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Mabel Lee

"She did the cake walk for Buffalo Bill. . . she square-danced with Henry Ford. . . Alonzo Stagg called her "Miss Nebraska” . . . she fought to let women be seen on the campus in bloomers and tangled with a sheriff when women danced in flowing chiffon around a May Pole. She is Mabel Lee,” said Roby Kesler in 1978.

Lee came to Coe 1904 after Prof. Fracker showed her a photograph of the Coe's women's basketball team of 1903. She had been active in sports in high school and with her father's help she introduced basketball to her high school her sophomore year. According to the March 23, 1980 Lincoln Nebraska Sunday Journal and Star, Lee entered college dreaming of a career, not of marriage. "'I made up my mind I wouldn’t marry,' she recalls. 'I wanted a career, but I didn't know what career. I was groping for something I didn't know existed.'"

What Lee found was women's athletics. She earned her first athletic letter her sophomore year in Swedish Gymnastics and continued to pursue athletics with enthusiasm. In an interview with the Lincoln Nebraska Sunday Journal and Star, 93 year old Lee talked about her athletic times at Coe. "In college she ran around the balcony running track of the gym 'entirely on my own motivation, seeing how many laps I could work up to.' That activity is called jogging today, and she heartily approves of its popularity."

After receiving a degree in Psychology from Coe, Lee went on to further study at the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics and joined the Coe physical education department in 1910. Within her first year of teaching, Lee instigated two events that would become traditions. Both the Colonial Ball, (a dance in celebration of Washington's birthday where women dressed both the part of George and Martha) and the May Fete (an interpretation dance program held on the quad) began under her supervision in 1911. Each was included as part of the dance and movement curriculum of the physical education department.

In 1918, after eight years of instruction at Coe, Lee accepted a new position as physical director for women in the State Agricultural College of Oregon. She then taught at Beliot University and University of Nebraska, where she taught for 28 years. Lee was an extremely influential figure in the advancement of women's athletics, being elected the first women president of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education and Recreation and the American Academy of Physical Education in 1931. In 1932 she substituted for First Lady Lou Hoover in presiding over the women's sessions of the Olympics, held that year in Los Angeles. In a letter to President John Brown, dated April 11, 1984, 97 year old Lee recalls the trip to Los Angeles. "You might be interested to know that this Coeite (me) in 1932 went to the summer Olympics, entering Los Angeles the only woman aboard the USA private train taking the USA men's track and field team from their 2-week's training at Stanford University to LA. . . . Also at that time the First Lady of America asked me to 'pinch hit for her' at LA when she gave up her assignments on a Pre-Olympic Conference to stay on in Washington with her husband, Herbert Hoover. . . who could say 'no' to such as that?"

Lee retired from the University of Nebraska in 1952, after which the main building of the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln was named in her honor. She received honorary doctorates from Coe, George Williams and Beloit Colleges and was inducted into Coe's athletic hall of fame in1977. In 1982 Lee was honored by the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports as one of the five women in the nation who had meant the most to the women of the country in the area of fitness.

Although retired, Lee remained extremely active. She had kept in close contact with Coe throughout the years and in her retirement corresponded with a number of presidents, telling them tales of her life at Coe as well as providing generous donations to the college. In regards to her 60th class reunion in 1968, President Joseph McCabe wrote to her:

Yes, yes yes! Do bring the Merry Widow hat and that gorgeous white dress for the 60th reunion of your class in June. We are having new campus lights installed this week and are raising them high enough that you can pass safely beneath with the most famous hat in the Midwest.

A photo was taken of the two of them together; President McCabe in a suit and tie and Dr. Lee in her 1908 white lace graduation dress and an enormous black feather hat. They have their arms around one another like old friends. 

After reaching the age of 90, Lee had four books published including The History of Physical Education and Sports in the USA which she co-authored and three memoirs including Memories of a Bloomer Girl, Memories Beyond Bloomers, and Fifty Years of Campus Capers. Roby Kesler, in an attempt to get Lee on "Good Morning America" wrote a letter to the station in which she described Lee as " Mabel is 92, or will be on August 18. She is attractive, coherent, still drives her own car and funny as hell. She is Dean of women's gymnastics in the United States and has authored what are considered the best text books for women's physical education at the college level….not many are writing books at 92! And not many can wear the same dress worn at a college graduation in 1908…seventy years ago!" Mabel Lee died December 2, 1985 at the age of 99.


Cosmos October 18, 1918

Miss Mabel Lee, for the past eight years the director of the physical training department for women, is missing from among the Coe faculty this year as she took up her new work as physical director for women in the State Agricultural College of Oregon in Corvallis this fall. Miss Lee’s new position is one of greatly increased responsibility and recompense. She has four assistants in her department.

Miss lee was graduated from Coe with degree of Bachelor of Science in 1909. She later attended the Boston Normal school of Gymnastics and was later graduated from the physical department of Wellesley College. She began her work at Coe in 1910 as the second physical director in the history of the school. From 1910 on, Miss Lee continued to build up the physical training department until it is on a par with the best schools in the country.

She was the first to try a May Pageant, and from her first one, all have been successes and have been on a large scale. She gave six May pageants in all, which have been witnessed by thousands of people.


Courier November 30, 1925

Miss Mabel Lee, who was for eight years the physical director for women at Coe College and who is now Director of Physical Education for Women at the University of Nebraska. Miss Lee’s subject was “Present-Day Tendencies in Physical Education for Women”

Miss Lee discussed the development and organization of athletics for women since the World War. While she dwelt on the desirability of the formation of athletic clubs for the older women and the need of direction by trained women for the athletic s[ports of the girl of high school age, Miss Lee naturally pt the greater emphasis upon the problems connected with athletics for the college woman. She asserted that the college woman of today is perfectly capable of taking care of her own athletic problems.

On this point, Miss Lee gave expression to the following declaration of independence

“We propose to have athletics for American women, but we propose to have them controlled by women, coached by women, chaperoned by women, officiated by women, trained by women, protected by women physicians and we say to those men of American who are not concerned with ideals, men who would like to commercialize this growing force, who seek notoriety through women’s athletics, we say ‘Hands off!’  and we mean just what we say.”

Concluding her address:

“May the play spirit be kept alive in our college women. May this fine new equipment man that every girl who enters Coe College will learn some recreational activities which she may carry through to adult life…May you always use your influence to discourage direct control of women’s athletics by men, to discourage interschool competition for girls, and to encourage play for play’s sake and healthful recreation for all.”

During recent years Miss Lee has been prominent in the work of the various professional organizations to which she belongs and has frequently contributed articles to publications in the filed in which she specializes.


Courier Obit: Jan 1986

She came to Coe because Prof. Fracker showed her a photograph of the Coe women’s basketball team of 1903 and brought news that the college was building a gymnasium to be used by women as well as men. She chose a career in the teaching of physical education the first time she saw a class of women PE students at Coe. By her sophomore year she’d earned her first Coe letter – for her wok in Swedish gymnastics.

Lee spent her life advocating the importance of physical education as a field of study – and, more specifically, the value of physical fitness for all students rather than intercollegiate athletic competition for a few teams.

When she died Dec. 2 at the age of 99, she had an international reputation as a teacher and author, and was listed in Who’s Who in America and 16 similar publications.

She graduated from Coe in 1908, went on the further student at the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics, and joined the Coe physical education faculty in 1910. She began the Coe traditions of the May Fete and the Colonial Ball in 1911, as part o fhte dance and movement curriculum of the department.

Successive faculty positions at Oregon State and at Beloit College brought her to the University of Nebraska, where she taught from 1924 until 1952.

In 1931 Lee was the first woman elected president of the American Alliance for Health, physical Education and recreation. She was the first member elected to the American Academy of Physical Education and later became its first woman president. Her reputation as a teacher and author of texts in physical education was widespread. She received honorary doctorates in physical education from Coe and from George Williams and Beloit Colleges. In 1976 the University of Nebraska named its physical education building Mabel Lee Hall, and in 1977 she was inducted into Coe’s athletic Hall of Fame.

She wrote four books, after reaching the age of 85, Memories of a Bloomer Girl, Memories Beyond Bloomers, and Fifty Years of Campus Capers were all part of her memoirs, and she was in the midst of proofing and revising further volumes in the last year of her life. She was co- author of The History of Physical Education and Sports in the USA. In 1982, Lee was honored by the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports as one of the five women in the nation who had meant the most to the women of the country in the area of fitness.

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