…eyes can tell you a lot about a person. They are deemed to be the windows into the soul…but I defer to Reverend Byron on such matters. What first struck me about Joan upon meeting her in 1972, were her bright blue eyes. They were warm, direct and welcoming. I was the ‘new kid’ in the Department of Physical Education and Athletics at Cal State LA and at age 29, I was hired to teach kinesiology and coach Men’s Gymnastics when Gordon Maddux went on hiatus to work for ABC’s Wide World of Sports. This was the start of our long and wonderful friendship.
Dr. J, as she was affectionately known, was appointed Chair of our Department in 1977 and was the first woman in America to manage an NCAA D1 Athletics Program. I had both the honor and pleasure of serving as her Associate Chair. At the time, we were a large and very diverse department which oversaw approximately 70 + faculty & staff (including coaches), a comprehensive undergraduate and graduate curriculum for majors, a full array of activity course offerings to all undergraduates, Intramural Sports and both Men’s and Women’s Athletics.
This was a volatile time in collegiate athletics rife with the sort of vitriol we currently experience in all matters political and otherwise. Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 required gender equity in all athletics programs across the country and this was ground zero in the ‘us vs them’ debate…aka the ‘pink and blue wars.’ In its broadest terms, this act was designed to protect people from discrimination based upon sex. While it was not taken lightly upon passing, its full impact upon the collegiate athletics landscape was not felt until the mid to late seventies. Joan Johnson was leading the way in this difficult fight for women’s sports to take their rightful place in the pantheon of athletics. And often, it got ‘down and dirty!’ She, along with minor sport coaches, (both men’s and women’s) advocated that all sports did not require that proverbial ‘size 44 chest and size four helmet.’
I wrote a piece on my blog site a few years ago detailing my experience while at the university and I quote “My boss, Dr. Joan Johnson, was a wonderful and accomplished woman who led with honesty, integrity and a definitive vision. A Wimbledon player in her youth and Billie Jean’s tennis coach at Cal State LA, Dr. Johnson was a sound administrator who pioneered women’s athletics issues when the fightin’ was ugly. Resolve in her mission was never compromised by lack of civility…real old school! She fought hard and smart, yet never made it personal…at least not publicly.” In the words of Don Vito Corleone, her attitude was…‘it’s just business.’
Upon leaving the University in 1984, I established an investment advisory practice and Joan and Geri were one of my first clients. With a big laugh, Joan said “I know you may know a little something about kinesiology and gymnastics but I don’t know what you know about money…especially mine.” For the second time, she took a chance on me, and again, I was very grateful for the opportunity to serve. During those early years, Joan and Geri referred numerous clients and it really kicked off my new enterprise…which brings me to…. we all seem to have some paradoxes in our lives and Joan is no exception. All who know her would agree she is highly intelligent, goal oriented and very analytical. She taught Tests and Measurements to undergrads along with Statistics, and Research Design to grad students. She was a woman who could easily calculate Coefficients of Correlations, conduct Analyses of Variance, establish Statistical Levels of Confidence but could not balance a checkbook. Reviewing an investment portfolio with JJ was comparable to explaining the third dimension to one who has been living in flatland. I loved the idea that a woman of Joan’s standing in the both the academic and athletics world suffered from being just plain human. Somehow, this is comforting.
In closing (this where you all clap), let me remind you that since 1972, every girl and woman who ever donned an athletic uniform owes a great deal of gratitude to Joan Johnson…teacher, coach, pioneer and mentor. For me, I say good bye to a colleague, a client, and most important, my very good friend.