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Kathy Nutt Nekton receives Founders’ Day Award

Champion of the mind-body connection was a courageous voice for equality during Exeter’s burgeoning years of coeducation.

By
Jennifer Wagner
May 17, 2019
Kathy Nekton

Kathy Nekton speaks at assembly as Janney Wilson '83 and Principal Rawson look on.

In a packed Assembly Hall this morning, General Alumni Association Vice President Janney Wilson '83 presented Kathy Nutt Nekton P’85, P’98 with the 2019 Founders’ Day Award. Students, faculty, staff, trustees and many members of the fiftieth reunion class were on hand to honor Nekton’s contributions to the Academy.

During her 35-year career as a physical education instructor and coach of basketball, field hockey, lacrosse and swimming, Nekton championed the connection between the body and the mind for adolescent health and was a courageous voice for equality during Exeter’s burgeoning years of coeducation.

As the school’s first female athletic director and chair of the Department of Physical Education, colleagues say she practically wrote the story of women’s sports at the Academy.

In her opening acceptance remarks Nekton said, “I am especially happy to be here the year we all recognize Elizabeth Phillips as an integral founder of Phillips Exeter. … How fitting that the pluralization of the Founders’ Day Award happens as we approach the school’s fiftieth year of coeducation.”

Watch the full assembly here:

Early years of coeducation

Nekton started at the school as girls club basketball coach in 1973. It was a time in the Academy’s history, and the nation’s, in which women and girls had little representation. The first 39 females were admitted to Exeter in the fall of 1970 and Title IX legislation, calling for equal opportunities for both sexes, was signed into law in 1972.  

Nekton worked steadily, and from the start, to level the playing field. And while diversity and inclusion were not common terms when she was growing up in the 1950s, those ideals permeated her childhood. She was raised on liberal college campuses where her father served as a Methodist chaplain and her mother taught English. At Exeter, she helped generations of students become their best selves — athletically, intellectually and morally.

Ever humble, Nekton credited others’ influence for her successes. Among those she recognized were former chair of the athletic department Ted Seabrooke, who offered Nekton her first job at PEA, former track coach Ralph Lovshin, legend Hammy Bissell, and her husband and fellow physical education instructor, Roger Nekton. “These are the people who connected to colleagues, students and staff and lived with a purpose,” she said. “Those whose wisdom and connection with young people invites emulation.”

Nekton also reflected upon how much Exeter has changed over the decades. Students used to wear uniforms to PE, she said, displaying a picture of girls in red shorts and striped T-shirts. And Love Gym didn’t even include girls locker rooms when it was first built.

During her tenure, Nekton fought for equitable space for her teams to practice, change and compete. Her knack for offering an alternative perspective without negating another helped make positive changes. She instituted the first coed team practices, for example, training female swimmers alongside their male counterparts. It was a practical solution to negotiate limited pool time, but it became a learning opportunity for both girls and boys about appreciating everyone as an athlete.

Championing the mind-body connection

Nekton’s collaborative approach and open-minded spirit allowed her to impact athletes and non-athletes alike. As a fully invested faculty member – winning the Rupert Radford Faculty Fellowship Award three times – Nekton served on Academy-wide committees related to admissions, discipline, curricular review and hiring.

By being a voice in areas of the school that were historically reserved for academic faculty, Nekton advanced the understanding that physical activity serves children intellectually, developmentally and physiologically.

Her leadership skills were recognized regionally as well: In 1990, she was elected president of the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council, the first woman to hold this position.

Delivering the citation in Nekton’s honor, Wilson read: “Kathy let young girls and young women know that they could do anything they wanted; that they could rise into spaces historically reserved for men; and that they could do so by trusting their intellect, their idiosyncrasies, their integrity.”

Rise to the challenges

Offering a final bit of advice, Nekton reminded the students that they too will be challenged daily, and how they respond will determine if they made a difference. “First you work hard because you were taught that’s what you do, and you try for good grades, and it’s all a bit of a slog,” said Nekton. “Then you realize there are things you’ve come to believe in, people that matter, and you begin to focus on what you can do in the big picture, and hopefully that call comes and someone says that what you did as an individual did make a difference.”

The Founders’ Day Award was conceived by Principal Stephen G. Kurtz and established by the Trustees in 1976. It is given annually by the General Alumni Association in recognition of devoted service to the Academy.

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