A few years ago I read a rather lengthy book about the history of the Kentucky Wildcats basketball program. It is a well written work with a lot of interesting information, but I was disappointed when I saw that the author made no mention of Sarah G. Blanding, perhaps Kentucky’s first basketball superstar. So, today I thought it would be a good idea to pay tribute to her, both for her contributions as an athlete and as an educator.
Born on a Kentucky farm in 1898, Sarah G. Blanding grew up a hard worker with both athletic and academic ambitions. After graduating from the New Haven School of Gymnastics in 1919, she accepted a job at the University of Kentucky as a physical education instructor. She also enrolled in an undergraduate program at the start of her new position.
At Kentucky, Blanding became captain of the women’s basketball team, and she was also the Kittennettes best player. Referring to her athletic skill on the court, a writer in the Kentuckian stated, “Sarah seems to have a monopoly on the baskets.”
During her years at the University of Kentucky, Blanding was just as active off of the basketball court as she was on it. In addition to majoring in political science and international relationships, the sports star became president of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority chapter. Blanding had stated during in an interview later in her life that, as president of Kappa Kappa Gamma, one of her biggest accomplishments was helping to get a minority member accepted into the chapter. Today, maybe this would not be news. However, in the early 1920s racial discrimination was common place in the Bluegrass State, and what Blanding did took initiative, courage, leadership, and a lot of persuasion.
After obtaining an undergraduate degree from the University of Kentucky, Blanding attended graduate school at Columbia University. She also engaged in additional studies at the London School of Economics. In 1929, she was awarded a master’s degree in political science from Columbia, and subsequently Blanding was appointed Dean of Women and professor of political science at the University of Kentucky, positions she would hold for 12 years.
Blanding left Kentucky in 1941 to become first dean of the College of Home Economics at Cornell University. Five years later, the former basketball star was named the president of Vassar College, and for many years she did much work to advance the school’s academic curriculum and quality of student life. One key to her enormous success at Vassar College was that she respected people and encouraged independent thinking. Reflecting upon her remarkable career, Blanding once noted, “I like all kinds of people. I get along well with them because I trust them. I make it plain to everyone on my staff that I want them to stand up and fight for their own ideas. If they have better arguments, they win.”