When it comes to Florida State University and its athletics programs, Dr. Janet Wells has been there and done it. Together with Dr. Billie Jones, they have influenced the direction of FSU’s athletic program with their participation, mentorship and philanthropy, recently making a $100,000 gift to women’s softball.
Born and reared in Palatka, Fla., Wells came to Tallahassee in 1938 to attend the Florida State College for Women (FSCW). It was the same year the University of Florida earned the Phi Beta Kappa academic status. Of course, UF became the Beta chapter here in Florida as FSCW earned the prestigious distinction in head-to-head competition against the all-male rival three years earlier. FSCW was the top academic institution in the state of Florida and among the top three women’s colleges in the nation.
A physical education major at FSCW, Wells participated in the popular “Odds and Evens” tradition. Because she was in the senior class of 1942, she competed for the “Even” teams in soccer, basketball, volleyball and swimming. There were no intercollegiate sports at FSCW but there was a robust intramurals program, featuring the “Odds and Evens” tradition. According to Illuminations, which chronicled the times: “Nothing was more popular than the Odds vs. Evens basketball game. This event, one of the few times that women at the school could participate in athletic competition (as FSCW officials did not think competitive sports were ladylike), became so popular that in 1924 Katherine Montgomery added a volleyball game to the day’s activities.”
Back in Wells’ day, FSCW women were expected to participate in at least one intramural sport every year as athletics was considered essential in developing both mind and body.
Wells excelled in basketball and like many of her classmates enjoyed her time at Camp FLASTACOWO (Florida State College for Women) known today as the Seminole Reservation.
Wells’ influences included Montgomery, an FSU Athletics Hall of Fame member, and Mary Settle. Montgomery, a 1918 graduate, developed FSCW’s intramurals program and was a national leader in volleyball. Montgomery Hall honors her contributions today. Settle was a physical education professor who graduated from FSU in 1931 as class and student government president. She became assistant to the director of Military and Naval Welfare Services, which took her to battlefronts in the Pacific and Atlantic theatres.
Like Settle, Wells would serve her country in World War II entering the Navy in January 1944 as an ensign and leaving in June 1946 as a lieutenant. She returned to the University of Florida to earn her master’s (1952) and finally her Doctor of Education at Michigan State University (1957). In 1957 she joined the FSU Department of Physical Education faculty where she influenced generations of FSU students, coaches and student-athletes.
“Teaching was a career for women and I wanted to be outside so physical education was a perfect choice,” Wells said. “My father offered to send me to law school but at that point in time, it was not a usual career for women.”
Jan’s and Billie’s paths crossed in 1970 when Billie came to FSU to attend graduate school. They found they had common interests such as sailing, canoeing, biking, hiking, camping, traveling and sports programs for girls and women. Billie earned her doctorate in 1972 and joined the FSU faculty of Movement Science and Physical Education as an Associate Professor.
Jones was head coach of the women’s volleyball team (1970, 1972-75), qualifying for the National AIAW tournament in ‘73, ‘74 and ‘75. Jones also claimed a state championship in softball in 1971 and a runner-up finish in 1974.
Building a bridge, grads made good
“Billie and I, with the help of Joel Padgett, were the originators of the Champions Beyond the Game Brunch,” Wells said. “Two former athletes (F Club members) were being recognized as FSU Grads made good and we thought that the current women athletes should meet them and be aware of life beyond the game.” Wells and Jones talked with Padgett, who was Vice President of Development for Seminole Boosters, about the idea. “He thought it was a good idea and came up with the name,” Wells said.
Years later, while attending the inauguration of FSU President Eric Barron, Wells said the idea came to them. “There was a lighting of the three torches [Artes (strength), Vires (skill), Mores (character)] so the idea of Femina Perfecta came to light,” Wells said.
Femina Perfecta, the motto originally on FSCW’s seal, is the name of an award presented to one woman from each of FSU’s sports teams. The criteria used by team members who vote in a secret ballot is “she will not necessarily be the most intellectual, fastest, strongest, top scorer, etc. but should be the one who is invaluable to the team and who will always make a difference.”
A legacy of interest, participation, advocacy and support
The couple has been season ticket holders and donors and served on numerous committees, including the Committee of 30 and have volunteered their time to organize many events. They have been stalwart supporters of Title IX to encourage more opportunity for women in higher education and sport. At 99 years of age, Wells continues to be an advocate for women’s sports. “Come a long way since I was here about 80 years ago but still have a long way to go,” Wells said. “(FSU) has risen from no athletic program to one involving thousands of players and coaches (most well trained) having opportunities to use their talents/abilities/interests.”
In terms of influencing coaches, Wells says their actions have been “informal” as coaches know much more about coaching than we.”
According to current Senior Associate Athletics Director and Senior Woman Administrator Vanessa Fuchs, the list of people influenced by Wells and Jones is lengthy.
“I can’t begin to tell you how much time they have spent with our student-athletes, coaches and administrators – including me – and the positive influence they have had on our careers,” Fuchs said. “They are very interested and involved. They like to come to games and events and they like interacting with students – most importantly, they share with us the history of FSU women’s athletics. Many of us consider them mentors.”
Counted among those mentees are former coaches and administrators Dr. Jo Anne Graf (softball, 1978-2008), Dr. Cecile Reynaud (volleyball, 1976-2001, administration, 1994-95), Karen Harvey (cross country, 2007-15), Barbara Palmer (athletic director, 1977-81) and Dr. Dianne Murphy (basketball, 1976-79), who was inducted into the NACDA Hall of Fame as an administrator and women’s advocate.
Fuchs adds current coaches who have benefited from interaction with Wells and Jones, including Lonni Alameda (softball), Sue Semrau (basketball), Mark Krikorian (soccer), Jennifer Hyde (tennis) and Chris Poole (volleyball).
“They have meant everything to me in my career, professionally and personally,” Reynaud said. “Dr. Jones hired me to replace her in 1976, so I owe her for getting me to Florida State University and will be forever grateful.”
Reynaud served as FSU’s volleyball coach for 26 seasons (635-326) before retiring with 10 postseason trips and seven conference championships.
Dr. Jones was Reynaud’s major professor in her master’s program and Dr. Wells was the Chairman of the Department and one of her professors.
“What I learned from them is to always ask questions and to try to promote women in professional positions, making sure they are well trained and ready for those jobs,” said Reynaud, who is a Past President of the American Volleyball Coaches Association, the Alliance of Women Coaches Association and coached numerous international teams. “They seem to be the connectors to so many people at this university, men and women.
“We organized a big party for Dr. Wells’ 90th birthday and we must have had 150 people come back to spend time with her,” Reynaud said. “It was incredible to see the admiration and respect for them both. It was a fundraiser to honor them and raised $350,000 to endow a scholarship in their names very easily.”
Dr. Jo Anne Graf played tennis as a freshman at FSU in 1971 and then switched to softball. Her coach was Dr. Jones, who later hired her as head coach. The selection committee was chaired by Dr. Wells.
Graf won 75 percent of her games over 30 years of coaching (1,437-478-6), including AIAW (now NCAA) National Titles in Slow Pitch softball in 1981 and ’82. When the NCAA switched to fast-pitch softball, Graf successfully transitioned the Seminoles, taking nine of her teams to the Women’s College World Series.
“They were both part of everything,” Graf said. “They were members of the Lady Seminole Booster Club, the Dugout Club, anything to support women’s involvement in sport. Some people are able to come to games but don’t have the ability to provide support. They both backed up their interest with actions, participation and support. They would advocate for equality for women to have the same opportunities on campus as other athletes. They would come to our games. They would give their money. And they would get to know the kids on the team and the kids would get to know them.”
“(Dr. Jones) was very concerned about the student athlete and kept up with you in your career and that’s why so many people care about them,” Graf said.
“They have done a great job with their relationships with people on campus from administrators, coaches, players and staff. They have both been an important part of Florida State University.”
Nurturing the growth of women’s athletics
Wells said there were numerous people instrumental in the growth of women’s athletics.
“Former director of women’s athletics (1977) Barbara Palmer was the right person in the right place at the right time,” Wells said. “Her work with the legislature to get money for all state universities was the push that (generated) money for full time coaches, scholarships, etc.”
Palmer’s budget in 1977 was $163,000. During her five-year tenure, her budget grew to $1 million and her coaches produced five national championships and 226 All Americans.
Wells notes Dr. Ken Miller and Dr. Eddie Cubbin were faculty leaders for the women more than 50 years ago as the FSU program began.
“John Bridgers (FSU AD from 1973-79) had few resources but was supportive otherwise and worked well with Dr. Marlene Furnell, who was women’s AD at the time,” Wells said.
At the national level, Wells notes two FSU grads were leaders in getting the national program (Women’s NCAA) started.
Dr. Charlotte West (1954) was a leader in establishing the CIAW, which is comparable to the men’s NCAA, and Elaine Gavigan (1948), who was tennis coach and PE instructor at Broward CC at the time. Gavigan joined in a successful class action lawsuit to challenge an Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) that barred women scholarship recipients from participating in AIAW competition. The class-action lawsuit alleged the rule was discriminatory under newly passed Title IX, which ultimately earned women the right to receive college athletic scholarships.
Thanks to the efforts of many who were inspired by Dr. Wells and Dr. Jones, thousands of women today, including first-generation college students, can now advance their education with scholarships, coaches, facilities and support, which did not exist when Wells attended FSCW all those years ago.
“We support women’s athletic programs with our time and money because these investments have a high rate of return,” they said. “One invests in the women student-athletes of today who will be ‘Champions Beyond the Game’ tomorrow.”