Fern Lee “Peachy” Kellmeyer was the best player on the University of Miami women’s tennis team. In 1964, after four years of practicing regularly with the men’s team, head coach Dale Lewis did the unthinkable: Near the end of her senior season, he put Kellmeyer on the men’s roster.
This didn’t go over well with the No.1 player, Rodney Mandelstam from South Africa.
“The No.1 player opposed me, as a woman playing on a men’s team,” Kellmeyer said earlier this month “He thought it would be derogatory for a male player to lose to a woman. So it became a controversial thing.”
Nevertheless, Kellmeyer was in the lineup on April 28 against Florida State. She pushed Don Monk to three sets, losing 6-1, 1-6, 6-1 but won her doubles match with John Santrock, a childhood friend for Wheeling, West Virginia, in three sets. She became the first woman to play for a Division 1 men’s college tennis team – but that was only the first of many firsts.
Today, Kellmeyer finds herself enjoying some rare free time in Indian Rocks Beach, Florida, not far from the Hologic WTA Tour headquarters in St. Petersburg. She was the WTA’s first full-time employee back in 1973 – after refereeing the first Virginia Slims Championship she was appointed tour director – and just recently completed a groundbreaking 48-year run.
With Title IX, the landmark legislation that mandated equal participation for American female and male athletes, turning 50 this month it’s worth revisiting Kellmeyer’s contributions to women’s athletics across the board. The 1973 lawsuit she inspired was one of the most important factors in making the intent of Title IX a reality.
Following a successful career at Miami – with no professional tennis options for women – she took a job as the Director of Physical Education at Marymount College, a Catholic junior college in Boca Raton, Florida. With no program in place, Kellmeyer leveraged her considerable connections to create a credible department. A big part of that involved raising money for modest scholarships and recruiting tennis players. One of the first prominent players to accept was Jane “Peaches” Bartkowicz (no relation), who went on to become one of the famed “Original 9” that played on the inaugural Virginia Slims circuit. Kellmeyer doesn’t remember how much the scholarships were but volunteered that her salary was about $5,000 – “so they couldn’t have been much.”
Marymount won the state junior college championships, but there was a reoccurring problem. Over beers after tennis one day in 1972, she explained the situation to Ted Hainline, a top men’s player at the time.
“I just made the comment about how outrageous it was that we were going into the season, but would have to forfeit the matches – even if we won,” Kellmeyer said. “And it was not just tennis. We also had swimming and other sports that would have to forfeit their matches.
“Because we gave scholarships. It just didn’t make any sense to me.”
That was because the governing body – the Association for Interscholastic Athletics for Women (AIAW) – forbid scholarships. Hainline, a Fort Lauderdale attorney, was intrigued. He picked up the ball and ran with it, pro bono. Kellmeyer, who had to get signed permission slips from her underage players, helped bring Broward Community College, a public institution required by the scope of the lawsuit, on board. It seems simple and obvious by today’s standards, but they were merely asking for the ability to provide college scholarships for women athletes, just as the men had for years.
Kellmeyer left Marymount in January, 1973 for the WTA, but one month later, on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, Hainline called to say they had won. The plaintiffs had withdrawn, conceding the argument. Eventually, it would lead to the dissolution of the AIAW, and beginning of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s sponsorship of women’s athletics.
And athletic scholarships for women.
“I didn’t know how far-reaching it was at the time,” Kellmeyer said. “I was immersed in the tour itself. I was a one-man show on the Virginia Slims circuit. So I was busy 24-7 – it didn’t make a great impression on me.
“It was only some time later when I got thank-you notes or calls from women who said, `Hey, look. I couldn’t have gone to college if I hadn’t gotten an athletic scholarship.’ To make a difference in somebody’s life makes you feel pretty good.”
Danielle Collins, a Top 10 player, and Astra Sharma are two current players who benefitted from college scholarships, at the University of Virginia and Vanderbilt University, respectively. Without that critical support, Collins said, she might not be playing professional tennis.
For all of her contributions to tennis, Kellmeyer was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in the Contributor category in 2011. Watching the French Open on television, she was impressed to see Amelie Mauresmo, a former Grand Slam champion, functioning in the role of tournament director. Along with Stacey Allaster, a former WTA CEO and now US Open tournament director, she noted that half of the majors have women in a key leadership role.
“I honestly feel privileged to be a part of it,” Kellmeyer said. “I think it was a time that really had consequences for a very long time afterwards, and made a real difference in people’s lives.
“If you want to do something, you can do it. You raise your kids that way. We see little girls today going out playing football and baseball – it doesn’t matter, right? To say what’s going to happen 50 years ago, I have no idea. It’s just going to grow, that’s for sure.”