MICHIGAN CITY — The city is set to relive history in a weekend event celebrating the pom-pom team of the former Rogers High School and its Olympian former coach.
Barbara Jones Slater, the track and field star who became the youngest Olympic athletics gold medalist at age 15 in 1952, coached the Rogers Raiderettes pom-pom team from 1978 to 1984. Slater, 80, is returning to Michigan City along with several former Raiderettes for a reunion that will feature a meet-and-greet and health fair and kick off the scholarship foundation Slater is starting.
The inaugural scholarship award, $5,000, will be awarded to a senior attending Michigan City High School who’s already been accepted into college, according to Regina Burks-Holloman, a former Raiderette and member of the event planning committee.
The scholarship was born out of Slater’s respect for education, one of the driving forces in her life after she finished her career as a track star.
Slater broke the world record in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, where she ran in the 4x100-meter relay for the U.S. team. Slater said she missed the 1956 Olympics because of an injury, allowing alternate Wilma Rudolph to take her place.
“The reporters … called me wonderful, fantastic, great, beautiful, all that when I had broken the world’s record,” Slater said. “And when my leg didn’t heal, all of a sudden I was a has-been. I was a fluke.”
Slater proved the naysayers wrong, returning to the Olympics in 1960 and winning gold in the 4x100-meter relay.
But when Slater was teaching and coaching in Michigan City, her students didn’t know she was an Olympian. Slater wanted her daughter, whom she said was exceptional at volleyball and basketball, to be able to get the recognition she deserved without it being credited to Slater’s success.
Slater said her parents kept her grounded and disciplined — something she passed on to her students at Rogers High School. She made sure the Raiderettes were focused on their studies, avoiding trouble and building up their confidence.
The tough love worked, as Raiderettes went on to become lawyers, doctors, teachers and judges, to name a few, according to Slater.
Burks-Holloman, now a behavior specialist, credits Slater’s influence for changing her life. She said she grew up in poverty, one of nine children, and Slater would thus look out for her, packing her lunches when the Raiderettes traveled to different events.
Burks-Holloman, who was a captain for the Raiderettes, said Slater helped her get into college after a guidance counselor told her and other African-American students they likely wouldn’t be accepted anywhere. Slater stood up to the counselor and went a step further, helping Burks-Holloman fill out college applications and FAFSA and paying for application fees and school supplies.
Another former student of Slater’s, Tommy Amico, who choreographed the Raiderettes’ routines and is also on the planning committee, has been working with Slater long after he graduated. Amico said Slater took him under her wing and helped him to the success he has today.
The impact Slater had on her students was the driving force behind the weekend reunion event, according to Amico.