UP sports pioneer excelled in league of her own

Negaunee native Karen Violetta Kunkel will be remembered as a person who was an important part of the evolution of women’s sports — and who helped to bring Olympic sports training to our area.

Kunkel died in Marquette Tuesday. She was 83.

She shone on the diamond, playing softball and baseball both. She was in fact a part of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in the 1950s and was among the founders of the AAGPBL Players Association. She served as an adviser to the 1992 film about the women players, “A League of Their Own.”

While in high school, Kunkel was a member of a softball team in Marquette that won a state softball championship, twice. Then after graduating from Negaunee High School, she attended Michigan State University, where she earned two degrees. She got her masterÕs degree in physical education from Michigan State University.

During her years at MSU, Kunkel engaged in a number of athletic endeavors. She played in the NCAA lacrosse tournament in 1953. She also skied on the men’s ski team at MSU and qualified for the NCAA meet, but was not allowed to compete because she was female.

That motivated her to advocate even more vehemently for women’s sports and in 1976, she help start the women’s national collegiate ski championships under the aegis of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. She served as a director of the AIAW championships, as a member of the organization’s National Ski Board, and on the board of directors of the Midwest Collegiate Ski Association.

Kunkel also was an advocate for healthy living for everyone, lessons she brought to the classroom while a professor at Northern Michigan University.

But she may be best remembered for the energy and enthusiasm she brought forth to help NMU become part of the United States Olympic program’s training efforts. In 1985, NMU won the designation as first an Olympic Training Center, then later a United States Olympic Education Center — allowing athletes to train in their sports while still pursuing their high school or college diplomas.

Through the years, Kunkel was inducted into NMU Sports Hall of Fame, Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame, the Grand Rapids Sports Hall of Fame and earned a Presidential Commendation. She stayed active throughout most of her life and encouraged others to do the same.

Anyone who ever met her knows Karen Violetta Kunkel was force of nature. Condolences to her family and her many friends as they remember a woman who truly was in a league of her own.