Trailblazer for Tech women

Sarah Beauchamp, one of Tech's first female students,
was also one of the first "Lady Hokies"

by Christian Moody

Sarah Beauchamp (home economics '29) has one suggestion for anyone who plays basketball: learn to be a good free throw shooter. Sage advice from a lady who blazed trails for women at Virginia Tech, playing on one of the first women's basketball teams and enrolling as one of the first home economics majors.

Free throws are the key to winning, Beauchamp says. "I still insist if you are a good free throw shooter, you'll win more games. I watch games and it makes me so mad. They have a chance to win late in games by making free throws and they don't."

A comparative analysis of foul shot accuracy aside, let it be known that Beauchamp is plenty proud of the women's basketball program Virginia Tech now boasts. She hopes to take up coach Bonnie Henrickson's offer to sit on the bench for a game this season. Sitting on the bench with the players would be a big change from Beauchamp's playing days; back then, each team put six players on the floor--and as Beauchamp's team had only six members, no one was ever in a snit over playing time.

Beauchamp's eyesight isn't what it once was, so she doesn't get to watch the women's basketball team on television, but she knows how they fare. "Amazing," is how she describes it. "It's wonderful that women have advanced that far."

Amazing because, twice last season, record crowds of more than 10,000 people packed into Cassell Coliseum to watch the women's games. In the first days of women's basketball at Tech, the team members were happy if the cadets who came to the games rooted for them. Usually the cadets cheered for the opposition as a form of protest over women being allowed to attend VPI.

Playing full court requires stamina that also amazes Beauchamp. "I don't see how they go the full length of the court," she says. Women's basketball in its early manifestation had a court divided into thirds, with two members from each team under each basket and two in the center zone. No one could cross into another zone, and each player could dribble only once after catching the ball. Players now need more strength for the physical demands of the game. "We hardly ever touched each other," Beauchamp says. "If we touched another player, a foul was called."

In 1929 the women students were not allowed to be pictured in the Bugle, so like their predecessors in 1925, they created their own yearbook, sardonically titled the Tin Horn. (Two more editions of the Tin Horn followed in 1930 and '31.) Each copy was individually typed, with photographs affixed to the pages. The leather-bound yearbook tells of the frustrations the first women faced: having water dumped on them by male students, being called "dumb" by a chemistry professor, and living all the way across campus, far from the main academic buildings, in a house Beauchamp says was dubbed the "Skirt Barn."

Women on campus were still a novelty then; the first women had been admitted in September 1921. By 1925 women comprised only a small fraction of the student body. Beauchamp remembers most of the cadets were gentlemen, cordial and welcoming. "I never had any problems with the boys. I dated and socialized," she says. But there existed a faction of men--cadets and faculty members--who did not approve of women at Tech and made life for the women as difficult as possible. The first women's basketball team, begun in 1923 by junior Ruth Terrett, had to endure the indignity of cadets attending games just to root for the other team. In 1926 little support was given to the women, who called themselves the Turkey Hens. But by 1929, when Beauchamp captained the team, opinions had changed, as the Tin Horn cites "excellent support."

The women's basketball teams of the 1920s were not part of the athletic association. Beauchamp says the sport was part of physical education and the coach, Buford Blair, was the physical education teacher on campus. At least the games were played in War Memorial Gymnasium. When Beauchamp played in high school, it was on outdoor courts in the fall. Feeling sympathy for the young women playing outside in the autumn chill, the school's staff gave the players hot chocolate after every game

Sarah Thomas' yearbook
The 1929 Tin Horn gave Beauchamp a warm send-off in her senior year: "May she always be as successful as she was in shooting goals this year!"

Beauchamp, then Sarah Thomas, was called "Tommy" in college because "there were two Sarah Thomases. Who would think that?" she says. In a graduating class of five women, those are slim odds. She was recruited to Tech on a full, four-year scholarship to study home economics. The Home Economics Department was founded by Martha Dinwiddie in 1924, and extension agents around Virginia started recruiting girls to attend VPI and major in home economics. In the fall of 1925 "Tommy" arrived just as the full curriculum was instituted. She was a pioneer in that department, which is now a part of the College of Human Resources and Education.

At the college's awards banquet this spring, Dean Janet Johnson presented Beauchamp with a special commemoration for the 70th anniversary of the first class of home economics majors. Johnson also told a story of student life from that era. Beauchamp was student teaching in a school in Riner and drove there in a state-owned car, which Johnson reckoned was in "Tech's first motor pool." The car was a Model-T, with no windows or windshield and black curtains along the side panels to keep off the dust kicked up from the gravel roads.

Fortunately for the future of women's basketball at Tech, Beauchamp's drives to Riner didn't interfere with her basketball schedule. The 1925 Tin Horn called the women of the first basketball teams "pioneers." The writer seems to have an inkling that the players were starting something big--even if it took 74 years to sell out a Tech women's game. "So here's to the future VPI Sextettes. May they have a few more substitutes to fall in line when they say 'Forward march' than their pioneer sisters did when they blazed the trail."

If Beauchamp sits on the bench with the women's team this year, she will see first-hand how far that trail has led the team she captained 70 years ago.

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