Fern Lee “Peachy” Kellmeyer was the top player on the University of Miami women’s tennis team. In 1964, after four years of regular training with the men’s team, head coach Dale Lewis did the unthinkable: near the end of his senior season, he put Kellmeyer on the men’s roster.
It didn’t go over well with No.1 Rodney Mandelstam of 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 female player, so it became a controversial thing.
Nonetheless, 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 his doubles match with John Santrock, a childhood friend from Wheeling, West Virginia, in three sets. She became the first woman to play for a men’s Division 1 varsity tennis team – but it was only the first of many firsts.
Today, Kellmeyer is 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 in 1973 – after officiating the first Virginia Slims Championship she was named tour manager – and has just completed a groundbreaking 48-year run.
With Title IX, the landmark legislation that required equal participation for American female and male athletes, turning 50 this month, it’s worth revisiting Kellmeyer’s contributions to women’s athletics at all levels. The 1973 lawsuit she inspired was one of the most important factors in making the intent of Title IX a reality.
After a successful career in Miami – with no professional tennis options for women – she accepted a position as director of physical education at Marymount College, a Catholic college in Boca Raton, Florida. With no program in place, Kellmeyer leveraged his considerable connections to create a credible department. A big part of that was raising money for modest scholarships and recruiting tennis players. One of the first high-profile players to accept was Jane “Peaches” Bartkowicz (no relation), who became one of the famous “Original 9” who played on the Virginia Slims’ inaugural tour. Kellmeyer doesn’t recall the amount of the scholarships, but said his salary was around $5,000 – “so they couldn’t have been a lot.”
Marymount won the state junior college championships, but there was a recurring problem. Over a beer after tennis, one day in 1972, she explained the situation to Ted Hainline, one of the best male players of the time.
“I just said how outrageous it was that we were going into the season but had to give up games – even if we were winning,” Kellmeyer said. “And it wasn’t just tennis. We also had swimming and other sports that had to lose their matches.
“Because we gave scholarships. It just didn’t make sense to me.
This is because the governing body – the Association for Interscholastic Athletics for Women (AIAW) – prohibits 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 releases from his underage players, helped bring in Broward Community College, a public institution required by the scope of the lawsuit. It seems simple and obvious by today’s standards, but they were simply asking for the ability to offer college scholarships to female athletes, just as men had done for years.
Kellmeyer left Marymount in January 1973 for the WTA, but a month later, on February 14, Valentine’s Day, Hainline called to say they had won. The plaintiffs had withdrawn, conceding the argument. Eventually, this would lead to the dissolution of the AIAW and the start of sponsorship of women’s athletics by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
And sports scholarships for women.
“I didn’t realize how important 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 me big impression.
“It wasn’t until some time later that 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. Making a difference in someone’s life makes you feel pretty good.
Danielle Collins, a Top 10 player, and Astra Sharma are two current players who have held 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 her contributions to tennis, Kellmeyer was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in the Contributor category in 2011. While watching the French Open on TV, she was impressed to see Amélie Mauresmo, a former tennis champion Grand Slam, play the role of tournament director. Along with former WTA CEO and now US Open Tournament Director Stacey Allaster, she noted that half of the majors have women in key leadership roles.
“Honestly, I feel privileged to be a part of it,” Kellmeyer said. “I think it was a period that really had an impact 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 children this way. Today we see little girls playing football and baseball – it doesn’t matter, does it? To say what will happen 50 years ago, I have no idea. It’s just going to grow, that’s for sure.