Finishing Women’s History Month at home

(mnsu.edu)
(mnsu.edu)

Meet former faculty member Dr. Ruth Schellburg

“The trip has been fantastically adventurous. Two gray-haired women with backpacks followed by four teen aged young ladies with all of our worldly goods on our backs has caused many a comment, nod of approval and even some photographs.”

It would be saddening to let Women’s History Month come to a close without commemorating a woman whose own past created a richer history for Minnesota State University, Mankato. Most students and faculty who pass the Schellburg gym every day might not realize the lasting influence of the woman who gave it her name.

Dr. Ruth Schellburg jotted down the above excerpt in a travel log for a Eurail-tent tour of Europe in 1978. She was the head of the women’s physical education department at MSU, and was famous for taking students on camping trips all over the country and the world, even after her retirement, which is when this particular tour took place.

She wrote, “Our principal stops were Paris, Munich, Oberammergau, Salzburg, Lucerne, Copenhagen, at my Danish friend’s home in Viborg, Amsterdam, Stratford, and London – a bit much for 30 days but I always over-program. We omitted Rome, Nice, and Oslo which probably means I’m slowing down a bit (but there was rain and cold weather).”

Schellburg did not slow down often. When she arrived in 1946, she stayed on for two years as an assistant professor in physical education until she decided to pursue a doctorate degree at New York University. After taking that leave of absence, she returned in 1952.

A Sincere Feminist
In addition to Schellburg Gym, Schellburg left two primary legacies behind her. The first was her contribution to women’s equality at MSU. Schellburg was born in 1912, which meant that she grew up in an era where it was completely normal for women to abstain from athletic competition and participation.
An old Free Press article quotes Schellburg’s former employee, Georgene Brock, who said, “She was very supportive of women […] she did a lot of things in the outdoors, but that was primarily to not interfere with the men.”

It was student voices that changed Schellburg’s perspective. A few of her female students wrote research papers about equal opportunity in athletics for women, in which they fiercely questioned why women weren’t given the same access to sports as men. As Schellburg read, she began to agree.

Even as an older woman, she was not too proud to change her opinion or act on it. She was the primary fighter for equal access for women and men’s athletics at MSU. Even though she eventually got what she fought for, it was a rough journey. Schellburg completed her mission for change with a bad taste in her mouth toward her opposition, and found it difficult to respect their own opinions.

However, Schellburg did not let her advocacy for women stop in Mankato. She was an active member of the International Association of Physical Education and Sport for Girls and Women, and this led her to present overseas in locations including Israel, South Africa, and Iran.

A True Outdoorswoman
Her second legacy was the love she planted in MSU students for the outdoors, as well as the knowledge to survive in their natural surroundings. In the physical education department at MSU, Schellburg led and supervised countless student canoe trips in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. She also took students camping in the state, and through Europe. Before participating in a large-scale camping trip, Schellburg required students to take her initial camping class, where students learned about equipment and survival skills.
She taught countless other classes for students, involving general physical education, winter sports, and the outdoors.

There is a photo of Ruth Schellburg in a Munich newspaper dated September 5, 1978. She sits with her arms around her knees at the entrance of the Munich Olympic Grounds, guarding a tower of backpacks for her companions, who were currently touring the grounds.
In the old photo, her face is dark with print shadows, but her wide smile is clearly visible. This woman’s impeccable determination and resilience for life definitely left its mark on MSU, beyond the name of Schellburg gym.

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