HHS Remembers Trailblazer Jo Safrit

Margaret JoAnne “Jo” Safrit was known for her intelligence, loyalty, and kindness. She was also known for her longtime love of UNCG.

Safrit, who passed away on Jan. 17, 2023, in Greensboro, graduated from the Woman’s College in 1953 with a degree in physical education, before going to the University of Texas at Austin and ultimately earning her master’s and doctorate degrees in kinesiology at the University of Wisconsin. Safrit was a pioneer and an expert in the profession, writing two books on quantitative measurement that have been used for decades.

Jo Safrit receiving degree at Shanghai University of Sport.
Safrit was so well-known in her field that she was invited to lecture at Shanghai University of Sport in China in 1985, as one of the first Americans to visit the country after it reopened its borders.

That was where now-UNCG Kinesiology Professor Dr. Ang Chen first met Safrit. He was a graduate student at Shanghai University of Sport when she came to speak.

“There was no doctoral program in kinesiology in China then. She told me to come to the U.S. for it and I did,” he said. “I came to the University of Wisconsin where she was.”
Chen has fond memories of Safrit in Wisconsin.

“She was always there, encouraging me while I was in school in Wisconsin,” he said.

She was very sensitive about individual students’ situations and trying to help. In the middle of my schooling, my biggest advisor moved. I made an appointment and talked to Jo, and every worry and concern went away.

Chen’s time as a student with Safrit is not unlike many other students who relied on her for advice.

Safrit served as a mentor with the Guarantee Scholars Program at UNCG, said Dr. Sandra Shultz, professor of kinesiology.

“The scholarships speak to her supporting students here, because she had so much support during her time (at the Woman’s College),” Shultz said.

The things that she benefited from, she wanted to give the next generation of students. She stayed in touch with the students, and she took a personal interest in them. She tried to encourage them and was invested in them. She wasn’t afraid to say it like it was. She wasn’t a soft mentor, but I think they respected her for that.

Safrit and her longtime partner, Dr. Catherine Ennis, stayed in contact with many of their former students. Chen ultimately worked with Ennis at the University of Maryland, and again at UNCG.
Jo Safrit with Cathy Ennis on Great Wall of China.

He said Safrit and Ennis came to see him when he worked in Hawaii and advised him on his career moves. He repaid the favor by taking them back to China for a visit.

“Jo made such an impact on kinesiology in China,” Chen said.

Shanghai University gave her an honorary doctoral degree, a very high honor. The University is in the top five in the world for kinesiology.

He said Safrit’s impact on the field of measurement and evaluation is hard to quantify. Prior to Safrit, kinesiology didn’t have a consistent measurement of accuracy. Safrit developed and tested many of the procedures that are used in the field today.

Safrit was recognized for her professional contributions with many awards, including the Luther Halsey Gullick Award from SHAPE America and the Hetherington Award from the National Academy of Kinesiology in 1999. She was also previously elected president of the National Academy of Kinesiology (formerly the National American Academy of Physical Education). When Safrit was elected, there were only about 100 fellows in the Academy, which was then composed mainly of men.

At UNCG, Safrit and Ennis were always at women’s basketball games, and Safrit created the Mildred Curlee Cooper Scholarship for Women’s Basketball in honor of her high school basketball coach. Safrit and Ennis also established the Safrit-Ennis Women’s Basketball Athletic Scholarship Fund and helped fund improvements to the women’s basketball locker room.

Safrit also remained committed to her kinesiology roots while in Greensboro. She created the Safrit-Ennis Distinguished Professorship in Kinesiology, and endowed the Safrit Measurement in Research Fund, so qualified Ph.D. students and faculty in the Kinesiology Department can continue to develop measurement tools. Safrit also started the Catherine D. Ennis Undergraduate Kinesiology Scholarship.

Dr. Laurie Wideman is the first Safrit-Ennis Distinguished Professor, and got to know Safrit well.

“Dr. Jo Safrit had such a positive and significant impact on me and my work at UNC Greensboro,” Wideman said.
“Whenever we met, she was always caring, asking about my work and accomplishments and, of course, my goals. She pushed me to think about the next research or scholarly goals. The Safrit-Ennis Distinguished Professorship is special, not just for what it has allowed me to do but because it embodies the legacies of Drs. Safrit and Ennis.”

With the Distinguished Professorship, Wideman said she’s able to carry on Safrit and Ennis’ tradition of scholarly excellence while still nurturing students.

“It allows me to invest in the research careers of my students and to empower and educate the next generation of scientists. It allows me to incubate and generate personal and professional success for them by providing funds for travel to conferences, specialized training opportunities and to offset costs for research projects that address more complex problems in our field — nearly 94% of the funds I receive as part of the professorship have been allocated to various graduate student projects,” Wideman said.

My goal is to use the Safrit-Ennis Distinguished Professorship funds to benefit the next generation of scientists as much as possible and to help them identify the scientific ‘spark’ that ignites their passion.

In addition to funding kinesiology at UNCG, Safrit also invested in numerous other areas. She also provided support to the Center for Women’s Health and Wellness, the College of Visual and Performing Arts, the Weatherspoon Art Museum, the UNCG Alumni Association Fund, the Spartan Athletics Scholarship Fund, and UNCG as a whole. In addition, Safrit was a member of the Light the Way Cabinet, the Alumni Leadership Board, the Woman’s College Tribute Committee, and UNC Greensboro Foundation Board of Directors.

Cathy Ennis, Ang Chen, Safrit with doctoral students, 2008.

“Jo just didn’t slow down. She was a strong, independent lady who really cared about other people and made lifelong friends,” said Shultz. “That’s one of the reasons she valued this university and what she took from it, and why she wanted to give back with her time and experiences.”

UNCG will hold a Celebration of Life for Safrit on Saturday, April 22, at 2:30 p.m. in the EUC Auditorium. A reception will follow in Taylor Garden.

Story by Sarah Newell, HHS Communications.
Photos courtesy of Dr. Ang Chen and UNCG.

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