David Adam

Sunday Conversation with Sharlene Peter

Sharlene Peter, a former coach of many sports at Quincy University, now enjoys playing pickleball while living in Sun City Center, Fla. | Photo Courtesy of Sharlene Peter
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Sep. 23, 2017 8:15 pm

Sharlene Peter can't stop competing.

The long-time coach of several sports at Quincy University is now retired and has been living for the past nine years in Sun City Center, Fla., about 30 miles east of Tampa. She plays plenty of pickleball, adds in a little golf and hopes to do a 5K run at the end of September.

Peter started her coaching and teaching career at Quincy College in 1965 and was there until 1985. She initiated and coached the women's softball, basketball, volleyball and field hockey teams. She coached the 1984 softball team to a second-place finish at the NAIA national tournament, then followed up with a national championship in 1985. She went on to athletic administration stops at Wisconsin-LaCrosse and Eastern Connecticut State before returning to Quincy in 2002 to coach softball for three years.

Peter, 75, lost her husband, Ron, on March 19, 2014. They had four children -- Cindy, Brian, Gale and Holly, who died on Feb. 17, 2016.

So how did you survive Hurricane Irma?

Well, we prepared for the worst, boarded up our condo and had our safe place ready. The good Lord spared us. There's lots of debris but no significant damage. The power of prayer.

How often do you get back to Quincy?

Once or twice a year. We used to always get back for the hog fry that we started in our backyard in 1967. When we left town, Charlie Vogel took over. It was supposed to be the last one this year. The Peter reunion was the Sunday after that at the K of C.

Were you an athlete as a kid?

Oh, yes. I grew up in Holly, Mich., and I just got inducted into the high school hall of fame last February, which was kind of a thrill. I was born an athlete. Back then, you were a tomboy. I played baseball on the boys Midget League and the American Legion teams. I was the lone wolf. My coach, Coach Protts, was certainly ahead of his time. He ran the summer recreation program, and I was down there every day playing who they would let me play against. He said, "You want to play ball?" I said, "Yea, I want to play. We would go on these bus trips to these small towns, and I had hair down to my waist. We would get off the bus, and they would say, "Is that a girl?" After my coach said yes, they would say, "We're not going to play," and my coach would say, "Then we're not going to play." Then they would change their mind. I batted left-handed, and I think I got hit more than any player from Holly. They threw at me to deter me.

So how did you get from Holly, Mich., to Quincy?

I went to Eastern Michigan, and then I took a graduate assistant position at the University of Missouri. Back then, I went 12 months and got my masters in education. Ann Bergman (a physical education instructor at Quincy College) had graduated from Missouri, and she called down there to see if there were any graduates they would recommend. Ruby Cline was the director of health, physical education, recreation and dance at Missouri who suggested I interview at QC. I didn't know much about Quincy, but I applied for the job, came up and interviewed with John Ortwerth. He offered me the position, but I turned it down. I thought it was too small. I went back to Columbia, Mo., and John called me the next morning at 7:30 and offered me $500 more. So I took the job as an instructor of health, physical education and education in 1965. I started the WRA (Women's Recreation Association) at the school. That was the actual birth of athletics at Quincy College.

What sports did you first offer?

We started basketball, field hockey and tennis. We added volleyball in 1966 and softball in 1972. Many institutions may have had some form of a WRA. Was it known as that on every campus? I'm not sure, but the idea was there, and the desire and the need for programs was there. Women participated in intramurals as early as the 1950s. What we would do is have play dates. You would invite other teams over and play each other. During the 1960s, we would play primarily schools like Culver-Stockton, MacMurray and Hannibal-LaGrange. Then we added teams like Northeast Missouri State and William Woods. Athletics may have gotten their biggest impetus in 1970 and 1971 when the school officially recognized the program by awarding us a budget. Until then, I had no money to run the program. The players would either just kick in, or the PE program may have sponsored a few things.

How did the teams that played in the days of the WRA compare to the teams that played in the NAIA in the 1970s and 1980s?

We're always trying to compare, and I understand that, but you can't compare circumstances and put them on the same playing field. When you evaluate players, you have to evaluate what they did under the circumstances. There are players I had from day one who, given the same set of circumstances that are there today, they would have excelled. They would have had all those things like All American and All Conference behind their name, but we didn't have those. We were a member of the AIAW in 1971, and until we were in the NAIA, those athletes from that era didn't have the same possibility and opportunities to get the accolades that others had.

Were the athletes you coached as good as today's athletes?

Absolutely. Those players could play today. I had a couple of players who were five-sport athletes who played everything we offered. The commitment and dedication was just incredible. Patty Harris played basketball, softball and volleyball and was an impact player. We didn't have Patty, Sherri Matthews and Caryn Mackenzie on the 1984 softball team for our spring trip. They were just great athletes who made an impact in every sport. When we were in league and conference play for volleyball, you only played two out of three games. You didn't play the three-out-of-five matches until you got into postseason. The records there are not what they could have been, but the athletes were just unbelievable.

Was it difficult to get what was needed for the women's programs?

I fought with John and Sherrill (Hanks, who replaced Ortwerth as the athletic director), figuratively speaking, tooth and nail for the rights of women and women's athletics. There were issues of released time for coaching, practice times, facilities, the budget, awards, assistant coaches, travel arrangements, athletic training and support services. It sure didn't happen as quickly as I would have hoped for. We lost some battles but won the war, although I hate that analogy. We really got along great. I am very proud of my life's journey and the legacy I will leave, although it has come with a lot of hills and valleys. Most of valleys were as a result of my pursuit for women's athletics and opportunities for women, to create an even playing field and for each to become all they could be. I set some pretty high standards.

Were the early 1980s the highlight of your career at Quincy?

From about 1982 to 1985. I'll never forget winning the national championship. The 1984 team probably played more of an outstanding postseason, because we lost in the first round (to Wayne State) and had to come back through and win six games in double elimination play. When I think back, I'm just kind of awed. I wonder if it was all in one life. I marvel at what we did and still get excited about it. My volleyball teams in the 1980s and the two softball teams have to rank as the all-time exciting time. However, one of the most fun things I ever coached, and we weren't very successful, was field hockey. None of the girls had ever played before they got to Quincy College. Our motto was you have to bring a friend to practice. The kids just bought into it.

Describe what it was like to learn you had lost your teaching job in 1985.

They called it financial exigency. I kind of would like to take high the road on this. It was traumatic, personally and professionally. It uprooted my family. Professionally, it was probably a wonderful thing in the long run, because I ended up taking a job at Wisconsin-LaCrosse. (Quincy College) offered my coaching positions back, but I was not about to do that. In all honesty, I think they thought, "Here's a woman who's married with four children. She'll take this." I applied to become the women's athletic director at Western Illinois but came in second to Helen Smiley. I ended up at LaCrosse as an associate athletic director and volleyball coach, and I had two terrific teams there. We went to the NCAA finals in 1985 and 1986. After Bill Vickroy, the athletic director, retired, I became the interim AD and was still coaching volleyball, but it's almost impossible to do. Then I applied at Eastern Connecticut, and they offered me a salary that I couldn't turn down to be just the athletic director. We moved out there and stayed for 13 years.

You have said one of your biggest accomplishments at LaCrosse was getting the New Orleans Saints to practice there. How did that happen?

Sometimes opportunities present themselves, but you have to put yourself in that place. I was at an athletic director's meeting when the (Chicago) Bears were in Platteville, and I heard the Saints were looking for a place. I couldn't get back to LaCrosse quick enough to talk to our chancellor and the mayor. Long story short, we got a committee together. (Saints owner) Tom Benson came up, and we had an incredible association with the Saints (from 1988 to 1999). I'm still a huge Lions fan. The Lions came over one time and did a dual practice session, and I got to interact with the Lions. That was kind of a thrill.

You retired in 1999. What did you do then?

Ron and I went down to Fort Myers, Fla., in 2000, but when the (Quincy University) softball coach left (after the 2002 season), I came up and talked with (athletic director) Pat Atwell and took that job. The key ingredient there, right away, was that the softball team had to have its own field. It was a sin they didn't have a field to play on. My title was softball coach and director of development, and we were going to do what was necessary to build that softball field. I wanted to be part of building that softball field for many reasons.

What were those reasons?

I wanted to see if I could do it. I still felt like it could be done because of the willingness of people in Quincy to buy into it and help do it. It became a Quincy project. It was just something I felt I could do and make sure it got done. We had a Hawkette booster club, and when I would contact them, they would say, "Sharlene, what do we have to do?" There was a lot of fundraising. There was a lot of pro bono work that done. The Fessler boys out of Liberty did a phenomenal job with the construction for probably a quarter of the actual cost. There were people like Tom Obert, Charlie Vogel and Whitey Rathburn who put the dugouts up. I hate to mention names for fear of forgetting someone.

How difficult was it to come back to a school that had let you go?

In some ways, when you do something like that, it's like getting on a bike. I never got off because of the comfort zone I had with the environment at QU. I find it interesting that almost 30 years to the time frame that Quincy College went through financial exigency, it recently went through another similar situation. It does appear to me, to compare the two, that they've taken on a bit more of a Franciscan attitude of how to solve the problem this time. There were other ways to deal with what had happened when I was let go, but the administration didn't see it that way. Quincy needs Quincy University. I hope some of those businesses that don't have a history with the university can learn to appreciate the value of having a four-year institution in your town.

Your husband died in 2014. How are you doing?

I'm doing fine. We were married for 48 years. Ron had been very sick, and even when you know it's around the corner, when it happens, you're never ready for it. He was the epitome of the best assistant coach anyone could ever have. He was so knowledgeable in such a variety of sports. His personality was just so contagious and engaging. He took an interest in you. He was so non judgmental. I think sometimes, they played for me in spite of me. Everyone remembers his smile and his laugh. We really complemented each other, with my mannerisms and my spirit and my take-no-prisoners attitude and his other side of being such a counselor and nice guy.

You lost your daughter, Holly, in February 2016. What has helped you get through the past few years?

Life is just a new normal. It's a different set of circumstances. I give so much credit to my faith. What I've learned from sports and my career has helped me. The ability to lose a game or make a bad play, it just kind of makes you want to make up for it and make a difference. If you're down, you just get right back up. When you look at all of your blessings that you have, the disappointments are manageable. You use your inner faith and your past experiences to make you go on.