By Pam Watts, NIRSA Executive Director
It is with great sadness that we share the news that Hazel Varner, 2001 NIRSA Honor Award recipient, passed away on October 1; she was born Hazel Smith in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1929. Hazel joined NIRSA in 1971 soon after the Association amended its constitution to readmit women members. She was a tireless champion for women’s rights—both within the collegiate recreation profession and outside of it.
A career in recreation
Hazel earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville where she majored in health, physical education, and recreation. For the next 10 years, she taught high school physical education and coached girl’s intramural sports. She then served as a physical education and health instructor at The Ohio State University before leaving following the birth of her son.
From 1970 through 1983, Hazel served as the Director of Women’s Intramurals and Head Coach of the Women’s Intercollegiate Volleyball team at the University of Rochester. She left the University of Rochester in 1983 to become Director of Recreation at Keene State College, a position she held until her retirement in 1997.
Her departure from the University of Rochester was unfortunately complicated; she filed a complaint with the Labor Department and Department of Health Education and Welfare about discriminatory salary practices against women at the University of Rochester where her husband was the Registrar. Her husband was fired following these complaints.
Together, Hazel and her husband filed—and finally won in 1979—a lawsuit in the New York State Supreme Court for his wrongful firing and for discrimination against her. The ruling also acknowledged the inequities in sport for women students at the university. “The most important result was that we won a principle,” Hazel said about the lawsuit. “The University of Rochester was forced to begin to comply with Title IX for women’s sports and women were paid salaries that were more equitable. Also a message was sent to other colleges in similar situations.”
A trailblazer within NIRSA
In 1975, Hazel was invited by past NIRSA President Chuck Schelsky to speak before the NIRSA Executive Committee where she presented a 10-point program that included more women’s participation in NIRSA programs and committees; an affirmative-action plan; a study of the field comparing men’s and women’s salaries for comparable positions; and placement of a woman on the Executive Committee. This was the first time there was an attempt by the Executive Committee to make the Association more relevant for women—and it only happened thanks to Hazel.
While progress on these initiatives ultimately took years—if not decades—Hazel was a leader within the Association who pushed for full inclusion of women in the Association, profession, and in the programs and services offered throughout campus recreation.
Although Hazel never served on a NIRSA Executive Committee, she worked on many NIRSA committees—including as editor and author of the Recreational Sports Journal for three years, and as an editorial board member for the Conference Proceedings Committee. In 1997, when the Association celebrated 25 years of continuous membership of women, she was recognized for her leadership and service in support of women in NIRSA.
Hazel was a fierce mentor for many current leaders in our organization. Jeff Sessine, Senior Vice President at Centers USA and and long-time NIRSA volunteer leader, describes her as “a true pioneer who stepped off the expected path to advocate for women’s equality in sports and recreation. She taught me the essence of student development by providing a supportive environment that allowed me to practice decision making. She taught me the value of investing time in others to make sure that lessons are learned and perspective is found. Hazel, perhaps more than any other mentor, taught me to follow my passion and to advocate for all that I value. She will be deeply missed by many.”
Relatives and friends are invited to attend visiting hours at the Holden, Dunn and Lawler Funeral Home on Tuesday, October 6 from 6:00pm–8:00pm. A funeral service will be celebrated in the funeral home on Wednesday, October 7 at 11:00am. The interment will take place on Saturday, October 10 at 11:00am at the Roseberry Cemetery in Mascot, Tennessee.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Hazel’s memory to the Joslin Diabetes Center.