University of Wisconsin-Madison: Remembering Dr. Kit Saunders-Nordeen

Scholar, teacher, women’s sports advocate and leader were all traits Dr. Katherine “Kit” Saunders-Nordeen possessed as she became perhaps the single most important person in the advent of women’s intercollegiate sports at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. An extraordinary and passionate leader, Saunders-Nordeen’s contributions to the university and to the athletic department set the course for the equity and success the UW women’s athletics program currently enjoys.
Saunders-Nordeen died on January 1, 2021 at Oakwood Village University Woods in Madison. She was 80 years old and had battled Alzheimer’s Disease for several years. Read her obituary written by family here for more information and touching stories of her life.

“Kit Saunders-Nordeen was nothing less than a pioneer in college athletics,” said Wisconsin director of athletics Barry Alvarez. “She was a tireless advocate for the implementation of Title IX and deserves credit for so much of the success of women’s athletics at the University of Wisconsin.

“Thousands of women student-athletes have benefitted from Kit’s commitment to the advancement of equality. Her legacy will live on forever at Wisconsin.”

Kit Saunders was an advocate of girls and women’s athletics all of her life. A native of Teaneck, New Jersey, she played for the North Jersey Field Hockey Association and the New Jersey Lacrosse Association while earning her bachelor’s degree in physical education at Trenton State College in Trenton, N.J.

After graduating from Trenton State in 1962, Saunders-Nordeen returned to Teaneck High School to serve as a physical education teacher for two years. There she coached girls’ basketball, field hockey and lacrosse.

She came to the University of Wisconsin in 1964, where she worked as a teaching assistant in physical education while earning her master’s degree in the same field. After receiving that degree in 1966, Kit served as a lecturer and instructor in physical education while also coaching the women’s tennis club team.

Her career as an administrator also began in 1966, as the coordinator of the Women’s Recreation Association (WRA), the recreation and competitive sports program for women. There she mentored UW alum, Judy Sweet, who became the national president of the WRA in 1968 and later one of the first women Directors of Athletics for men and women. Sweet later was named the first and only woman president of the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA).

Dr. Kit Saunders-Nordeen and Judy Sweet 1969
Dr. Kit Saunders-Nordeen and Judy Sweet in 1969
Armed with Title IX, which was enacted in 1972, and with the growing clamor for equity for women in sports, Saunders-Nordeen became the focal point of meetings where advocates for women’s sports and dissenters often clashed. It was not an easy position to be in, but she endured and her quiet, yet tenacious leadership in advancing women’s sports opportunities won others to the cause.

“In the beginning, the major obstacle for incorporating women’s athletics was a question of educating people and their attitudes — letting them know and really believe that we were serious, and that we were here to stay,” said Saunders-Nordeen.

“Then later on, the most serious obstacle was competing for scarce resources and being seen as competing against the men’s sports for those resources. But the most significant thing for women’s athletics to happen ever was Title IX.”

Former UW Chancellor Donna Shalala and Dr. Kit Saunders-Nordeen
Former UW Chancellor Donna Shalala and Dr. Kit Saunders-Nordeen
When the UW Athletic Board approved varsity sports status for women’s sports in 1974, Saunders-Nordeen became the first athletic director for women. Supervising the 12-sport program and its $118,000 budget, she oversaw the transition of Wisconsin women’s sports from the recreation level to the intercollegiate status.

Saunders-Nordeen earned her Ph.D. in educational administration from Wisconsin in 1977 and continued in her administrative role watching the women’s sports program grow in resources and status.

“The University of Wisconsin owes a debt of gratitude to a true advocate of women’s intercollegiate sports, Kit Saunders-Nordeen,” shared Alvarez with Brava Magazine in 2007.

“Not long ago we celebrated 30 years of women’s intercollegiate athletics at Wisconsin (in 2005), a program that Kit directed in its formative years. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to recognize a number of former women athletes with a “W” letter, particularly the pioneers. Those women who started athletics here at the university, with not much equipment, no travel budget, no frills, but to be able to present them with a letter was very exciting for us. They sacrificed and laid the groundwork from which our current student-athletes now benefit so tremendously.”

During the ’70s, Saunders-Nordeen was also active in women’s sports on the state, regional and national level. In 1971, she helped to found the Wisconsin Women’s Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WWIAC) and served as the WWIAC president in 1978–79. She received the WWIAC Distinguished Service Award in 1982.

Saunders-Nordeen served as commissioner of the six-state Midwest Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (MAIAW) from 1974–77, and was the chair of the Wisconsin Division of Girls and Women in Sport from 1974–76. On the national level, she was the first vice-president of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletes for Women (AIAW) from 1979–82. She was a well-respected spokesperson for women’s athletics both at home and nationally.

In 1983, she was named an associate athletic director for men and women supervising 22 non-revenue sports. Saunders-Nordeen later resumed her job as the primary women’s administrator in 1989, until her retirement in 1990.

A recipient of numerous awards, Saunders-Nordeen was the first inductee into the UW Women’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 1984. She was named the 1986 YWCA Woman of Distinction and in 1997 and received the Women’s Sports Advocates of Wisconsin Lifetime Achievement Award.

In 1991, she was named National W Club Woman of the Year and was inducted into the Madison Sports Hall of Fame in 1992. She became a member of the University of Wisconsin Athletics Hall of Fame in 1998. The Athletic Department recognized her for meritorious service with its Pat O’Dea Award in 2007.

Dr. Kit Saunders-Nordeen with plaque for W Club Woman of the Year 1990
Dr. Kit Saunders-Nordeen with plaque for W Club Woman of the Year 1990
In 2006, she earned the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award presented by NACWAA (National Association of College Women Athletic Administrators) bestowed annually to athletics administrators who have dedicated their professional careers to advancing women in sport and because of their tireless efforts, girls and women participating in sport can enjoy competitive athletics or athletic career opportunities. This award is given to individuals who have retired or resigned from intercollegiate athletics administration and who have rendered meritorious service.

A lifelong supporter of the University of Wisconsin, Saunders-Nordeen served on numerous university committees including University Ridge Golf Course and the Athletics Hall of Fame Committees. She and her husband, Buzz, have also been leaders in philanthropy as long-time active donors to Wisconsin Athletics and members of the Bascom Hill and Badger Leadership Societies. They have also been long-time season ticket holders in six sports including almost 50 years in men’s basketball, hockey and football.

In 1990, they established the Buzz and Kit Nordeen Endowed Scholarship Fund which annually supports the scholarship of a female Badger student-athlete. This fund was established from their strong love of women’s athletics and their passion for the University of Wisconsin. They have also contributed to a number of Wisconsin Athletics facilities projects including the McClain Center, Goodman Diamond, Porter Boathouse, LaBahn Arena, UW Golf Training Center and the Student-Athlete Performance Center.

After her retirement Saunders-Nordeen continued to be an inspiration to others. She was asked to speak at all the women’s sports anniversaries and has served as a mentor to many women. She was also a wonderful example of how people should lead active lives. Saunders-Nordeen taught downhill skiing at Tyrol Basin in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin, for several years after her retirement and was active in other sports and community activities.

Intelligent, upbeat, interested in others, a tireless advocate and compassionate for her causes and very humble, Dr. Kit Saunders-Nordeen was one of the true pioneers in the growth of women’s athletics. She sought to make a difference for women in sports and helped open the door for countless women to participate in intercollegiate athletics.

Dr. Kit Saunders-Nordeen throws out first toss for Wisconsin women’s basketball at the Kohl Center in 1998
Dr. Kit Saunders-Nordeen throws out first toss for Wisconsin women’s basketball at the Kohl Center in 1998
Notable Accomplishments
Provided the leadership for a UW women’s athletic program through the Women’s Recreation Association beginning in 1967
Appointed the first Director of Women’s Athletics at Wisconsin in 1974, and served in that role until 1983
Named Associate Athletic Director for men’s and women’s sports at UW-Madison in 1983-1991
Chairperson of the Wisconsin Division of Girls and Women in Sports from 1974-76
Commissioner of the six-state Midwest Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (MAIAW) from 1974-77
Coached the Wisconsin women’s tennis club team from 1966-74
Helped found the Wisconsin Women Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in 1971, she served as its president from 1978-79
Served as first vice-president of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) from 1979-82
Received the Distinguished Service Award from the Wisconsin Women’s Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in 1982
First inductee into the UW Women’s Athletic Hall of Fame (1984)
Named National W Club Woman of the Year in 1991
Inducted into the Madison Sports Hall of Fame in 1992 and given a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women’s Sports Advocates of Wisconsin in 1997
Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of College Women Athletic Administrators in 2006
Earned an M.A. (physical education) and a PhD (educational administration) from the UW in 1966 and 1977, respectively
Member of the Bascom Hill Society and major contributor to the UW Athletics Development as part of the Badger Leadership Society
Kit Saunders-Nordeen also participated in the UW-Madison Oral History regarding the women’s sports history.