Being ‘the first’ isn’t always easy. But for Linda Vollkommer-Lynch, being ‘the first’ is just part of her life. In 1974, Linda became the first tenured female faculty member and first female athletics coach at Stevens Institute of Technology, and she continues to serve on the Stevens faculty as the fencing coach to this day. To celebrate Women’s History Month, read on to learn more about Linda Vollkommer-Lynch’s life in Hoboken and at Stevens.
(Photo credit: Stevens Institute of Technology)
Growing up in Hoboken
Linda is a third-generation Hobokenite who grew up in a traditional German-Irish household on 7th Street. Her mom handled housework and worked later in life. Her dad was a police officer in Hoboken, and Linda said he was always protective of her. “I had to watch what I did all the time because he was always driving around. Even when I had dates, he would pull up behind the car and talk to my dates,” Linda said to the Hoboken Historical Museum.
Growing up in Hoboken, Linda was part of the Girl Scouts, which she says is one of the biggest influences in her life. “The Girl Scouts leaders introduced me to everything I knew,” Linda said. “The Girl Scouts taught me every tree’s name in Hoboken, and I can still go around Hoboken and know the tree’s names.” She was very ambitious in the Girl Scouts, and she still has her sash, which is covered in badges. “I was the second biggest decorated because there was one other girl who beat me every year.”
Linda had an early love for sports, and as a child, she would sneak to Stevens’s campus to practice. “I used to sneak up to Stevens to the round gym (Walker gym), and I would watch the guys play basketball,” Linda said. “When they finished, they would teach me how to shoot, or I would find a basketball and shoot by myself. But I would get thrown out all the time, and then they’d call my father, and say, ‘Your daughter’s still up here. She’s sneaking in again.’”
When she was kicked out of the Stevens’ gyms, Linda went behind the Wallace School, and she’d play basketball with the people there. “And I got really good at basketball,” she said. “I could shoot a basket like you wouldn’t believe.”
Linda went to St. Michaels’ in Union City for high school, and when she got there, there were no women’s sports in schools. But she discovered there were women’s basketball teams at the nearby Catholic schools, so she joined that team and eventually earned an All-State title.
When Linda graduated high school, she wanted to go to college. But in her day, going to college was a big decision for a woman. “Back then, women were assumed to graduate from high school, get married, and have children,” Linda said. “You probably were not going to have a career. Because women, a lot of the time, didn’t have careers back then.”
She enrolled at New Jersey City State University, now, New Jersey City University, because the cost was $75 for one semester. While at college, Linda was a star competitor on the fencing team, and in October 1984, she was inducted into the university’s athletic hall of fame.
“It’s funny because when I was picking a college, I wanted to go to Michigan because my one friend was going there,” Linda said. “I also considered Niagara University because I loved Niagara Falls. But it’s fate, and going to Jersey City was great.” She added: “I still root for Michigan though.”
Joining the Faculty at Stevens
Shortly after graduating from college, Linda started a job as a teacher at North Bergen High school, and she quickly received tenure at the high school. Soon after, a friend told her that a fencing coach position was available at Stevens. In 1974, she applied and became the fencing coach. For two years, Linda worked part-time at Stevens while working at North Bergen High School.
In 1976, Stevens needed to hire full-time faculty because physical education was included as a requirement to graduate, and to give academic credit, Stevens needed a faculty member. At the time, Stevens wanted more women in the faculty, Linda said, so she was hired.
Linda’s time at Stevens quickly became unconventional. “In my first week, the faculty went on strike,” she said, in an oral history at the Stevens Library. “And I was from the Vietnam war protest generation, and so I was right in there with the faculty. And I had no tenure, so they could have just fired me.”
^ Stevens’ Women’s Fencing Team, 1977-1978
(Photo credit: Stevens Institute of Technology)
In 1976, professors at Stevens held a strike over a contract dispute involving wage increases as well as accusations that the administration was violating free speech and “the traditions of academic freedom,” according to a January 1977 New York Times article.
Stevens hired Linda at a time when women were still new to the university. The university did not start admitting women until 1971, and the first class of women at Stevens had 19 women. When Linda arrived, it was the first class of women’s fourth year there. “We were their first sport and only sport,” Linda said. There were also “one or two women” working as professors in the humanities department, she said.
When Linda began coaching, the men’s fencing team had a long history, but the women’s team was barely two years old and was only a club sport. “Women were fencing on a club team, so the university thought it made sense to establish a varsity team for fencing,” Linda said. “Every Thursday morning, I would teach a women’s freshman gym class. We would do all kinds of activities, and I was able to meet every woman at the school. We only had walk-ons [for the fencing team], so I would pick my fencing team from that class.”
About one year after Linda was at Stevens, she was awarded tenure. But this moment of celebration didn’t matter much to Linda. “I didn’t really care about tenure. The other women did,” she said. “For the other women in academia, it was hugely important to be the first. So, the other women weren’t happy that the first tenured woman was in the athletic department.”
Still, since joining the Stevens faculty, Linda said the university has helped her every step of the way. “Stevens has never, ever hesitated on women’s sports,” Linda said. “They never once gave me a hard time. They never said, no you can’t do it. If I wanted to start basketball, I could start basketball.”
During her early years at Stevens, Linda traveled to state meetings to talk with other female athletic directors, and she said they would feel neglected by their university administrators. But she didn’t have those problems at Stevens, she said. “I could never identify with them because I never had those issues. Stevens has been so far ahead of their time,” she said.
In her time at Stevens, Linda has led the fencing team to the top Division III school championships seven times. Her teams have also earned five Eastern Women’s Fencing Conference team titles and two trips to the NCAA Division III Championships. She was also named NJCAD Coach of the Decade for the 1990s.
After 45 years at Stevens, Linda continues to serve as a faculty member and athletic coach. She said her greatest satisfaction as a coach is seeing the excitement when someone wins. “[I also enjoy] seeing how they handle losses, and to teach them how to handle losses. I like the energy of the sport. The competitiveness is very exciting.”
The women’s fencing team competes during the fall and winter, with its championship tournament played in the spring. To keep up with the Stevens Ducks, check out the fencing team’s website here.