A Conversation With Mabel LeeBy Ed Thomas, Ed.D.Mabel Lee was born in a little Southwest Iowa village called Clearfield in1886. She and her family moved to Centerville near the Missouri border in 1893.She was a sickly and underweight child with poor posture who survived battleswith typhoid, diphtheria, measles, chicken pox, scarletina, and whooping cough.Young Mabel emerged from these childhood afflictions to become a model ofphysical grace, vitality and professional excellence.Mabel LeeOur personal communication was limited to about one precious hour manyyears ago at a national convention. I had read most of her books and was thrilledthat she would invite me to slip away to a secluded corner, protected from themany people who wished to speak with her. We talked about the past and what ithas to offer the future. Like countless others with whom she shared her insights, Ibelieve her wisdom should not be forgotten. The following conversation iscreated from her written works. For physical educators young and old, sheremains a voice of reason that should be heard.What was physical education like when you were a little girl in Centerville?Structured and rational physical education, as was practiced in Iowa’sGerman communities like Davenport, did not exist in Centerville during the1890s. We had no organized calisthenics, gymnastics, sports, rhythmicalexercise or dance. A tri-county conference was held in Centerville in November1898 that included a program concerning how physical development could beencouraged.A Professor Stomp, in discussing the topic, criticized the lady teacherspresent for their own neglect of physical exercises, saying some women teachers1

A Conversation With Mabel LeeBy Ed Thomas, Ed.D.were so physically inefficient, they could not perform their teaching dutiesproperly. This is my earliest memory of anyone in Centerville suggesting thatphysical development could improve learning.In fourth grade I drew for my wonderful teacher, a Mr. Bower. He was aCivil War veteran. When the school bell rang announcing that the morning orafternoon session was to open, we children lined up before the big entrance doorin two’s according to our room assignment and within that group according to thelocation of our seats. Then on signal, we marched up the stairs and down thehallways into our own room, and then up and down the aisles in a given orderuntil we reached our assigned seats, all the time singing whatever song our songmonitor started for us and standing at attention at the side of our seat until wehad finished the song. Then we were seated in unison.We sang The Union Forever--Hurrah Boys Hurrah, Marching ThroughGeorgia, and Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, The Boys are Marching. Mr. Bower let ussing at the top of our lungs, and taught us to swing our arms as we marched,thus getting some excellent chest and shoulder development exercise. Latereducators called this type of activity “regimentation’ and deplored it. But we lovedit!That marching and singing in unison gave us a sense of togetherness andan uplift that we never would have acquired from entering the schoolhouseinformally and independently. Throughout my whole life I have remembered thejoys of marching and singing together. After fourth grade, I transferred to theCentral Ward School that was a 4.5-mile round-trip walk I enjoyed daily with myfriends in rain or shine, snow and wind. We sometimes marched and sang all theway.How did you recover so well from your many serious childhood illnesses?As I was growing up, Mother was becoming aware of the havoc wrought inme by earlier years of so much illness and frailty. I was hollow chested, roundshouldered and underweight. It was quite understandable that Mother was theeasy victim of a ready-talking salesman who sold her a set of shoulder straps,which I was to wear throughout the school day.As long as I kept my shoulders back, all was well, but the minute I relaxed,little metal pin-like fingers bit into my flesh to remind me to straighten up. Ideplored my poor posture and wanted badly to improve it, so I wore thecontraption until my upper back became very sore from the many prickings of therelentless metal fingers. Mother and I eventually discarded the straps, and wecontinued hoping to find a better way to reform my deformed body.Even after I transferred to the Central Ward School, Mother was still2

A Conversation With Mabel LeeBy Ed Thomas, Ed.D.worried about my round shoulders, hollow chest, and generally deficient posture.She talked to our family physician and neighbor, Dr. Sawyers, who happened tohave a daughter with whom I went to school. She also had postural deformities,and Dr. Sawyers was seeking ways to help her find a cure. While visiting theEast Coast, he learned of numerous physical training innovations and techniqueshe could use.Dr. Sawyers purchased and installed some of the equipment in a largeroom in this home. His daughter and I went there several times a week afterschool to train. We had stall bars, flying rings, wall pulley-weights, a rowingmachine and a few other pieces. How fortunate I was to use these marvelousdevices, and what a tremendous impact they had on my early development. Iwas eleven or twelve years old at the time. We did not know of anyone in townwho could teach us how to use the equipment, so we experimented on our own.The stall bars were particularly puzzling. I was surprised later in life when I wentto college and was educated in their use, that there were so many exercises wecould have done on them had we been properly instructed.Did physical education evolve much in the Central Ward School while youwere a student there?The great wide hallway on the first floor of the Central Ward School waslined with racks filled with dumbbells and Indian clubs. I had never seen or heardof such things before, and I could scarcely wait for the day when our room mighthave a chance to use these strange things. A new teacher had persuaded thesuperintendent and the school board to invest in them and to give all the childrena turn at them. One day we were marched to the hallway where we were givendumbbells and taught a drill to do with them. It was an exciting moment for me.Dumbbell Drills3

A Conversation With Mabel LeeBy Ed Thomas, Ed.D.Later we were given the Indian clubs, and those who worked hard wereallowed to put on a drill at the eighth grade commencement exercises in May1897 at the Opera House, a building on Drake Avenue that doubled as a militaryarmory. I was one chosen to be in that memorable drill. Although I could never bepersuaded before that to take part in even a Sunday school program, this bit ofpublic appearance I gladly entered upon and enjoyed doing as part a large groupoffering.Those calisthenics using dumbbells and Indian clubs were marvelousexercises, and I wondered why we hadn’t been allowed to drill with them all yearlong. For four years I saw them hanging in the racks on the first floor hallway butthey were never used until some group had to learn a drill for a program that ourfamilies, friends and the townspeople would attend.I wished we might use them all the time whether anyone was going to seeus or not, but apparently they were looked upon by the school authorities merelyas equipment for “show-off,” and no teacher was assigned to make use of themas part of an educational program. Before my eighth grade year ended, I wasallowed to swing those clubs once more. It didn’t concern me one bit that I wasjust swinging them to be swinging them and not to be in a show. It was the doingof it that I loved, not the public performance.Dumbbells and Indian clubs would be all but forgotten by the mid-1920s. Irecall a group of twenty-four boys from the German Turner system doing adumbbell drill demonstration at the Central District Convention held in Chicago in1923, and that was about the end of those wonderful activities. Like themarching, singing, stall bars, and traveling rings I so much enjoyed as a child,club swinging and dumbbell drills became only a wonderful memory.You pioneered the game of basketball in Iowa. How did you discover it?By the mid-1890s, basketball had spread from its 1891 birth inSpringfield, Massachusetts, to the farther reaches of the country. Not a breath ofit, however, had permeated into the smaller towns of Iowa.The game was completely unknown to us until our neighbor, EdnaStanton, attending a girl’s school, Ferry Hall, in Chicago, came home forChristmas vacation of 1898 and told us of the new game of “basketball’ beingplayed at her school—a game which called for the players to wear bloomers. Iwas as exited about wearing bloomers as the new game. I pestered Edna topromise when she came home for the summer to bring me more news about it—a promise not kept, however, since she did not care for the game and apparentlygave it no further thought.We moved north to Spencer, Iowa in the summer of 1900, and I began4

A Conversation With Mabel LeeBy Ed Thomas, Ed.D.high school there. I was still obsessed with basketball but had no luck convincingothers to play it during my freshman year. We moved back to Centerville the nextyear, and Father convinced the members of the school board, the superintendentof schools and the high school principal on my behalf to give basketball a chancein Centerville. The first game of basketball ever played in Centerville, Iowa, wason May 2, 1902. The court was the lawn on the north edge of town where fewwould see us; our uniform, chemise and petticoats, were rolled at the waist toshorten them.These few questions cannot begin to cover your rich and productivelife. Your days at Coe College could fill a book. You studied at the BostonNormal School of Gymnastics during the Golden Era of physical training,and you were a giant in the field of physical education. You championedthe teaching of rational body mechanics and conditioning for both genders,and you were a guiding force for the innovative women’s military physicaltraining doctrine during World War II. It is amazing that you and the othersthat stayed grounded in physical training during the 1920s and 1930s wereable to rebuild performance-based functional physical education with solittle resources and in so short a time.WAC Physical TrainingPhysical education drifted away from fundamental and rational physicalfitness toward an overemphasis on sports and games with the “New PhysicalEducation” following the “Battle of the Systems” in the 1920s. World War II wasan abrupt and sobering awakening.5

A Conversation With Mabel LeeBy Ed Thomas, Ed.D.WAC Conditioning DrillsWomen were called upon to do physically demanding work, and thatwhole period reminded many of us that body mechanics and conditioningexercises are the keystones of the physical education program. I was fortunatethat in my youth, I was forced to correct my own poor posture and unnatural bodymanagement habits. I was also trained under the watchful eye of Amy MorrisHomans and her faculty at the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics.WAC Physical Training in BarracksMy background prepared me for those times, and we who worked to makeour women physically fit during that war emerged on the other side appreciativeof all the teachers who readied us for the immense challenges we faced.6

A Conversation With Mabel LeeBy Ed Thomas, Ed.D.In the 1930s, Margaret Culkin Banning reported that of the thirty-sevenmillion adult women in the United States, only three million were employed. Fivemillion of the unemployed were past sixty, leaving nineteen million who wereeither homemakers or merely idle. World War II dramatically changed thosefigures. The War motivated many millions of these women to work, and itbecame clear that they would need to be more fit to do the jobs that needed to bedone while the men were in uniform. For the newly formed Women’s Army Corp,it quickly became apparent that they too lacked the strength, flexibility andendurance the times would require. We all worked hard during those years toreform ourselves. That’s a whole other story.Your entire life is an important story that should be told to everyyoung physical educator.Maybe so.Recommended Readings:Lee, M. (1937). The conduct of physical education. New York: Barnes and Noble.Lee, M. & Wagner, M. (1949). Fundamentals of body mechanics & conditioning.Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders.Lee, M. (1963). The history of the Middle West Society of Physical Education.Nebraska: Central and Midwest Districts Associations of Health, PhysicalEducation and Recreation.Lee, M. (1977). Memories of bloomer girl. Washington, D.C.: American Alliancefor Health, Physical Education, and Recreation.Lee, M. (1978). Memories beyond bloomers. Washington, D.C.: AmericanAlliance for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation.Lee, M. (1983). A history of physical education and sports in the USA. NewYork: Wiley.7