Trailblazing former Dartmouth College athletic director Josie Harper dies at 81

Head coach Adrienne Shibles introduces Josie Harper, a former women’s lacrosse coach and the first female athletic director in the Ivy League, to her team during a women’s basketball practice at Leede Arena in Hanover, N.H., on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Head coach Adrienne Shibles introduces Josie Harper, a former women’s lacrosse coach and the first female athletic director in the Ivy League, to her team during a women’s basketball practice at Leede Arena in Hanover, N.H., on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news / report for america file — Alex Driehaus

Dartmouth College students grill athletic director Josie Harper, center left, and Dean of the College James Larimore, center right, on Nov. 26, 2002, about the college's decision to eliminate the swimming and diving programs. (Valley News - Jim Korpi) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Dartmouth College students grill athletic director Josie Harper, center left, and Dean of the College James Larimore, center right, on Nov. 26, 2002, about the college's decision to eliminate the swimming and diving programs. (Valley News - Jim Korpi) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file — Jim Korpi

By TRIS WYKES

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 06-21-2024 7:06 PM

Josie Harper, who as Dartmouth College’s athletic director became the first woman to hold such a post in the Ivy League, died last week in White River Junction. She was 81 and had battled cancer.

“It is a sad day for the Dartmouth community,” current athletic director Mike Harrity said in a release. “Josie was a legend and her profound impact resonates through the lives of the many students, coaches and colleagues she touched.”

Harper began her Dartmouth career in 1981 when she arrived from the Philadelphia area to become a field hockey assistant, the head women’s lacrosse coach and a physical education instructor. The 10-year old lacrosse program had been mediocre, but Harper guided the Big Green to its first Ivy League titles in 1986 and 1987 and finished with an 88-69 record.

“I coached lacrosse and did administration from 1990-92, and I didn’t do either one very well,” Harper recalled in an athletic department feature story on her career. “I knew I had to make a choice.”

The Chester, Pa., native moved fully into Dartmouth’s athletic administration in 1992 and became director 10 years later. She jokingly referred to meetings of the Ivy League’s athletic directors as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

“I realized as a woman in this position, I could have an impact on opportunities for other women,” Harper told the Valley News in 2009.

Controversy occurred four months into Harper’s time as athletic director when the college, blaming financial shortfalls, cut the men’s and women’s swimming and diving programs. A national hullabaloo arose, fired up by angry alumni and a tongue-in cheek listing of the teams for sale on eBay. The unrest prompted widespread media attention, including in Sports Illustrated.

Dartmouth’s administration, which talked tough about the cuts being irreversible, backed down two months later when more than $2 million was raised to endow the programs, which was exhausted in 2013. The college then took over financial support, but again tried to cut those programs and several others in 2020. Dartmouth was forced to reinstate them seven months later because of Title IX concerns.

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Harper made 2004 news for firing 13-year football coach John Lyons, who had guided the Big Green to two league titles.

Harper retired in 2009, saying she thought it best that whomever was named the college’s incoming President be allowed to pick their own athletic director.

Among her accomplishments were overseeing the construction of the Floren Variety House and convincing Buddy Teevens to return for a second stint as the Big Green’s football coach. Those moves eventually led to multiple Ivy League championship seasons.

Dartmouth committed more than $58 million to nine sports facilities projects during Harper’s tenure.

“Watching the kids meet their (athletic) expectations; seeing the coaches’ hard work rewarded… every day there was something special about this job,” she told the Valley News.

Said women’s basketball coach Chris Wielgus in the same article: “She understood that college athletics is the business of coaching. She understood our needs, our fears, our problems. She was effective because she was one of us.”

Harper played field hockey, basketball and lacrosse growing up in Chester, located on the Western bank of the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del. She moved from Penncrest High to West Chester State College, where she was on the lacrosse team.

Coaching at two high schools and with the U.S. women’s national team led Harper to Hollins (Va.) College and then to Dartmouth. In her later years, she was a strong and consistent fundraiser for cancer research, pulling in more than $80,000 last year.

“Always with a steady hand, Josie guided many of us through our own cancer journey with endless support, as well as her wonderful humor to lighten the burden,” her friend and Grantham resident Karen Blum wrote recently in an online post for the Friends of Dartmouth Cancer Center.

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com.