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A healthy history

"Everything we do is for the betterment of humanity—namely, to lead healthier and better lives. All of us think that’s a noble pursuit."

o other department on the Reynolda Campus can simultaneously claim as much stability and as much change as health and exercise science. It has had only three chairs in the 47 years Wake Forest has been in Winston-Salem, and all three are still around, along with many of the original faculty. Every faculty member it has tenured in the past quarter century remains in the department—a record of collective longevity probably unrivaled at the University.

At the same time, the department’s mission has morphed over the years from physical education teacher training taught by instructors and part-time coaches to research by doctorate holders on lifestyle interventions in chronic-disease prevention and rehabilitation, along with clinical programs and health professions preparation. It generates more grant support from external sources—and is funded at a higher level per professor— than any other department on campus.

On the Old Campus, physical education was part of a combined department with athletics under the directorship of Jim Weaver. After World War II, Weaver (who would go on to become the first commissioner of the newly formed ACC in 1954) hired Jim Long to redesign the required physical education classes and establish a program for the training of teachers in health, physical education, recreation, and coaching.

Within three years, Long hired Marge Crisp to conduct a women’s intramural program, Dot Casey as her assistant, and Harold Barrow to teach in the areas of philosophy, administration, and tests and measurements. Casey and Crisp, who still live near the Reynolda Campus, formed the Women’s Recreation Association and offered practically every club activity and sport imaginable for coeds. Barrow, a Missouri native who was the first—and for 20 years, the only— doctorate holder in the department, also was an assistant basketball coach.

The spring before the College’s move to its new campus, Gene Hooks joined the staff as an instructor in physical education and baseball coach. Just as Wake Forest was preparing to open the new campus that fall, the trustees, acknowledging the growth of its physical education programs, approved dividing physical education and athletics into separate departments. Long resigned to accept another position and Barrow was named chair of physical education.

“Dr. Barrow,” as his students always called him, wrote or co-wrote two books, traveled the state testing the physical aptitude of schoolchildren, was active in his professional association, and established Wake Forest’s physical education teacher preparation program as one of the most respected in the state. His national stature was acknowledged later in his career by his induction into the prestigious American Academy of Physical Education.

One of Barrow’s first hires was Leo Ellison, who taught and coached swimming and ran the intramural program for more than 40 years. Now retired, Ellison still lives in Winston-Salem, as does Hooks, who after coaching baseball, went on to a venerable career as director of athletics until his retirement in 1992. For more than a decade, Barrow, Crisp, Casey, and Ellison formed the core of physical education, their efforts augmented by coaches assigned half time.

Until the late 1960s, “P.E. was looked upon as games,” said the tall and formal Barrow on a serene winter morning. He looked out at snow-covered Old Town Club from the Faculty Drive home he shares with Kate, his wife of 32 years who was Jim Weaver’s widow. Barrow himself had been widowed prematurely after nearly 30 years in his first marriage. “Then we began to be looked upon as science.”

Barrow points to the acquisition of a treadmill in 1967 as the watershed moment in the department’s evolution. That, he said, enabled him to hire Mike Pollock, a doctoral graduate in exercise physiology from the University of Illinois. “When we got that treadmill our prestige went up,” said Barrow, who will be 94 in August. “Mike Pollock no sooner got here than he started assembling it.”

Six years earlier, Wake Forest had established its Graduate School. If a university (which Wake Forest College became that same year of 1967) is to have an accredited graduate program, it must have a graduate faculty—teachers who have terminal degrees and do research. Although teaching remained (and remains to this day) a priority in faculty hiring decisions, the doctorate and a proclivity for research began to inform those decisions much more centrally.

Pollock’s hiring established an Illinois connection that would prove central to the department’s development. When a faculty position opened in 1970, Pollock called a former colleague at Illinois, Bill Hottinger, a specialist in early childhood motor development. Hottinger applied and was hired. Three years later, Paul Ribisl, a cardiac rehabilitation specialist at Kent State and a friend and former graduate school colleague of Pollock and Hottinger at Illinois, was appointed. Within five years, a small but solid core of research-oriented faculty had been formed.

Barrow stepped down as department chair in 1975 (he retired from the faculty two years later) and Hottinger succeeded him. “One of the first things I did was eliminate the half-and-half teaching-coaching arrangement,” said Hottinger, still robust at 73 after a lifetime of proper exercise and diet. “Fortunately, Dean [of the College Tom] Mullen and [Provost] Ed Wilson were very supportive.

“If you’re going to be a good coach, you have to have good players, and the same is true of a department,” Hottinger noted. In the late 1970s, he hired, in succession, health psychologist Jack Rejeski, biomechanicist Steve Messier, and pulmonary physiologist Michael Berry, all of them Ph.D.-holders or candidates. All are still at Wake Forest, and over the years they have attracted millions of dollars in research grants to the department.

Hottinger’s hires were part of a larger vision to build upon an outpatient cardiac rehabilitation program Ribisl had begun in 1975 with Henry Miller, a cardiologist at the medical school. The first of its kind in North Carolina, it attracted a sizable research grant from the American Heart Association and started to take off.

The specialties of Rejeski, Messier, and Berry complemented Ribisl’s and fleshed out what was becoming a formidable focus of specialization: the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease. As a health psychologist, Rejeski is expert at motivating people to modify unhealthful behaviors like smoking, fatty diet, and lack of exercise—a crucial component of a clinical rehabilitation program. Messier taught anatomy and Berry cardiopulmonary function.

By the mid-1980s, it seemed only a matter of time before the transition from physical education would be complete. “Although it wasn’t true in our case, nationwide, physical education departments had acquired a reputation as a place where schools dumped their scholarship athletes and scholastic underachievers,” Hottinger said. “I kept hearing from my faculty about the availability of research grants. Who, they asked, was going to give a grant to a department of physical education?

“By that time, student interest in physical education had really begun to dwindle,” he continued. “The state schools were doing a good job of training [P.E.] teachers, so our thought was, why duplicate those programs? Why not concentrate on what we’re doing best, and doing differently?” Added Ribisl: “We were a small school and could not be all things to all people. We decided early on that we didn’t have the faculty to excel in both physical education and our new directions in health, fitness, and prevention and rehabilitation.”

In 1985, the department’s name was changed to health and sport science, and a year later the physical education program was formally terminated. Focus on the undergraduate level was shifted to preparation for careers as physician’s assistants and in physical therapy and athletic training, with master’s students concentrating on clinical trials and cardiac rehabilitation as well as coursework.

Hottinger said Title IX was the most challenging development he faced in his entire tenure as chair. Passed as legislation in 1972 and implemented in force in 1975, it required colleges to spend equivalently on women’s and men’s sports programs. “Those were turbulent times politically, and I took a lot of heat from supporters of equal opportunities for women as time went on,” he recalled. “But they also were interesting and invigorating times.”

Crisp and Casey had incorporated modern dance (called “rhythms” because the Baptists prohibited dancing) in their women’s program on the Old Campus, and dance continued to be part of the department’s offerings in Winston-Salem. As it developed from aerobics exercise into more formal dance training in the ‘70s and ‘80s under the guidance of Deborah David and then Rebecca Myers, tensions mounted over its status in the department in light of Title IX and the department’s new focus on scientific research. “Becky did some great things in dance, and she wanted to do more, so we kind of fought a little bit,” Hottinger said. “I told her she really belonged in fine arts.” Hottinger stepped down as chair in 1991, but not before working with the dean’s office to facilitate dance’s eventual transfer to the Scales Fines Arts Center and combined departmental status with theatre in 1994. (About the same time, the intramural recreation program was moved out of health and exercise science, and it has thrived since as an independent unit under the leadership of Max Floyd.)

Ribisl succeeded Hottinger as chair, and under his leadership the department has emerged over the past dozen years as one of the finest of its kind in the country. Its cardiac rehabilitation program, which last year moved into a new facility near Groves Stadium, has improved the lives of thousands of heart attack victims and cardiopulmonary disease sufferers and has been the catalyst for numerous other joint research collaborations with School of Medicine faculty members in areas ranging—in addition to cardiovascular and pulmonary disease—from cancer and arthritis to geriatrics and osteoporosis.

In 1996, the department’s name was changed one last time, to health and exercise science. Today, it is dedicated to the health and well being of a public on the brink of a serious epidemic of obesity and its debilitating consequences, such as diabetes. “What we’re doing,” said Ribisl, “is dealing with the consequences of a nation that does not have good health behaviors.” As a testament both to the department’s stature and to the severity of the subject matter, Ribisl, Rejeski, and nutritionist Gary Miller are collaborating with the Department of Public Health Science at the School of Medicine as the coordinating center for a multi-year, $180-million, 20-site study of exercise and diet in obese diabetics.

Ribisl points with pride to his faculty. Nine of the 12 full-time faculty members have doctorate degrees, and all of them are well-published, have held offices in professional organizations, and have served as reviewers for or editors of major journals. Despite most of them having received offers to go elsewhere at one time or another, everybody who has been tenured since Rejeski was hired 25 years ago remains in the department.

“The collegiality within the department is a major reason for its stability,” Ribisl said. “There’s a synergy among the faculty; they care about and are supportive of their colleagues. We exercise and socialize together, and we interact on studies that require a team effort.

“From Scales-Wilson-Mullen to Hearn-Anderson-Escott, we’ve had very strong support from the administration,” he continued. “Winston-Salem is an agreeable community. And we have phenomenal resources in our connection with the Medical Center. All of us think we have the best jobs in the country.”

Ribisl is quick to credit the foundation built by Barrow and Hottinger. “Each of us inherited a solid department from our predecessor and then worked to improve on an already successful department,” he said. “One always hopes to leave a department in good shape to a successor and each of them did that—but hopefully we have continued to make it even better.

“The constant, it seems, is Pro Humanitate,” he concluded. “Everything we do is for the betterment of humanity—namely, to lead healthier and better lives. All of us think that’s a noble pursuit.”
--David Fyten

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