Colby will name the administrative suite in the world-class Harold Alfond Athletics and Recreation Center in honor of Marjorie Bither, coordinator of Colby’s coeducational physical education program from 1973 to 1979. Bither is believed to be the first woman in the nation to head such a program.
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Bither, who spent four decades at the College, established Colby as a leader in the modern era of athletics around the principles of equity and accessibility, said Mike Wisecup, vice president and Harold Alfond Director of Athletics. “We should be proud of being at the forefront of some important changes in athletics,” he said. That Bither, “one of our own—who held the seat, who did the work that we’re currently charged to do—was a leader in that area. I think that’s pretty significant.”
Wisecup made the announcement at the 119th C Club Awards Dinner during Homecoming Weekend.
Bither was recently identified by the College for making a lasting contribution to Colby that was previously overlooked. Honoring these people is part of the College’s efforts to bring equitable representation to the entirety of Colby’s community and assure they’re not lost to history.
“Now we have a chance to ensure that her [Bither’s] name is always prominently displayed,” said Wisecup. “Future athletic directors and all of our future students and coaches will see her name on the outside of our administrative suite every day when they come to work.”
Bither’s eldest son, Stewart, said his mother was a leader at Colby and in the community and would be pleased with this naming. “Whatever she did, she did 110 percent,” he said from his home in East Boothbay, Maine. “If she could see the level of support for women at Colby, and at other colleges today, she’d be proud to look back on the part she played.”
Making strides for women
Signed into law by President Richard Nixon in June 1972, Title IX brought men’s and women’s athletic programs together under one coeducational umbrella with the intent of providing equal financing, facilities, scheduling, and sports teams for men and women. While most colleges appointed a male to oversee their newly formed programs, Colby took a different route. It placed Bither at the helm.
She hit the ground running. “She was a firm believer in Title IX,” said Stewart Bither. When it came to equal treatment for women, he said, “she was a bit of a fighter.”
The former Marjorie Duffy came to Colby in 1936 having just graduated from Simmons College and Bouvé Boston School of Physical Education. An instructor in the Physical Education Department, she taught until 1941, when she left to start a family, having married Philip Bither ’30, a professor of Spanish and German in Colby’s Modern Languages Department, in 1940.
For the next 16 years, she taught part time at Colby and involved herself in community work. During this time, she was president of the Colby chapter of the American Association of University Women and president of the Waterville Area Girl Scouts.
She returned to Colby full time in 1957 as an assistant professor of physical education, teaching in the women’s program and coaching women’s teams, which were part of the physical education program and exclusively intramural at the time.
Progress toward women’s intercollegiate play “was excruciatingly slow,” wrote Earl Smith, dean of the college, emeritus, and College historian in his book Mayflower Hill. In 1965 Bither took over as Colby’s coordinator of women’s physical education and laid the groundwork for the growth soon to come. To “speed things up,” Smith said, she assembled the Maine Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women in 1966 and became its first president.
By the end of the decade, women’s varsity teams would begin to explode on the scene.
Varsity field hockey and basketball teams formed in 1968, the year the College opened a new athletics center. Tennis was added in 1969, and swimming in 1970. Women’s ice hockey made history in 1973 when it hosted the nation’s first-ever intercollegiate women’s ice hockey game in Alfond Rink.
Softball, cross country, lacrosse, indoor and outdoor track, Nordic and alpine skiing, soccer, and squash would all follow. By the time Bither retired as a full professor in 1979, Colby had achieved gender equity with 14 teams for both women and men.
Compassionate champion of lifetime sports
While Bither promoted team sports, she was strongly invested in individual sports. She believed in lifelong fitness and that “everyone should find an individual sport that they could continue for their lifetime,” said Stewart Bither. Her approach to physical education was to identify programs that would appeal to average student. “I firmly believe that there is some activity that will be of interest to every single student at this College,” she told Colby magazine in 1979.
Among the programs she established at Colby was skiing, a sport she taught to her son, who taught it to his son, Christopher Bither ’93, a standout skier at Colby who qualified for the National Championships in 1993. Marjorie Bither also supported golf and tennis, leading Colby’s women tennis teams to five state championships. Her personal coaching record at Colby was 69-26-4.
Throughout, she never lost her personal touch. Carol Majdalany Williams ’75 recalled Bither as warm and dedicated. “She wasn’t a scary figure. I had scary gym teachers in my life before her. But she was approachable, and she was kind,” said Williams, who played four years on the women’s tennis team. “I think supportive would be a great word to use for her.”
In 1970 the Maine Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation presented Marjorie Bither with an award “for her dedicated efforts to promote and improve girls’ sports programs at the college level.” She was honored as Colby’s 1984 Person of the Year by the C Club, which created the Marjorie D. Bither Award given annually to a student who exhibits academic ability, athletic ability, and leadership in athletics and on campus.
Philip Bither, who taught at Colby for more than 40 years, died in 1995. Marjorie Bither then married Dudley Smith, who died in 2000. She died April 5, 2003, in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. She was 88.
Marjorie Bither leaves a legacy of competitiveness, accessibility, and equity that reflects values Colby continues to embrace. As Colby Athletics enters a new era with the Harold Alfond Athletics and Recreation Center attracting talented students and coaches from around the world, honoring Bither today melds past and future.
“It’s important for us to not just be looking forward and seeing what we can become, but looking backward and knowing who we were and where we came from,” said Wisecup. “Having Marjorie as a prominent example of what ‘right’ looks like, I think, is a great way for us to start and position ourselves for being in the future and still representing what ‘right’ looks like.”