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Laura Silvieus

Silvieus blazed a trail
Warrior was one of first girls in the U.S. to receive an athletic scholarship

By Chris Larick
For the Star Beacon

Once upon a time, girls high school sports didn’t exist, at least not on a competitive basis.

Once upon a time, no one awarded female athletes college scholarships.

Then, in 1973, along came Title IX and everything changed.

Oh, not at once. It took a while for high schools and colleges to get their act together.

Though she denies it — sort of, anyway — one of our Ashtabula County girls, Edgewood’s Laura Silvieus, blazed a trail for others to follow.

LAURA SILVIEUS: "We didn't have volleyball at Edgewood when I was there. You could play that in a recreational league. There were no other girls sports in high school (other than basketball and softball) — no volleyball, golf, tennis or soccer."

In that same year, Silvieus, along with one other girl, was awarded a scholarship to the University of Chicago, a consequence of the enactment of Title IX, part of a longer education bill, which stated: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Bob Ettinger, in a fine article on Silvieus and Title IX written in June, 2012, celebrated the 40th anniversary of Title IX. It should be required reading for all high school female athletes. They’ve come a long way, baby. And much of that progress is because of Title IX.

Silvieus, who will be inducted into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame on April 13 at the Conneaut Human Resources Center, could never have imagined what would happen as she was growing up. Like so many other girls before her, as a youngster she played sports with her siblings and friends in the neighborhood, playing baseball on a field set up on a vacant lot. Unlike so many others who followed in her footsteps, though, she didn’t play organized sports until high school. They simply didn’t exist for girls.

“It wasn’t until high school that there was any kind of organized sports,” Silvieus said recently from her home in California.

Since Edgewood was a three-year high school at the time, that meant she didn’t play until she was a sophomore, and that year she played only basketball. She would add softball for her junior and senior years.

Under then-coach Barb Andrews, the Warrior girls played a limited number of games since few schools — Silvieus thinks Ashtabula, Conneaut and Harbor were others — offered girls basketball. No champion was crowned, no tournament held. Silvieus can’t even name her teammates. Time has erased that memory.

“That season was maybe six games,” she said. “There was a running clock with 8-minute quarters. The games were very short. You could score 10 to 25 points in a game. It was considered a women’s game so there wasn’t much contact. Back then, any contact was a foul. At least we played fullcourt, though, not with those old Iowa rules (which meant each player was restricted to either the offensive or defensive end of the court).

“We probably won as many games as anyone else. Our uniforms were like boys’ jerseys over white tees. We just played for fun.”

She does remember playing softball with Laura Hecht, Sarah Sweeney and Vivian Fuller under coach Jackie Hillyer, and with her sister, Ginny, who was two years younger than Laura.

“We didn’t have volleyball at Edgewood when I was there,” Silvieus said. “You could play that in a recreational league. There were no other girls sports in high school (other than basketball and softball) — no volleyball, golf, tennis or soccer.”

Hillyer, who died last August, praised Silvieus highly.

“She was extremely quick to learn,” Hlllyer said. “She had the ability to learn something and transfer it to a physical skill. She could see it, understand it and do it.

“She was so predominant among her peers. She just had all that natural talent. She had the kind of body and brain that made her a good athlete.”

Silvieus was a very good athlete. She served as captain of the Warrior softball and basketball teams and was MVP of the Ashtabula Recreation Volleyball League. But that’s a pretty slim portfolio for a scholarship offer.

She was also president of the student council, president of the senior class, vice-president of the science club and a member of National Honor Society, Who’s Who in American High School Students and Girls State, all good qualifiers for an academic scholarship.

“I was valedictorian, I had good grades, I was very athletic,” Silvieus said. “There were a couple of schools that were interested in me. I probably would’ve gotten financial aid. I would have gone to college whether I got a scholarship or not.”

Still, Considering Silvieus’ limited participation, it might be surprising to some that she was singled out as one of the first two female high school athletes to be awarded a college scholarship to play sports. But the time was ripe.

The University of Chicago wasn’t really looking at Silvieus (no films, of course). And she wasn’t looking at Chicago. But the two found each other.

One of her teachers showed her an article in Parade magazine mentioning that Chicago was seeking one high school female athlete for a scholarship.

“I just called and asked for an application,” Silvieus said. “I don’t want to brag, but I think I had a solid application.”

When the college reviewed the applications, it found two worthy candidates — Silvieus and Noel Bairey of Modesto, Calif. Those two were chosen from nearly 1,000 applicants to receive the first Women’s Athletic Association-Gertrude Dudley Scholarships.

Silveius takes little credit for paving the way for untold numbers of female athletes.

“I didn’t knock down any barriers,” she told Ettinger in 2012. “I just happened to be there when doors opened. Hopefully, I did my parents (Roy and Doris Silvieus of North Kingsville) proud.”

It’s a good bet she did. Between 1974 and 197,7 Silvieus was elected team captain for 10 of her 12 volleyball, basketball and softball teams at Chicago. She was named MVP in volleyball in 1975 and 1976 and in basketball in 1977. She still holds many records there.

“Laura was clearly a team leader,” said Hillyer, her softball coach at Edgewood and an Equal Rights activist. “She just emerged as a leader. She was never out to gain any of what she got.”

Nowadays, of course, it would be impossible to play three college sports. There is too much specialization. Coaches expect you to be immersed in one sport the entire year.

“That was way before you had to pick one sport,” she said. “I could play three and they didn’t overlap much. The University of Chicago put me into the Hall of Fame when it was just getting started with the inaugural class.

“I just really enjoyed sports. They made going to college a lot easier. They were fun. They’re just a good thing for kids.”

Silvieus credits her college coaches — Patricia Kirby and Mary Jean Mulvaney, in particular — with her success. “(Mulvaney) is probably the one who pushed me through,” she said.

College competition at the time wasn’t like it is now. University of Chicago teams, not a member of the NCAA at the time, would play big schools one week and small colleges another. By the time she was a senior, they took on schools like Northwestern.

“They creamed us,” Silvieus said.

The education she got at the University of Chicago, a highly ranked academic school, made the 8-hour trip (one way) from North Kingsville worth the travel and the homesickness she felt at first.

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” she said.

After graduation, Silvieus went on to get her MBA from Chicago. She had worked part-time for a law firm as an undergraduate. That brought her experience and good recommendations.

She worked for the phone company and RIA retailers for a while. Meanwhile, her sister, Lynne, and her husband had moved to California.

“They said, ‘Come on out here,’” Silvieus said. “I did and took a job with a law firm and never looked back. It’s the climate, the people. It’s much more forward-looking and tolerant.”

In 1986, Silvieus hooked up with the Donahue, Gallagher Law Firm in Oakland, Calif. as office manager.

She retired after 25 years with Donahue, Gallagher but continues to work on a limited basis.

“I’m semi-retired,” she said. “I work from home for the law firm. When I retired, they asked if they could keep me on retainer. I wanted to stay home and that’s what I’ve been doing (for about 10 years).”

She plays golf with her nephew about once a week and enjoys hiking, backpacking and snowshoeing.

“I don’t play organized sports anymore,” she said.

Silvieus has no children, but dotes on nieces and nephews. Her sister, Lynne, lives near Laura just outside Oakland and has a 9-year old daughter, Emily, who is a competitive gymnast.

Her dad and mom, Roy and Doris, still live in Kingsville. 

Larick, a retired Star Beacon sports writer, is a freelance writer from Geneva.

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