Trailblazer Shirley Peterson lead the charge for gender in equity in Gryphon Athletics
Shirley Peterson didn’t believe in idle time. Long before she became a legendary Gryphon coach and administrator at the University of Guelph, Peterson possessed a work ethic like few others. She utilized that trait when she played competitive sports or in the multitude of jobs she undertook to help support her family.
When she joined the Department of Athletics as a part-time front desk employee back in 1961, management had no idea just how important a hire they had made. The passionate native of Transcona, MB would become the foundation of a women’s athletics program, an example for other institutions to follow. Women, and the sports they played, were to be respected. Peterson believed that with every fibre of her being – and she was a trailblazer who made it happen.
“She was just born to do that,” Beverley Peterson-Bruzzese, the youngest of Peterson’s five children, said of her mother, who died on December 11, 2016 at the age of 85. “She was so different from her sisters. Mum was always independent and she made us independent.
“Sport was always an avenue where she could express herself.”
An individual who believed strongly in her faith, Peterson was a renowned athlete back where she grew up in Teulon, MB. She played baseball but was focused on the sport she loved most, hockey. Peterson was an exceptional goalie in a time when female sports garnered little attention in a man’s world. She was the oldest of four sisters and learned her drive from mother Jeanne, a nurse and leader in the community, whose responsibilities included everything from delivering babies to preparing the town’s deceased for burial.
Jeanne passed away when Peterson was 29, leaving her to take the reins of the family. She always had multiple responsibilities like her mother but life for Peterson and her husband Andrew changed dramatically in 1952. At the encouragement of Andrew’s sister, the family moved to Guelph. He took a job at General Electric and Peterson worked tirelessly in her new city, doing tours at Imperial Tobacco, substitute teaching, delivering papers, singing in the choir, and even running a fabric store that the family purchased.
“No matter what challenge my Mom had, she was going to do the best job she could,” said Peterson-Bruzzese. “She didn’t know anything about fabrics. I don’t know why my Dad bought a fabric shop. But she manned the shop, learned what she had to learn.
“As kids, we didn’t understand why our mother always worked. The greatest impact was that we learned that there was no difference between a man and woman in terms of what they could do. We learned very early on that we were a little abnormal.”
Peterson was certainly ahead of her time. Growing up in an era when women were supposed to be mothers and homemakers, she was a force of nature, a rare individual who impacted lives in deep and meaningful ways. Peterson didn’t take long to spread her influence in the Department of Athletics after being hired in 1961. It began at the front desk of the athletic centre. Soon enough, she took on coaching duties. And not just one sport. If there was a team that needed someone to take charge, she was the person – hockey, curling, and archery.
Peterson’s reputation as a coach and leader grew. So much so that when a young hockey player named Holly Dodd thought of attending the U of G to join the Gryphons, she was simply told ‘go find Shirley Peterson.’ Dodd, a Dresden, ON native, who is now a retired local veterinarian, did that and was forever thankful for the experience.
“She was my second mother,” said Dodd, recalling a time when her coach bought her a used pair of skates to replace the worn ones she was using. “My Guelph mother and she remained so until the end. She was a wonderful woman.
“Shirley could keep everybody motivated. We didn’t have the best talent but she could pump us to play our best every game.
“Those were the best years of my life.”
Peterson had become a fixture in the department and began to have an even greater sphere of influence when she was appointed as the coordinator of intercollegiate women’s athletics. She held that role until 1992 and over the years, built a reputation that extended beyond the U of G campus. When Dave Copp, the Director Athletics from 1982 to 2000, met Guelph’s hiring committee for his future job, there was a familiar face on the panel. Copp had met Peterson a decade earlier at an intramurals conference and was well aware of the Gryphon women’s hockey program that would go on to produce Canadian legends like Cassie Campbell.
“Shirley was the glue for the department,” said Copp, suggesting her work was instrumental in the University of Guelph’s growing status as a leader in women’s sports. “She was a mentor for coaches and students and had the respect of everybody. Shirley had a tremendous impact on a whole lot of lives while she was there.
“She definitely had game.”
“Shirley was such a strong, confident and vibrant woman,” added Michelle Turley, the current Gryphon field hockey coach and intercollegiate coordinator, who played hockey and field hockey for Guelph from 1982-87. “She did so much for intercollegiate athletics at the university and for women in sport, in what remains a male-dominated profession. Shirley dedicated her life to the university and the enrichment of student life. She had a tremendous influence over young women in sport and those aspiring to be in administrative roles in athletics.
“She was a trailblazer, a mentor, and became a friend.”
For Peterson-Bruzzese, there are countless memories of what life was like growing up around the Department of Athletics with her mom. She recalled sitting on Bill Mitchell’s desk as a child, as Peterson watched her and her siblings, as well as the kids of other employees. Peterson-Bruzzese and her brothers Murray, Greg, Jeff, and Randy, the latter of whom passed away before his mom, would run concessions and their father would always be sewing up hockey equipment or fixing the tails on arrows for the archery team.
It’s a testimony to Peterson’s unwavering commitment. She hated when women’s sports were trivialized and wanted female athletes to be able to achieve greatness. And there was no greater promoter of the University of Guelph than her. Peterson was known to end conversations with ‘Go Gryphons.’
“Mom had this special way of extracting things from people,” said Peterson-Bruzzese, who credited the department for embracing Peterson’s vision of women’s sport and giving her free reign to do what she did best. “She would always say, ‘We can do better.’ That was one of her big things.
“She could see there was a need to change the image of women’s sports. That was her driving force. She was meant to do this. It was almost pre-ordained. She just believed in that from an early age and it consumed our family because we were always a part of it.
“Her motivating factor was that women deserved to be able to play the game and play it at a level of integrity and respect.”
When Shirley Peterson died on December 11, 2016, it was a loss felt like few others. She had made a commitment to leave a significant sum of money to support women’s athletics at the university she called home for so long. She is also remembered by the Shirley Peterson Award, given annually to a third-year female athlete, who has shown the most growth in her athletic career.
Peterson was a builder who brought people together. This was not more evident than at her celebration of life at Guelph’s Dublin Street United Church in the winter of 2017. A packed house came to pay respects but one of the most emotional moments came when the Gryphon women’s hockey team, led by former U of G player and current head coach Rachel Flanagan, walked through the doors together. They had just completed a playoff game and wanted to be at the service to celebrate the iconic woman who had laid the foundation for their distinguished program.
“It was like everything that my mother had fought for was standing right in front of her,” Peterson-Bruzzese said. “It was the most moving, overwhelming tribute.
“It was the icing on the cake.