Thursday, December 28, 2017 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews
Featured image: Mary Love, who died earlier this month at 96. | Courtesy Karen Campbell
Mary Eloise Love, who died at her Maywood home on Dec. 23 at the age of 96, was a rare being — an African American woman who played volleyball in the first half of the 20th Century well enough to establish herself in the sport professionally.
She also taught the sport well enough that she molded a younger sibling into an olympian before becoming a local ambassador of the sport in Maywood and communities beyond it.
According to an article published in the Proviso Herald, which recognized her as its ‘mother of the year’ in 2004, Love “began playing volleyball in her 20s” before going on to play professionally “on courts from Hawaii to New York.”
“Everybody in Maywood and across the Proviso Township area knew her as ‘the volleyball lady,'” said Love’s daughter, Karen A. Campbell, who confirmed her mother’s death during an interview on Dec. 28. Campbell said she didn’t know what caused Love’s death.
Born and raised in Chicago, Love was not one to easily fit into the dominant social paradigm that was placed on women at the time.
“I get bored just sitting around the house,” Love told the Herald in 2004, when her husband, John, was still alive. “I’m not a homemaker, let’s put it at that. I have to get out.”
Mary Love, second from left, with the late Cook County Sheriff Richard Elrod. | Courtesy Karen Campbell
“The expectation was you went to school, then got married then lived happily ever after,” Campbell told the Herald at the time. “She went the athletic route.”
And Love took her younger sister, Verneda Thomas, with her.
“Back in the 1940s and 1950s, my mother and aunt were the only two blacks in volleyball,” Campbell said, adding that love played with the Chicago Rebels in the 1930s and 1940s under legendary coach Bertha H. Lucas.
Love’s professional playing days stopped in 1960, when she had Campbell, but she didn’t stop moving. She did full-time clerical work and was a bilingual translator for the Chicago Police Department and the Cook County Sheriff’s Department for a few decades.
She also watched the fruit of her efforts with Thomas, who was the only African American on the U.S. Olympic Women’s Volleyball Team roster at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
During a 2014 interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Thomas, who died last year at 79, recalled the racism that contoured her olympic experience.
“At the nationals, I couldn’t stay in the same hotel as my team,” Thomas said. “I had competed internationally in track and never had that same segregation in other countries that I encountered in the U.S.”
Verneda Thomas, the younger sister of Mary Love, who died in 2016. | Courtesy USA Volleyball
In 2004, Love described her and her sister’s struggles with racism for the Herald.
“Many times I slept in the station wagon because my sister and I couldn’t go in the hotels,” Love said.
Thomas was also a world-class track and field star, winning a national high jump title in 1957 as part of the U.S. women’s track and field team. She also refereed at the national level.
When she died, Doug Beal, USA Volleyball CEO, described Thomas as a “trailblazer,” as well as a “warm, upbeat, outgoing and engaging person.”
In addition to reveling in her own, and her sister’s, success, Love also volunteered — a lot. She was a renowned volleyball referee for over 70 years throughout Chicago and a pioneering, and longstanding, volunteer with Maywood Fine Arts’ Stairway of the Stars Dance Studio in Maywood, among numerous other voluntary roles.
“She was our best volunteer,” said MFA co-founder Lois Baumann. “She’s been involved with helping us for at least 45 years. She brought Karen to dance when I first started working with the Maywood recreation department.”
Baumann said that even into old age, Love was helping out, her athleticism still apparent.
“We had an annual event where we all dressed up like the Mouseketeers and would make an adult pyramid,” Baumann said on Dec. 28. “She was always on the bottom, holding us up. She was just a great person and I’m going to miss her.”
Baumann said that even into her 80s, Love could still be seen on a ladder refereeing volleyball games at District 89 schools. Love, Baumann said, made sure that those games were sufficiently regulated.
Campbell, who, like her mother, also played volleyball and keeps busy, said in 2004 that the biggest gift she received from Love was “work ethic.”
“Be diverse in what you do — don’t just settle for one or two (things),” Campbell told the Herald. “Always have a backup plan, an alternative.”
Funeral services for Love are scheduled to take place on Saturday, Jan. 6, at Broadview Wallace Funeral Home, 2020 W. Roosevelt Rd. in Broadview, from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. The wake will be 10 a.m. to 11 a.m., while the cremation memorial services will be from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. VFP
For more local news, ‘Like’ our Facebook page