Just Add Water
NOT MUCH COULD GET UNDER RUTH Terrett Earle’s skin.
“She was almost unflappable, let’s put it that way,” her son, Sherod Earle, said during a phone conversation in January.
In 1921, Ruth Terrett Earle, then Ruth Terrett, was one of the first five women to enroll full-time at Virginia Tech, then Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute. In 1925, she would become the first woman to earn an engineering degree at the university.
Earle also is credited with spearheading the university’s first women’s basketball team, which legend says came about partly due to skills female students developed from avoiding water thrown at them by cadets.
“We became exceedingly alert and quick movers. In fact, we became so efficient in dodging water that we decided to extend our athletic ability even further, and as a consequence of this we had a basketball team,” one female student of the time reportedly said.
The first team, the “Sextettes,” formed in 1923 with Earle as the captain. Despite the male students attending games and rooting for the opposition, the team went 3-2 that season. The women scored victories over Blacksburg High School and Concord Teacher’s College, while losing to Radford College and the YMCA of Roanoke. And the 1925 Tin Horn, an alternative yearbook that the women created after being denied entry into the Bugle, said Earle “stirred up an enthusiasm for basketball.”
HOOP DREAMS: Ruth Terrett Earle helped organize the first women's basketball team at Virginia Tech.
“She [Earle] mentioned that they [the university] didn’t have much for the women to do, so I guess basketball was the easiest thing to organize,” said Sherod Earle, who lives in Maryland. “I don’t remember her talking too much about it, but I know that she did enjoy her classes and she did enjoy her time down there.”
Sherod Earle said his mother also spoke of riding a train to Christiansburg and then taking the Huckleberry Line into Blacksburg. As a student, Earle often demonstrated the characteristic determination described by her son in response to the misogyny of the day.
One such response is described in the university archives. “One day, Ruth Terrett, a civil engineering student, decided to show the men she could do just as well as them. She donned a cadet uniform and climbed the university’s water tower, a tradition the male cadets undertook to prove their strength and ability. That day, Ruth proved that women, when given the chance, could do what men could,” according to “Climbing the Water Tower: How Women Went from Intruders to Leaders at Virginia Tech.”
Earle also served at least one term as chair of the women students, a group that formed after female students were denied the ability to join most other campus organizations.
After graduating, Earle worked in a Washington, D.C., architect’s office for six years. She married Sherod L. Earle Sr. in 1931 and left the workforce for a time before returning in 1950 to work as a statistician for the Chesapeake Bay Institute of Johns Hopkins University. She was a member of the Society of Women Engineers and the College Woman’s Club of Annapolis and went on to breed and exhibit dachshunds before her death in 1995.
Sherod Earle said his mother stayed connected with the university throughout her life, went to reunions when possible, and even gave him some tips on attending Virginia Tech athletic events.
“She said, ‘When you go down there, say, ‘Hokie, Hokie, Hokie, hi,’ and they’ll know what you’re talking about,’” he said.
A page from The Tin Horn, an alternative yearbook created by the female students, highlights the early women's basketball team.
Women’s basketball at Virginia Tech would continue after Earle’s 1925 graduation, with the team rebranding itself the
“Turkey Hens” sometime before 1929. Around that time, it’s been said that the women began charging the male students, who were often still cheering on the opposition, exorbitant fees to attend games.
It wasn’t until 1972 that the university officially sanctioned women’s basketball as a club sport. In 1976, it became a varsity sport. In 1977, Helena Flannagan received partial aid, becoming the first women’s basketball player to earn a scholarship, and Kim Albany, who played from 197882, was the first player with a full scholarship. The 2021-22 team opened the season ranked No. 24 by the Associated Press and proudly hung a banner from its NCAA tournament appearance the previous season.
Although the water-dodging tale connected to the origin of women’s basketball at Virginia Tech may be more legend than fact, Sherod Earle believes his mom would be happy the story is being shared, and the game is being played.
“She would be proud of what y’all are doing,” Sherod Earle said.