Fran Balla

  • Fran Balla’s seat a front-row one in the emergence of women’s athletics

    Fran Balla Alumni BioThe day after Jim Furyk’s 59 at the 2013 BMW Championship, naming the others who attained golf’s “Holy Grail” made up the conversation.

    Being the first, coming up with Al Geiberger was a slam dunk. Chip Beck, David Duval, Paul Goydos and Stuart Appleby, the others to do it, followed.

    “Let’s don’t forget about the girls,” Fran Balla kindly reminded the two men in the conversation. She was right. On the women’s side, Annika Sorenstam also carded a 59 on a pro golf tour event.

    Balla, a 1966 Morton College graduate, has had a lifetime eyewitness seat to the women’s movement in sports. Growing up in Cicero’s Hawthorne neighborhood during the 1960s, she played all kinds of sports with her two older brothers and the neighbors.

    But the only athletic opportunities open to women in schools at the time were through the Girls Athletic Association and Play Days. Or you could be like Balla’s mother and work at a progressive company like Cicero’s Western Electric, which offered company athletic teams for its female employees.

    Morton College didn’t offer women’s athletics until the mid-1970s. Balla made the most of it, serving as president of the Women’s Recreational Association. The Pioneer, Morton College’s yearbook, described the association’s role “to further interest in sports and related activities is the main drive for members.”

    The club met weekly in the Girls’ Gym at Morton East High School, the former home of Morton College. Members participated in a “wide variety of sports ranging from speedball to tennis,” according to the Pioneer yearbook.

    However, Balla noticed the winds were starting to shift when she started teaching physical education in 1969 at Morton East High School, a place where she had graduated from five years earlier.

    “There was the women’s lib movement and sports tagged on,” said Balla, who taught at Morton East for 34 years at Morton East before retiring in 2003. “Women started to say, ‘Hey, we can play basketball, too.’”

    The passage of Title IX in 1972, a federal law requiring equal opportunities for women, further accelerated the women’s sports movement across the country.

    “It was about time,” Balla said. “It was a good deal. Once men started accepting women’s sports were here to stay and this was for real, you started seeing men started coaching girls. Women were playing the same teams – it was good. The girls were eager – we were competitive, but at the same time had fun.”

    Morton East started offering sports in 1973 with volleyball, gymnastics and basketball. Balla got in on the ground floor by coaching softball and in 1976 led Morton East to the quarterfinals of the first state girls softball tournament in Illinois. Although Morton East lost to Machesney Park 9-7, the Mustangs established a tournament record for the most runs scored in a losing effort that took 35 years to break.

    “We also were the first girls team in Morton history to qualify for a team tournament,” Balla said. “There was a lot of excitement – the school provided a bus and there was a pep rally.”

    In addition to softball, Morton East was a powerhouse in volleyball and gymnastics during the early era of girls athletics in Illinois. The late Carole Strejc, a graduate of Morton College, produced four straight top five finishes in gymnastics from 1979 to 1983.

    “There was lots of support and we fed off each other,” Balla said. “We would go to each other’s events. We became close and we’re still are friends today.”

    Balla gave up coaching prior to the combination of Morton High School’s athletic programs in 1985. She was working on a pair of master’s degrees – one in administration and the other in guidance and counseling – from Roosevelt University.

    In retirement, Balla enjoys golf and traveling. She just spent 19 days in Vietnam and Cambodia in January. She’s also been to Europe six times, China three times, Australia and Iceland.

    Balla fondly recalls the part Morton College played in her family’s life. Her two older brothers were Morton College graduates as well.

    “It was local and at the time, it was in the same building,” Balla said. “You just went up to the third floor. For me, it was a very good start. It was a reasonable price and you got your two years of basics out of the way.”

    Physical education teacher Delores Griesbaum and Dorothy Dunn, the College’s Dean of Women, were particularly helpful to Balla, who majored in physical education at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.

    “I always wanted to be a gym teacher since the seventh-grade,” Balla said. “I didn’t need much convincing. Dorothy Dunn helped me out. She found Platteville for me and steered me toward what classes I needed to take. She was good.”