When Jean Walker began teaching at Prospect High School in 1972, boys interscholastic sports were flourishing.
On the other hand, the girls were only participating in the Girls Recreation Association and the school had a tennis team coached by Sandy Pifer.
Jean Walker: Profile of a pioneerKey moments in the career of girls sports advocate jean walker: • coached badminton, tennis and basketball at prospect high school. • was its first girls athletic director from the 1970s until her retirement in 2000. • only girls varsity basketball coach at prospect until she retired in 2000. led lady knights to their only sectional championship in 1989. • hosted many illinois high school association regionals and sectionals in a variety of sports, and volunteered at state meets in boys gymnastics, girls track and field, girls bowling and girls archery. • served 36 years at the girls state tennis finals as tournament manager or as assistant tournament manager. • attended every girls tennis state final since its inception in 1972. • original member of the illinois girls coaches association hall of fame. • 1996 northwest community hospital sportsman of the year; first woman honored on an individual basis in the history of the sports award. • on sept. 28, 2007, became the first female to have an illinois high school field house named in her honor. source: daily herald news reports, illinois high school association
That same year, Title IX was implemented and Walker soon would play an integral role both for her school and for the Illinois High School Association in steering girls sports onto a more even par with the boys.
In a matter of years, Prospect was featuring 12 interscholastic girls sports with multiple levels.
"I'm not sure it was so much a vision for me as it was a process," said Walker, who was hired as a physical education teacher and was in charge of the Lady Knights' girls sports programs from the early 1970s until she retired in 2000. "Each day, week, year, those of us involved in girls sports worked to make the experience better for the girls."
Walker was one of the most passionate, earning numerous honors along the way.
Perhaps the most telling sign of her impact at the District 214 school came on Sept. 28, 2007.
That's when Walker became the first female to have a state high school field house named in her honor.
"I can't really express how much that means to me," Walker said, of the Jean Walker Fieldhouse. "It is a testament to the success of Title IX. I was fortunate to be teaching at Prospect during a great time for girls athletics. I got to do what I absolutely loved and still receive that honor."
Mike Riedy, Prospect's 16-year veteran girls volleyball coach, makes sure his players all know what Walker meant to girls sports.
"In volleyball, we constantly remind the girls why the field house is named after Jean and what she means to girls athletics at the school," Riedy said.
"After working so long with Jean and Sandy (Pifer, former Prospect Hall of Fame volleyball coach), I feel myself very fortunate to have learned from them."
In addition to serving as a girls athletic director and girls sports coordinator, Walker's major coaching roles included badminton, tennis and basketball, the sport she directed at the varsity level for 25 years.
One of her major roles was serving as girls state tennis tournament director for 22 years.
"It was an exciting time," Walker said of her career. "I was fortunate to be teaching at Prospect during the development of girls athletics."
Walker enjoyed watching the growing interest and enthusiasm of the girls over the years.
"And I liked seeing the addition of sports, seeing girls compete with poise, show leadership skills and learn to compete," she said. "It was nice getting girls basketball games in prime time and in the field house, and making changes and expansion to the girls tennis tournament."
Walker still enjoys watching girls sports at Prospect, especially basketball.
"It is great to see the improvement in the girls' skills," she said. "I was fortunate after I retired to get to run a leadership program for athletes at Prospect. I'm very impressed with the leadership abilities of these young athletes."
Walker said the equity issue didn't change overnight.
"The Mid-Suburban League (Prospect was one of 14 teams at the time) had planned ahead, thanks to a couple of proactive principals, so we had been working toward equity changes prior to the passing of Title IX," she said. "Obviously, Title IX legislation made this all possible, but it was still a battle at times.
"The girls have definitely benefited, and I am thrilled about that, but of course there is still a ways to go."
Walker stressed it takes a long time to change attitudes.
"I think it is very important to continue to educate people about Title IX, as many of the young people today aren't aware of the changes that have occurred over the last 40 years," she said.
"Inequity is more subtle now. Educators need to continue to keep the equity issues of Title IX in their minds as they evaluate and plan."
The early years
Walker started planning her career route in the eighth grade.
"That's when I knew I wanted to be a physical education teacher," she said. "My high school (Lyons Township) had a physical education leaders program that also helped me with my career choice.
"But I never thought of being an athletic director, as that wasn't anything that women were involved in at that time.
"We had some great physical education teachers at Lyons who had been very involved with the Title IX campaign. The person who probably influenced me the most was my tennis coach, Marge McKee."
Walker always enjoyed playing sports and spent a lot of time playing tennis when she was a youngster.
At Lyons Township High School, she spent most of her time after school participating in the Girls Athletic Association that allowed girls to participate in different sports activities.
But they did not compete against other schools -- except for tennis.
Lyons also competed in a "spot shooting contest" in basketball.
"The 'spot shooting' team shot from eight spots on the floor," Walker said. "We practiced, and on a given date every school competing did the shooting. The results were sent to the IHSA, and a winner was declared."
Little did Walker know then that one day she would be an instrumental figure for the IHSA.
The first state girls tennis tournament was held in October 1972, and Mary Lou Hundt of Arlington High School was asked to host the event at her school's courts.
Hundt asked Walker to accompany her on a trip to Chicago for a meeting with Ola Bundy, an IHSA administrator known as the first lady of interscholastic athletics for girls in Illinois.
Walker ended up assisting Hundt for the first six years of the tourney, before taking over the director's role for 22 years.
Since retiring, Walker has been the assistant to current manager and Prospect girls athletic director Jean Rezny for the past 11 years.
"One of the most amazing things to me is what I've learned as a male coaching in the girls program," said Riedy, a math teacher.
"When I was playing boys sports in high school, I didn't appreciate the things the girls were going through.
"Once I got to Prospect, it opened my eyes to what they go through. Every single day Jean Walker was here, she was working to give them equal chances."