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Ramsey hospitality room renamed for
pioneers in female athletics

For Helen Hartshorn and Betty Peele, establishing a women’s athletic program at Western Carolina University was one in a long line of adventures. The two told story after story about athletics, camping and travel on a recent afternoon when WCU renamed the hospitality room in the Ramsey Regional Activity Center in their honor.

Helen Hartshorn

Helen Hartshorn

Betty Peele

Betty Peele

A plaque was unveiled in honor of the naming of the Peele Westmoreland Suhre Hartshorn Hospitality Room at Western Carolina University's Ramsey Regional Activity Center.

A plaque was unveiled in honor of the naming of the Peele Westmoreland Suhre Hartshorn Hospitality Room at Western Carolina University's Ramsey Regional Activity Center.

After a Sept. 11 ceremony, the room now is named the Peele, Westmoreland Suhre, Hartshorn Hospitality Room. Betty Westmoreland Suhre, WCU’s first women’s basketball coach, was unable to attend the event because she was traveling in Greece.

Hartshorn, who as a high school student pitched on the boy’s baseball team, was a 1944 graduate of WCU who began teaching here as a student. An associate professor of health and physical education, Hartshorn went on to earn her master’s degree from George Peabody College in 1946 and a doctoral degree in education from the University of Georgia in 1971.

She had a passion for recreational and educational opportunities for individuals with special needs. Hartshorn founded and directed “Camp Catamount,” a summer day camp for children with special needs, and was longtime director of the Special Olympics regional games and a member of the Special Olympics state board of directors. WCU Faculty Senate named her Woman of the Year in 1977, and in 1978 she received the first Paul A. Reid Distinguished Service Award for Faculty. She retired in 1985 and holds professor emeritus status.

Hartshorn recalled that she and her friend and colleague Alice Benton, who also taught health and physical education, were “fed up with [the idea that] girls can’t do anything.” WCU’s female students had always performed well in intramurals, said Hartshorn, who directed the women’s intramural program for 21 years, but there were no organized athletics programs for women. She saw events turn when a team of WCU women traveled to Clyde to play a team of women from Enka. Although WCU lost, “That was the beginning,” Hartshorn said. After, she became part of a national committee promoting varsity sports for women.

Peele arrived in Cullowhee in 1963 after earning undergraduate and graduate degrees from East Carolina University. Peele, who remains in the area, recalled immediately falling in love with the mountains. Soon after she began at WCU, Floyd Siewert, then head of the department of health, physical education and recreation, asked Peele to take a team of volleyball players to East Tennessee State University for a “play day,” a common event where various schools hosted one day of sports competition. Peele went on to coach WCU’s first female teams in volleyball, tennis, field hockey, softball and golf. Peele said she happily coached in addition to a full class load because, as a student, “I wanted to play so badly.” She recalled as a student practicing “all year for one day of tennis.”

Westmoreland Suhre graduated from WCU in 1962 and earned her master’s degree here in 1965. She became the founding coach of WCU’s women’s basketball in 1965 and helped guide the team to national prominence in the sport. Her teams earned multiple appearances in national tournaments, finishing second in 1969. In 1971, Westmoreland Suhre and Peele (both members of WCU’s Athletics Hall of Fame) helped organize the National Women’s Invitational Basketball Tournament in Cullowhee, with teams playing from around the country. Westmoreland Suhre retired after the 1978-79 season and never experienced a losing season.

Chip Smith, director of athletics, and Chancellor John W. Bardo speak at the
naming in Ramsey Regional Activity Center of the Peele, Westmoreland
Suhre, Hartshorn Hospitality Room. (Video by Bill Studenc)

Before the 1960s, women’s sports had little or no budget. There were no scholarships or uniforms, and students drove their own cars to tournaments and sometimes shared meals. Coaches carried full teaching schedules and received no additional salary for coaching. Peele recalled how her players built their own softball field. “I taught and coached a bunch of wonderful young women,” Peele said.

Hartshorn and Peele described a camaraderie among players and coaches that extended beyond the playing field. Camping was a favorite pastime, with Hartshorn declaring she’d hiked “every trail in the Smokies.” The women often drove and then hiked long distances to remote campsites and cabins. “We know all about the rough stuff,” a delighted Hartshorn recalled.

Chancellor John Bardo, in opening remarks at the renaming ceremony, said Hartshorn, Peele and Westmoreland Suhre were “women who decided they were going to make a difference in the lives of young women.” Theirs was a “level of dedication that we don’t often see today,” Bardo said. Athletic Director Chip Smith said the women were pioneers who helped WCU build its “very successful women’s program.”

Alumna Nora Lynn Finch, a WCU Athletics Hall of Fame member who earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees at WCU in the early 1970s, was a four-sport athlete who began coaching as an assistant in WCU’s volleyball program. She went on to spend 31 years with N.C. State University athletics, leaving to become associate commissioner for women’s basketball operations and senior woman administrator for the Atlantic Coast Conference. “My time at Western Carolina definitely put me on a path,” she said in an interview earlier this year.

At the request of Peele and Hartshorn, Finch trained as a basketball official during her sophomore year. The experience helped earn her a spot in 1980 as chair of the organizing committee for the first NCAA Division I women’s basketball tournament, a position she maintained through seven tournaments, effectively laying the groundwork for the highest level of women’s collegiate basketball.

“I point directly to Western Carolina and credit Betty Peele, Betty Westmoreland Suhre and Helen Hartshorn for involving me. It was key,” she said.

By Jill Ingram

Categories | The Reporter

Photos | WCU News Services

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