Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Remembering Joanie Weston

It's one of the best research questions ever: "Wikipedia says a Roller Derby star named Joan Weston went to the Mount. Can you check it out?"

As I said at the time, you can't make this stuff up. And it turned out to be true -- Joan Weston did indeed attend Mount St. Mary's College but never graduated. She left during her sophomore year to join Roller Derby, and the rest is literally history; besides her Wikipedia entry, see the New York Times obituary and a fine tribute by her friend Frank Deford of Sports Illustrated.

Last week, I got a letter in the mail (the kind with a stamp) from a friend of hers during her Mount days. Kay Kemp '55 and Joan Weston were close during Joanie's freshman year (1952-53) and were teammates in water ballet. The 5'10" Joanie was a Physical Education major in the days when the College briefly offered it, and clearly a standout athlete in the pool and softball diamond before she started roller skating. In these photos from The Mount yearbook in 1953, Joan Weston is the one bending over a chair at the right in the upper photo (of the Women's Recreation Association), and is the blond seated at far left in the lower picture with some fellow freshmen.

Kay's touching note tells the story of Joanie's struggle to attend college:
Her mother was a waitress, and Joan's college spending money came out of a huge bottle filled up with tip money. Her mother emptied her apron pockets every day when she arrived at home from a corner [lunch counter] in downtown Los Angeles. [Those] wages kept the two of them in a very small apartment right next to the train tracks off Florence in South L.A.
In the fall of 1953 Joanie cajoled a Mount freshman with a car into driving her over to the old Armory in Exposition Park, which had a roller rink. By Christmas she was good enough for professional skating and left the Mount to join the brawling sport. According to the May, 1997, obituary in the New York Times,
Miss Weston could easily hold her own in the hair-pulling, face-slapping, roll-around brawls that became one of Roller Derby's most crowd-pleasing attractions.
This is the same tall, pretty girl who once smashed eight home runs in a single softball game -- and was finally told to stop when the opposing team was verging on tears. But Joanie was also kind and a little shy, not the bruiser that these images might suggest. Frank Deford wrote that she "was sweet and utterly genuine, a good Catholic girl whom everybody loved." In 1969, still going strong in Roller Derby, she told Deford,
All I want out of it is to make good money, get out of it in one piece, and years from now when I say I was in the Derby I want people still to know what it is. I want that.
I think she got her wish. At one time she was the highest-paid woman athlete in the world, and escaped without permanent injury, although she died at 62, strangely enough, of mad cow disease.

But Roller Derby itself lives on in various forms in mostly all-female teams who have embraced the bruising, showy high-camp of two generations ago. Joanie will probably always be considered one of the all-time greats.


  1. Does your posting titled "Remembering Joanie Weston" refer to her in the photos correctly or did you change the photos? I don't see anyone with a chair in the top photo or any blondes in the bottom photo. Chris

  2. Top photo, top row, second from right. She's leaning on the chair of the girl in front of her.

  3. Does anyone know Joanie Weston's mother's name? Or whether her mother was born in Canada?