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Forker, Barbara E.

Published onAug 04, 2021
Forker, Barbara E.

(August 28, 1920 – May 31, 2010)

Quick Facts

Barbara E. Forker, greatly respected professor and administrator, was a quintessential physical education professional.


Forker in 1955. Source: Iowa State University Library’s online exhibition “People of Distinction”

Forker started her career as a physical education instructor first at Garfield Elementary School from 1942-1944 and then Roosevelt High School from 1944-1945, both in Wyandotte, Michigan. She served in the American Red Cross in Europe from 1945 to 1947, mostly in France and Germany setting up recreational activities for servicemen, before joining Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) as a temporary instructor in 1948. She was promoted to Assistant Professor in 1949 and remained at the university until she retired in 1986. By 1957 she was a full Professor, and became Head of what was then the Women’s Physical Education Department in which she developed a physical education major for women. When the separate men’s and women’s physical education departments were merged in 1974 to form the Department of Physical Education in 1974, Forker became its first Head, a groundbreaking achievement at that time. She was a strong proponent of Title IX, and this was a momentous illustration of growing equality in the field. She held the Head position until 1986 when she retired.

Recognized both nationally and internationally for her high standards, she was credited with changing the way society views the field of Physical Education. She helped set the standards and challenged professionals through the many invited speeches she delivered to professional groups in the state, district, nation and internationally. Forker taught the history, philosophy and psychology of physical education, but she also provided instruction in many different sports including tennis, golf, swimming, badminton and bowling. She ran outreach activities such as high school workshop days with activities such as archery and gymnastics. A popular teacher she received the Outstanding Teaching award in 1963. In 1978 she was named Distinguished Professor of Education. Beyond her professional teaching Forker gave hundreds of speeches and presentations including talks for the Homemaker’s Half Hour which aired over WOI radio from the late 1940s through the early 1960s. She spoke on a wide variety of topics related to various sports, physical education, and leisure activities she was personally interested in.

In recognition of her substantial contributions to the profession and her visionary leadership skills, she was elected President of the American Association of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation (AAHPER) in 1973. She was an invited speaker and spokesperson representing the United States at the International Council of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. The topics on which she spoke to international professional groups apprised the international community about Physical Education programs in the United States – topics such as "Philosophies in Women's Sports" in Indonesia, "Development of Intercollegiate Sports for Women" in Taiwan and "Implementation of the UNESCO Charter of Physical Education and Sport in Advancing Programs for Physical Education" in Tehran, Iran.

Barbara did not shy from challenging tasks. Following her successful AAHPER presidency she led the very large national professional group through a complete reorganization. She was then asked to lead the implementation of that plan, an extremely difficult task which required deep understanding of individual perspectives, a high degree of tact and the art of negotiation. Barbara had been practicing these skills through many endeavors as department Head. Those challenges were as varied as complying with the new Title IX planning with faculty and convincing the university administration and eventually the Iowa legislature that a new Physical Education Building (PEB) was needed. That state-of-the-art building was dedicated in 1973.

In the 1960's during the Vietnam War and student activism era, students were using the area adjacent to the tennis courts (later dubbed Skin Hill) for sun bathing and romancing. Barbara contended that this inappropriate behavior was embarrassing to students going to their tennis classes. She forbade it, was 'pilloried' in the press and received no support from the university administration in that decision (though many secretly supported her).

She was a pacesetter in many ways. One of the most recognized was the successful 1972 merger of two Education programs - Physical Education for Men and Physical and Education for Women. ISU's merger was the first in the nation. The men in the new department learned to appreciate her high expectations and standards. It was recognized as one of the leading departments in the nation.

Source: University Archives, Iowa State University Library

In 1997 the Physical Education Building was renamed the Barbara E. Forker Building in honor of her decades of outstanding academic leadership in the university and nation. At the dedication, speakers highlighted her contributions. It was noted that "students were the center of her universe" and that she had a special relationship with them. An alumna shared her remembrance that "Around Dr. Forker we were always on our best behavior and tried to meet her expectation that we maintain a healthy appearance and dress professionally.”

The awards Barbara received testify to her leadership. In 1963 she was selected by Iowa State University students as an Outstanding Teacher. In 1984 she received the most prestigious award of her profession, the Luther Gulick Award. Ten years later she was named a Distinguished Alumna of Eastern Michigan and in 1994 received the University of Michigan Kinesiology Alumna Achievement recognition. She was included in Foremost Women of the 20th Century. In addition to the national and international awards, she was accorded many state and regional awards.

The United States Olympic Committee (USOC), noting her exemplary leadership and fine relations with athletic coaches and physical education professionals, asked United States President Gerald Ford to appoint her to that decision making body. During her tenure from 1977-1984, a major issue was the USA's relatively poor performance in the games and whether professionals should be allowed to participate. She was soon elected to the four-member USOC Executive Council and in 1984 chaired the international Pre-Olympic Scientific Congress in Corvallis, Oregon attended by hundreds of sport scientists from around the world.

Barbara volunteered in her home community and the university. Early in her ISU career she was particularly active in aquatics. Her first teaching assignments included swimming instruction and she was the advisor for Naiads, the university synchronized swim club. She taught water safety courses for the Red Cross. She was a board member for the American Heart Association and was at one time chair. In her early years she was a member of the Governor's Council on Physical Fitness.

As the long-time department head she was a member or chaired many college and university committees and in her early retirement, lent her time and wisdom to the Memorial Union Board of Directors, the College of Education Development Committee and the ISU Foundation Board.

In summary, Barbara was a thoughtful and gentle organizer who spent a large part of her career suggesting that ideas are as important as actions and that people are more important than structures. At the dedication of the Forker Building, speakers described her as a considerate leader who gave her unbiased attention to the basic tenets of fairness and democratic processes that accorded a wisdom displayed during moments of crisis. Later, when asked about the building naming she exclaimed "Isn't awful? I still have trouble getting the words out of my mouth." She was humble and credited the twenty faculty who had a major role in designing the state-of-the-art building and the architects who were responsive to the plans. At that same dedication in 1973 she told the attendees, "The building was designed and programmed to house a department whose major goal is to improve quality of life. . . physical education experience engages the whole person. . .the study of the art and science of movement is so important for the expression and perception of human movement."

Barbara E. Forker was born August 28, 1920 in Kendallville, Indiana and died on May 31, 2010 in Green Valley, Arizona where she lived in retirement. She earned her Bachelor of Science at Eastern Michigan University in 1942, her Master of Science degree from Iowa State and in 1957 her PhD at University of Michigan.

Forker is interred in the Iowa State University Cemetery.

Selected Sources

There are extensive materials in the Barbara Ellen Forker papers in the Iowa State Special Collections and University Archives. These consist of biographical materials, correspondence, panel discussions, papers and speeches, coursework and teaching materials, professional organization work, Olympic activities, scrapbooks, photographs, and artifacts such as awards, plaques and medals.

An informative memorial article about Forker’s career by Sharon Van Oteghen and Allys Swanson was published in the Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 81 (7): 3-8.

Iowa State University Library’s online exhibition “People of Distinction”

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