31 Years, and Almost as Many Roles: Professor Emerita Sharon Spalding Reflects on Her Career

Like many of her students and athletes, Sharon Spalding came to Mary Baldwin in 1989 chasing a dream. Though she held a full-time job at Rockingham Memorial Hospital, she wanted to coach volleyball. 

And coach she did for 10 years, winning an Atlantic Women’s College Conference (AWCC) volleyball championship in 1995 and coaching multiple players to all-conference honors. 

“Some of my most special memories of Mary Baldwin are of my volleyball teams and our trips,” Spalding said. “This is back when we had one van and no phones. We picked a player to bring the CDs for the trip. We sang and played car games. Lots of great times.” 

Coaching volleyball was only one facet of Spalding’s 31-year career, which was capped with emeritus status as professor of physical and health education. She held roles and led teams of both students and staff across Mary Baldwin and helped make the university what it is today. 

Now several months into her retirement, Spalding looks back on her Mary Baldwin journey, and those with whom she walked, or (knowing Spalding) often ran. 

“Most of all, I miss the people, to include faculty, staff, and students,” she said. “I was able to work with some great people over my 31 years.” 

“My biggest thrill in retirement has been being Nanna to Max,” said Sharon Spalding, professor emerita of physical and health education who retired this fall after a 31-year career at MBU. Spalding and her husband, Phil, will celebrate 40 years of marriage next summer.

Passion for fitness

In addition to volleyball, Spalding has fond memories of her time as cross country coach, which she held at the same time that she served as athletic director and as professor. She worked with all-conference runners every year and had several top achievers, including two all region runners, the USA South and South/Southeast runner of the year, and a two time All-American runner.

“We had practice at 0600 every morning,” she said. “They were a dedicated group to run all over Staunton in the dark most of the season. I had some incredible runners, but the greatest thrill was seeing the look on their faces when they achieved a personal record or finished a distance they hadn’t done before.”

Spalding’s tenure as director of athletics and wellness saw Mary Baldwin shift play from AWCC to the USA South, the university’s current conference. While leading the department, Spalding again drew strength from her team, this time of employees. 

“It didn’t matter what someone’s position was; they were always there to assist each other in any task that needed to be done to make things better for students and student-athletes,” she said.

Athletics and wellness are the common threads of Spalding’s career, and she taught many courses in the Physical and Health Education (PHE) Department, as well as introductory courses in biology and chemistry. 

“Teaching activity, health, and fitness concepts is my passion,” she said. “Helping students learn to play a sport like tennis or golf and seeing them laugh and play and be excited to come to class was fun.”  

During her retirement, Spalding enjoys spending time with family. Her two sons, Jason and Brandon, were 6 and 2 when she started at Mary Baldwin. “They grew up at Baldwin,” she said. “They were able to sled on the hill, have lots of sitters, and thought their mom owned a gym.”

Bonding through challenge in VWIL

Strength and endurance are characteristics that have defined Spalding’s career. It is fitting, then, that she first developed the strength and endurance test that cadets in the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership (VWIL) still take.

Spalding contributed to VWIL for 25 years of her MBU career, directing the physical training program and teaching leadership seminars. She also served as assistant director of the program and then director for one year, before she was called back to athletics. For many years, she also was the faculty advisor for first-year cadets. 

One of her favorite aspects of VWIL was the annual wilderness trip. At the beginning of each academic year, these outdoor adventures give first-year cadets, or nULLs, the opportunity to bond and start developing leadership skills. Spalding loved rock climbing and ropes courses, but wasn’t so keen on the whitewater rafting.

“The best part of these trips was seeing the nULLS work outside of their comfort zone and also making lifelong friends,” she said. “I went out of my comfort zone many times too. Being outside of our comfort zone is really where we grow!”

Three-time survivor

The most difficult paths for Spalding during her time at MBU were three battles with cancer in 2007, 2012, and 2015. She had just started as athletic director when her cancer was first discovered, and gives a lot of credit to her staff for helping to keep everything going while she underwent treatment. 

“Most importantly they treated me like things hadn’t changed, which I greatly appreciated,” she said. “Although they would give little reminders like ‘don’t you think you should go home now?’” 

During the last recurrence, past and present Mary Baldwin athletes, cadets, students, and friends rallied together to send Spalding and her husband, Phil, on a special trip to Hawaii.  

The morning we found out I was humbled and speechless, but felt so loved by Mary Baldwin,” she said. “We had a fabulous time!”

Spalding devotes her expertise in exercise physiology to working with cancer survivors — for the past seven years, she has run the Cancer Rx program at Augusta Health, which uses exercise to improve quality of life and recovery for patients with cancer. She also volunteers teaching a calisthenic program for cancer survivors called Beat Cancer Boot Camp twice a week, usually held at MBU and Murphy Deming College of Health Sciences, but now over Zoom due to the pandemic.

“If cancer has taught me anything it is to be present and enjoy where I am at each moment,” she said. “And also those things that I taught for 31 years — exercise, eat well, get some sleep, laugh, and play.”

“If cancer has taught me anything it is to be present and enjoy where I am at each moment. And also those things that I taught for 31 years — exercise, eat well, get some sleep, laugh, and play.”

Sharon Spalding, professor emerita of physical and health education