My favorite story about Nita Head concerns weaving, an art she honed in later life. When her husband, Bob Head, told me the tale, he prefaced it by mentioning Nita’s frugality and discipline, traits likely acquired when she was growing up in the mountains of North Alabama.
This is how it goes: After spending about 35 hours on a weaving, following the meticulous process of weft and warp, Nita discovered a mistake in her creation. Instead of ignoring the minute flaw and continuing — or just going back to the error and correcting it — Nita took the whole thing apart and started again.
I can picture her now, leaning over the loom, taking as much care dismantling her work as she had in creating it. Always soft-spoken, she might have muttered a word or two of self-rebuke, but I imagine her taking up the task in silence, determined to pay proper attention, to get it right.
The virtue of hard work was bred in Nita Graham, whose family farmed near Princeton, Alabama. Life was hard during her childhood. In the early years of the Great Depression, electricity had not yet lit the Paint Rock River Valley. Domestic tasks demanded time, patience and energy. Cooking was on a wood stove. Cast iron kettles and boiling water were required for laundry. Plowing and cultivation were managed with the use of mules. Tractors came later.
Maybe because she had three brothers to contend with, Nita was an athlete. In high school, she was also a scholar, but her parents discerned that she had an “attitude.” When asked what was on her mind, Nita expressed disapproval that boys were permitted to go out for basketball, but girls were not. After her father discussed the issue with the principal, who also happened to be the coach, Nita was welcome to practice with the boys’ team. Playing in the games, however, was not acceptable. Nevertheless, it was the coach who suggested Nita go to college and major in physical education.
A graduate of Georgia Southern College, Nita went on to earn a Master’s degree from George Peabody Teachers College, now part of Vanderbilt University. From there, she began teaching at Murray State, where she initiated a tennis program in the days before women athletes were an official component of college sports. With Title IX legislation, a fearless threesome – Nita Head in tennis, Margaret Simmons in track, and Dew Drop Rowlett in basketball – launched formal sports programs for women.
In those early days, the budget for tennis was a mere $300, and Nita believed road trips were one way to expand the team’s horizons. When official funding was inadequate, she dipped into her own pockets. Another priority was for the team to get experience and develop skills while enjoying the process. With that thought in mind, regardless of wins and losses, Nita never cut a player from the team.
Twenty-nine years ago, I traveled to Murray for the first time because my husband was considering a job offer from the university. He wanted to make sure the move would work for me too, and we stayed with Bob and Nita Head for a few days so I could get acclimated to western Kentucky. Nita Head was the first women I met, and her impact has been long-lasting.
The first night, she cooked an amazing dinner and made us welcome to their lovely house in the woods. Conversation lasted long into the night. Nita quietly described the things she appreciated — the outdoors, gardening, participating in the annual bird count every winter. She explained why the local National Public Radio affiliate was always playing quietly in the background, emphasizing that WKMS was a link to the world beyond our rural region. In her understated but persistent way, Nita was an inspired advocate for women, the region and Murray State University.
When I began writing today’s column, Nita was resting peacefully, her husband by her side, at the Anna Mae Owen Hospice House in Murray. Earlier that day, Bob sat with me in that same room to provide details I had not known about Nita’s life.
He emphasized her strong belief in the importance of cultural, environmental and physical education, and spoke of her travels to Europe, Asia, Mexico, and the United States, including Alaska. He also wanted me to know that she had donated her family’s farm to the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, so the Graham Farm and Nature Center will be of use as a model farm and a center for environmental education and outdoor recreation.
Yesterday, I thought I was about half-way through writing this, when word came that Nita had died. Much like her and her imperfect weaving years ago, I was compelled to tear my work up, to start over, to rewrite and revise every word until deadline.
The best I can do right now is to end with a quote adapted from Antoine de Saint-Exupery: “A designer knows when she has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”