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IN MEMORIAM: Women's athletics pioneer Marya Welch dies at 95

By Dave Jones on June 29, 2012 in University News

Marya Welch, who guided UC Davis toward gender equity in athletics a quarter-century before Title IX, died June 24 after a short illness. She was 95.


She had lived in Davis for 65 years, through 40 years as a physical education instructor, coach and administrator at the university, and all through retirement. She supported campus arts as well as Aggie athletics — she never missed a symphony concert and she went to football games as a season ticket holder.

She was inducted into the Cal Aggie Athletics Hall of Fame in 1991, served as a grand marshal of the Picnic Day Parade eight years later. She received further honors in the naming of the Marya Welch Tennis Center and a section of The Colleges at La Rue (Marya Welch Court comprises four apartment buildings in the student housing complex).

Upon her hiring in 1947, Welch became the ninth female faculty member on the Davis campus and the first in the Department of Physical Education. She was tasked with setting up a women's athletics program, and she did it with few precedents to guide her and with scarce resources. 

“There were about 1,200 students, and only about 100 of them were women,” she recalled in a speech at the Fall Convocation in 2006. “But those women wanted the same thing that the male students wanted — athletic programs that would challenge and interest them.” Read her address, watch it on video.

She established teams and clubs in volleyball, archery, tennis, basketball, swimming, track and field, softball, equestrian and rifle — and coached them all.

“I wonder sometimes why I chose this particular field,” Welch said in her convocation address in 2006. “I had six or seven classes a day. … I never had to plan any exercise on my own because I was constantly running from class to class!

“But the fact is, I did choose this field, and I fought against many obstacles. Why? Partly because I am a competitor myself. I want women athletes to be able to compete on the very highest level.

“I also want women to enjoy all of the other things that go with being active — lifelong social and movement skills.”

A national leader

In the P.E. department, Welch organized all of the classes and taught many of them herself. She founded intramural and extramural sports programs for women, and established the Women’s Athletic Association.

She was a founding member of the Extramural League of Northern California and the Western Society of Women in Physical Education, and held several committee assignments with the Division of Girls and Women’s Sports, a national organization that set standards and rules.

When she wasn’t coaching, she was officiating — or, in classes that she established, teaching others how to be officials.

She retired in 1987, having established herself as a national leader in the development of women’s athletics. In 2005, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators. 

Friends remembered Welch for her kindness and loyalty, sense of humor and generous heart — and for standing up for what she believed.

In a videotaped history, produced by the Emeriti Association, she recalled a day when the men’s tennis coach moved her team off the courts “because they were just women, and his men needed to practice.”

Welch, who had left the courts, quickly returned. She gathered her players, “marched them down and asked the men’s coach to bring all of his men together, and we discussed this so that it didn’t happen the next time.”

Pam Gill-Fisher, former senior associate athletics director, said of her friend Welch: "She opened doors for those of us who followed her. Women had opportunities to participate and excel.

"Her spirit and enthusiasm will always be a part of the character of UC Davis athletics."

WAVE in World War II

Welch was born Sept. 25, 1916, and raised in Guthrie, Okla., a quiet prairie town. At an early age, she learned to ride a horse, hunt with a rifle and drive a car. She left home at the age of 15 to attend William Woods University, in Fulton, Mo., where she earned an Associate of Arts degree.

She followed that up with a Bachelor of Science degree in physical education from the University of Oklahoma in 1937, a master’s degree from UC Berkeley in 1949 and a doctorate in education from Columbia University in 1952. She received a Fulbright Fellowship for study abroad in 1960.

In the Navy

In between the University of Oklahoma and UC Berkeley, she worked in athletics in the military, during World War II. She was the 57th enlistee in the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, a branch of the Navy), and, while stationed in Waikiki, Hawaii, and at Smith College in Massachusetts, she managed large-scale recreation programs for soldiers on leave or in transit.

Welch, who had been a WAVES officer, continued in the military as a member of the Navy Reserve, retiring as a lieutenant commander. She stayed active in veterans affairs for the rest of her life, in part by working with agencies that provide veterans services.

The Department of Defense recently recognized her at a ceremony at the Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.

After the war, she worked for a time at Woodland High School and Long Beach City College before coming to the old University Farm, which had begun to broaden its mission beyond agriculture.

In addition to her work on the athletics side, Welch served as the dean of women (1952-54) and founded the UC Davis chapter of the Prytanean Women's Honor Society, a chapter that still exists today.

Travel and philanthropy

She and her travel companion, Clairelee Leiser Bulkley, had been around the world to places like Europe, Egypt, Asia and South America, and to places considered less safe: Afghanistan, Beirut, Pakistan, India and parts of Saudi Arabia. As a scuba diver, Welch enjoyed the Red Sea, Mexico and Hawaii. 

Her philanthropy extended to athletics (including the tennis center that bears her name), the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra (she was a founding member of the Symphony Endowment), and the campaign that led to the construction of the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts. 

Survivors include a brother, many nieces and nephews, and her friend Clairelee Leiser Bulkley.

A service will be conducted at 11 a.m. Tuesday (July 3) at St. James Catholic Church, Davis. A reception will follow immediately in the social hall. A celebration of life is planned on campus in the fall.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Marya Welch Tennis Center Fund, in care of UC Davis Athletics Development, 264 Hickey Gym, 1 Shields Ave., Davis 95616.

Media contact(s)

Dave Jones, Dateline, 530-752-6556,