Over the weekend, while celebrating 40 years of women in sports at Kansas University, a woman named Marlene Mawson was introduced as the “Mother of KU Women’s Athletics.”
In an official sense, Mawson did indeed give birth to KU’s women’s program because she was a KU physical-education instructor back in the late 1960s when the school launched a rudimentary distaff sports program.
And yet Mawson — and I don’t want to sound disrespectful because she is a fine woman with a splendid résumé — is hardly the person most closely associated with KU women’s athletics.
If Mawson is the birth mother, then Marian Washington is the foster mother because it was Washington who nurtured women’s athletics — for a few years as athletic director and for more than 30 years as women’s basketball coach.
At halftime of Saturday’s Kansas-Nebraska women’s basketball game, scores of former KU women athletes and coaches paraded onto the floor and were recognized.
Washington wasn’t among them.
When I asked a KU official why Washington wasn’t there, I was told she had sent a letter saying she wouldn’t be there, that she was back East with her family. Washington’s daughter, Josie, lives in the Philadelphia area and has two children.
I can understand Washington wanting to visit her grandchildren. Heck, I have grandchildren back East myself. At the same time, however, you have to wonder if Washington was using her grandchildren as an excuse, given the fact she hasn’t shown her face in Allen Fieldhouse in five years.
In late January of 2004, Washington announced she was taking a leave of absence to deal with unspecified, non-life-threatening health problems. About a month later, she stepped down, saying she could not continue to coach and deal with those health issues.
In the five years since her retirement, Washington has continued to live in Lawrence, where she has been like a stealth fighter on a radar screen. Not that Washington ever maintained a high profile, even during her KU years. She always spelled privacy with a capital P.
Washington, now 62, received a severance package worth approximately $156,000 the year after she retired, but we know that only because the Journal-World obtained that info under the open-records act.
Since then, Washington’s name has rarely come up in public. She never has attended a KU women’s game. Moreover, she has never even met Bonnie Henrickson, her successor.
Meanwhile, as part of the 40-year celebration, KU athletic department officials announced they had established the Marlene Mawson Female Athlete of the Year Award and revealed track’s SháRay Butler as the first winner.
I have to tell you that when the announcement was made, it occurred to me — and again no disrespect to Mawson — the award could just as easily been named after Washington.
Then again, they don’t immortalize phantoms. They don’t issue APBs when the welcome mat is already out. So it’s all up to Washington.
“Maybe,” someone remarked on press row, “she’ll show up for the 50th anniversary.”