Examine pictures of Grace Kenney plying her trade-coaching and mentoring-and something jumps out at you. This was not the countenance of a "soft" person, but of someone focused, intense, and steadfast. As well she had to be. For Kenney, who spent nearly four decades teaching physical education and coaching women's sports at Gettysburg College (1948-1987), getting taken seriously was harder work than it would have been had she been a man. The men who ran the Athletic Program at Gettysburg in her era-notably Hen Bream and Eugene Haas-were "men's men." Professionals like Grace Kenney were, to them, at best adjuncts to men. Women's athletes were to male athletes as the minor leagues were to the major leagues. And heaven forfend that women's sports should get any sizable proportion of athletic dollars at the college.
Kenney arrived at Gettysburg College after World War II as the college's student population was rapidly expanding. Although college trustees maintained limits on female enrollment, capping it at no more than 35-40% of the student body, female enrollment grew as the college grew. More attention had to be paid to women's sports. Kenney was the person to go to in that realm. She would be the main mentor of many hundreds of those women athletes in the years that followed.
In her teaching, Kenney focuses on such themes as the "Theory and Practice of Play" and "Methods of Physical Education," or even "Education for Life," the title of a January Term course she initiated. Kenney encouraged students to analyze motivation and human development-in short, how we mature, why we care about some things more than others, and what behaviors help or retard a striving athlete. She viewed alcohol as one of the retardants, and was forthright in pointing this out to her charges.
Her most visible and influential role at the college was that of coach. When she arrived at Gettysburg in 1948, women interested in competing at the varsity level had but two options: basketball or field hockey. Kenney led both squads for a decade, abandoning basketball in 1958 to concentrate on field hockey. A highlight was the 1954 season when the Lady Bullets, as they were called, went 19-1. Over time, Kenney continually pressed for more options for women, more resources, and more respect. Her won-loss records won a kind of grudging respect, as did the number of All-American athletes she helped nurture. By the 1970s, with the help of a federal statute known as Title IX, Kenney felt that she finally had some clout. A Lacrosse squad was launched under her tutelage in 1971. It earned Gettysburg's lone national championship in 1980 under coach Lois Bowers. By then Kenney was chairing the Health and Physical Education Department, working, not always harmoniously, with her male colleagues who had little patience for the notion of equal allocations for female sports, even when those teams were winning regularly.
Pat Henry, '71 remembers a time when the field hockey team, entering national competition, lacked adequate uniforms. Kenney paid for material out of her own pocket and the players sewed their own skirts. What could have been a humiliating experience became a motivator and a bonding experience.
Shortly before her retirement, Grace Kenney's contributions to the campus were recognized by her induction into the Hall of Athletic Honor. At that time, she observed, "Where there is competition, there are joys and frustrations, but somehow the frustrations fade and one chooses to remember only the joys, the teamwork, growing and maturing with each contest, the fervor, the commitment to the best that each player can be, the camaraderie and the friendships made steadfast."
For generations of Gettysburg women, these words ring loud. Their tough- countenanced coach was all about character building, and she was as successful in that realm as in the win and loss column.
Grace Kenney died in 1998. She never married. Gettysburg students, she often observed, were "my kids."