When Eleanor Hansen arrived at Carleton College in 1952, female students didn't have a gymnasium. Instead, when they exercised, studied dance or took indoor physical education classes, they navigated the pillars in a basement of the old Gridley dormitory.
"The times were very different, not only here in Minnesota but everywhere," said Pat Lamb, Carleton's first women's athletics director and Hansen's life partner for 52 years. "She probably was lucky to have an office."
Hansen, who took over the women's physical education department, helped change all that. Known around Carleton as "Ele," she died July 20 at the age of 92 in Northfield, where she was known for her feistiness, fairness and love for sports and life.
Hansen helped transform the women's physical education department at Carleton into a full-fledged athletics department, pushed for construction of the Cowling Recreation Center for women, helped promote Title IX before it became law in 1972, trained women's sports coaches from around the region and coached women's softball and cross country until her retirement in 1986.
"She was tough but fair in her dealings," said Leon Lunder, former athletics director at Carleton. "I am forever indebted to Ele. She was a great mentor for me."
Hansen was born in 1921 in St. Paul. After graduating from Harding High School in 1939, she worked at Montgomery Ward as a catalog sales clerk and starred as a pitcher in a Twin Cities softball league for girls and women where she was known as the "little blonde twirler."
During World War II, she joined the WAVES, a program set up by the U.S. Navy for women to serve in the military. She was stationed at Hunter College in New York City.
After the war she returned to Minnesota to study at the University of Minnesota, earned a master's degree and spent a year teaching in Cloquet before she was hired as chair of the department of physical education for women at Carleton.
In the early days, she made the most of the basement and the campus outdoor space, organizing horseback riding, cross-country skiing, ice skating and archery, among other things. But she pushed for female students to get their own gym. Lamb said that in 1962, Hansen gave the president of the college an ultimatum — either build a gym for women or Hansen would leave.
Cowling Recreation Center, which became known as the Women's Gym, was built in 1965. The gym not only provided much-needed indoor space for women's and coed classes and intramurals, it also became a valuable social center for women. Connected by underground tunnel to women's dormitories, the gym became "a women's gathering place," Lamb said.
"They'd have sleepovers in the gyms and play guitar and sing all night, and they sort of felt like it was theirs," she said.
Hansen also built a sprawling intramurals program at the college, and in the summers trained coaches of women's sports from around the Midwest. In her later years she spent half the year in Arizona, and half the year in Northfield.
Hansen is survived by her life partner, Lamb. Services have already been held, though Carleton has scheduled a memorial service on homecoming weekend, at 7 p.m. Oct. 18 in the Carleton Chapel.