From Physical Fitness to Fiscal Fitness: Getting to Know Judith Davidson
Born in New York City but, moving around the eastern United States for her father’s job, Judith Davidson is brimming with wisdom and a past that spans the nation. Despite having a younger brother, Judith proudly claims to be the more competitive and athletic one of the two growing up. Her true passion would manifest in field hockey and before long it would take her on the journey of a lifetime.
In early March, I sat down and wrote an article in celebration of Women’s History Month that highlights women’s accomplishments in sport since the passage of Title IX in 1972. As fate would have it, I chose to report as a major event for 1988 how a woman named Judith Davidson was hired as the Athletic Director for Central Connecticut State University, becoming the only female AD at an NCAA Division I school to oversee all sports, including men’s football and basketball.
Time would pass before a beautiful letter made its way to my office. My fingers ran along the thick cardstock and I was flooded with joy as I read Judith’s words of thanks for including her in my article. Through her letter, I could tell that this was someone who had a story to share and I immediately reached out with the hopes of getting to know her better. I’m so lucky she agreed and trust you will be too!
Judith attended high school in the 1960’s, before the passage of Title IX and the benefits for women it would bring, yet she was determined and found a way to play the sport she loved, field hockey.
Maegan: Did you grow up playing sports?
Judith: Absolutely. My really competitive experience started when I was in high school but when I was much younger I grew up with two male cousins. If they were going to let me play with them I had to do everything they did but I had to do it better because for the obvious, I was a girl!
I grew up always being active but my first encounter with field hockey actually came when I was in the tenth grade. I had never seen field hockey until I saw a girl carrying a stick and I asked her, “Is that a field hockey stick?” And, she said, “What do you think it is?” I said, “Well I didn’t know. I’ve never seen one.” That was my introduction to field hockey. Little did I know it would take me all over the world.
Maegan: You played field hockey in college pre-Title IX, what was that like?
Judith: I did and I played beyond college through USA Field Hockey programs. We are really talking about the dark ages when I played in college, though. I would have killed someone to be able to have the opportunities that young girls have now. I think during my first couple of years in college we had three or four competitive games a season. I went to the University of New Hampshire as an undergraduate and then I played on the weekends through the U.S. Field Hockey Association. So, I was getting a lot of competition and playing experience but it wasn’t through the University.
Maegan: What do sports mean to you?
Judith: That’s a great question and I have a rather lengthy answer…
Maegan: I have time.
Judith: I wanted to go back to school for a PhD at the University of Massachusetts, then called sports studies program, and at the time there were four academic areas: sport psychology, sport philosophy, sport sociology and sport history. I wanted to be in sport philosophy because I felt, and I still do, that women experience sport very differently than men do. I’m not sure I could articulate that to you exactly at this moment, but I think it’s more of a sense of being for women than it is for men.
When I went to apply to get into the Ph.D. program, I went to the then Chair of the program and said I wanted to be in the philosophy of sport. He said, “Well once you say it should be equal what else is there?” And I thought, oh no…He also said he couldn’t take me on as an advisee, at which point the woman who became my advisor, Dr. Betty Spears, said if I wanted to do sport history she would take me on as an advisee. I wanted to get into the program so I said okay. That’s how I became a sports historian. So, to get to your question, I think women experience sport in a way that’s particular to women and I think it’s more related to self-actualization.
“I distinctly remember being at NCAA meetings at the end of the year and it was lonely.”
Maegan: In 1988, you became the Athletic Director at Central Connecticut State University, becoming the only female AD at an NCAA Division I school to oversee all sports, including men’s football and basketball. Did you realize then that you were making history?
Judith: I knew that I was the first woman at a Division I school. At the time though, I wasn’t thinking along those lines as much as, “Oh my God, I need to do a really good job here.” There was that fear factor.
Maegan: What was it like to be the only female in your position?
Judith: I distinctly remember being at NCAA meetings at the end of the year and it was lonely. There weren’t any other women in the room that had a similar position. It took a while but gradually there started to be women. But, I remember my feelings in the very first meeting. I looked around and thought, oh my God I’m the only one here.
Maegan: Did you face any personal hurdles during this time?
Judith: I don’t recall anything along those particular lines, to tell you the truth. I think more what I was feeling was the magnitude of the job that I had to do. You have to understand, I came from the University of Iowa, which was and still is, a major athletics department, into Central Connecticut, which was kind of…not. Let’s just say that. There were a lot of hurdles just trying to get the resources that the coaches needed so that’s more what I was focusing on; trying to build that program to where we could be competitive.
Maegan: Why do you believe sports are important for people to be able to participate in?
Judith: There are so many reasons for people to participate in sports, particularly for women. Sport teaches a lot of very valuable life skills and for women I think it’s particularly important, if for nothing else, for health reasons. You can find all the reasons for having a healthy lifestyle, I don’t need to tell you that. I look around at what our healthcare costs are in this country and what the Medicare needs are going to be and so much of that could be avoided if human beings in this country, males and females, had a healthier lifestyle. Beyond health, it seems to me there are intangible reasons that are as intensely personal as each participant. Those are the driving forces that compel us to excel and self-actualize.
“In 1986, I literally woke up in the middle of the night thinking what am I going to do with the rest of my life. I did not plan to be a coach.”
Maegan: You now work in finance at Merrill Lynch, what led you to make that switch from working in intercollegiate athletics to become a financial advisor?
Judith: Good question. First of all, I had never planned on being a coach for my entire career. I started coaching collegiately at the University of Massachusetts when I started my PhD degree and…I just need to give you a little of the background.
I started as a graduate student and I had a graduate assistantship where I was going to be an assistant field hockey coach. Though, when I got there the person I was going to be assisting left the university. The AD at the time asked me if I would take over as Head Coach for a short while. I had coached some in high school prior to going there, though I didn’t really have a choice. So I said okay, figuring that they would hire someone right away but it would actually take two years.
In our second year we attended the AIAW National Field Hockey Championships. We did well over those two years. After my second year, around June, I had gone to a conference for the North American Society of Sport History and when I got back to my office at UMass I had a call from Christine Grant from the University of Iowa. Now you should know Christine’s name…
Maegan: I have heard of Christine.
Judith: Christine at the time was the Director of Women’s Athletics at Iowa, she was also very significant in the passage of Title IX and in AIAW. Anyway, she called me and said they have a field hockey position. I said I’m really planning on becoming an academic not a field hockey coach but she enticed me to visit and interview for the hockey job, so I did. We reached an agreement and I was hired as 50% academics and 50% athletics; so, I taught a graduate course each semester and coached the field hockey team. That allowed me to do the two things that I really loved to do: be an academic and coach field hockey. But, ultimately I planned to pursue an academic career not a coaching career but you know that one year turned into ten.
In 1986, I literally woke up in the middle of the night thinking what am I going to do with the rest of my life. I did not plan to be a coach. In 1986, my team apparently decided this year we’re going to win the National Championship and they did! That was certainly a highlight of my career and certainly of my life. I coached one more year after that, and we were able to defend but not win the Championship in 1987.
Then, in early 1988, I got a call from a friend, Andrea Wickerham a former assistant coach at Iowa, who was now the Assistant Athletic Director at Central Connecticut State University and she told me they were looking for an Athletic Director and I should apply. My exact words to her were, I will never forget this, “Andrea, you know they’re not going to hire a woman.” And her exact words back to me were, “This President may. Put in an application.” And, the rest is history.
Maegan: Good thing you sent that in.
Judith: Oh, I don’t know. I guess it is! I could still be at Iowa teaching sport history.
Maegan: So, what led you to transition out of intercollegiate athletics to become a financial advisor?
Judith: I had this chance to be an athletic director and I was at Central for seven years. I spent a short time at Minnesota as an Associate Director of Women’s Athletics, and then applied to become an Athletic Director at California State University at Sacramento, Sac State, and was hired.
Now, I want to go back to that time when I was waking up in the middle of the night, thinking what am I going to do with the rest of my life. I always have been interested in investing and I would think to myself, “Well, Judith, you should just go manage your own portfolio.” That and $4.95 would have got me a latte in those days.
I was at Sac State and it was a different experience; eventually I made a move to be in the investment world. Seventeen years later, here I am. It’s been incredible, just an incredible journey. I felt I developed some skills as a coach and as a professor that have stood me in very good stead, certainly dealing with clients and being able to, I think, take very complex concepts and translate them into readily accessible concepts that clients understand.
Maegan: And that’s perfect because you just answered my next question, which was do you feel your time in athletics helps you in your job as a financial advisor?
Judith: It does. I’m naturally competitive. I enjoy it and I enjoy my clients and I’m hoping to finish out my working career here. When my clients do well, that’s winning to me and I love to win.
Maegan: In your position at Merrill Lynch you focus on helping single and suddenly single women manage their finances, after going through the experience of helping your twice-widowed mother. Why do you believe it is important to help women in this particular moment in their lives?
Judith: Oh! Because so many women do not handle their finances and I think they’re somewhat apprehensive about doing so and I think, my experience here has been, women and men approach investing very differently. I find women to be a little bit more cautious and want the security of knowing that they’re going to be alright financially. Men, in my experience, tend to take a little bit more risk. And, I think when you deal with a couple, more often than not, not 100% of the cases, but more often than not, it’s the man who is handling the finances.
But, it all goes back to my coaching and teaching experience, you know, to try and help people make the best decisions for themselves by being able to explain to them what their options are and what fits. It’s the same way that I would recruit at Iowa. I’d say to a prospective student athlete, after showing her everything we had, “If this fits you and you think you would be happy here if you couldn’t play field hockey, then this is where you should come for school. Don’t just come here to play field hockey. It’s got to fit.” It’s the same way with decision making. If this decision for your future fits you and you can live a life defined by the values that are important to you then this is what we need to do.
Maegan: What motivates you to continue your work?
Judith: I like it. I love dealing with my clients. I don’t know what else I would do frankly (laughs). I have worked almost my entire life. I have been fortunate that as President of the United States Field Hockey Association, I traveled all over the field hockey playing world; a lot of people when they retire do a lot of traveling. That doesn’t particularly motivate me because I’ve done a lot. I just love what I do and I love helping people to be financially secure. It frees the mind and spirit not having to worry about security.
Maegan: Well that’s a wonderful reason to keep going.
Judith: I certainly feel it is.
Maegan: Alright, one more. Was it difficult managing your own mother’s finances?
Judith: I was very careful. I wanted to make sure that what she had was going to last as long as she did. I was careful just the same way that I’m careful with my clients’ assets. It’s just really important to have people be able to live in a way that they value and to be sure that they’re going to be secure. That’s the key. I like to say I spent my life first in physical fitness and now in fiscal fitness.
Maegan: Is there anything I didn’t touch on that you would like to talk about?
Judith: (Laughs) When I was in high school…I feel I’ve got to get this in. I have a brother, Joel, who’s six years younger than me and I would get him out in our backyard and make him hit field hockey balls. I was a goalkeeper and I would make him hit field hockey balls to me so I could practice.
Maegan: I love that! I used to do something fairly similar to my dad but with roller hockey. I definitely understand the thrill and the need to have someone help you out.
Judith: I loved it.