By Debbie Z. Harwell
“Women like her made women like me.”—Debbie Sokol, award-winning volleyball player, coach, and trainer.
Women are frequently labeled as the person behind someone else’s success, usually a man’s. But women also have a long – often unheralded – history of opening doors for other women, creating opportunities, and showing them a path to build their own success so they can do the same for the next generation. Largely lost in history, Dr. Sue Garrison was one of those women.
In 1934, the University of Houston (UH) became a four-year institution and fielded its first athletic teams: men’s ice hockey and women’s basketball. The eight-woman basketball team coached by Irene Spiess went 1-1, competing against teams from Southern Pacific Railroad and W. T. Grant store. In reality, early women’s sports were more akin to physical education (PE) or intramurals than athletic programs, but the UH sports picture changed dramatically after World War II, when enrollment soared to 10,000 students, many of them clamoring for a traditional university experience. In 1945, UH hired athletic director Harry H. Fouke who added five coaches for men’s sports, and the school’s first women’s PE director, Sue Garrison, who guided UH women’s athletics into the modern era.
Breaking New Ground in Physical Education
Susanna “Sue” Garrison was born June 8, 1909, to Miles and Ethel Garrison, in Johnson County, Texas. The family later moved to Palestine, where her father worked as a bookkeeper, and her mother became a rental agent. Sue attended Sam Houston State Teachers College and majored in PE, laying the foundation for her teaching career. The college had responded to an increased demand for PE teachers in Texas schools by offering sports theory courses where the women learned rules, techniques, and teaching methods. Classes covered the history of PE, playground methods, first aid, folk dancing, and Camp Fire. A “correctives” class for freshmen used silhouettes to identify incorrect posture and select exercises to correct it. The 1930 yearbook points out these courses for women “promote Physical Education for the many, rather than Physical straining for the few.” Women engaged in soccer, archery, and track and field events such as low hurdles, dash running, broad jump, high jump, discus, javelin, and shot put.
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Watch the film that is part of the collaboration between Houston Public Media and the Center for Public History as they discuss the 100 years of Houston History, an episodic series featuring Sue Garrison in Episode 6: Sue Garrison, promoting the University of Houston’s first Women’s Athletic Director.
Under Sue Garrison and Coach Ruth Nelson, one of the programs that flourished was women’s volleyball. Several former players, including Rita Buck-Crocket, Darlene Meyer Evans, Rose Magers-Powell, and Debbie Sokol took part in interviews for this article. Other interviewees included Kay Don, Martha Hawthorne, Dr. Janie Hilliard, Mary Martha Lappe, and Ruth Nelson.