- Associated Press - Sunday, May 17, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - She was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1990, when a large number of Episcopal churches believed only men should hold that title.

And from 1978-80, when Beth Wickenberg Ely worked as a sports writer/columnist for The Clarion-Ledger, she was believed to be the first female sports in Mississippi and at The Clarion-Ledger, but in fact Sue Dabbs, who started out as a “copy girl” at the paper claims that title. Dabbs worked at the paper from 1962-1975 and became a full-time sports reporter under sports editor Larry Guest.

When Ely was hired by The Clarion-Ledger/Jackson Daily News executive sports editor Tom Patterson, “there were perhaps a dozen” women working in sports departments across the country, according to The New York Times. Among them: Leslie Visser at The Boston Globe and Jane Levy at the Washington Post.

They weren’t always welcomed by their male counterparts or by coaches and players.

“I’m happy to say the sports writers I worked with in Jackson were great. The guys couldn’t have been nicer,” says Beth, 61, who grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, and now resides in Columbus, North Carolina. “And Tom Patterson … God love him, he was a piece of work. But he was so talented and so far ahead of his time.”

The Atlanta Journal lured Beth from Jackson in 1980. The waters weren’t so smooth in Georgia.

“I originally went there to work on the sports desk,” she says. “I would say about half the sports writers there didn’t want a woman in their department.

After graduating in 1975 from Agnes Scott College - studying economics, sociology and political science - Beth earned her master’s in journalism from Columbia University in 1976.

Her first newspaper job was at the Providence (Rhode Island) Journal as the Homes and Real Estate editor. She was there nearly two years.

“I’m such a Southerner, though,” she says. “It snowed in Providence in May. I told myself I was taking the first job offer I got from a newspaper located below the Mason-Dixon line.”

The Clarion-Ledger originally hired Beth to write for the infant features section.

“Features didn’t even have a place in the newsroom. They put me at a desk right beside the sports department, and I was always talking sports with the guys.”

She grew up one of three girls whose parents and grandparents were hard-core sports fans. She played tennis and golf growing up, soccer and softball in high school and intramural field hockey in college.

Patterson, who died in 2012 at age 62, was “hot to hire a female sports writer in 1978,” Beth recalls. “He had looked and looked, trying to find one. Finally, he looked at me one day and said, ‘You know sports. Why don’t you do it?’ He went and talked to the editors, and all of a sudden I was a sports writer.”

She mostly wrote columns and features.

“Tom was really good about letting me pick a lot of the stories I did,” she says. “I remember (Ole Miss head football coach) Steve Sloan was really nice to me. And one of my favorites was (Ole Miss women’s basketball coach) Van Chancellor.”

She wrote about sports-related events outside of Mississippi, too.

She traveled to Atlanta in 1978 and wrote a feature story about a Georgia Tech cheerleader suffering a broken neck while attempting a flip off a mini-trampoline.

Standing 5-foot-2, Beth interviewed 7-foot-2 LSU basketball player Andy Campbell, who was headed to play for the Australian national team in the 1980 summer Olympics in Moscow.

From 1980 through 1985, she worked for The Arizona Daily Star, The Dallas Times Herald and the Philadelphia Inquirer. She covered Super Bowls, NCAA basketball tournaments, SEC and ACC basketball tournaments, Major League spring training.

In 1984 she married “the only man I ever dated who knew nothing about sports,” she says. Beth and Duncan have a 28-year-old son, Penn, who is an attorney in Charleston, South Carolina.

She discovered a new calling in 1985, enrolling in Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in New York. She graduated in 1989 and returned in 2013 to earn her master of divinity and her doctorate in theology.

Not once has she missed sports writing.

“I found something that meant more to me. Running a church. Helping people. Marrying people. I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of funerals, and some of those people I helped through their illnesses.”

“And my early days in sports helped me when so many people thought only men should be priests.”

In 2013, Beth was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer that attacks the bone marrow’s plasma cells. She underwent a bone marrow transplant, using her own stem cells, and she is now in remission.

“I had to retire from the church when I got sick,” she says. “My No. 1 job is to get well. But I still get to do some things with the church. I also write and edit things. I have a novel going. I’m enjoying life.”


Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, https://www.clarionledger.com

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