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Knoxville News-Sentinel (Tennessee)

 

Mollie DeLozier took her car for an oil change, not expecting the bargain that awaited her.

It was November 2014 and the former University of Tennessee swimmer brought with her a petition, which urged the university to reverse its decision of two weeks earlier to drop the use of the Lady Vols name and logo for all women's sports except basketball.

DeLozier approached the shop's owner, a personal friend, seeking permission to broach her cause while she waited. DeLozier said that they were talking when a man marched up, referenced the clipboard in her hand and asked, "Is this to bring back the name?" No sooner had she said yes that he reached for it and said, "Give me that thing."

He gathered the signatures of everyone in the place.

DeLozier left with a changed attitude, realizing: "It's not just me."

DeLozier's four friends — Raubyn and Donna Branton, Susan Whitlow and Jean Lusardi — reached the same conclusion. At some point, they also had clipboards wrested from their grips.

The petition drive was the most dogged exercise undertaken by the five women and several others to hold the university's attention regarding the Lady Vols restoration cause. It might have been their most effective strategy, too.

Tennessee announced last month that it was restoring the Lady Vols name and logo to all women's sports. At the press conference, first-year Chancellor Beverly Davenport said the sum of the signatures was "powerful." Whitlow said the final tally of the names and addresses gathered in person was 32,688. Online signatures pushed the sum past 40,000.

Whitlow had sent petition signatures to Davenport before she arrived at UT.

Whitlow and Lusardi — two retired teachers who are married and live in Bristol, Tenn. — put considerable time and effort into the petition drive. For three years, Lusardi said, they gathered signatures before and after every Lady Vols home basketball game as well as at halftime. Initially, Lusardi said she was hounded by security personnel at Thompson-Boling Arena, but their presence abated after the first year.

"Sometimes we had four clipboards going at the same time, just passing them out in the stands," Lusardi said.

They did the same drill at the SEC tournament. Lusardi estimated that they covered more than 100 games.

Whitlow conceded to suffering occasional bouts of petition fatigue. But Lusardi always went back for more and she followed.

"And I would get up there on the concourse and the first person would sign it and start talking and my energy would come right back," Whitlow said. "The people truly cared about this."

The people she encountered favored a common reaction to the university's decision. It was so common that she and Lusardi recited it in choral unison: "Why would they do that?"

Why a petition?

Whitlow forwarded the petition signatures to UT President Joe DiPietro, accompanied with a cover letter that she sent to him and other UT officials. The first three installments were sent in large batches of 5,000. She then reduced the total to 500, thereby increasing the frequency of her correspondence.

"I felt like a gnat, just a little gnat, a little fruit fly driving them crazy," Whitlow said, laughing at the image. "I got joy out of that."

Whitlow also got satisfaction out of the petition drive's impact. A child of the 1960s, she thought the exercise was an example of "power to the people" in action.

"It's amazing the number of people who thanked us when they signed it," she said. "It was like a heartbeat. That's how I felt about it."

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October 15, 2017
 
 
 

 

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