After dominating the tennis court, Nancy Edwards gets recognition 60 years later

By Patrick Fergus

Good things are worth waiting for. Nancy Edwards has waited 60 years to receive her varsity letter from her alma mater, Marietta College in Ohio. In the coming weeks, as a part of the year-long celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Title IX, the former varsity tennis player will do just that.

Edwards, formerly known as Nancy Devlin, attended Marietta from the fall of 1962 to 1966 and was one of the first women to play on a men’s varsity team. The men’s tennis team captain noticed Devlin when she was playing a casual game with her friends and insisted to the coach that she be on the team.

The coach agreed on one condition. Edwards had to endure and pass a physical, which was no easy task. She had to run up and down the stairs of the Ban Johnson Arena 50 times, which Edwards recalls as “almost killing her.”

When she finally got out onto the court, she was nothing if not impressive – winning each of her first three matches with the help of a strong serve and great forehand. According to Edwards, her teammates and coaches readily welcomed her to the team and never treated her as any different because of her gender.

The opponents’ coaches felt different, however, pointing to an obscure section in the charter of Marietta, which clearly stated that tennis was “for all bonafide male undergraduates.” In other words, they did not like their players being bested by a woman.

Marietta never had a problem with a woman playing on the men’s team. However, the NCAA and its other members did not want the genders to mix. As a result, Edwards’s time on the team came to an abrupt end.

“Some other colleges said I could play, but no matter the result it would count as a loss,” Edwards said. “I wasn’t at all surprised. This wasn’t the first time this had happened.”

Certainly, the lack of shock and frustration could be attributed to her personal history, as she had a similar experience at Dartmouth (Mass.) High School. She also played against boys in high school, but opposing coaches were upset with her continued success, and barred her from competing.

Back at Marietta, Edwards was very surprised by the amount of attention that the story was receiving. The Associated Press had gotten wind of her departure from the team, and soon more and more newspapers were calling Edwards on the dormitory telephone, mixed in with the occasional fan letter.

“I was really too young, and didn’t know how to handle all of this fuss,” Edwards said.

The director of women’s athletics offered Edwards the opportunity to teach lessons and even start her own women’s club team. She liked teaching people how to play, but ran into a lot of problems when it came to putting together a squad.

“I didn’t really receive a lot of support or funding, and it just didn’t seem like they were taking it seriously, which was definitely a source of frustration.” Edwards said.

Despite her playing career being almost 10 years before the passing of Title IX, Edwards’s story is the epitome of why the law was created –as an amendment that prohibits discrimination based on sex in educational programs and activities funded by the federal government.

Edwards graduated a semester early from Marietta with a Bachelor in Science, and now lives in a small community called Nonquitt in Dartmouth, Mass.

“Looking back, I think I should’ve tried making a bigger deal for women’s sports, and I didn’t want to cause any problems for the university by making it an issue….but I really wish I was more responsive,” Edwards said.

Now, 60 years later, Edwards will finally return to campus for the first time since her graduation. Along with about 10 other female athletes who never acquired their varsity letters, Edwards will at last collect her varsity letter ﹣ belated validation of her outstanding accomplishments on the court.

Larry Hiser, the Director of Athletics and Recreation at Marietta, who also received his masters degree in science for physical education and athletic administration at Springfield College, is excited to welcome Edwards and other former female athletes back to the school.

“The Title IX Committee devised this great idea, to give letters to all those women who would’ve qualified for them, if the proper system had been in place,” Hiser said.

Hiser also had the pleasure of speaking to Edwards, after she called to thank him for the invitation and for the letter.

“She was the easiest acquaintance I’ve ever made,” Hiser said. “Her story is completely emblematic of Title IX. I mean, you can’t have Hollywood make a better one.”

The event needs a spokesperson, and to Hiser, there was no better fit than Edwards and her story. Even with some hesitation about speaking in front of so many people, Edwards happily agreed.

The celebration is very meaningful for the women that are returning to receive their honor. One of them told Hiser, “When I get that letter, I will put it up on my mantle. I will feel for the first time that I belong in Ban Johnson Arena.”

Back in Nonquitt, Edwards, 78, still plays tennis. Thanks to a regular Saturday men’s group and mixed doubles, her competitive spirit and love for the game of tennis has never wavered.

“Yeah, I’m still playing, which I just love,” Edwards said.

Photo Courtesy Nancy Edwards

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