she chose to retire from the university, at the age of 51.
Bigglestone was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2001, but she continued to play golf. "She would ride in the cart and drop the ball a hundred yards from the hole and play in from there," recalls Candace Corvey, who served as UNH's vice president for finance and administration for nine years. Even in the hospital, Bigglestone walked a mile a day, with the help of her life partner, Judith Ray, UNH athletic director from 1996 to 2000.
At the time of her death in 2005, a group of friends and relatives established the Gail A. Bigglestone Scholarship. 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."
Bigglestone's legacy lives on in many ways. UNH still has the winningest women's ice hockey team in the nation, and in 2006, the university came into full compliance with Title IX. In 2003, she was able to attend the dedication of Bigglestone Plaza, located at the edge of Memorial Field, on the very spot where she had often stood watching as young women's hopes and dreams became reality.Return to UNH Magazine Campus Currents