Mary Jean Mulvaney, 1927-2019

Tributes paid to ‘true pioneer’ among female leaders in US college athletics

October 17, 2019
Mary Jean Mulvaney

A professor who transformed women’s sport at the University of Chicago and beyond has died.

Mary Jean Mulvaney was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1927. While at high school, she revealed a passion for football, gymnastics and many other sports. After briefly attending the University of Colorado, she transferred to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, graduating with distinction in 1948. She taught at Kansas State University (1949-50), secured a master’s in physical education at Wellesley College in Massachusetts (1951) and then returned to teaching at the University of Nebraska (1951-62) and the University of Kansas (1962-66).

It was at this point that Professor Mulvaney joined the University of Chicago, where she was appointed chair of the women’s division of the department of physical education and put in charge of field hockey, women’s swimming and women’s tennis. She was to remain at Chicago until she retired in 1990, latterly as director of athletics and professor of physical education, and to have a major impact on women’s sport both locally and nationally.

In 1976, Professor Mulvaney became one of the first women to chair a consolidated university department devoted to both men’s and women’s sport. Although she had a leadership role in the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, she realised that Chicago had “always struggled to find teams to play against” and so opted in 1981 to join the mixed-sex National Collegiate Athletic Association. In 1986, she helped to establish the University Athletic Association as a league for private research institutions based in major cities. She would also take on a number of senior administrative positions in both the NCAA and the UAA.

During her years at Chicago, Professor Mulvaney was a much-loved figure on campus, attending every home game she could and shouting enthusiastic support from the sidelines. She increased the number of women’s sports offered to students from two to nine. Since 1990, the university has given two annual Mary Jean Mulvaney Scholar-Athlete Awards, to a man and to a woman in their senior year with the best grade-point average. In 2003, the director of athletics’ office in the new Athletic and Recreation Facility was named in her honour.

“Mary Jean will live on in all of the Maroons [Chicago’s intercollegiate sports teams] that felt her generous spirit and knew her genuine kindness,” said Erin McDermott, Chicago’s current director of athletics and recreation. “A true pioneer, she helped pave the way for women leaders in college athletics through her courage and compassion.”

Professor Mulvaney died on 20 September.

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