[Update] Nita Head passed away Saturday, March 11th at the age of 85.
Remarks by husband, Robert Head at 12:00 noon followed by memorial visitation until 3:00 p.m., Saturday March 18, 2017 at the Blalock-Coleman & York Funeral Home.
It was once assumed that the role of women in our society should be secondary to men. This mentality was prevalent from households to schoolyards for years in the U.S. and Paint Rock Valley High School in Princeton, Alabama was no different. As the women would sit inside each day and watch while their male peers were allowed outside to play sports, Nita Graham grew bored. That was almost 70 years ago.
“My dad and mother got my report card and they were not pleased at all and they wanted to know what the problem was and I explained to them at school, when the boys went out to play the girls stayed in, it just was not fair, it wasn’t fair at all,” says Graham.
Nita’s grades weren't the problem. She excelled. It was her behavior that had changed, so her father spoke to the principal. After the talk, the principal allowed girls to participate in sports, he also encouraged Nita to pursue a career in athletics by becoming a physical education teacher. Something, before that moment, she didn’t realize was a possibility.
“We talked before about my going to college and I was certainly going to go and the principle said, ‘well you could be a physical education teacher since you like to do that kind of thing,’ and I didn’t know there was such a thing at that time,” says Graham.
So, Nita’s father spoke to the principal. After the talk, not only did the principal allow girls to participate in sports, he informed Nita that she could continue doing what she loved by becoming a physical education teacher. Something, before that moment, she didn’t realize was a possibility.
Elvis Green was just entering high school when Nita was graduating. Elvis says that was around 1948, just after WWII. The kids were raised during the depression, so the concept of self sufficiency was critical. Electricity had just been introduced to the valley, not residentially. And chores on the farm started the day for most school kids. Sports, in a way, was an escape.
“She was the first to be dropped off on the bus route and the last one picked up. I knew she practiced with the boys basketball team and that she was good,” says Green.
The principal allowed Nita to practice with the boys, but the state wouldn’t allow her to compete. But Nita took her principal's advice and went for a physical education degree at Florence State Teachers College. After teaching PE in high school in Alabama and college in Georgia she obtained a Masters Degree from George Peabody College for Teachers. In 1956 she took a position at Murray State University.
In 1978, Elvis and Nita would re-unite at MSU. Elvis had been assigned there after he completed Army Sergeants Major Academy at Fort Bliss Texas. He was appointed the senior enlisted person for the ROTC program and later coached Air Rifle, where he lead two of his female students to Olympic Gold and Silver Medals.
When Margaret Simmons, now retired and former track coach and administrator for Women’s Athletics, arrived at MSU Nita was the only woman in the entire PE department.
“The only thing I could beat her in was ice skating, because I’m from northern Ohio and she is from Alabama, so man when Blood River froze over one year I said, let's go! And you know she wasn’t worth a nickel. Which really delighted me because she was so good at everything else,” says Simmons.
The competitive pair actually made a pretty great team. It was these two women together that helped bring women’s sports to MSU. Simmons doesn’t recall the exact moment she and Nita decided women should be able to play competitively, but they both knew it needed to happen. So, Simmons reached out to the president.
“I wrote a letter to Dr. Woods and he gave us some money for women’s tennis and women’s track,” says Simmons.
Simmons says they didn’t make it a women’s rights issue or take on an activist role that would make a lot of noise.
“I think we were pretty progressive. I think Nita and I were sneaky successful,” says Simmons.
Nita remembers having a budget of just $300 dollars. Any expenses beyond that came out of her own resources, or from a few people who helped early on. While there was tension from those who still opposed the notion of women playing competitively, there were others that saw the need to motivate interest in women’s sports, and tennis specifically. Former MSU Men’s tennis coach Ron Underwood, who also coached number one world ranked tennis player Jimmy Connors, provided Nita with her first uniforms for the team. She was delighted and laundered them herself.
Carolyn Wells Terrell who recently retired from teaching science in Texas, was one of the first student athletes Nita coached on the MSU Women’s Tennis team.
“I met her formally when she started the first officially recognized women’s tennis team in 1966 or spring or 67,” says Terrell.
Terrell recalls packing up with the team in Nita’s car, taking night trips down dirt roads to play in Memphis where the girls would sleep in the gym the night before a tournament.
“We even made it to a tournament and played at Mississippi State College for Women and found out that they actually gave scholarships for women. They not only recognized that the girls had a right to play sports, but, also helped with their education. At MSU I watched the men’s team play knowing that they were on scholarships and I was on loans, I’ve always resented that,” says Terrell.
Terrell remembers feeling like a “second class citizen” and credits Nita for helping her get through school.
“It meant the world. You didn’t have that opportunity for women. Title IX hadn’t even been thought of much less passed,” says Terrell.
Patsy Beauchamp was on the team between 71’ and 75’. Patsy remembers Nita telling her she could do anything she wanted, and Patsy believed her, because she could see that Nita did what she wanted.
“She taught me to know who I am and to love who I am no matter what and to do be the best that I could be. I was a good tennis player but she made me better,” says Beauchamp.
Beauchamp received her Master’s in Secondary Education and went on to be the Executive Director of the Girl Scouts of Northwestern Lakes for 22 years. Beauchamp says her ability to lead stemmed from watching Nita’s tenacious drive.
“She wouldn’t take no from anybody. She just kept going back,” says Beauchamp.
When the 80’s rolled around, Nita finally had the opportunity to recruit. By this time universities recognized women’s sports as a profitable venture and the NCAA began offering women’s championships; before the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) was the governing body, which evolved out of the Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (CIAW) founded in 1967.
“We had a lot compared to what the team had ten years prior,” says Carla Guthrie, who now works in geriatric care in Lexington, Kentucky, was one of the early recruits brought in by Nita.
Guthrie had two years of college in Florida and then transferred to Murray to finish out her degree. She remembers being drawn to Nita’s demeanor.
“Quite funny, witty, very smart and a kind person. She was a big mentor to me, I think she tried to be a mentor to all of us, but she has remained a mentor throughout the years,” says Guthrie.
The first year Guthrie was on the team, the girls were undefeated. The following year,1982, Nita retired. Nita never cut a player and managed a 204-67 win/loss record, arguably one of the best at the university under her leadership while encouraging academic excellence. While her team’s performance was exceptional it would go without much recognition as the OVC didn’t recognize women’s sports until 1976. In 1987 however, Nita was the second woman to be inducted into the MSU Athletic Hall of Fame.
Like Guthrie, several of the girls Nita coached have stayed in contact with her over the years. Her role as coach and mentor transformed into friend.
“I visited her at Estillfork, Alabama at her home place a few years back. She is one tough lady and she would pull those thistles out there and in the heat and you know I just said why are you doing that and she said, ‘cuz I dont like thistles’ and I thought who really cares about thistles, well she really cares about the thistles and she would get out there and cut them and she could barely walk,” says Guthrie.
Nita Graham is now Nita Graham Head. While at MSU, Nita married Robert Head, who carries the same dutiful convictions.
It might be said that growing up on the farm in Northern Alabama during the depression contributed to her strong work ethic and her tenacity. Her husband Bob says these traits were complimented by her sense of wonder.
“Nita has always been interested in the natural world, the arts, and in continuing to learn. Nita believed in the education of the whole person,” says Bob.
In an effort to continue their strong belief in education, the two donated Nita’s 491-acre family farm to the Alabama Cooperative Extension System as a gift to the community and an opportunity for environmental education and stewardship. Nita is 84-years-old and despite physical limitations still maintains a rock garden that greets her guests. The rock garden is immaculate, but Nita sees that there is still work that can be done. This steadfast attitude is why MSU was offering women opportunities before it was a requirement. Patsy Beauchamp says Nita just did what needed to be done.
“She taught us when we needed it. She led us when we needed it. She scolded us when we needed it and she loved us when we needed it, and that’s what she did,” says Beauchamp.
Cremation by Imes Funeral Home & Crematory. Expressions of sympathy may take the form of donations to: Hospice of Murray, Murray Calloway Endowment For Healthcare, 803 Poplar St. Murray, KY 42071.
The Graham Farm and Nature Center. Checks should be made payable to the Alabama 4-H Club Foundation, Inc., and mailed to 226 Duncan Hall, Auburn University, AL 36849 with Graham Farm in the memo line.
MSU Women’s Tennis Team. Checks should be made out to Murray State University, with “Women’s Tennis” in the memo line and sent to Susan Darnell, Murray State University 1401 State Rt 121 N, Murray KY 42071