KIMBERLY • On the court she was known as Coach Emerson or Mrs. E.
She was a record-setting Hagerman high school basketball player. She scored 542 points in a single season and led the Pirate Lassies to win back-to-back state championships in the late ’30s. She was a 35-year teacher and coach at Kimberly High School, a supporter of Title IX, and in 1989 she was inducted into the IHSAA Hall of Fame for her work as a coach and educator.
But off the court, Jean Florence Parsons Emerson was known as “Nanna” to her granddaughter Ashlee Peterson. She drove an old 1963 VW Bug, smelled like a mixture of Noxzema and Dove soap and, after a game — win or lose — was always there to offer advice and a hug.
Though it has been almost eight years since “Nanna” died on April 18, 2005, Peterson said it’s important to remember her grandmother and her contributions to the Magic Valley.
“I tell the kids every once in a while about her,” Peterson said. “She’s part of Magic Valley history ... It makes me proud of her.”
Peterson is a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Robert Stuart Middle School in Twin Falls.
“I don’t think kids focus on the history of the area as much,” Peterson said.
Peterson said her students often ask her why she is a teacher. She said it’s because it’s a fourth-generation career. Peterson’s mother, Clare Marie Kipp, was a teacher as was Jean’s mother, Florence Parsons.
“Mother was so many things,” Kipp said. “She was a great dancer, she always believed girls were wonderful and shouldn’t be treated any less then boys ... she was home every night cooking dinner.”
Kipp said her mother, a powerful force in her life, always encouraged her to be active.
“I always took a sports class of some sort,” Kipp said. “Our mother always believed if you were really active your brain did better. We always tried to keep up with mom, but it was hard.”
Jean Emerson was a trailblazer during a time when women were expected to stay home, cook, clean and tend to the children. The myth was that females could be impaired by strenuous physical activity and not be able to bear children if they exerted themselves in sports.
In a July 2, 1989, Times-News article, Emerson said: “Out of all the girls I’ve known, I didn’t know of any that had trouble. I certainly didn’t have any problems.”
And World War II helped set the stage for Emerson to take on roles held traditionally by men.
Emerson took over as the coach of the Kimberly football team in 1944. She also coached boys’ basketball for two years.
When it came to coaching basketball, she was a natural, but football was a sport she wasn’t familiar with.
In the May 19, 1987, sports section of The Idaho Statesman, Emerson recalled the day she was asked by the superintendent to coach football.
“I told him I wanted to think about it,” Emerson was quoted. She said she woke up the next day to find she had an impatient superintendent.
“She was a little nervous, she had no idea how to coach it,” Kipp said.
In the July 1989 Times-News article, Emerson said her friend, Dr. Glenn Hoss, who played football at the University of Chicago, helped her learn the game. During halftime of the football games, the superintendent would wait in the boys’ locker room until they’d finished using the bathroom and then signal Emerson to come down to address her team.
This garnered national attention. Emerson was featured in the Stars and Stripes newspaper in an article titled “Women Taking Care of Business” and in newspapers across the country.
Emerson’s son, David, said he found letters from soldiers who saw her picture in the April 5, 1945, Honolulu Star-Bulletin. In the black and white photograph Emerson is giving pointers to player Leland Stronk.
The cutline states: “One of the few successful women coaches of men’s basketball teams is pretty Jean Parson, 23, coach of the Kimberly, Ida., high school team that has just won its sub-district championship.”
The attention that was given to Emerson’s appearance in newspaper articles during the 1940s is something that is more apparent to Emerson’s children now.
“It would be considered sexist today,” David said. “The comely, the attractive ... you couldn’t get away with that today.”
One Times-News article in Emerson’s scrapbook, introducing her as the new boys’ coach, says: “But it’s not only on the ball that Miss Parsons has a lot — she’s got good looks and ultra-femininity that one wouldn’t generally associate with a woman who was about to enter a field that for years had been regarded as sacrosanct to men. The hardiness that men have believed so necessary to the coaching profession is entirely missing in her appearance and demeanor.”
Though Emerson’s home was filled with memorabilia, David never really looked through all the scrapbooks she kept.
“My mom didn’t talk about herself too much. She never pulled them out and said, ‘Look at me,’” David said.
After her death, David said, he started reading the yellowed clippings clinging to the brown pages. He said it’s hard to tell when some of the stories were written because there are no dates.
“She never tooted her own horn,” Peterson said. “That was a big deal during the ’50s and ’60s that she wasn’t home but in the gym.”
Sometimes, Peterson said, she wishes her grandmother would have talked about the struggles. But Peterson said she “did what she had to do.”
“For the women and girls in this area I don’t think people recognize the struggles it took for girls to play sports, let alone coach them,” Peterson said.
And because of that Peterson will continue to tell students about the sports star and coach she knew as Nanna.