WPIAL Hall of Fame inductee Burke blazed trail for women’s sports in Western Pennsylvania

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Saturday, May 7, 2022 | 7:16 PM


The WPIAL has been around for more than 100 years, but the organization was exclusively for boys until Ruth Ann Burke and some like-minded colleagues insisted that must change.

It was the late 1960s, and interscholastic girls sports were still an afterthought in high schools, with limited opportunities arranged by the individual coaches. So, seeing a need for change, the women approached WPIAL leaders and asked them to sanction girls sports.

“They said, ‘No, but if you want to do it, go ahead,'” said Burke, then a teacher at Peters Township. “They turned us down. So that made us work all the harder. ”

The Western Pennsylvania Girls Athletic League was born in 1970, bringing to life a groundbreaking sister organization to the WPIAL that provided athletic opportunities for countless female athletes.

Within five years, the two leagues aligned, with the WPGAL becoming the “WPIAL Girls Division,” a historic step toward equality for boys and girls sports.

Burke, a pioneer behind the WPGAL and one of its first administrators, will be inducted into the WPIAL Hall of Fame on May 27.

“I appreciate the honor, but there were so many people involved who could be in the hall of fame,” Burke said. “It wasn’t me. The women really worked hard together. ”

Her induction comes at a poignant moment as schools nationwide commemorate the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the 1972 law that prohibited sex-based discrimination in schools.

Donna Shaver of Mt. Lebanon was the first WPGAL president with Burke also a league officer. But Shaver handed the reins to Burke within two years, and she became a leading voice for progress. She spent a decade on the WPIAL board and served as a district representative on PIAA steering committees.

“Ruth Ann Burke is as special as she is charming, and her legacy is long-lasting,” WPIAL executive director Amy Scheuneman said. “In the 50-year reflection of the inception of Title IX, pioneers like Ruth Ann are so important to remember and recognize for their contributions in the advancement of women in sports.

“Her initiatives with the Girls Athletic League and giving females a chance to compete was the first step in allowing them to be integrated into the then ‘all male’ WPIAL.”

The WPGAL offered track, tennis and softball in its first spring season, according to league records. Yet, in its first full school year, the WPGAL sponsored nine sports. Basketball was most popular with 41 teams, but the league also offered volleyball, field hockey, track and field, gymnastics and cross country.

“It was fun to do, really,” Burke said of building the WPGAL. “The girls were ready. They wanted something. The way in which it has grown in the area, I think, is wonderful. ”

High school girls today probably couldn’t imagine life without organized sports, Burke said, but she remembers that time quite clearly. In the late 1950s, some gym teachers started organizing interschool meets for girls called “play days.”

“Once a year, somebody would have a ‘play day’ where the girls could come and play volleyball or basketball,” she said. “They’d go as a group. It’s interesting now to contrast.

“When the girls started to play basketball, they were not supposed to overexert themselves. So you can see there’s been a big change. “

Burke started her teaching career in Riverside, Calif., And took up tennis on the West Coast. After returning home, she started playing golf, but her appreciation for sports started earlier – with or without a team.

“When I was growing up, I’d be shooting baskets,” she said. “Down in our basement, there was a pole in between the beams and I would shoot through there.”

Burke graduated from Pitt with a master’s degree and also taught at her alma mater. In 1952, she traveled to Helsinki, Finland, with a New York University group to study the Olympic Games.

She taught at Peters Township for 28 years and became the chair of the health and physical education department before retiring in 1988. She coached golf, track, basketball, volleyball and tennis at the school.

Burke still laughs about a time when one of her first-time golfers lost a shot in the weeds.

“I said,‘ That’s OK. Throw another one down and go from there, ‘”Burke said. “Well, she got in her bag, got a ball out and she threw that thing as far as she could. This was the type of thing you sometimes had to work with. ”

The Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce recognized her in 1989 with her Women in Sports Lifetime Achievement Award.

Burke said she remains proud that the WPGAL laid the groundwork for today’s WPIAL, which now sponsors 14 girls sports.

“We kept the thing rolling, and sports became more important to the girls,” Burke said. “Once they found out that they could do it as well as a lot of the boys, that made a difference.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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