Remembering pioneers of PSU women’s athletics

Over the last seven months, Penn State has lost three of its most respected champions of women’s athletics.

Della Durant, former assistant athletic director and senior women’s administrator, died in August; Mary Jo Haverbeck, former associate sports information director, passed away in January, and Ellen Perry, assistant AD and senior women’s administrator, lost her battle against cancer last week.

It’s hard to calculate the number of lives these three women touched, not just through their direct contact with athletes, coaches, media, administrators, the NCAA and even fans but also through the enduring legacy they leave behind.

Durant was instrumental in starting women’s athletics at Penn State – nearly two decades before Title IX legislation guaranteed opportunities for female athletes. When she retired, former swim coach Perry picked up the baton and continued to advocate for women’s sports, both in Happy Valley and beyond.

Haverbeck was the first Penn State official to publicize the university’s women’s sports programs, and she earned national recognition for her work as a mentor for students interested in media or athletic communications.

While we think of these accomplished women as being in the business of collegiate athletics, in truth all three were in the dream business. They took their dreams of creating opportunities for and made those prospects a reality. That allowed generations of girls to dream as well.

Today’s athletes enjoy scholarships, uniforms, travel, meals, news coverage and even careers – thanks in part to women like Durant, Perry and Haverbeck.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about all of them was that they all promoted and championed women’s athletics in a professional, dignified manner: There was no bra-burning or grandstanding needed to get their point across.

They were respected in their fields, and so when they spoke, people listened. They were leaders who quietly set not only an example but also an exemplary standard. Generations of student-athletes – and in particular, a legion of former Lady Lions – owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.

I’m one of them.

As a young softball player from a small Pennsylvania high school, I could never have dreamed of wearing a Penn State uniform without the work of coaches-turned-administrators Perry and Durant. And as a college student, I could never have envisioned pursuing a career as a sports journalist without the efforts of pioneers like Haverbeck.

I did not know Durant personally, but I was fortunate to play softball at Penn State during Perry’s tenure as the senior women’s administrator.

She took the time and effort to get to know me as a student-athlete, in spite of the fact that our team was not nationally ranked or a conference champion. She was like that with all of “her” athletes. While E.P. watched dozens of her teams earn titles and accolades, she cared for each and every athlete individually, their athletic and academic experiences and most importantly, their graduation and subsequent success.

We are her legacy.

Haverbeck had been publicizing and writing about Penn State sports teams for decades before I began to cover the Nittany Lions, and as part of a vast female minority in the press rooms, it was always encouraging having someone as accomplished and kind as M.J. to emulate.

Durant, Perry and Haverbeck were all recognized nationally for their exceptional contributions to their professions as coaches, teachers, administrators and communicators. They pursued and achieved excellence and inspired others to do the same.

They are all missed and will never be forgotten.

Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at Her column appears on Tuesdays.