Christine Grant, a pioneer for women's sports and longtime University of Iowa administrator, dies at age 85

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Christine Grant, a pioneer in women's college athletics during a 27-year tenure at the University of Iowa, died Friday at age 85.

The native of Scotland spent her final months in hospice care in Iowa City. Family members were able to fly to Iowa to visit her in those days.

Grant became Iowa's first women's athletic director in 1973, the year after federal Title IX legislation was passed requiring gender equity in college sports. Grant had testified before Congress several times advocating for the law, which was opposed by the NCAA.

Grant served in the Iowa athletic department until her retirement in 2000, but remained active in the local sports scene. She also continued to teach in Iowa's department of health and sports studies until 2006.

Iowa merged its men's and women's athletic departments after Grant retired.

Under Grant's leadership, Iowa sponsored 12 women's sports that won one NCAA field hockey championship and 27 Big Ten Conference championships. She is a member of the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame.

“I owe Dr. Grant so much. She hired me to coach at this university that I love so dearly. More importantly, she gave the opportunity to thousands upon thousands of girls to enjoy and benefit from participating in athletics," Iowa women's basketball coach Lisa Bluder said in a university release. "Without Dr. Grant’s commitment and efforts to gender equality, girls and women would not be able to experience the benefit of sport the way we know it today. Dr. Grant taught me to think in a different way. I can hear her words of wisdom bouncing around in my mind now and forever. I love Dr. Grant.

"She has told me to call her Christine numerous times, but out of respect, she will always be Dr. Grant to me — the woman who helped change the landscape of women’s athletics.”

In an interview with the Des Moines Register on Friday night, former Iowa athletic director Bob Bowlsby recalled Grant's contributions at Iowa and nationally. He said she delivered him the greatest professional compliment of his life. He'll never forget how she came down the hallway and told him that she was retiring and she was recommending Bowlsby be in charge of both the men's and women's departments.

"More than anything else, Christine had an amazing sense of fairness. It was that sense of fairness that wanted the best for young women athletes," Bowlsby said. "But she also wanted the best for young men athletes. And she was special in that way."

Grant was born May 27, 1936, in Scotland, where her love of sport bloomed at age 11 when she took up netball, a game akin to basketball. Soon, field hockey became her sport of choice, and the stadium where the Hawkeyes play is named Grant Field in her honor.

Grant was instrumental in bringing field hockey to Iowa. It was fitting that the Hawkeyes were ranked No. 1 nationally for much of the fall season in the final year of her life. As Grant's health faded at the Bird House, a hospice-care center, she made sure to watch live streams of every Hawkeye field hockey game.

During the season, Iowa field hockey coach Lisa Cellucci brought players to visit Grant. 

"She wanted to hear from them and tell them how proud she was," Cellucci told the Register on Friday night. "She was so excited that Iowa field hockey was No. 1."

When Grant had to go to the hospital for health reasons, she made sure she wore an Iowa field hockey shirt during the ambulance ride. She supported the Hawkeyes until the very end.

"Of course, our goal was to win a national championship," Cellucci said. "But she was the first person to leave me a voice mail after we lost in the Elite Eight."

Grant earned a degree in physical education in Scotland. She then embarked on a career in teaching and coaching, leaving Scotland for Canada in 1961. There, she was instrumental in forming a national organization for field hockey and became the coach of Canada's national team.

A decade later, Grant arrived in Iowa to earn bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees in physical education and athletics administration.

At the same time, Grant threw her considerable energy into a new group forming to advocate for equal sports opportunities, which was called the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. She became its president.

Christine Grant, women's athletic director at Iowa, poses for a photo during her term as president of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, in December of 1980.

In 1973, Iowa president Sandy Boyd was looking to become a national leader in athletic opportunities for women, making the university one of only two in the nation to have a separate department for women's sports. The first choice to lead the department, Grant told the Register in 2013, was Nell Jackson, a former Hawkeye track star. Jackson turned it down.

Grant did not, eagerly taking on a new challenge at a salary of $14,000. That cemented her to Iowa City for the remaining 48 years of her life. Her influence was so great that a new elementary school built in North Liberty in 2019 was named in her honor.

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"I never, ever dreamed I'd settle down in Iowa City, because I had every intention of going back to Canada — which I love," Grant said in 2013, her thick Scottish accent still present. "But, things happen."

Christine Grant, seen at her Coralville home in this 2012 photo, died this week at age 85. Grant served for 27 years as Iowa's women's athletic director and was a tireless advocate for gender equality in sports.

Grant made them happen. Among the coaches she hired was Vivian Stringer, who chose Iowa — and Grant — over places like Texas, Penn State and USC after reaching the women's basketball Final Four at tiny Cheyney State. It was a meeting with Grant at the Philadelphia airport that convinced her, Stringer said.

"She's a giant among giants," Stringer said in 2013, 20 years after she led Iowa to the Final Four. "I really can't think of any woman who's done more for women (in sports) in this entire country than Dr. Grant. Not one. Not one."

Grant and Stringer combined to make sports history in 1985, when they drew 22,157 fans to watch the Hawkeyes take on Ohio State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. It became the largest crowd to watch a women's basketball game at that time.

From left: Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder, Paula Jantz, Dr. Christine Grant and C.Vivian Stringer are recognized prior to the Hawkeyes' game against Rutgers at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017.

"When our team came out on the floor, Vivian (Stringer) was almost in tears," Grant said later. "That's when I thought, 'Good lord, can you imagine that we've done this.' It was a very, very moving moment."

The fire marshal was less thrilled. Grant got a letter of reprimand for exceeding the arena's capacity by 6,657 people.

Grant framed the letter and hung it in her office.

At Iowa, Grant worked alongside men's athletic director Bump Elliott, who died in December 2019 — two towering figures in Hawkeye sports history gone two years apart.

Grant won the Billie Jean King award in 1995 for her lifetime contribution to women's athletics.

"The ripple effect of her life’s work will be felt with every generation from today forward," Iowa women's tennis coach Sasha Schmid said in the school's release. "She is a true giant, and a Hawkeye hero. What an incredible life. Rest in peace, dear Dr. Grant.”

But she never felt like her work was done, and was saddened to see opportunities erode for women coaches and athletic administrators, even at her alma mater.

Grant told the Register in 2017, after Iowa lost a gender-bias lawsuit brought by former athletic administrator Jane Meyer: "It’s been honestly heartbreaking to sit and watch this over the decades and to know that nobody’s doing anything about it. That’s the saddest part about it. I mean, where are our athletic directors? Where are our presidents? We cannot continue as a nation to continue discarding the dreams and the talents of half of our population. It’s a topic I’m very passionate about. And I think this is going to be a landmark case, I really believe that."

Grant attended that trial in Des Moines. She said she believed the leaders at Iowa would use it as an occasion to make things more equitable for women athletes, coaches and administrators.

On one of Cellucci's final hospice visits, in November, Grant — even in fading health — was adamant that there was much more work to do to create equal opportunities for women.

“She said to keep fighting," Cellucci said. "I said, 'I will.'"

Kirk Statler was the chaplain at Iowa City Hospice who met with Grant weekly in her final months. Grant sought the spiritual guidance, Statler said in an interview Saturday.

"You couldn't tell she was sick. She was high-energy, conversant," Statler said of his initial meeting with Grant nine months ago.

"She was always direct, and I loved her accent. I loved to hear her talk. On our first meeting, she got right to the point. She said, 'Talk to me about faith. Why is it important?'"

Statler, who has been a pastor for 37 years, showed Grant a ball-point pen he had made out of wood and asked her: "If I gave this to you, when would it become yours?"

Grant replied: "When I take it."

"That's absolutely right," Statler told Grant. "It's like the love of God. It really becomes ours when we receive it."

Statler said Grant spoke about the pen in every subsequent conversation.

He last saw Grant on Dec. 27. She was too weak to speak on that occasion, Statler recalled.

"I just talked to her like normal. I sang a song to her. I knew she liked John Denver, so I sang 'Country Roads' for her, just a capella beside her bed," Statler said.

He also read Psalm 139 and 103 to Grant. They were among her favorites and provided comfort to her, Statler said. 

Grant spoke often in their early meetings about becoming "tougher" and of outlasting her illness, Statler said, remembering how she would grit her teeth to combat the pain she was feeling. By December, he said, she had begun to accept that her disease was terminal.

"I never got fear from her, or worry," Statler said. "There was definitely a peace about her, that she came to that last week and a half.

"She was a consummate lady who just really carried herself with an air of dignity and a healthy sense of pride. There was no 'give up' in her."