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By BSU Alumni & Foundation

Published 3:57 p.m. on Dec. 21, 2023

Bemidji State University is saddened to announce the passing of Dr. Ruth Howe, the last surviving founder of BSU women’s athletics, who died on Wednesday morning, Dec. 20. She was 93.

“Bemidji State Athletics possesses a rich history, the foundation of which was laid in large part by Dr. Ruth Howe,” BSU director of athletics Britt Lauritsen said. “We express immense gratitude to the family and friends of Dr. Howe for their role in sharing her with the BSU family, as well as heartfelt condolences as they navigate this loss together.”

Howe’s legacy at Bemidji State is near-impossible to quantify. She was one of three official founders of BSU women’s athletics, alongside Marjory Beck and Betsy McDowell, and the trio’s work was instrumental in bringing women’s intercollegiate athletics to Bemidji and keeping them on campus.

“Dr. Howe chose vision over visibility, and she dedicated her life and her work to ensuring that the opportunities that once seemed far-fetched were realized at Bemidji State for women in athletics.”

– Bemidji State director of athletics Britt Lauritsen

A teacher by vocation, Howe carried that style into the way she coached her teams. She taught fundamentals and developed players into young women who were prepared to go on and teach the game to others themselves.

Howe coached for more than 20 years beginning in 1964, while the teams were still participating in extramurals. She was a driving force in women’s participation as a coach, and her diligent work behind the scenes helped thrust Bemidji State women into a new era of intercollegiate athletics starting in 1969.

Her accomplishments include the co-founding of four inaugural sports – basketball, volleyball, field hockey and swimming – in the face of prevailing conventional wisdom that, while athletic competition was considered healthy for men, it was “harmful and inappropriate” for women.

“Dr. Howe chose vision over visibility, and she dedicated her life and her work to ensuring that the opportunities that once seemed far-fetched were realized at Bemidji State for women in athletics,” Lauritsen said. “A lifelong educator, she impacted generations of students and led the way in her profession.”

Howe joined BSU’s physical education faculty in 1957 and later retired as a professor emerita in 1986. In those three decades, she coached basketball (1964-77), softball (1969) and tennis (1976-86).

Ruth Howe, center, coaching the women's tennis team during the 1970s.
Courtesy / Bemidji Pioneer

For basketball, Howe was the first head coach in school history and amassed a 95-50-1 overall record in 11 seasons, still the best winning percentage (.654) of any coach with more than one season in the program. Her basketball teams won Minn-Kota Conference championships in 1972-73 and again in 1975-76, and the Beavers also made five appearances in the Minnesota Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (MAIAW) state tournament under Howe.

In women’s tennis, the team placed as high as second in the conference, losing only one match in 1978. Howe also led the team to back-to-back sixth-place finishes at the MAIAW state tournament in 1979 and 1980.

Howe also founded the annual Lady Beaver Golf Tournament, now named the Howe-Welle Women’s Athletics Golf Tournament, which helps fund Bemidji State’s nine women’s athletics programs. In August 2023, with Howe in attendance, supporters raised an event-record $43,000.

Beyond BSU, Howe was an original committee member for the Minn-Kota Conference – a competitive women’s league for schools in Minnesota and North Dakota and one of the first of its kind in the country – and she served as the MAIAW president from 1972-75. From 1989-91, she was on the United States Curling Association board of directors and helped curling become an international and Olympic sport.

Among many other laurels, Howe was inducted into the BSU Athletic Hall of Fame in 1986 and into the NSIC Hall of Fame in 2003.

Alongside Beck and McDowell, Howe will forever be synonymous with the success and accomplishments of women’s athletics at Bemidji State.

“Her legacy is one to be celebrated and a light to carry us into our future,” Lauritsen said.

Visitation will be from 1-2 p.m., followed by a memorial service at 2 p.m., on Wednesday, Jan. 3, at Bemidji United Methodist Church.

Fighting for their place on the field

In 2019, Ruth Howe and Betsy McDowell returned to campus and sat down to discuss those early years of Bemidji State women's athletics.

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