Jeanne Hess and her husband, Jim, moved to Kalamazoo from Ann Arbor in 1982, so he could take a job coaching the Western Michigan University women’s basketball team.
Jeanne, who had played volleyball for four years at the University of Michigan, kept her passion for her sport alive by teaching volleyball at Kalamazoo Valley Community College and coaching at Kalamazoo Central High School. It was a chance encounter with a former K volleyball coach at a recreational volleyball game where her relationship with the College began.
“She asked me, ‘Will you coach volleyball at K?’ ” Hess said. “I said, ‘What’s K?’”
Now, it’s hard to imagine Kalamazoo College without her. Yet after a success-filled, 35-year tenure as the women’s volleyball coach, which included seven conference championships, her rise to professor and chair of the physical education department, and countless lives touched by her grace and distinctive take on the connective power of sports, Hess is retiring after commencement ceremonies this summer as one of the longest serving coaches in the history of the College.
“I often tell my players that the best job will find you,” she said. “It certainly was true for me.”
For Hess, competition involves more than just who comes out on top when time expires or the last out is made.
“It’s not whether you win or lose; it’s whether you win or learn,” she said. It’s also a chance for bonds to be made, respect to be fostered and understanding to be embraced. Her outlook on athletics mirrors that of Ada Letitia “Tish” Loveless, a pioneer of women’s rights and former director of women’s athletics at K.
“Her passion for sports, women’s equality and her warm spirit resonated with me,” Hess said. “I would have run through a brick wall for her.”
When she interviewed for the K coaching position in 1984, it was a part-time job with a high turnover rate. Loveless and Rolla Anderson, then director of men’s athletics, hired her and Hess got to work, becoming the full-time coach in 1987.
“I wasn’t looking for a job at a Division III school,” she said. “Coming from U of M, I had no idea what a small liberal arts college was all about. But Tish took me under her wing and I began to understand the uniqueness of K and what a special place it is.”
Hess agreed to stay at K as long as her husband stayed at WMU. He stepped down in 1990, but the College’s roots had dug into Hess too deeply for her to leave.
“You cannot help but be affected by these women who choose K intentionally,” she said. “These women I have coached and mentored are amazing. To coach and mentor women who consciously chose Kalamazoo College because of what it stands for has been a great privilege.”
In many ways, Hess elevated K volleyball to fame in the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association and across the country. In the 1990s, the team made the NCAA tournament seven times. Additionally, she created volleyball summer camps and programs for kids in the Kalamazoo area, taking her program into the community and bringing the community into the College.
“The legacy of love in sports at K is a valuable piece of learning at the College,” she said. “I watched Tish work hard to marry athletics and academics. Here, I believe I have a holistic classroom in the gym, where the competition court has recently been named Tish Loveless Court.”
Hess has fostered local connections with her program and her mentoring. Now, she’s broadened her program’s connective reach across the globe. Every three years for nearly a decade, Hess has taken her team abroad for cultural exchange and some friendly competition. In 2009, it was a trip to China. In 2012, it was Costa Rica, and in 2015, it was Trinidad and Tobago. In mid-December, the team returned from two weeks in South Africa.
“Especially at K, you should experience another culture through your sport,” Hess said. “We have to use sports to teach life values, goals and empathy. They are all bound up in athletics.”
After retirement, Hess will spend more time with her family, especially her young grandchildren. She published her first book, Sportuality: Finding Joy in the Games, in 2012, and she is working on another book, Maxability: Who Are You and What Are You Here For?
No matter where she sets her focus, one thing that will not change is her desire to empower women to have a voice, realize their power and unify people behind empathy, equality and the transcendent power of authentic connection.
“It’s time to speak for human connection and unity,” she said. “I want to speak out for women’s rights, human rights and equality for all. I’m not just going to retire and go away. I love K and what it stands for. I look forward to maintaining the friendships with those who have impacted me here, and I will take away only joy from Kalamazoo College.”