By Dave Johnson, William & Mary Athletics
When Terry Driscoll was hired as William & Mary’s Director of Athletics in 1996, he was new to the field. He was a former college and professional basketball player, but his previous 16 years had been spent in marketing.
When he arrived in Williamsburg, Driscoll found an immediate source of institutional knowledge – Millie West, H ’91, LHD ’17, who had been on campus since 1959. If she didn’t know something, she could find someone who did.
“She had so much history about the place,” Driscoll said. “And me coming in completely from outside of athletics, she was invaluable to talk to. She had a great pulse on the place. She could always sense what was going on.
“Millie was a force of nature in a very small package. People may not have understood how much she could accomplish because she didn’t have a particularly imposing presence. Whatever she did, she did first class.”
Millie West might have stood only a shade over 5 feet tall, but there can be no underestimating her influence on W&M athletics. Even before Title IX became law in 1972, she was well on her way to becoming a pioneer.
After the news of her death on Saturday broke, tributes came pouring in.
“All women coaches and athletes in the country benefited from Millie West’s trailblazing work,” W&M President Katherine A. Rowe said. “William & Mary is so fortunate to be able to claim her as our own.
“For decades, she ensured that our student athletes had the ability to succeed. As a coach and player, I am thankful to have known Millie. We already miss her.”
Soon after being hired as W&M’s first female director of athletics in 2017, Samantha K. Huge acknowledged she was standing on West’s shoulders. The two became fast friends, and Huge leaned on her wisdom.
“One of the highlights of my tenure at William & Mary has been befriending and learning from Millie West, as she set a high bar for all us who strive for excellence every day in Williamsburg,” Huge said. “I will miss her visits, her phone calls, her unwavering support, and her many, many stories about her six decades in William & Mary athletics.
“On behalf of William & Mary, our thoughts and prayers are with Millie’s family and friends, but all should know that she will always remain in our hearts.”
Former W&M women’s soccer coach John Daly, who worked with West for three decades, tweeted that she “made women’s athletics at William & Mary a program admired and respected everywhere.”
Former field hockey coach and current administrator Peel Hawthorne, who first met West as a freshman student-athlete at W&M in 1976, agreed.
“Millie was a visionary leader who carved out opportunities for women where they previously didn’t exist,” Hawthorne said. “Her efforts on the behalf of women’s athletics at W&M well preceded Title IX.”
West was born in 1934 in Cedartown, Ga. A self-described “tomboy,” she graduated from Georgia State College for Women in ’57 and earned her Master’s from the University of Maryland in ’59. Later that year, she was hired as a physical education instructor at William & Mary.
In 1969, West was named director of women’s athletics. That was three years before Title IX became law, but a lack of funds rarely intimidated her.
After the men’s and women’s departments merged in 1986, her title became associate director of athletics. In 1991, she retired from that post and was named director of special projects.
In addition to work as an administrator, West also shaped lives as a coach, mentoring various squads, including synchronized swimming and the swimming program. But, her leadership and passion could well have been best displayed at the helm of the women’s tennis program, where she won at an impressive 87% clip and won 202 matches.
“There truly was no one else like her in what she could do and how she could make you feel,” said Suzanne Scott Horsley ’87, who lettered in both field hockey and lacrosse. “It was central to her being to give to others as is clear in all the lives she touched, mine included. Her legacy is forever alive in the thousands of us trying each day to do half of what she did on a daily basis!
West’s fund-raising skills helped land the Wightman Cup, an international women’s tennis event that drew the likes of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, to Williamsburg. She helped her friend, Joseph J. Plumeri, establish the Joseph J. Plumeri Pro-Am golf tournament that raised more than $2 million for the Olympic sports programs.
Later, the pair worked together to build W&M’s baseball stadium, Plumeri Park, which opened in 1999.
One of her proudest achievements was the completion of the McCormack-Nagelsen Tennis Center in 1995. The tennis center is also home to the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Women’s Hall of Fame, for which she served as curator and chair. West joined the legends of the game when she herself was inducted into the ITA’s Hall of Fame in 1998. West also has been elected into the Mid Atlantic Tennis Hall of Fame and William & Mary Athletics Hall of Fame.
In 2010, William & Mary Board of Visitors re-named the university’s outdoor courts behind Kaplan Arena in her honor to recognize her many achievements. Additionally, in 2017, she was awarded the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, one of the highest honors the university can bestow on an individual.
“Millie West was among the earliest women leaders at William & Mary,” said Kate Slevin, Chancellor Professor of Sociology Emerita and former Vice Provost for Academic Affairs. “Millie was a woman who knew exactly what she wanted to achieve. Athletic management in Millie’s day was a bastion of male dominance and Millie’s strategic approaches allowed her a level of success that was very rare for women. Not surprisingly, she was a beacon for other women and her support of them was a hallmark of her leadership–both inside Athletics and beyond.”
In addition to all she did for W&M, she also was also involved in the Williamsburg community. She served on executive committees of the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame and the Williamsburg Community Health Foundation.
She also was on the Williamsburg Community Foundation Board and the Old Point National Bank Advisory Board.
West got things done. Many times, it was by refusing to take no for an answer.
“She was politically savvy, charming, elegant, fearless and persistent,” Hawthorne said. “She maintained exacting standards in every aspect of her life, but it was her penchant for warm and enduring friendships that have made her beloved by so many people.”