When Dr. Tyra Phipps, a professor in the Frostburg State University Department of Mass Communication and a member of the class of ’71, decided to establish scholarships at her alma mater, her considerations took her full circle from her life today to her days as a student in the old Compton Hall.
Phipps recently set up two scholarships, The Marjorie C. Phipps Mass Communication Scholarship, in memory of her mother who died on Mother’s Day last year, and the Tyra C. Phipps Scholarship, for students in the Department of Health and Physical Education.
The scholarship in her mother’s name serves students who want to study in the department that Tyra Phipps helped build. Her mother, who lived in Meyersdale, Pa., before her death, was a big fan of many of the students that she got to know or heard about over the years.
“She loved my stories about the students,” Phipps said. “She loved their perspective.”
The Tyra Phipps Scholarship serves students in the Department of Health and Physical Education, reflecting her past as a Frostburg student-athlete and her present as a longtime multiple sclerosis patient who is helped by health care workers and physical therapists, the “health” piece of the discipline.
“I wanted to be a PE major, but gymnastics made me dizzy. I knew something was wrong by then,” she said. She moved her major to the other half of the building, in the Department of Speech and Theatre, but she took every other class in the PE department that she could.
“That department helped me so much. This was in the days of Janet Thomas and Carol Cleveland, Sharon Irwin, Susan Eisel, the Surgents.” The support she received from them and others in Frostburg athletics helped her in her uphill battle to play on Frostburg’s varsity tennis team. This was in the pre-Title IX days when there was no women’s team at Frostburg or most other colleges. Despite early resistance, she became a member of the Frostburg men’s team. After that, her teammates, her coach Ken Kutler and then-President Nelson Guild stood by her when other teams tried to refuse to play against “the girl.”
“Because I kept winning,” she said with a smile.
Phipps went on to have a successful tennis career, ranked nationally and competing against the best players in the 1970s. But when she was 27, multiple sclerosis struck hard, paralyzing all but one arm, albeit temporarily. She recovered from that attack and was able to play tennis for some years afterwards, but she eventually had to find another career. The chronic disease has worsened over the years, as is the nature of the type of MS that she has.
“It’s just a mean disease,” she said.
After FSU, she earned a master’s degree and doctorate, and her career took some turns before she returned to FSU as a faculty member in 1989, where she was one of the originators of FSU’s Mass Communication program.
After she broke her pelvis in a fall in 2006, she spent her recovery time writing a novel about issues close to her life and her heart. “Folded Notes,” which is available on Amazon.com, begins with Kassie, a nationally ranked tennis player, driven to crisis by a sudden bout of paralysis. The rest of the book deals with what she learns about herself and those around her and how she decides to rebuild her life. That much mimics Phipps’ experience, but it’s a work of fiction. Kassie isn’t Tyra, and the book is designed to tell a different story, along with perhaps some wishful thinking. (For example, Kassie’s doctors all have movie-star good looks.)
She dedicated the royalties from her book toward the scholarship. She quickly realized that would not be enough, but her book has started a conversation about MS, especially among her high school classmates in Florida; several had loved ones with multiple sclerosis.
“A lot of people have been touched by MS,” she said.
Despite the limitations brought on by her disease, her underlying health remains good. Phipps continues to teach, mostly in an online format, and to supervise interns in the Mass Comm Department. She is helped with the physical tasks that her MS makes increasingly difficult by technology and student assistants. And it is the need she sees among students, those she’s known over the years and those she interacts with today, that inspired her to set up the scholarships.
“The stress that they have now is so great. I didn’t have to work all my summers. I just played tennis,” she said. “I just figured, ‘Maybe I can help out with scholarships.’”
The FSU Foundation is nearing the end of a $15 million comprehensive campaign, Staking Our Claim: The Campaign for Frostburg, to raise badly needed funding for higher education in Western Maryland. Gifts support student enrichment, academic enrichment and regional and cultural enrichment. For more information about supporting these scholarships, visit www.frostburg.edu/admin/foundation or call 301-687-4161.