Release courtesy of Scott Miles, Sports Information Director, Ohio Dominican University
COLUMBUS, Ohio - The role of women’s athletics at Ohio Dominican has been tremendous throughout the university’s history, and one of the biggest pioneers for advancing female sports on ODU’s campus was Mary Jo Feak.
In 1950, Feak began her 44-year teaching and coaching career at what was then called the College of St. Mary of the Springs. In 1953, she founded the Department of Education and Physical Education, which served as the foundation of a career that saw her perform as the volleyball, women’s basketball and cheerleading coach, as well as intramurals director.
Even with Feak’s retirement from Ohio Dominican in the mid-90’s, “her personality is still here in a way because of the expectations she had that we do things better,” said Paul Page, ODU’s baseball coach and former athletic director.
“Mary Jo was very determined to make sure that all athletes were treated equally,” Page said. “She was an advocate for all athletes, but female athletics was paramount in her thoughts.”
Sandy Rowley, who was a freshman at Ohio Dominican in 1980 and played volleyball for Feak, remembered that, above all else, Feak’s enthusiasm for the institution and the student body shined brightly.
“I was going to attend Ohio University, but I talked to Mary Jo a lot on the phone and her passion for Ohio Dominican showed up right away,” said Rowley, who has been the Panthers’ head volleyball coach since 1989 and is also ODU’s Senior Woman Administrator.
“She loved the game. The biggest thing I learned from her is that everything we do is for the university and for the kids. Mary Jo was a big believer in that. She never expected anything more out of anybody else than she expected out of herself. She was a mentor and a friend.”
Intercollegiate athletics had a very different feel to it during that time period. Women’s basketball at Ohio Dominican began in 1975, with volleyball beginning in 1978.
“When I came in, the seniors were the first to receive any type of scholarship dollar,” Rowley said. “It was a fairly young program and that was exciting. Until Alumni Hall was built in 1989, we practiced and played wherever we could get gym time.”
Ohio Dominican’s growth as an institution, particularly in regards to intercollegiate athletics, took shape under Feak’s guidance.
“We went through a difficult time,” said Page, who started in 1987. “Our programs were struggling when I got here and Mary Jo hated that. She was astute in determining what the issues were and how we’d go about addressing those issues. She was a huge resource for me and a huge advocate on doing things the right way.”
Feak, who was inducted into the inaugural Ohio Dominican Athletic Hall of Fame class in 1997, spent eight seasons as ODU’s varsity volleyball coach from 1978-86, compiling a 163-120 record during that time frame. A fierce competitor, her lessons still remain with Rowley to this day.
“Mary Jo hated to lose,” Rowley said. “I still have motivation books from her in my drawers with her handwritten notes. I still hear her say quotes in my mind – I can still hear her say, ‘That’s unforgiveable.’ If someone missed a serve, you could hear her say that. Whether she was a fan or coaching, she would scream that.”
Road trips were adventuresome as well. The team travelled across the region in two vans, but the players knew which one to ride in given their class assignments.
“She always wanted to drive the van with the least amount of kids in it,” Rowley remembered. “She hated when the radio was too loud, so those of us who wanted to study always rode with her because it would be quiet. And whenever we could, we always stopped at McDonald’s. She loved it. Apparently, eating healthy wasn’t as big of an issue back then.”
Feak had a hand in more than just female athletics, though. She believed in equal treatment for every sport and every student-athlete on campus and, according to Page, kept “pushing the envelope” until the athletic department’s needs were met.
“The building of Alumni Hall was a dream for Mary Jo,” Page said. “When we built this facility, I remember listening to her talk about her pride about the first men’s basketball team that went to the national tournament in 1971. She was making sure the pendulum swung the right way. She was so prideful of the institution, she didn’t want it viewed in a negative light.”
With Ohio Dominican sponsoring just a handful of varsity sports at the time Feak was on campus, the intramural program was extremely popular, and she played a big part in expanding its influence. She was also an active faculty member, heading up Ohio Dominican physical education program.
“We had afternoon intramural games in the old Pit, where Panther Plaza is now,” Rowley said. “Mary Jo was always there, yelling and screaming for the kids, wanting them to have a good experience. She was so involved with all the students. She was here all the time. Her office was downstairs in what was the mechanical room in Erskine Hall, and she was always buzzing around the facility.”
Her personality was much larger than her five-foot-two frame belied. Feak was well-known around campus, by student-athletes and non-athletes alike, and had the respect of everyone.
“If you weren’t doing your job, she’d let you know,” Rowley said. “She wasn’t afraid to hold you accountable. It didn’t matter if you were a student working in the gym or in her class. She had no problem going after big basketball players just as she would a volleyball player. Mary Jo knew there was a way to act and behave and be a good ambassador for the university.”
Away from Ohio Dominican, Feak had two great loves: dancing and horseback riding. She earned a master’s degree in Modern Dance from Columbia University in 1953. She taught a horseback riding class at Ohio Dominican and won the national hunter pony championship in 1953.
Feak passed away in 2004 at the age of 76, but her legacy was an important part of shaping Ohio Dominican’s present and future.
“When you say her name, I smile,” Page said. “Even after she retired, Mary Jo was always around and was the biggest cheerleader we had. She had a lot of pride when we had success, and she should have because she was a big part of that.”
“By the time I got here as a student, female athletics had already been established because Mary Jo was here to lay the groundwork,” Rowley said. “Her love and passion for the university was never doubted.”