According to the NCAA, there are roughly 355,000 athletes at its 1,265 member institutions. About 127,800 received at least a partial scholarship.
Nearly 40 years ago, a little more than a year after Title IX was signed into law by President Richard Nixon, Edgewood graduate Laura Silvieus became one of the first three women in the country to do what many of those thousands of girls take for granted.
In that regard, Silvieus can be called a trailblazer, though she would never phrase it that way herself.
“I didn’t knock down any barriers,” Silvieus, the daughter of Roy and Doris Silvieus, said. “I just happened to be there when doors opened. Hopefully, I did my parents proud.”
Title IX, which became law on June 23, 1973, was just 37 words in an otherwise lengthy education bill.
Those 37 words — “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance...” — may well have changed the course of Silvieus’ life.
A stellar athlete, Silvieus was captain of the Warriors’ softball and basketball teams and MVP of the Ashtabula Recreation Volleyball League.
But Silvieus made her mark in the academic arena at the Ashtabula Township school, as well.
As president of the student council, president of the senior class and vice-president of the science club and a member of the National Honor Society, Who’s Who in American High School Students and Buckeye Girls State, Silvieus was very much on track to go to college.
“I was valedictorian, I had good grades, I was very athletic,” Silvieus said. “There were a couple schools that were interested in me. I probably would’ve gotten financial aid. I would have gone to college whether I got a scholarship or not.”
The specter of leaving Northeast Ohio, however, was not really something Silvieus had considered. She certainly had not thought of the prospect of going to a school in a big city hundreds of miles away from home.
“I don’t think I did,” Silvieus said. “I was from a small town. The University of Chicago wasn’t even on my radar. It was a wonderful opportunity. The University of Chicago was the first to offer athletic scholarships and dozens of girls came to the school, even though they didn’t get scholarships.
“They were given financial aid. We ended up with a lot of athletes. Then other schools figured it out and it wasn’t quite an advantage any more.”
An Edgewood teacher had opened the curtain to reveal a much bigger world was out there and waiting for Silvieus.
“One of my English teacher
s showed me an article in Parade magazine,” Silvieus said. “I just called and asked for an application. I don’t want to brag, but I think I had a solid application.
“Edgewood only had softball and basketball. I was a well-rounded athlete, but I wasn’t going to go to the Olympics or anything. I’m not sure, though, that they were looking for that at that time. You had to have good academic credentials to get in and, fortunately, I did.”
Silvieus, of Kingsville, and Noel Bairey of Modesto, Calif., were chosen from nearly a thousand applicants to receive the first Women’s Athletic Association-Gertrude Dudley Scholarships to the University of Chicago.
The scholarships were for four years and covered tuition, which was $2,850 for the 1973-74 school year. Initially, just one woman was going to receive a scholarship, but response to the announcement was so overwhelming in the fall of 1972, two awards were given.
Silvieus may not have believed she was a pioneer, but the understanding that her accomplishment was a big deal was thrust upon her almost immediately.
“We got a lot of attention in being the first to be awarded scholarships to the University of Chicago,” Silvieus said. “We were interviewed for television and newspapers. Now, it’s taken for granted women have the same opportunities (as men).”
Kingsville is not exactly a metropolis. And up until she showed up for school in the Windy City in the fall of 1973, Silvieus had never had the chance to experience big-city life. She hadn’t even visited a big city.
“Through the application process, (the University of Chicago) contacted me,” Silvieus said. “That turned into a couple of phone interviews. I never went there (for a visit). I went there sight unseen (for the start of the school year).
“We weren’t wealthy. It was a full-tuition scholarship. I wasn’t going to turn that down.”
The scholarship had given Silvieus the opportunity to experience a life she could see only on television or in movies.
“It got me out of a small town,” Silvieus said. “I went to the big city. It let me live where I wanted to (after graduating from UC) and I got an education out of it.”
The scholarship made pursuing a graduate degree from UC a possibility for Silvieus, as well.
“It was a remarkable opportunity,” she said. “I’d never been to a big city. It was amazing. I stayed after I got my MBA and went to grad school without an incredible amount of debt.
“In fact, at the time, I could use my senior year of undergraduate school as my first year of graduate school. Basically, my scholarship paid for my first year of graduate school.”
There was more to the affect the scholarship had than just an education. The rest of Silvieus’ life was forever changed.
“I met a lot of people, I met people from different parts of the country and the world,” Silvieus said. “It expanded (my) horizons.”
Those horizons were difficult for Silvieus to see right away.
“I’m from a very close family,” she said. “(Chicago) is 400 miles away. I was very home sick. I thought about leaving. I came home for a visit and looked at my options. I realized there wasn’t much out there. That was before the Internet and Facebook or Twitter and Skype. AT&T still had a monopoly on long distance. I couldn’t juts pick up the phone and call home and talk for four hours.”
Silvieus worked through the home sickness. She also found a way to not only contribute, but succeed. Between 1974 and 1977, she was elected team captain for 10 of her 12 teams. She earned MVP honors in volleyball in 1975 and ’76 and in basketball in 1977. Her name is all over the UC record book.
“Laura was clearly a team leader,” Jackie Hillyer, Silvieus’ softball coach at Edgewood and Equal Rights activist, said. “She just emerged as a leader. She was never out to gain any of what she got.
“She was clearly a leader.”
Leadership skills weren’t all that made Laura Silvieus great.
“She was extremely quick to learn,” Hillyer said. “She had the ability to learn something and transfer it to a physical skill. She could see it, understand it and do it. She just had that kind of ability.
“She was so predominant among her peers. She just had all that natural talent. She had the kind of body and brain that made her a great athlete. A lot of great athletes now grow up playing from the time they’re 7 or 8 and they’re coached. She was great on her own.
“But she was also a very coachable athlete.”
In 2003, Silvieus was inducted into the University of Chicago’s Hall of Fame in the school’s inaugural class alongside such distinguished sporting figures as Amos Alonzo Stagg.
“That was way before you had to pick one sport,” she said. “I could play three and they didn’t overlap much. The University of Chicago put me into the Hall of Fame when it was just getting started with the inaugural class.
“It’s not a feeling so much of what I accomplished, but what we accomplished as women athletes. I don’t think we ever had a lack of funding. They made a commitment to us and carried through.”
There are a number of what-ifs that can be asked regarding Silvieus and her athletic endeavors. One might ask just how good would she have been had she had the same opportunities afforded to girls growing up in 2012.
“It’s hard to say because I don’t know,” she said. “What if I could have played professional basketball? At the same time, people might have all been at my skill level because we all had the same opportunities. I might just be a so-so athlete.
“I just really enjoyed sports. They made going to college a lot easier. They were fun. They’re just a good thing for kids.”
To Silvieus, it might have felt like UC had rolled out the red carpet and given her and her teammates the star treatment.
“I was a little naive, too,” she said. “Playing for Edgewood, we didn’t have girls uniforms. When we finally got women’s basketball, they made us wear the men’s uniforms over T-shirts.
“It was refreshing (to be on somewhat equal footing).”
Some of those perks put Silvieus and her UC teammates on other lists of first.
“We were the first women’s basketball team to fly to away games,” Silvieus said. “Then other teams saw that and said, ‘Oh, yeah, maybe we should fly.’
“Now, they all have the same opportunities as men.”
Though Silvieus, as she puts it, walked through the doors that were opened to her, there were several more that remained locked for the decades following her playing career.
“I don’t know there was a lot opened up in the way of sports (for me beyond college),” she said. “None of the sports I played were Olympic sports and they were not any professional leagues.
“Forty years ago, you didn’t get out of college and go into the WNBA.”
That’s not to say the opportunity to compete collegiately didn’t give Silvieus anything.
“It gave us the confidence we could do anything we wanted to in the world,” she said. “I had a lot of confidence. Most of my teammates did, too. It wasn’t that we felt we were going to take on the best male athletes and win, but we could take on people our size and do quite well.
“Men are stronger and faster. That’s just the way it is. Today, the fastest male will still beat the fastest female in a race. The fastest male will still swim faster than the fastest female. I don’t know that that will ever change.”
Passing the torch
As a maturing athlete, Silvieus had a bit of a shadow in her sister, Lynne. It was common to see Lynne Silvieus helping her big sister hone the skills that would take her to Chicago while they were younger.
The elder of the Silvieus sisters was not the only beneficiary of Title IX. Lynne Silvieus went on to compete in college athletics. She attended Ohio Northern University on a scholarship.
“(Laura) was clearly a model for Lynne,” Hillyer said. “(Lynne) added (Laura) as a little girl. Laura would be out shooting (basketballs) and Lynne would out there with her. Lynne was also very coachable and just as bright.”
Neither of the Silvieus sisters would have gone on to the college she wound up — both schools are extremely expensive — without the scholarships.
“They wouldn’t have been able to afford them,” Hillyer said. “That’s where you see the advancement of Title IX. It opened up the ability for girls to go to colleges they wouldn’t have otherwise had the chance to go. Some wouldn’t have gone to any college without the financial ability.”
In many ways, Lynne Silvieus helped the legend that surrounds Laura Silvieus grow with the aid of Hillyer. Lynne Silvieus claimed the top honor for a senior student-athlete at Edgewood and was named Warrior of the Year. Hillyer took that as an opportunity to also get Laura Silvieus some attention.
“I think (Hillyer) wrote a letter of recommendation for me,” Laura Silvieus said. “I think (my scholarship) was a kind of vindication for her. She put a lot of work in for us. Like any coach, she liked to see us succeed. That’s one of the reasons people coach. She never told me, but I think she was proud.
“I believe when I graduated, there was no Warrior of the Year for girls. When my sister, Lynne, graduated, there was one and she won it. I think she arranged for me to get it retroactively. She is a good person to have in your corner.”
Hillyer, who has long been an educator for Buckeye Local Schools, may have believed she was seeing ghosts not so long ago as a pair of sisters with unmatched athletic ability donned Warrior uniforms.
Pam and Trisha Dreslinski, who graduated in 2004 and 2007, respectively, were three-sport stars at Edgewood and went on to play Division I softball at Hofstra University.
“When Pam and Trish were going through, every time I watched them play, they were just smoother versions of Laura and Lynne.
“And Trisha also idolized Pam.”
Silvieus does not have children of her own, but she does have nieces and nephews. In fact, Lynne, who had a habit of following her big sister, lives near Laura just outside of Oakland, Calif., and has a 9-year-old daughter, Emily, who is an athlete, and can take advantage of a myriad of opportunities that were not available to girls while the Silvieus sisters were growing up.
“I have a little niece out here,” Laura Silvieus said. “She’s been involved with competitive gymnastics for about five years.
“Growing up, all I wanted to do was play. You see kids these days and they have so many things they can do. If they want, they can play soccer, baseball, softball, basketball or do gymnastics. They can do anything they want.
“Maybe I was born 40 years too early. But I wouldn’t trade it.”
Many folks who have lived the life Silvieus has might make it their duty to pass along the struggles and tell of the opportunities that were just opening up 40 years ago.
Silvieus, however, does not fall into that category.
“I talk sometimes (to younger girls), but never as a life lesson,” she said. “It’s hard for them to really understand the concept that sports were not available. There’s no need to go to the past.
“They have opportunities people my age didn’t have and that’s something to be excited about. (I tell them) to take advantage of the opportunities when they arise.
“But it’s always good to look to the past. Somebody who taught history said history always repeats itself. There are always bigger barriers and frontiers out there.”
Silvieus took the opportunity she was afforded with her scholarship to the University of Chicago and turned it into quite a career. She wound up managing Donahue-Gallagher and Woods law nfirm for a quarter of a century.
“I managed a law firm in Oakland for 25 years,” Silvieus said. “It’s not easy to get along with law partners.
“I don’t know if I would have graduated with the degree I got or gone into business managing a company or met the people I did in Chicago that made it possible to come out (to Oakland, if I hadn’t gotten the scholarship).”
It was a job Silvieus kind of retired from nearly a decade ago.
“I’m semi-retired,” she said. “I work from home for the lawfirm. When I retired, they asked if they could keep me on retainer. I wanted to stay home and that’s what I’ve been doing for eight or nine years.”
You could say Silvieus is retired as an athlete, as well.
“I’d have to say (I don’t compete anymore),” she said. “I do play golf once or twice a week with my nephews. And I snowshoe (ski) and backpack quite a bit.”
Given the chance, Silvieus would live her life all over again with very few changes.
“I don’t think there is anything I would change,” she said. “I had a good career. I’m a happy person. I don’t think there is anything I would change.”
Well, there might be one or two exceptions.
“I would have played more sports and had more fun,” she said.
It’s safe to say, Silvieus did her parents proud.
“I think I did,” Silvieus said. “I am successful and I have the time and money that I can go visit them. I think they are proud.
“That does make me happy.”
Ettinger is a freelance writer from Ashtabula.
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INDIVIDUAL BATTING (minimum 40 at-bats)
PLAYER SCHOOL AVG OB% SLG% AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB
Lexi Zappitelli Conneaut .605 .632 .921 76 28 46 22 6 2 23 17
Brittany Baitt Riverside .518 .560 .831 83 32 43 5 6 3 21 0
Deanna Comp Jefferson .511 .582 .851 47 17 24 6 2 1 10 9
Amanda Mangelo Madison .486 .537 .806 72 23 35 2 6 3 20 0
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