Mansfield's First Lady of Sports: Helen Lutes
Helen Dieffenbach Lutes has been honored often and well by Mansfield University. In 1995, the softball field was named in her honor. She and husband, Ferris, are the first husband-wife duo enshrined in the MU Athletic Hall of Fame. She also appears in the Williamsport and Tioga County Sports halls of fame. In 2001, she was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Mansfield. In addition, she has been honored by her alma mater, East Stroudsburg, and received the Eberly Medal for philanthropy and volunteerism.
In 1946, Helen arrived at Mansfield State College. The war veteran – she joined the Navy in 1942 – went on to teach at Mansfield until the end of the first semester of the 1973-1974 academic year. Immediately after accepting her retirement letter, the board of trustees conferred emeritus status upon Helen for her 28 years of service to the campus. After her retirement, Helen continued to help local athletics, particularly for women and girls.
Helen was born Jan. 10, 1909 in Watsontown, the daughter of George and Mary Halfpenny Dieffenbach. She was a natural athlete and excelled in basketball and tennis at Williamsport High School. While in college at East Stroudsburg, Helen was on the basketball and gymnastics teams. In 1931, she graduated and began a 43 year career teaching physical education, with one interruption. She taught 15 years at Williamsport and coached many teams there. She taught 1,600 girls how to bowl in an era that generally discouraged females from competing in sports. By 1940, Helen had earned her masters degree in physical education from Penn State. She also did post-doctoral work at Indiana University and New York University.
However, World War II interrupted Lutes’ career and she enlisted in the United States Navy and served between 1942 and 1946. She told the Wellsboro Gazette in 2003, “My family thought I was crazy, but I wanted to do my part.”
Helen was discharged in 1946 and began her 28 year career teaching physical education at Mansfield State College. Long before there was such an idea as gender equity, Helen worked to give “her girls” the same opportunities afforded to male students. Early in her career at Mansfield, she organized a Sports Day for Girls in which young women competed in various sports including badminton, bowling, tennis, table tennis, basketball and volleyball. The girls traveled by train to compete against Penn State, Bucknell, Lock Haven, and Bloomsburg.
Eventually, the field hockey and tennis programs formed from the Sports Days. Helen laid the foundation for the women’s swimming, volleyball, basketball and softball programs. In addition, she ran the women’s intramural program, a volunteer position, and advised the color guard, cheerleaders, and class of 1955.
“Helen was gender equity before there was such a thing,” Mansfield Sports Information Director Steve McCloskey said. “She formed the Women’s Athletic Association and gave female students the opportunity to compete and enjoy the benefits of being involved in athletics.”
In 1973, the marching band was invited to participate in the International Youth Bands Festival in England. Helen, along with Richard Talbot and David Borshiem, received letters of praise from the trustees for their work with the band.
At Mansfield, Helen met and married Ferris Lutes, a 1928 graduate of Mansfield High School and accomplished athlete. Ferris was a standout athlete in his own right. He played basketball, baseball and football for Mansfield State College before graduating with a degree in secondary education in 1933. Ferris was on the 1928-29 undefeated basketball team. He was also captain of the 1931 championship team. On the baseball diamond, he played first base and outfield. He hit a homerun in his first plate appearance for Mansfield State Teachers College. He played end on the football team.
Ferris first married Ruth Baer, but she passed away at a young age. He met and married Helen after she took the job at Mansfield. Ferris worked for the Dairylea milk cooperative for 37 years and also served as director of the Tioga County Sports Hall of Fame.
On Christmas Day in 1983, Ferris and Helen celebrated the 100th birthday of Oscar Lutes, Ferris’s father. Oscar was still active at that age and visited with “coffee club” friends everyday at the Pumpernickel Restaurant between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m.
Mr. and Mrs. Lutes never had any children and decided instead to share their wealth with the community of Mansfield. Mr. and Mrs. Lutes donated large sums of money to various campus and community activities including, but not limited to youth sports. The two lived together in Mansfield for 43 years until he passed away in 1998.
In the Mansfield community, Helen Lutes is fondly remembered as one of the founders of the Mansfield Garden Club in 1960. The club has undertaken numerous planting projects in the community. She was also a charter member of the Mansfield Business and Professional Women’s Club and a member of the First Baptist Church, Twilight Chapter of OES, and Mansfield 55 Plus Club.
Age generally did not hold Mrs. Lutes back in her later years. One newspaper article discussed an event in 1983 when Helen was a volunteer for a phonathon fundraiser to benefit the soon-to-be Mansfield University. The goal of the event was to raise $20,000 by soliciting donations from alumni. Helen was able to solicit half that amount in her pitch to 1955 graduate Tom Holleran of Coudersport. His $10,000 donation went to the library.
By 1995, Mansfield University had constructed a separate field for softball. Prior to that, softball was played at Smythe Park. After the high school formed a softball team, the Lady Tigers needed the field. Helen was among those leading the effort for a new field for the university team. Lutes Field was dedicated April 15, 1995 during a game between Helen’s alma mater of East Stroudsburg and her adopted Mansfield University.
In 2001, Lutes was the guest of honor at a softball tournament to raise funds to fight colon cancer, which claimed Ferris. Helen threw a perfect strike while throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. That same year during May commencement under a clear sky and just a few hundred yards from Lutes Field, Helen received her honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters. She also went parasailing for her 90th birthday and went skydiving at the age of 93.
In between it all, Helen managed to appear at many university events. In fact, she sat in the same inexpensive plastic and aluminum lawn chair in the dugout at the end of the bench for nearly every softball game since the field opened. In those nine years, she missed one game. In 2003, she told a doctor to release her from the hospital so that she could go see her girls. The team went on to win the ECAC title game. Before every game, coach Edith Gallagher, who was very close with Helen, sets that same chair up at the same spot, but no one sits in it. Helen is still watching her girls.
Just before she passed away at the age of 94 in 2003, Helen created a charitable foundation in the names of Ferris and Oscar. The foundation will benefit children and youth organizations, public service organizations, and women’s rights groups. She has also sponsored two scholarships at MU for softball and field hockey players.
In 2004, the Mansfield University Fall Choral Collage featured the world premiere of Walk On Up to Heaven, written for the MU Concert Choir by Vermont composer, Gwyneth Walker. The work was commissioned by student groups at the university to honor the late Helen Lutes, who was, in addition to everything else, a supporter of the choir.