Helen Dieffenbach Lutes was an athlete, teacher, and strong supporter of women’s rights and gender equality in sport. Born January 10, 1909 in Watsontown, she was the daughter of George and Mary Halfpenny Dieffenbach. Helen had a 43-year career teaching physical education at Williamsport Public Schools and Mansfield University, interrupted only by the four years she spent in the WAVES during World War II. . She was elected to the Mansfield, Tioga County and Williamsport Sports Halls of Fame. At 90, she summed up her own life as follows: “I’ve been a women’s libertarian, and have been for as long as I can remember.”
As a student at Williamsport High School, Helen, nicknamed Jim, was a natural athlete, excelling in basketball, gymnastics and tennis. Her high school yearbook celebrated her athleticism with a chant:
“Yes, the team
Yeah, the team
When you hear that cheer
‘Jim’ must be close.
She loves athletics, everyone,
And he’s a basketball ace.
After graduating from Williamsport High School, Helen earned her bachelor’s degree in physical education from the University of East Stroudsburg, where she was on the tennis and basketball teams. She graduated from East Stroudsburg in 1931 and began teaching at Williamsport the same year. By 1940, in addition to teaching, Helen had earned a master’s degree in physical education from Penn State. Later, she did doctoral work at both Indiana University and New York University.
Fred Dieffenbach (1912-1908), Helen’s younger brother, followed in her footsteps by attending East Stroudsburg. He then taught gymnastics at public schools in Williamsport, including Lincoln Elementary, Roosevelt Junior High, and Curtin Junior High, retiring as the district physical education supervisor.
The Second World War
Helen was 33 in 1942 when she enlisted in the United States Navy. Her parents discouraged her and made her promise not to apply for a supervised posting. But her younger brother, Fred, had already enlisted in the navy and she was determined to contribute to the war effort. She served until 1946. One of her uniforms and locker are on display at the Lycoming County Historical Society.
Helen attended Smith College’s Officer Candidate School in Northampton, Massachusetts, from October to December 1943, graduating as a lieutenant (jg). In December 1943, she was assigned to the Marine Training Center in Quantico, Virginia, where she was the commander of the WAVES medical detachment on the post. Even though she was in the Navy, she was stationed with Marine men and women on a Navy base.
She was highly respected by the 30 to 50 women she commanded. The Post Office newsletter, Gizmo Gazette (May 5, 1944), reported: “Overall, we consider ‘Our’ Lieutenant Dieffenbach to be the best of all time. We are right behind her and her every wish is our command.
In an interview in November 2001, Helen told Angela Mondell, a student at Montoursville High School, that while serving on the reservations she experienced discrimination in pay and promotions and that is why she finally decided to quit.
Career at Mansfield University
After being released in 1946, Helen 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 daughters” the same opportunities offered to male students. Early in her career at Mansfield, she organized a girls’ sports day where young women competed in a variety of sports including badminton, bowling, tennis, table tennis, basketball and volleyball. . The girls traveled by train to face Penn State, Bucknell, Lock Haven and Bloomsburg.
Eventually, the field hockey and tennis programs formed out of Sports Days. Helen also laid the foundation for the women’s swimming, volleyball, basketball and softball programs. Additionally, she ran the Women’s Intramural Program, a volunteer position, and advised the Color Party, Cheerleaders, and Class of 1955.
In Mansfield, Helen met and married Ferris Lutes, a 1928 graduate of Mansfield High School and an outstanding athlete in his own right. He played basketball, baseball and football for Mansfield State College before graduating from high school in 1933. Ferris was on the undefeated basketball team from 1928-29 and was the captained the 1931 championship team. On the baseball field, he played first base and outfield. Helen was 45 when they got married.
Helen Dieffenbach Lutes has been honored often and well by Mansfield University. In 1995, the softball field was named in his honor. She and her husband, Ferris, are the first husband-wife duo to be enshrined in the MU Athletic Hall of Fame. In 2001, she received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Mansfield. Additionally, she was honored by her alma mater, East Stroudsburg, and received the Eberly Medal for Philanthropy and Volunteerism.
One of a kind
There are so many stories because Helen was one of a kind. Here’s one, as told by Edith Gallagher, Mansfield’s longtime softball coach. On the day of one of the Mansfield girls’ home softball games, Helen was at her doctor’s office and told him she was going to see “Her daughters” play this afternoon. He didn’t think she should go to the game. She looked him straight in the eye and said: “Unless I’m dead this afternoon, I’m going to watch my girls play!”
Even after her retirement in 1974, she was actively involved in campus and community affairs. In 2001, she was the guest of honor at a softball tournament to raise money for colon cancer, which had claimed Ferris’ life several years earlier. On the ceremonial first pitch, Helen threw a perfect strike. She never lost her sense of adventure, parasailing on her 90th birthday and skydiving when she was 93.
Just before she died aged 94 in 2003, Helen set up a charitable foundation in the name of her husband and father. The foundation supports women’s rights organizations and other organizations. She also sponsored two scholarships to Mansfield for female softball and field hockey players.
Helen spent her final years at the Green Home in Wellsboro and is buried with her husband at Green Lawn Cemetery in Montgomery.
Author’s Note: Thanks to Linda Dieffenbach-Lundy for sharing her aunt’s story with me and providing background information.
Sieminski is the former director of the Madigan Library at Penn College. Sieminski is one of the founders of the Lycoming County Women’s History Project (www.lycominng.edu/lcwhp). The column is published monthly.