October 13th, 2011

Hyland's Heroes: Kay Whelan

Paul Najjar

CSN Staff Writer

Hyland's Heroes: Kay Whelan
photo from Kay Whelan

Whelan helped pioneer local girl's and women's Catholic sports

The following feature is a part of a weekly series, sponsored by Hyland, Block & Hyland, called "Hyland's Heroes" - a set of profiles that will spotlight Louisville area Catholic volunteers, coaches and administrators who assist athletic programs and teams, and help promote excellence in all aspects of sports. Know someone that you think should be featured as the next "Hyland's Hero? Send your recommendation to editor@catholicsportsnet.com.  

For our first female Hyland’s Hero honoree, we talked to someone who has achieved a lot of firsts in her life. A pioneer in local girl’s and women’s athletics, Kay Whelan—Sacred Heart Hall of Fame member, cancer survivor, mother of three accomplished children—has touched thousands of lives.

The incomparably energetic Whelan, the first voice you hear when you contact the CSAA by phone, has been involved with Catholic sports at all levels in the Louisville area since her college days at Ursuline (now Bellarmine). Hers is a tale of a dedicated, passionate woman breaking through barriers to help teach and coach the girls in Louisville’s Catholic community.

She started her coaching career in 1962 when she was a freshman at Ursuline College. She was asked to coach the freshman basketball team that same year at her alma mater, Sacred Heart Academy. And yes, that was when girls still played six on each side—three offensive players and three defensive players—and had a jump ball after every basket.

She was hired as a physical education teacher and basketball coach at Holy Spirit in 1963 and 1964. She took a few years off to have three children and was back on the court as a coach at Our Lady of Lourdes from 1968 to 1971. Her children, Patrick, Wendy and Leigh, have had stellar careers in their fields. You might recognize Wendy as a Louisville Hometown Hero.

“My daughter Wendy left home at age 15 to live permanently in New York and embark on a ballet career,” Whelan said. “Of course none of us knew then that it would lead to becoming a principal dancer with the NYC Ballet. I’m very proud of all of my kids and their accomplishments.”

A member of the Sacred Heart Academy Hall of Fame, she returned to her alma mater for her second stint as coach, this time as the varsity coach for just one season, 1971-1972. She was then tapped as the head coach of the inaugural intercollegiate team at Bellarmine, a position she held from 1972 through 1978.

That is a lot of coaching, teaching and touching of lives in a sixteen year period; all before she turned 35 and all the while raising three children.

But it didn’t stop there. She took three years off to devote time to her family, but was lured back into coaching the 7th/8th grade team at her elementary alma mater, Holy Spirit, from 1981 through 1991.

Yes, nearly right back where she started and almost 30 years dedicated to Louisville Catholic sports teams as coach, mentor and leader.

Her infectious laugh and inquisitive manner depicts a woman who is constantly learning. Whelan’s effect on the sporting Louisville girls and women’s sporting community has been, and still is, far reaching. She’s coached a laundry list of some of the most prominent women in Louisville.

“My first coaching experience was during my freshman year of college,” she recalled. “I was fortunate to coach the freshmen team at Sacred Heart. After that year, I got an opportunity to teach Physical Education at Holy Spirit school. It was like a golden dream for me because I grew up in the CSAA as a student athlete at Holy Spirit. I left college after my sophomore year, but went back to school in 1987 and graduated from UofL in 1990.”

She taught for two years at Holy Spirit before getting married and starting a family. But that didn’t keep her away from serving Louisville Catholic school kids. As she recalls:

“I got a call from a friend of mine who also had had a young child and she told me that her baby sitter, who attended Lourdes, needed a coach. She asked me if I’d be interested in coaching them and that’s what drew me back into that whole period of coaching for the next decade or so.

“When coaching the varsity girls at Sacred Heart in 1971-72,” she continued, “I had some kids that I’d taught at Holy Spirit and some that I’d coached at Lourdes. And we did really well that year. I was fortunate to have incredible players who went on to achieve a lot of success in college and in life.”

So many interesting connections through sheer coincidence and one more that led to her landing the Bellarmine job. Right place, right time, right woman for the job. Every one of them.

“The man who had been supporting the club coach at Bellarmine caught me right after that Sacred Heart season was over in March,” she said. “We stood on the corner of Canons Lane and Lexington Road and he asked me, ‘What would you think of coming to Bellarmine? You would be the head coach and I’d be the assistant.’”

She took that position and kept learning along the way, including some lessons gleaned from the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels Head Coach Hubie Brown. Brown and his team practiced at Knights Hall in those days and Whelan would sit on the stage and watch those great players practice, Artis Gilmore and Louie Dampier among them. Brown had his way with words, but as a member of the Holy Spirit parish community, he also showed a gentle hand in apologizing for his colorful language to the young woman who watched his practices intently.

With a career of service and dedication to girl’s and women’s athletics, the Sacred Heart Hall of Famer received as much as she gave in her career. As a long time mentor and coach her energy has left an indelible mark on many, but the players also left a mark on her. “My joy comes from their knowledge of what they accomplished.”


Recent Articles