Helping people have fun is how Kitty Willis describes her job.
As manager of the HUB games area, she presides over about 100,000 students every year as they bowl, play table tennis, pool or video games. Small wonder, then, that she seems to be having a great time herself — good enough, anyway, that she’s been at it 25 years.
“I love my job,” Willis says simply. “And the people in this building are phenomenal. I think we’re a good team.”
The sports metaphor is apt, given that Willis has been an athlete all her life. At age 12, she was on a World Series-winning team in something called “Junior Miss Baseball.” This was in eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey in the late 50s, and the girls (ages 10 to 14) were playing baseball, not softball. “We used a hard ball and we threw overhand,” Willis says.
But offerings for girls were slim in those days. In college she played the team sports available — field hockey and lacrosse — and majored in physical education. Then she taught phys ed at the high school level and coached hockey and lacrosse teams.
“Title IX was in force by then,” Willis says, referring to the civil rights law mandating gender equity in sports, “so I was starting to get recruiting calls from college coaches.”
The new opportunities made Willis think she might want to become an athletic director, so she came to the UW to get her master’s in sports administration, a program that was part of the since-eliminated Kinesiology Department.
“But after seeing some of the changes, I shifted and said no, recreation is where I want to be,” Willis says. “Things were getting a little too crazy in the world of athletics. It was all about scholarships and money. I had friends who coached at the collegiate level and one was fired because she didn’t want to let the president’s daughter on the team. Then others had students who came in and said, ‘Well, what am I going to get?’ I just didn’t want to get involved in that.”
Instead, she took a job running the Navy’s bowling center at Sand Point. And two years later she was back at the UW, in her current job.
Ironically, Willis does not participate in any of the games available at the HUB. Instead, she’s a bicyclist — riding her bike in to work each day — a golfer and a hiker. And her home on a houseboat makes it easy for her to pursue kayaking, another of her pleasures.
But there is one “sport” at the HUB that Willis does get involved in pretty directly: College Bowl. College Bowl is a quiz game that used to be on TV back in the 60s. Played by teams of four, it involves answering questions on a wide variety of topics — from history and geography to science and sports. The game begins with a toss-up question that an individual on either team can answer by being the first to press a buzzer. If the individual’s answer is correct, his or her team may receive a bonus question that they are allowed to confer on for a few seconds. The team with the most points wins.
The UW competed in College Bowl in the 1980s, then dropped out for a while because of the costs. But when Lincoln Johnson, current director of Student Activities and Union Facilities, arrived in 1997, he revived it, and Willis became the coach. This year the University entered the competition for the ninth time.
Willis says a competition is held at the HUB to determine who will make up the team that competes in the College Bowl Regional Tournament. If the team wins the regionals, it can then go on to national competition. In the last eight years, the UW team has gone to nationals five times.
“We have a real disadvantage at nationals, though,” Willis says. “Our region is huge; it covers Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Montana, Idaho and British Columbia. As a result, teams don’t have the opportunity to compete on a regular basis. Teams in our region meet just once a year — at the Association of College Unions International Region 14 Tournament. Back east, where there are more schools close together, they play each other throughout the year.”
That may be the reason the UW has never won at the national competition, but last year the team placed sixth, their best showing so far. Unfortunately, this year didn’t go as well. The team made it into the final round of the regional tournament, but finished in fourth place in what Willis calls “the most competitive regional tournament yet.” Montana State was the victor.
“Kitty is a hero to the team,” is how Dave Jessup, one of last year’s team members, describes Willis. “She practiced with us for weeks, drove us all to Boise for the regionals, flew with us to Montgomery for the nationals. And she is equally committed every year to every UW College Bowl team.”
How committed? This year, Willis drove all the way to Missoula for the regionals, after her usual yeoman’s service of attending all practices, drilling the team with sample questions, keeping time and keeping score.
“She’s the sine qua non,” says Jonathan Keith, a team member this year, explaining that the Latin phrase translates as “without which not.” “If she didn’t do what she does, there wouldn’t be any College Bowl here.”
Willis is modest about her role, explaining that there’s now a student club for College Bowl, which makes her job easier. But this year she’ll have some extra work, because the College Bowl national competition is going to be here April 22–24. Sixteen teams compete in the nationals, meaning eight rooms of the HUB will be devoted to the games.
“It will be really exciting to have it here,” Willis says. “People are really encouraged to come and watch.”
Willis enjoys College Bowl for the same reason she enjoys her job in general: the relationships with students. “I like just getting to know them better and watching them mature,” she says.
“We have this one College Bowl player, for example — in the beginning he was interested but shy. You could hardly hear his answers. It’s wonderful to see the confidence he’s gained along the way.”
And there’s the bonus of a cross-cultural experience. Regional competitions in other sports go on at the same time and place as College Bowl, so Willis drives a whole group in a van.
“Last year the table tennis players were from the Ukraine, Greece and India and the pool players were from Vietnam,” she says.
“So I’m always learning new things about other countries. And another thing that’s rewarding — when they’re not playing in their own competitions, they come watch and root for each other.
“That’s what I’ve always liked about games and sports — they get people together who wouldn’t otherwise meet each other.”