‘Passing the Torch’ celebrated the 50th anniversary of Title IX and the establishment of interscholastic sports for girls in West Hartford.
By Ronni Newton
What do an Air Force Pilot, a university architect, a deputy fire marshal, a former professional basketball player, and West Hartford’s mayor have in common?
All attribute playing on sports teams at one of West Hartford’s public high schools as making a key difference in their lives.
At an event at Hall High School Wednesday night, with several hundred in attendance attended, women who grew up during a time when girls sports were first established at the town’s public high schools shared how their lives were impacted by participating in athletics. The event celebrated Title IX, landmark civil rights legislation which was passed in 1972, as well as the founding of girls sports at Conard and Hall.
The lobby outside Hall’s auditorium was filled with memorabilia and photos, from the early days of girls’ sports through the present. Attendees were also given the opportunity to share their thoughts on how Title IX has changed their lives.
The celebration was organized by the “50th Team,” led by Suzi D’Annolfo, a former teacher, principal, coach, and the town’s first woman athletic director, who also oversaw the creation of a 650-page historical document dedicated to girls sports in West Hartford Public Schools.
When the community was lobbying for girls sports, and there was going to be a vote, a Board of Education member asked what sport should be cut for boys to allow for girls’ teams. D’Annolfo recalled that she said, “None. If it’s good enough for the boys, it’s good enough for the girls.”
Coaches and athletes who participated in team sports at Conard and Hall returned from as far as California to participate in “Passing the Torch,” literally and figuratively passing the gains made in the past 50 years and the responsibility for the future from those who fought for equal opportunity,, to the younger generation who lit the cauldron on stage. Speakers and panelists shared personal stories of what it meant to be part of a team, and how the passage of Title IX in 1972 had a profound impact on the trajectory of their lives.
The program was interspersed with videos – “The Game Plan” and “The Tip Off” – that incorporated interviews with some of the people who advocated for the first interscholastic teams for girls in West Hartford Public Schools in the 1970s, and reflections from some of the first coaches including Sue Curnias, who retired from teaching at Hall but is in her 49th year of coaching girls track and field.
Also interviewed in the video and in attendance Wednesday night was Betty Remigino-Knapp, a former coach, the athletic director in West Hartford from 1996-2016, and also a former UConn coach. Remigino-Knapp, who graduated from Hall in 1973 and whose father was an Olympic gold medalist in track, lobbied the Board of Education on behalf of girls sports. She is now enjoying her “retirement” as a Hall cross country and track coach.
Cathy Foto, a field hockey, basketball, and track athlete who graduated from Conard in 1979 and continued as a students-athlete in college and later became a coach, said getting involved sports taught her a leadership lesson and “the power of good communication.”
Mayor Shari Cantor – a three-sport athlete at Hall who graduated in 1977 and captained both the swim team and gymnastics team, and also ran track – said having been a student-athlete made a big difference in her life. “Teamwork, commitment, practice, hard work, experiencing losing and winning were all important and had lasting impacts on my life,” said Cantor, who remains an avid runner, bicyclist, and fitness enthusiast, and is known for her ability to turn cartwheels while wearing heels. She said sports made her stronger physically and mentally.
Cantor delivered a proclamation, and welcomed attendees to the event that was a night for women to shine and be celebrated. She shared the welcome duties with Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore, who along with Acting Town Manager Rick Ledwith, Athletic Director Jason Siegal, and some school principals and current and former coaches were just some of the men who are strong supporters of girls’ and women’s sports and were in attendance.
Ken Hungerford, now 92, appeared in “The Game Plan” video and was in the audience along with all seven of his daughters (he also has a son) – all former West Hartford high school athletes. Hungerford and his late wife Claire, not only encouraged their daughters to be active and reach their full potential, but showed up at Board of Education meetings in the early 1970s to lobby for girls’ interscholastic sports.
“You don’t know your limit until you’ve gone beyond it,” said Marsha McCurdy Adell, deputy fire marshal for the West Hartford Fire Department, who participated in the “Play Ball” panel. Adell, a three-sport athlete in cross country, basketball, and track at Conard (Class of 1993), credited all of her coaches for influencing her goals and her choices.
Linda Berry (Conard Class of 1976) had asthma as a child, and never played sports until she decided to try out for the basketball team with the support of then-coach Pam Moffo. In her first attempt at a layup, the ball landed in the gym’s balcony. Play had to stop, because there weren’t any extra balls, she said – drawing laughs Wednesday night as it did nearly 50 years ago. “Be unselfish and work together as a team” were the lessons Berry, who went on to play Division I basketball at Indiana University, learned. “And you have to really practice and have fun.”
“Years ago I was a pretty insecure kid but Title IX offered me the opportunity to play sports in West Hartford,” said Carson Bond, who graduated from Conard in 1976. She joined the field hockey, basketball, and track teams, serving as co-captain of two of the teams. The “I can do that” attitude she adopted led her to join ROTC at UConn, and then to apply for Air Force pilot training. After eight years in the USAF she spent 32 years with American Airlines as a pilot, and ultimately as a captain again.
Randi Zola, a Hall graduate who went on to play professional basketball overseas, also participated in the panel, which was moderated by Hall alum Marie Bernard Miszewski.
Terry McGinnis Holland is now an architect at the University of Maryland. Being an athlete at Hall High School (Class of 1977) made her feel equal to the boys, and she went on to study architecture at Carnegie Mellon University.
“I want to shine a mirror to our community,” said Tatyanah Datil, a Conard junior and student-athlete who is doing her Advanced Placement Seminar project on Title IX, specifically examining Black female athletes.
Datil participated in the “Beyond Athletics” panel, moderated by Hall students Kate Sanderson and Hana Roggendorf. “I feel like there’s so much more that needs to be done,” she said.
Town Council member Adrienne Billings-Smith credited her confidence, which has led to her efforts in the West Hartford community, include leading efforts to rename the town green “Unity Green” and to establish a Juneteenth celebration, to participating in high school and college sports.
The keynote address was given by Karissa Niehoff, chief executive officer of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). Niehoff, among the first women to serve as CEO of a national sports organization, is a Connecticut native and long-time friend of D’Annolfo.
Title IX is a civil rights law which provides equal access to educational and professional opportunities as well to athletic opportunities, she said. “Now Title IX is about accountability,” Niehoff said, and is more important than ever in the quest to effect meaningful change.
Nationally, in 1970, there were 3.6 million boys participating in sports, and just 300,000 girls, Niehoff said. According to the most recent data (from just before the COVID pandemic), there are 4.5 million boys playing sports, of which about 1 million are football players. There are 3.5 million girls, so essentially it’s now a virtually equal number.
For the first time this year, the women’s college basketball championship could use the “March Madness” name. In order to continue the progress, “we need now to hold hands with grass roots organizations,” she said, like those who advocated for girls sports in West Hartford five decades ago.
“Suzi [D’Annolfo] held my hand every step of the way,” Niehoff said of her early career. “We need Suzies. Tonight your call is to be a Suzi, and there is no playbook.”
The literal passing of the torch, Niehoff said, is handing the flame to the younger generation, and making sure they don’t put it down. We need to “stand on the shoulders of those who came before us,” she said, and together pass the torch.
Roszena Haskins, director of Equity Advancement for West Hartford Public Schools, served as emcee.
“We were so pleased to take a few hours to celebrate Title IX and hear the personal stories of women whose lives were forever changed by this civil rights law,” said Anne McKernan, director of Secondary Education for West Hartford Public School and a former three-sport athlete at Conard (Class of 1981).
McKernan’s late mother, Madeline McKernan, was chair of the West Hartford Board of Education in the early 1970s, when families were lobbying for girls sports. “It gives us great hope for the future as we continue our advocacy efforts for greater equity,” she said.
The symbolic torch was passed by former student athletes to current students – from Patty Dalton McElligott, to Leah Williams, to Braeburn student Charlotte Zigman, and from Lisa Walsh Howard, to Alyssanra Anderson, to Sedgwick student Julianna Farquharson.
Girls from the Conard Solo Choir and Hall Choraliers, many dressed in the uniforms of the teams they also play on, sang the National Anthem and “This is My Fight Song.”
West Hartford Community Interactive recorded the complete celebration event, which can be viewed on YouTube through the link below.
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