Christine Grant's far-reaching impact at Iowa, on Title IX on display at celebration of life

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — In year one of her decorated Iowa softball tenure, Gayle Blevins trekked into Christine Grant's office with a issue regarding her program. The head coach talked while the athletic director listened, and Blevins felt she was getting somewhere — until Grant dealt her a question Iowa's softball leader didn't have an answer for. 

"When I finished," Blevins recalled, "Dr. Grant said, 'And what is your solution?'

"I hadn't thought of any solutions. So she sent me back out to think about what I thought should be done and then to come back and see her. I realized right then how much Christine valued all of our ideas regarding the program. This is what enabled her to build such a powerful department."  

Added Blevins: "I never went back into her office without a solution." 

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This story and many others took center stage Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, where many of Iowa's top athletic figures from the last few decades and several hundred members of the public gathered for Grant's celebration of life. A pioneer for women's sports and longtime Iowa administrator, Grant died on Dec. 31, 2021 at the age of 85.

A program from Dr. Christine Grant's celebration of life, held Sunday in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Sunday was a day of recollecting and reminiscing, while also honoring all that Grant accomplished during an important stretch for Title IX and women's athletics. With several family members in attendance — many of whom traveled from Grant's native home Scotland — those who worked for and were inspired by Iowa's first women's athletic director celebrated Grant the best way they knew how. 

There were humorous tales along with the serious ones — like the time Grant's brother pranked her into thinking his soon-to-be wife didn't speak any English, just German. So Grant learned German as fast as she could in preparation for her arrival, only for her brother's fiancé to greet Grant at the door with, "Hello, you must be Christine."

Or the time when Grant and inaugural Iowa women's basketball coach Lark Birdsong went across the country on a plane ride, looking at different basketball arenas in preparation for Carver-Hawkeye Arena's construction. While flying near the Grand Canyon, the pilot asked if they wanted to fly into the canyon. 

“All of us did but Christine,” Birdsong said with a laugh. “She closed her eyes and made it through the canyon. Flying was not her favorite thing.”

Neither was seeing the glaring inequities between Iowa men's and women's sports when she took over as Iowa's first women's athletic director in 1973. This was just one year after federal Title IX legislation had passed. 

Former Iowa field hockey coach Judith Davidson remembers Grant's immediate impact in those early years well. Field hockey was Grant's first love, and it was she who led the effort to get Davidson's program their own warmup suits — so they no longer had to share with the track team.

There was also the playing-field problem Grant changed. 

"The lawn in front of the student union was our home field," Davidson said. "The week before homecoming one year, the students held a bash-the-car event during our practice. … Then there was the condition of the field, which was a danger to our players due to an inadequate playing surface. 

"So after that, we were practicing and competing at Kinnick Stadium, which had artificial turf at the time. Then we gained access to football's indoor practice facility. It was a major improvement, and I know Christine was behind that." 

Not all of Sunday's speakers were of Grant's generation. Words from former Iowa women's basketball player Jaime Brandt — who's also currently a teacher at Christine Grant Elementary School in North Liberty — further illustrated the impact Grant had on those who came after her. 

"I always dreamed of playing basketball at Iowa," who played for Hawkeyes coach Lisa Bluder from 2010-13. "Dr. Grant was the reason I was able to live out that dream. The way she fought for women's sports as a whole was remarkable."

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Not everything flowed smoothly during Grant's fight for women equality, and gender inequities across collegiate sports still garner headlines to this day. But Grant's persistence and her ability to find solutions many thought weren't possible offers a blueprint to follow for those now in charge of carrying on Grant's legacy.  

"Sometimes it was a struggle," Davidson said, "but we were always moving forward."

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.