When Ruth Callon landed her first college coaching job, she was concerned that not enough players would come out for the team.
The year was 1962. Women’s sports, if they were offered at all, were loosely organized. At best, opportunities were limited. At worst, they were nonexistent.
Consequently, few women gave much thought to playing college sports.
Callon, who grew up in the 1930s and ’40s, knew that better than anyone. So she hit the recruiting trail — hard.
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Maybe too hard, her son, Dan Callon, recalled. Her labor bore fruit but also caused heartbreak.
“She had too many girls come out, and she had to cut someone,” he said. “She cried.”
And then she took action.
In the first innovative step of her lifelong effort to create, not deny, opportunities for female athletes, Callon established what is widely regarded as the state’s first junior varsity team for women’s basketball players.
Her pioneering move not only opened doors for scores of women who otherwise wouldn’t get to play, it had the welcome but not necessarily intended effect of turning Franklin into a state power, and not only among small colleges.
“Within a couple of years her JV team was playing teams like Butler and Hanover, while her varsity was playing Purdue and Ball State,” Dan Callon said. “Her varsity players said they usually faced their best competition in daily practice.”
Yet for Callon, the chief aim was never winning. It was about opportunity, leveling, and in many cases creating, playing fields for girls and women who were either denied chances to play or were treated like second-class citizens if they did.
And for that, generations of female athletes owe a debt of gratitude to Callon, a pioneer for the advancement of girls and women’s sports in Indiana. Her efforts also helped spawn the landmark Title IX legislation that established equal opportunities for girls and women in sports.
A lifelong Whiteland resident who touched thousands of lives during her coaching and teaching career, Callon died Dec. 17 after a brief illness. She was 85.
Former players remember her as something far more than a coach.
For many, she was a beloved role model. Soft-spoken but driven. A gentle spirit with a tireless work ethic. A multisport coach who also taught physical education and math. A devout Christian who lived a simple but exemplary life of service.
“I think Ruth would have given her last penny to anybody that needed it,” said Jenny Johnson-Kappes, who played basketball and softball for Callon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. “She was just so generous with all her thoughts and everything that she did.
“She referred to all her kids as ‘pumpkins.’ Quite a few of us pumpkins are really saddened at this this time.”
Born May 29, 1930, in Whiteland, Callon grew up playing sports despite limited opportunities for girls. She graduated from Whiteland High School in 1948 and attended Franklin College, where she played basketball and graduated in 1952.
She then took a teaching job at Whiteland in 1953, the same year she married her husband, George, whom she met at Franklin College. She taught for three years at Whiteland and, in her first year, established an intramural basketball league for girls, one of her first notable efforts to open doors for women.
In time, her efforts would become bigger and bolder.
Callon took a break from teaching following the birth of her children, Dan and Cathy. But in 1962, she returned to Franklin College as a physical education teacher and women’s basketball coach. She later also served as a math professor and softball coach.
With Callon leading the way, the women’s college sports landscape in Indiana gradually changed.
When she began coaching, women’s sports were little more than glorified intramurals, with no governing body, no uniform rules and limited access to facilities. Budgets were at best scant, and skills camps were unheard of.
So Callon spearheaded a committee that founded the Indiana Collegiate Women’s Sports Organization, which developed standardized rules and established organized postseasons.
After that, she went to work founding what are widely regarded as the first summer basketball camps for high school girls. She also helped create coaching clinics for female coaches, few of whom had any sort of formal training in how to coach — including Callon.
“My problem was, no one ever coached me,” Callon told the Daily Journal in a 2005 interview. “I had to learn coaching by going to clinics by the seat of my pants. But now girls are in first and second grade, and they can play.”
And they can play in the IHSAA state tournament, thanks in no small measure to Callon’s advocacy.
In 1973, Callon served on the IHSAA’s first girls advisory board, which paved the way three years later for full and equal sports participation for females.
‘Supreme role model’
In 1976, the IHSAA sanctioned the first-ever girls basketball tournament — just in time for a diminutive but dynamic player from Warsaw, Judi Warren, to lead her team to an undefeated state championship and become the state’s first Miss Basketball.
The following year, she was playing at Franklin College, successfully recruited by a coach who would soon become a parent-like figure.
“She was very caring and was the supreme role model,” said Warren, who played four standout seasons for the Grizzlies. “She was not at all what you would think of as a hard-nosed college coach. All her players were called her ‘pumpkins,’ and it’s hard to imagine that Bob Knight or Gene Keady would have called their players ‘pumpkins.’
“She was just a real unique individual, and yet one you played hard for because you had so much respect for her because you knew how much she loved every one of her players.”
Johnson-Kappes, a retired coach and teacher at Franklin College, echoed that thought.
“She was the most kind, loving individual that anybody would want to be friends with,” she said. “I was all set to go to Purdue, and she said, ‘Come on up to Franklin.’ That was it. Once I came to campus and met Ruth, I knew that was home, and I always felt like Ruth was my mom away from home.
“I know my parents were very comfortable with me going to Franklin having her there because they knew right from the start that Ruth was just a very wonderful person and she really cared about her students. Whether they were in her classes, whether they were athletes, she just loved them all.”
A life of service
An avid athlete who played recreational softball into her 50s, Callon coached various sports at the college and was also a bowling instructor. She taught and coached at the college until 1991.
But as far coaching, she enjoyed her greatest success in basketball. She coached the Grizzlies from 1962 to 1983 and posted a career record of 181-121. Her teams won five small college state championships, and in 1977 she the led the Grizzlies to a 17-0 record and the Indiana Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women state championship.
“She was a fierce competitor. She loved to win, yet she was going to win the right way,” said Warren, who was a freshman standout on the 1977 team. “She was a very quiet gentle giant in the realm of coaching and athletics in that she demanded success, but yet she wanted to do it because she gave so much to youth.”
And not just to female athletes, but to whoever needed help.
Besides her pioneering work in women’s sports, Callon helped establish Special Olympics Johnson County and was known to offer tips to anyone she saw struggling, whether kids on a tennis court or young adults at a bowling center.
And though she never sought attention, her efforts didn’t go unnoticed.
In 2005, four years after the death of her beloved and supportive husband, Callon was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Fall Fame. She is one of only two Whiteland graduates in the Hall. The other is legendary Crispus Attucks coach Ray Crowe.
In 2009, Callon was the female recipient of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame’s St. Vincent Silver Medal Award. The same year, she was named by the Indiana Fever as one of the state’s 15 Inspiring Women.
But recognition never was Callon’s aim. Opening doors and inspiring others were her objectives, no matter the obstacles or challenges.
She had a uniquely gentle way of breaking down barriers.
“She wanted girls, and then women, to have the opportunity to play. That’s all it was,” said Dan Callon, now 59 and a math professor at Franklin College. “It was a combination of just perseverance and persistence and doing whatever it took to make it work. That’s really all it was. She was never a crusader. She would keep pushing. If she thought something wasn’t fair, she would go to any avenue she could. But she never was one to just beat people over the head about things.
“It really was that perseverance and persistence, doing what it took on her own, and then whatever resources were available, making use of those just to make it happen.”
Name: Ruth Callon
Born: May 29, 1930
Died: Dec. 17, 2015
High school: Whiteland (graduated 1948)
College: Franklin (graduated in 1952)
Personal: Married George Callon on June 14, 1953; George, a teacher and administrator at Perry Township schools, died Oct. 7, 2001.
Children: Dan Callon, 59, of Whiteland; Cathy Pieratt, 57, of Butlerville
High school teaching career: Taught at Whiteland High School from 1953 to 1955
College teaching career: Taught physical education and math at Franklin College from 1962 to 1991
Coaching career: Coached Franklin College women’s basketball team from 1962 to 1983; at various times also coached softball, volleyball and women’s soccer
Distinctions: Inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 2005; served on the IHSAA’s first girls advisory committee in 1973; led committee that established the Indiana Collegiate Women’s Sports Organization; named by the Indiana Fever as one of 15 Inspiring Women for 2009.