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Dr. Kathy Phillips: From fighting for girls sports at BC to a distinguished 40-year academic career

… battled boys on fields at St. Brigid’s and then became part of first hoops team at B.C.

Often, careers take unique turns, and that occurred for Kathy Philips when she performed her student teaching in New Castle, Pa. She realized that the lure of higher education was much more enticing than teaching youngsters.

So, after making a decision to turn her career toward higher education and earning a master’s degree after graduating from Slippery Rock in 1977, Kathy started an academic career at Eastern Illinois University that lasted more than 40 years.

A daughter of Jack and Anna Rae Phillips who grew up just south of Lilly, she followed her mother’s love of health into that profession, although she was not an R.N., but a Ph.D. in Health Education.

And while she always performed well in the classroom, some of her early joy of her early years in Lilly were spent on the fields and courts in that community.

First, the athlete

Kathy still recalls her days as a student at St. Brigid’s Grade School with a sense of joy,

Attending school for 8 years with the same group of about 24 students was special in the bonds that were formed among us. Regardless of weather, time on the playground at noon or at recess provided many opportunities for outdoor activities. Having some athletic skills, Mary Jo Martynuska and I frequently engaged in the team sports with the boys whether it be football, baseball or the now banned dodge ball!

One of the nuns, Sr. Ann Vincent, was a die-hard baseball fan and often joined us is quick game in the parking lot.

Interview, Dr. Kathy Phillips, January 2022

That love continued in high school, but since she finished at St. Brigid’s in 1969, the reality is that girls and women’s sports did not take off until Title IX was passed in the early 1970s.

The first basketball team at Bishop Carroll High School

So, she and her classmates had to lobby Bishop Carroll to start some sports for females during her early years on Huskie Hill,

It was about that time that we started to see girls’ sports initiated around the area. I’m sure I mentioned this already, but several of us (Mary Jo, Kathy Contres …) made daily trips to Fr. Conrad’s office pestering him about getting girls sports started at BC. Of course, we were too naïve to understand that it wasn’t his call! But, by my junior year, we had girls’ basketball and volleyball teams available.

Interview, Dr. Kathy Phillips, January 2022

Academic decisions

When the young athlete had to make a decision about a college major, she naturally gravitated to something that had an athletic focus, although that quickly changed,

By the time we needed to start thinking about college, the girls P.E. teacher, who had graduated from Slippery Rock, took a carload of us to SRU for an open house. Several of us ended up applying and getting accepted to SR. And again, because I had some athletic skills, the logical major to select appeared to be PE!

However, after taking a required field hockey and gymnastics class the first semester, I felt certain I did not want to teach PE! I switched over to health education and athletic training. I graduated with a K-12 certificate in health and passed the certification exam for athletic training.

Interview, Dr. Kathy Phillips, January 2022

Nevertheless, that again changed once she had an opportunity to spend with some middle school students,

My student teaching experience was in a middle school in New Castle, PA. Two things from that experience influenced me to start thinking about teaching at the university level. One was my cooperating teacher. He happened to be the football coach and during a conversation one day, he suggested I would be well-suited to teach at the college level considering my attention to details in my lesson plans.

And, after a semester with 5th and 6th graders, I knew that age group was not for me!!! So, I started applying to universities for a master’s degree and graduate assistantships. Everything was pretty competitive during that era and I applied to a lot of places. I got offered an assistantship in the Department of Health Sciences at Western Illinois University.

Interview, Dr. Kathy Phillips, January 2022

She had finally discovered her life’s calling.

Life in Academia

From an instructor she continued her career and became a professor and intern coordinator by the time of her retirement in 2019. She is now a Professor Emeritus at Eastern Illinois, and can look back at her career with some degree of pride and satisfaction,

I am proud to say that I carried over the student involvement philosophy I got from WIU, and aspired to include students in as many professional activities as I could over the 40 plus years at EIU.

I feel pretty fortunate to say I never considered my job – a job! I found something I was suited for and really enjoyed!! As a teacher, you do have the benefit of getting feedback from students long after they leave the university (both good and bad!!). And I have to say my greatest satisfaction has come from seeing former students take on positive and leadership roles in the field of health.

I particularly enjoyed ending up on committees and in professional organizations with students I had in class.

Interview, Dr. Kathy Phillips, January 2022

Her research has led to many published articles in the field of health education.

However, while now a Middle-Westerner, she has never forgotten her roots in Lilly, Pa.

Old Main, Eastern Illinois University

Days in Lilly

Kathy loved her years as a youngster in Lilly, and she even traces her love of education back to her roots,

Growing up in Lilly was such a pleasure! So many tremendous memories! Living a little out of town, we had our own group of kids that spent a great deal of time together – mostly playing in the woods!

I recall really enjoying the subjects taught at St Brigid’s and I believe the relationship we had with the nuns initiated the spark in me to think about being a teacher myself …

Like most of us growing up in Lilly, a lot of our activities centered around the playground and the War Memorial field. I vividly remember going to the movies and then hanging out in the playground afterwards.

So many kids! It was always full.

I started playing organized softball around the age of 8 – and retired from it at the age of 50! All of the little towns around the area had their own teams and we routinely played each other throughout the summers.

When I was about 16, the teams got together and formed a traveling team – the “Mainliners”. And by traveling, I mean we played in the Altoona Women’s Softball League. If I recall, I believe Toni Ronan was the impetus for that group. Later, Moon Sweeney was our coach. We had pretty good success and went to a few national tournaments.

When I moved to Illinois in 1978, I started playing with a team that eventually went on to win several national titles in USSSA softball. In fact, the older I got, the more rigorous the schedule became! We played in tournaments just about every weekend from April through October. I was a catcher that entire time….!

We started a tradition with the Mainliners of getting together at Tookies every Christmas. And I believe we have not missed a year since 1978. We had to go to PJ’s a few times when Tookies was closed but was able to reunite at the Boxcar this past year.

Interview, Dr. Kathy Phillips, January 2022

The Mainliners Softball Team

[We need some identities]

First Row: Don Butch, not sure, Kathy Phillips, Linda Albarano, Rita Lukacs, Sally Schultz, Moon Sweeney, Coach

Back Row: Michele Ketchessin, Mary Jo Martynuska, Sue Calhoun Linda Sweeney, Maureen and Shirley

The challenges for higher education

While she had retired by the time the Covid pandemic hit America and its college campuses in 2020, Kathy is still involved with EIU and has seen the challenges that are facing universities and colleges today and into the future,

Most recently, I feel COVID has changed the face of higher education. The student-instructor relationships have taken a hit due to changing back and forth between face to face learning and remote learning. It’s very difficult to get student involvement in campus organizations let alone professional organizations.

There is definitely a disconnect. And unfortunately, I notice a trend of students being less equipped – or flat out not equipped – to deal with stress or pressure. I know mental health issues among students are pretty well documented in the literature, but I worry about a generation of adults unable to deal with stress, etc. Individual mentoring programs like you have described will be more important that ever!

Interview, Dr. Kathy Phillips, January 2022

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