By Brandon Spratt
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Carol Agnes came to St. Ben’s with a vision, and 45 years later a thriving athletic department stands to show for it.
Agnes, CSB’s first athletic director, received a Breaking Barriers award at the 32nd annual Minnesota Girls and Women in Sports Day on Wednesday, Feb. 7 in St. Paul at the Minnesota History Center.
“Many of the women who have received it in the past have been people I’ve looked up to,” Agnes said. “To stand among them is just absolutely overwhelming.”
St. Ben’s is able to nominate one candidate each year for the award.
“Her [name] came up and it was kind of like ‘why haven’t we brought her up before?’” CSB Athletic Media Relations Director Leah Rado said. “When you talk about pioneers Carol Agnes is at the top of that list.”
In Agnes’ seven years at St. Ben’s, 1972-1979, she created many new recreational opportunities for women including five varsity sports and many intramural activities. Basketball, tennis, volleyball, swimming and diving and softball all began under Agnes’ watch.
“My belief was that sports opportunities should be for every girl,” Agnes said.
She attended St. Catherine University and obtained a physical education degree along with minors in philosophy, coaching and education.
Agnes was at home in Iowa in 1972 when she got a call from a friend who thought she should interview for a position at St. Ben’s.
Agnes interviewed and got the job. She started in the fall of 1972 as Recreation and Student Activities Coordinator.
“[I got] an office out of a storage room or something,” Agnes said.
Agnes herself was also the school’s first basketball and volleyball coach when those sports started in 1973.
As a coach, Agnes showed that she valued the team itself over any individual players.
“That’s the way we operated, as a democratic team,” Agnes said. “I’d present the issue and we’d talk it out and all make a decision.”
The basketball team started playing in a gym in the basement of Murray Hall on a cement floor that had vinyl tiles.
“Anybody who came to watch the games sat up against the wall and had to pull their feet in so that their feet didn’t cross the sideline,” Agnes said.
Agnes contacted St. John’s basketball Head Coach Jim Smith about sharing SJU’s arena for practices and games. Smith accepted, and Agnes relished the opportunity for her team to play on the hardwood court with much more seating.
“Other teams did not like playing in our gym [in Murray Hall],” Agnes said. “Especially the volleyball teams with the low ceiling.”
For Agnes, her passion for women’s rights started in her childhood home.
“My parents never let me believe that there was anything I couldn’t do just because I was a woman,” Agnes said.
When she was 5 years old, Agnes attended a summer camp but wasn’t allowed to build a bird house with the boys.
“I got up and walked out,” Agnes said. “That was my first stand for women’s liberty.”
Agnes later joined the Girl Scouts when she was 8 years old.
“I was in my glory,” Agnes said. “That’s where I picked up a lot of my independence and leadership skills.”
Agnes taught first aid classes on campus and served as one of the only trainers in the department in its early years.
“It was crazy,” Agnes said. “There were many times when I’d come back from an out of town game and have to teach an 8:00 a.m. class. I was young and I had more energy than I knew what to do with.”
Agnes also started teaching general recreation classes, including camping.
“I got permission to camp out in the woods,” Agnes said. “The sisters let us camp out there as long as we left no trace.”
The athletic department had little funding in the early years so Agnes had to petition the student council for jerseys. The first jerseys were shared between basketball, volleyball and softball.
“You had to use your ingenuity at every point along the way,” Agnes said.
Transportation was also an obstacle in the early years. One of Agnes’ players was certified to drive a van for most of the team, but Agnes would often have to drive her station wagon loaded with equipment for the games.
“There was one time when one of the cars broke down, I think it might’ve been mine,” Agnes said.
When Agnes left St. Ben’s in 1979 the athletic department had a three-year budget.
“As Title IX took hold … we got a lot more support,” Agnes said. “I knew that somebody else could come in and take over and take it to the next step.”
“I kind of describe myself as a first-stage rocket. I love getting programs started and getting started on the right foot,” Agnes said.
Agnes left to teach at junior highs and high schools where opportunities for girls were also increasing at a rapid level.
She has been out of teaching for many years now, but recognizes how opportunities have swelled for women since she was young.
“My hope is for it to continue to go that way,” Agnes said. “We see improvements every year.”
Agnes still attends CSB athletic events from time to time.
“I’m fully behind the program,” Agnes said. “It’s my baby.”
She walks the indoor track in the fieldhouse as she attempts to recover from a stroke that paralyzed her right leg in May 2017. But Agnes isn’t letting her stroke slow her down.
“My goal is to be able to jog and ride my bike,” Agnes said.
Agnes will be honored on Saturday, Feb. 10, during halftime of the St. Ben’s basketball game against Augsburg.
“Saturday will be fun to have her in that new gym to see what we have now and honor her,” Rado said. “It will be really special.”
When Agnes left, Claire Lynch Hall had not been built yet.
“This building itself [HCC] is just … wow,” Agnes said. “I would love to be a student here now.”
The basketball program that Agnes started is now 19-2 on the season and ranked in the top 25 for the first time since 2011.
“There’s just no way to describe the distance. It’s come so far,” Agnes said. “And it will go further.”
Even though she has not worked at St. Ben’s for almost 40 years, Agnes’ impact is still undeniable.
“She built the foundation for everything that we have,” Rado said.
Now, more than ever, Agnes’ dreams are becoming a reality.
“My dream is that there will always be opportunities for women that are equal to opportunities for men,” Agnes said. “That’s all women want.”