Gertrude Johnson Peoples is the founder of the country's first academic-support office for college student athletes. For over 40 years she has been mother, friend, and academic adviser to athletes at the University of Washington, where she holds the position of director of the Student Athletic Academic Services and has impacted the lives of thousands of these young people. She is also the first female athletic recruiter for a major university.
Peoples was born in Natchez, Mississippi, to Emmett Johnson (1913-1986) and Virginia Irving Johnson (1910-2003). Her family moved to Seattle when she was a teenager, and she graduated from Queen Anne High School.
Her attendance at Seattle University as a pre-nursing student was curtailed by an early marriage and the birth of three children. In the early 1960s she began working as an attendance counselor for the Seattle Public Schools at Meany Junior High School. It was here that she honed her skills working with at-risk young people.
A Racially Turbulent Time
Gertrude Peoples began her career at the University of Washington in 1970 during a time of racial unrest. Two years earlier, on March 20, 1968, the Black Student Union staged a four hour sit-in at the Administration Building, where university president Dr. Charles E. Odegaard (1911-1999) and the faculty senate were meeting. The students barricaded the room and held the outer office while the police controlled the rest of the building. Larry Gossett (b. 1945), now a King County Councilman, was part of the student group protesting for minority rights. Among their demands were the hiring of more people of color to staff and faculty positions, creation of an ethnic-studies department, and recruitment of minority and disadvantaged students.
It was a racially tense time at the University, and in 1970 Samuel Kelly (1926-2009), a teacher of black history, was recruited from Shoreline Community College and appointed Vice President of Minority Affairs. (During the six-year period of his tenure he earned a doctorate in higher education and became a faculty member in the College of Education's graduate program.)
Beginning of Student Athlete Academic Services
At Samuel Kelly's behest, Gertrude Peoples began working in the African American division of his office, representing him at meetings of students. She then began counseling black athletes, determined to see that they not drop out academically, and calmed the racially charged tempest with her compassion and understanding. As she later explained:
"The black athletes didn't feel welcome in Tubby Graves (the athletic department building). One of the primary things was to change the culture so they did feel comfortable and like they belonged" (Duff).
African American student athletes were sent directly to her and she led the effort to see that they were more accepted and comfortable everywhere on campus. She had walked the campus, making friends and making herself knowledgeable about every department. This led to her intensifying her efforts to increase the amount of academic help student athletes of all races and from all sports received. In 1971 her department was named Student Athlete Services and she received two assistants. It was renamed later as Student Athlete Academic Services and now (2012) has a staff of 14 and 85 tutors.
Motherly Friend and Advocate
Gracious and soft spoken, Peoples describes herself as mother, grandmother, friend, and advocate for the young athletes who confided in her. It was she who assisted them in finding the right classes for graduation, who had them sign a statement giving her permission to contact their parents regarding their achievement, and who provided tutors for them in subjects in which they were having difficulty. No call was made to parents unless the student was in the office with her -- she reasoned that students must feel that they could trust her. She found that she had an advantage because she was a woman and a mother image, which allowed young people to show moments of weakness. Other services she and her staff provided were help in transitioning to the university, designing quarterly schedules, setting goals for academic majors, planning for graduation, and teaching study skills.
Today the Student Athlete Academic Service is located in the Ackerley Academic Center inside the Conibear Shellhouse on the lakefront. It houses a computer lab, study rooms, tutoring rooms, printing services, and wireless internet.
Another First: Recruiting
By 1973 Peoples began accompanying the football coaching staff on home-recruiting visits and became the first woman athletic recruiter at a major university. During that time she was featured in Ebony Magazine, Jet Magazine, and Sports Illustrated. She was so successful in recruitment that other schools called on the NCAA to alter the rules by limiting home visits to coaches only. Peoples has a simple explanation for her success:
"I could sell the program because I really believed in it. I just had faith that it was a good place for students. I still do" (Duff).
During her time on campus she has worked with coaches Jim Owens, Don James, Jim Lambright, Rick Neuheisel, Keith Gilbertson, Tyrone Willingham, and Steve Sarkisian of the football program, and Marv Harshman and Lorenzo Romar on the basketball side. Among the many athletes who owe their successes in large part to her quiet support and advice are Joe Kelly, Spider Gaines, and Warren Moon (b. 1956). Warren Moon felt so indebted to her that he invited her as his guest when he was inducted into the National Football League Hall of Fame in 2006. Gregg Bell, UW Director of Writing, summed up her lasting mark:
"She may be the most influential Husky of the last half century. She's certainly the most beloved. The list of former players gushing over what Peoples did for them reads like the Huskies' Hall of Fame roster ... . Former players, tough guys who've banged through major college and NFL football, often break down talking about Peoples and what she has done for their lives" (Bell).
Two athletic department awards have been named in her honor: The Gertrude Peoples Scholarship Award to a student-athlete pursuing a graduate degree and The Gertrude Peoples Award, which is given to a UW coach who has assisted student athletes in achieving academic success.
In 1991 she received the Lan Hewlett Award for providing academic-support services to student athletes. In 2011 she was the first woman and first non-athlete to be honored as a Husky Legend at the UW-Hawaii Football game. During Homecoming that year she was honored at a reception at the Northwest African American Museum, where many of her former student athletes came to give testimony to her influence in their lives.
In March 2012, at the Northwest African American Museum, she and her daughter, Carol Peoples Proctor, president of the Black Heritage Society, were among those honored as Greater Seattle Freedom Sisters by the Smithsonian and the Ford Motor Company.
In May 2012, this respected and admired woman received the University of Washington Charles E. Odegaard Award, which was established in 1973 to honor individuals whose leadership in the community exemplifies the former president's work on behalf of diversity. The award notes that her commitment to connecting students of color with the UW community, as well as her loyal service as a mentor, advisor, and confidant to thousands of students, reflect the goals of the UW Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity and the Educational Opportunity Program.
Peoples is the mother of three children -- John, Steven (deceased), and Carol -- and grandmother of five. She is an avid bridge player, traveling to tournaments and taking cruises with bridge pals. She is an officer in the American Bridge Association and a member of the Les Dames Bridge Club, Seattle's historic black women's club founded in 1947. Gertrude Peoples also is very proud of the 18 years she has spent chauffeuring grandchildren to school.