Shelby Cassesse tells the story of Ruth Ann Burke, who paved the way for girls to play organized sports in the Western Pennsylvania in the 1960’s and is set to join the WPIAL Hall of Fame.
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Girls sports pioneer to be honored
96-year-old Ruth Ann Burke may not be like the high school and college athletes we profile each week, but for many, she's a big reason why they're playing.
“All we needed was the opportunity to get playing,” she said.
In the 1960's, Burke was a teacher at Peter's Township High School. There wasn't an organized league for girls sports, but she could see how much her female students loved to play, even if it was just once a year.
“They would get so excited because they had play days,” she said. “-Somebody would sponsor a play day and would bring a lot of groups together. That’s when they got to play as a team.”
A colleague, Donna Shaver, saw it too. One day, she gave Burke a call.
“You know, why can’t we do this,” Burke said. “She said, ‘would you work with me on how to get the girls program started? ’”
So using the same format as the then all-boys WPIAL, Shaver and Burke formed the WPGAL - or the "wip-gal."
“We asked about the WPIAL opening up for girls,” Burke said, with a chuckle. “They weren’t ready for us.”
Even in its first year in 1970, the WPGAL offered nine different sports. The battle was far from over. Getting male leaders on board or to even understand the needs of girls sports was a struggle at times. Burke remembers meeting with PIAA officials in Harrisburg.
“He brought up the issue of volleyball,” she said. “He said, ‘you’ll have to have the nets lowered, won’t you?’”
Girls from western Pennsylvania were finally playing organized sports, though Burke said they were also competing with the boys for practice and game space, as well as adult staffing. That lead to yet another big change.
“Scheduling of facilities became a big problem, particularly at the time of playoffs,” she said. “When that started to interfere with the boys program, it was time for them to decide if we need to be one organization.”
Five years after the WPGAL was formed, it integrated with the WPIAL, giving the league a much similar structure to the one we see today. Burke served as the first female member of the league's Board of Control and coached multiple sports.
Over 50 years after giving girls a place to play, she will be inducted into the WPIAL Hall of Fame on Friday, May 27th.
“There were so many people involved,” Burke said. “This isn’t about me. It’s about all of the women who were involved in getting the girls started in sports programs.”
In those 50 years, Ruth Ann has been able to watch what she started grow. She said she's in awe of female athletes today, and the amount of opportunities they have now that were rare not all that long ago.
“If they can perform, if they can be part of a team, if they can do anything, then that gives them an attitude for the rest of their lives. All they have to do it try.”