Monday, July 20, 2015

Mary Channing Coleman: Physical Education Pioneer

On March 25, 2015, a re-dedication ceremony was held on UNCG's campus to rename the former HHP Building in memory of Mary Channing Coleman, founding head of the Department of Physical Education. At the ceremony, acting chancellor Dana Dunn noted that "the work that Mary Channing Coleman did on this campus for 27 years not only changed the lives of countless Woman’s College students, but also improved the health and fitness of generations of North Carolinians."

Coleman was well known around campus
for her keen fashion sense
Mary Channing Coleman was born on July 11, 1883 in the small community of Ware Neck, Virginia. She was from a prominent Virginia family, and was reportedly a descendent of Pocahontas as well as two signers of the Declaration of Independence. Coleman was educated by private tutors until she went to Virginia's State Normal School for Women in Farmville (now Longwood University), where she received a diploma in 1900. She continued her education with degrees from Wellesley College (1910) and Columbia University (1917). She served as a professor of physical education at Winthrop College in South Carolina, assistant supervisor of physical education in the Detroit Public School System, professor of physical education at Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, and instructor in physical education at Columbia University.

President Julius Foust himself recruited Coleman to North Carolina College for Women (now UNCG) from her position at Columbia. Coleman was excited about the opportunity to train teachers, but she was also aware that the Greensboro campus had no gymnasium building. Still Foust was able to persuade her to come to NCCW as assistant to physical education director Fay Davenport. Davenport left in 1921, and Coleman was promoted to the role of head of the Department of Physical Education.

One of Coleman's primary goals as department head was to build the facilities for physical education on campus. The first structure build was a 50 x 90-foot outdoor gymnasium. The structure consisted of little more than a floor and a roof supported by posts, but served as a dedicated space for physical education. Soon thereafter, Rosenthal Gymnasium was built (Rosenthal Gym is now part of the Coleman Building). Completed in 1925, Rosenthal contained a swimming pool, basketball court, and other amenities. Campus legend states that, prior to the construction of Rosenthal, administrators gave Coleman a choice -- either a swimming pool or a gymnasium, but not both. Coleman wisely chose the swimming pool, knowing that a gym was so obviously needed that it would have to be completed shortly. Outdoor playing fields and tennis courts were added as well.

Coleman with her terrier Bonnie, who was said
to be "just as equally ferocious as Miss Coleman."
Responding in large part to a state legislature mandate that physical education be a required course in public schools, NCCW added to the curriculum a Bachelor of Science degree in Physical Education in 1923. Coleman hand-picked her physical education majors, weeding out those interested only in sports along as well as others she saw as "academically unfit." She was known as a challenging and intimidating instructor, but she was devoted to her students. It was said that saying "I'm one of Miss Mary Channing Coleman's girls" could open professional doors.

In addition to her work as department head, Coleman was very active professionally. She wrote numerous articles for professional magazines and journals, and was a frequent speaker at many educational and civic group meetings. She was one of the founders and the first president of the North Carolina Physical Educators' Society, and she served as president of the Southern District Association of both the American Physical Education Association (APEA) and the American Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation (AAHPER). She was named Southern Regional Director of the American Folk Arts Association in recognition of her service in the collection and publication of folks songs, games, and dances of the South. And in 1935, she received the Honor Award Citation for Meritorious Service, the highest award of the AAHPER.

On October 1, 1947, Mary Channing Coleman taught her 8:00 am class, met with staff members in the Department of Physical Education, and left Rosenthal Gymnasium just before 11:00 am. While driving away from campus, Coleman suffered a heart attack, causing her car to crash into a five-ton gate pillar at the campus entrance on Spring Garden Street. She died soon after at Wesley Long Hospital in Greensboro.

The 1948 Pine Needles yearbook was
dedicated in Coleman's memory.
Upon her death, a graduate of Coleman's physical education wrote in an Alumnae News tribute (November 1947) that "there are many things that we will always remember about Miss Coleman; her teaching which leads you to the very threshold of your own mind; her firm belief in the value of physical education; her rich cultural offerings; her eight o'clock (not any later) classes in the history and philosophy of physical education; ... and most important, her belief, trust, and confidence in her 'majors' and their ability. These things are a part of us because we were once a part of them."

In a meeting with physical education staff members the morning before her death, Coleman spoke of her plan for retirement at the end of the year and asked her staff members not to throw her a big party or hold a celebration in her honor. She simply wanted to "say goodbye and leave" -- which is exactly what she did. But her legacy remains both at UNCG and within the field of physical education.

No comments:

Post a Comment