Rosemary Ward Wellington: Athletic legend and 'founding mother' at St. Joseph's Academy | St. Louis Public Radio

Rosemary Ward Wellington: Athletic legend and 'founding mother' at St. Joseph's Academy

Jul 25, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Rosemary Ward Wellington, who was born at a time when it was widely accepted that women were too fragile for strenuous exercise, defied convention and played, taught or coached every sport offered at St. Joseph’s Academy for girls.

"I was just always interested in sports," Mrs. Wellington told the Kansas City Star in 2001. "I don't think the nuns ever thought that girls shouldn't compete. I think they liked the idea because they were preparing us for life. And competition is a big part of life.

"They would tell us,” she joked, “'You better win!'”

By the time she died on July 14, at Brooking Park nursing home in Chesterfield, Mrs. Wellington had won the hearts of thousands of girls who passed through St. Joseph’s as well as people throughout Webster Groves, where she had lived for the past 60 years. She was 92.

“It’s a real loss to athletics and to Webster,” said Mrs. Wellington’s former student and neighbor, Anne Clifford, who became a physical education teacher at St. Joseph’s.

A memorial Mass will be celebrated Saturday (July 27) at Mary Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Webster Groves.

Front and center

Mrs. Wellington was not traditional.

Rosemary Ward Wellington
Credit St. Joseph's Academy Alumnae Association

“Far from it,” said her daughter, Kathy Boles. “I think my grandmother had a lot to do with it: she worked outside the home and didn’t back down from anything.”

Mrs. Wellington followed suit, becoming an outstanding athlete at St. Joseph’s and later at what is now Fontbonne University.

“My mother was front and center when Title IX (the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in education) came in,” Boles said. “It was all the things she fought for.  She did all sorts of things that had never been done before.”

She was an equestrian, a dancer, a golfer and a swimmer, and played every team sport, including volleyball, basketball, tennis and field hockey.

She went on to become a teacher at St. Joseph’s for 35 years, as well as the school’s athletic director and a coach for numerous sports. There were only three sports and horse shows when she began at St. Joseph’s in the 1950s. She doubled the number of sports the school offered.

Mrs. Wellington retired from teaching and as athletic director in 1986, but continued until 1999 as assistant to Boles, head coach of the school’s powerhouse tennis team, which won four consecutive state championships in the ‘90s.

The mother-daughter team had worked magic before. Mrs. Wellington was Bole’s assistant when the St. Joseph’s basketball Angels won the AA state finals in 1975, despite the fact they were still wearing belted tunics and blouses.

During her tenure as athletic director at St. Joseph’s, Mrs. Wellington raised money on the side for the program. She was a Jane Fonda precursor, teaching an aerobics class to the mother’s club twice a week. She gave the fee she charged for the class to the athletic program.

‘Not I, but we’

Mrs. Wellington, slightly built but with a “gym” voice, inspired and embodied St. Joseph’s motto, “Not I, But We.”

She demanded that her players be fair, honest and use clean language. Even the mildest expletive would get a player ejected. Winning could never be achieved at the expense of integrity, Clifford said, and she believes that Mrs. Wellington was the first coach to offer opposing teams refreshments during half-time.

“She took a tray of oranges into the other locker room,” Clifford said. “It was always oranges.”

Perhaps that’s why even St. Joseph’s biggest competitors wanted her on their committees. 

Her wider community service included director of the St. Louis Chapter of YWHA; and she was president of Delta Gamma Delta. She served as a member of the board of the Midwest U.S. Field Hockey Association and on many committees of the Missouri State High School Athletic Association. She volunteered at Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital and for the Special Olympics.

She received the Globe-Democrat Outstanding Female Athlete Award in 1941 while a student at Fontbonne, and in 1999, she was inducted into Fontbonne’s Athletic Hall of Fame. She received St. Joseph's Academy Outstanding Alumni Award; and in 2010, the school dedicated the Rosemary Ward Wellington Athletic Complex. Each year, top student-athletes now receive the Rosemary Ward Wellington Award.

“I was not exactly the ‘model student’, but I was involved with everything,” Mrs. Wellington said during a 2006 interview with The Voice, St. Joseph’s student newspaper, adding, “My greatest achievement was the students and their achievements.”

She received the President's Physical Fitness Award under President George H.W. Bush.

‘Sweetie’

Rosemary Ward was born in St. Louis on Sept. 8, 1920, the daughter of Kathryn Hespen Ward, who sold men’s ties and other accessories at Famous-Barr, and Thomas Ward, the owner of a construction company. She graduated from St. Joseph’s Academy in 1938 and Fontbonne in 1942, with a degree in physical education.

For 50 years, she was married to Harry A. “Bud” Wellington Jr., a World War II Navy fighter pilot who became a longtime printing company executive. Growing up, the two lived just blocks apart in University City, but did not meet until they were both in college and working at the Heman Park tennis courts. Mr. Wellington died in 1997.

Mrs. Wellington was also preceded in death by her parents and her brother, Thomas Ward.

In addition to her daughter, Kathy (Kevin) Boles, of Clayton, her survivors include daughter Nance (Stephen) Schranck, of Webster Groves; two sons, Mickey (Peggy) Wellington, of Glendale, and Thom (Debbie) Wellington, of Wildwood; nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild, to whom she was known as ‘Sweetie.’

A memorial Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Saturday, July 27, 2013, at her church since 1953, Mary Queen of Peace Catholic Church, 676 W. Lockwood Ave., in Webster Groves. Burial in Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery will be private.

Memorials may be made to the Rosemary Ward Wellington Athletic Fund at St. Joseph's Academy, 2307 S. Lindbergh Blvd., St. Louis, Mo. 63131.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.