Former coach, athletic director and athletic hall of famer Sister Diane Leary, CSJ, has been recognized by Newman University and the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association (MIAA) as a Title IX Champion.
The groundbreaking legislation became law on June 23, 1972. Newman and the MIAA is celebrating 50 years of Title IX during the current academic year.
Former players, coaches and community members were invited to campus to posthumously honor Leary (April 28, 1934 – Dec. 10, 2019) during a halftime ceremony of the Newman women’s basketball game on Feb. 25 against Central Oklahoma,
Honoring one of the greats
One of Leary’s former assistant coaches, Sister Lois O’Malley, CSJ, is proud of how far women’s athletics has come at this point in history and thinks the acknowledgment of Leary was fitting.
“She has been one of the heroines of the Title IX movement,” O’Malley said. “I have always had a special place in my heart for her because she has been one of those leaders.”
Newman alumna and former volleyball athlete Becky Knox traveled from her home in Oklahoma to participate in the event.
“I’m super excited to be here. It’s an honor to see her be recognized because it’s so well deserved. … I wouldn’t have missed it for anything,” she said at the event.
Although some believed Leary preferred to remain behind the scenes and might be embarrassed by the recognition, long-time Catholic school administrator Mary Sweet, who played for Leary at St. Mary of the Plains College in Dodge City, Kansas, thought she would be appreciative of the gathering.
“I think she’d be looking down and feeling very proud of all the lives that she’s touched. She was very passionate about women’s sports, and boy,” Sweet added. “She … let it be known that the women were as well deserving as the men in any type of competition.”
Over her more than 30-year career, Leary was considered a trailblazer. Prior to arriving at Newman, she worked in athletics at St. Mary. In 1983, she was named director of athletics at St. Mary, becoming the first woman to hold that title at the college level in the state of Kansas. In the 1991-92 season, five of the seven teams at St. Mary of the Plains won or shared Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference (KCAC) titles and she was named the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Administrator of the Year.
The Dodge City college closed in 1992, bringing Leary to Kansas Newman College, now Newman University, where she coached volleyball, taught history and later was named athletics director. After posting a 150-61 record at Newman and an overall career coaching mark of 724-323, Leary took on her role as athletics director from 1999-2002.
Additionally, Leary was named to the Newman Athletics Hall of Fame inaugural class in 2007 and received the degree Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa from Newman in 2012.
A hallmark of Leary’s coaching career was a love of her athletes and passion for them to be their best.
“It wasn’t so much about all the X’s and O’s, but her sense of belief,” Sweet shared, “I remember playing in some competitions that we should not have won or even come close to winning. It was probably ’78 or ’79, where we were called the Cinderella team. We came from nothing to winning and I just believe that was all Sister, the way she interacted with us and the way she believed in us.”
As a coach, Leary also knew that belief was enhanced by a good stare.
“When Sister Diane’s got that jacket … and if she’s standing up and giving you the look, then you better straighten up and you better play well because she is on a roll. You don’t wanna be in front of that,” O’Malley shared.
“Sister Diane was a very special woman. She never accepted anything but the best from you. She was very motivating,” Knox said. “One thing I remember her saying one day was, ‘Do you guys know what complacency means? You’re being complacent and I don’t tolerate complacency,’ so she was always trying to push you to be your best.”
Tracie Depperschmidt Shelton played volleyball for Leary at Newman from 1994 to 1996. “She was tough. You knew where you stood and I respected that. Now I do, back then I didn’t!”
Shelton continued, “Her whole life story is amazing. She loved to reminisce about old times and what she accomplished … what she did and what she believed in. I think she shaped a lot of young people’s life, girls and boys.”
Emily White Lee played volleyball and softball at Newman for Leary and concurs with former teammate Shelton.
“She cared a lot about us as a person as well as developing us, doing well on the court. She made sure we were doing well in life as well as as a player. But yeah, absolutely supported women’s sports big time and wanted no limitations for what opportunities we had,” Lee said.
Janelle Renner Feltz played basketball at St. Mary in 1976-77 and knew Leary as an athletic director and “mother.”
“She was an amazing influence and leader for those of us out there striving to continue our passions and in the middle of the west. She was an amazing role model for all of us and believed in us and kind of was like our mom out there,” Feltz said.
Sister Pam Young, CSJ, served with Leary in leadership of the Sisters of St. Joseph community and also lived with her at St. Mary.
“She was a fiercely competitive person and a fiercely competitive coach. At the same time, she knew her players, not just as athletes, but as students and as human beings. I think that’s why they continued their relationships with her after their college career ended.”
“I heard so many stories, I wish I could recount them all, but she loved what she did and she had a passion for it. And that is what I would like to (have) continue living on and what this is about in her honor,” Sister Karen Salisbury, CSJ, added.
Speaking of stories, Lee fondly remembers the fun she had with Leary.
“I was always her wingman up in the front seat (on road trips). Looking for deer was my full-time job while she was driving or flying the vans around. What a trooper that at her age at that time, driving a van full of teenage or early 20-something girls … late night road trips … and seemed to enjoy every minute of it. We enjoyed her and had a lot of fun.”
Sweet added, “I remember one trip she asked me to drive one of the sister’s cars and take some of the girls with us, and she would drive like a bat outta heck. It’s kind of a scary trip just trying to keep up with Sister. And we ended up [giving] her [the] nickname Sister Mario Andretti.”
For Leary, “go, go, go get it done” was her secret sauce.
The 50th Title IX anniversary ceremony showed that more than her 700-plus coaching victories, Leary will be long remembered and loved for being a difference maker for women’s athletics, especially all who played or knew the pioneering leader.
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