Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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July 8, 2014

Barner was a pioneer of girls basketball in McDowell

BLUEFIELD — Gladine Thomas Barner did not intend to be a pioneer, but the principal at her first teaching assignment at Kimball Junior High School had other ideas.

Barner, born and raised in the McDowell County town of Algoma, started what is believed to be the first junior high school girls full-court basketball team in the “Free State” in the early 1970s.

When she was hired at Kimball, “I was going to teach health, and physical education and biology,” Barner, now 66, recalled recently. “I went in to see the principal. ... He said, ‘Ms. Barner, do you like basketball?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I do.’ He said, ‘Well, good, because you’re the girls’ coach. We have to have a basketball team, and so you’re it.’ ”

She didn’t have to look far for talent. Boys and girls were playing together on makeshift basketball courts throughout the area, even “up into some of the little hollows,” she said. In that era, the female players were sometimes called “tomboys,” she said.

“Back in the day, anywhere you went, you would see a basketball goal, and 20 to 30 kids playing,” she said.

“They played until dark; there were no lights around (to illuminate the courts). They were out there and they couldn’t even see the rim, but they were shooting. They’d be shootin’, and hittin’, and it was wonderful.”

“The school colors were green and gold, and I drove a green and gold truck,” she said. “So I went around through the neighborhoods, and picked up girls. I went to Keystone, Kimball, Landgraff, and just all around, (to) places where these kids would be going to Kimball.”

“I would go meet the parents,” she said. “I’d introduce myself and told them I was going to be teaching at the school and everything, and we had to have a girls basketball team.”

The response of the parents was “fantastic,” she said. “The parents were so helpful. You don’t find a lot of that today.”

“I would come by, pick (the students) up, take ’em to the school. We’d play ball, we’d work out and do different things. Then some of the parents would come and bring us something to eat. ... It was just wonderful.”

“That’s what we did in the summer,” she said. She also lobbied the principal to buy team uniforms, to which he agreed. “When it came time for school, we were so happy, we didn’t know what to do,” Barner said.

Then bad news intervened.

Barner recalled, “He (the principal) called me back in and said, ‘Ms. Barner, I’m sorry, but we can’t have a team now, because nobody else in the county has a team.’ I said, ‘But WE have one. ... That’s OK. We’re going to play SOMEbody.’

“He said, ‘But we can’t do that.’ I said, ‘Oh, yes, we can.’ I said, ‘We have a team and we’re going to play. We will find somebody to play.’ ”

“And we did,” she said. “We wound up playing the high school teams in the county.” She said that in addition to taking on the Welch Maroon Wave and Big Creek Owls, they also traveled to Mercer County to play at Bramwell, Montcalm and Bluefield high schools.

“It was just awesome,” she said. “I was fortunate enough to have about 15 to 17 girls on the team, all the time. I shuffled in five at a time.”

She admitted to recording some overwhelming wins, by scores like 92-10, but said, “I never did play to just degrade anybody — I played the so-called ‘first five’ for awhile, and then the next five came, then the next five came, then you mix ’em up a little bit.”

“They were so quick. They had speed, and they could shoot, out of this world, and that was all of them! ... They could, really, beat the average boys’ team. They were just that good.”

“The greatest part was when they (the Kimball players) went on to high school,” she said. “Some of them went to Welch, and some went to Northfork. Both places, I was real proud of the fact that they were very successful after leaving Kimball. I just love it.”

The West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission did not offer a state girls basketball tournament until 1976. Once they got around to it, Northfork High School won three of the first four Class AA state championships — with several of Barner’s former students playing roles.

Barner said she still goes to the state girls tournament every year in Charleston, now as one of the judges for the sportsmanship and best cheering section awards.

“I go and get a program,” she said, “and every year, the girls that made all-tournament and broke records and stuff, I get to circle (their names) and say, ‘They belong to me.’ That’s such a good feeling.”

“Quite a few of them got an opportunity to play in college, and I was real pleased with that,” she added.

Barner’s education included a diploma from Elkhorn High School and a teaching degree from Bluefield State College. She said, “I majored in health, physical education, biology and general science. I have four major areas that I can teach.”

She went on to obtain a master’s degree in education from Marshall University — which eventually helped her land a job as an athletic director.

After three years teaching at Kimball, she moved to North Marion High School, near Fairmont, where she still teaches biology.

“I coached the basketball and track there for 10 years,” she said. After that, I was athletic director for 16 years.”

“Then, they moved the athletic directors out of the high school. I applied for the job, but I didn’t really want it, because you had to go to the board office, and I loved it where I was. So I stayed at the school. I’ve been the game manager for several of the sports. I’m still involved.”

On June 28 in Bluefield, she donned a whistle and sneakers for the “honor” of officiating a game of the Hot Flashes, a group composed of former female stars from Welch, Gary, Northfork and Mount View high schools.

She said she learned that the women, most now middle-aged, had formed the Hot Flashes from an article in the Bluefield Daily Telegraph.

Her trip to Bluefield was not a long one, as it turns out, since she still has family in McDowell County. “I come down every summer to spend time with my family,” she said.

She doesn’t appear to be slowing down, for sure.

“I’m 66, and proud of it,” she said. “I’ll be 67 if the Lord blesses me to see October. I’m not ashamed of this age. I feel good.”

— Contact Tom Bone at tbone@bdtonline.com; Twitter @BDTBone

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