The smile on Belmar Gunderson's face grew as she recounted one of the times she pushed the University of Minnesota to invest more in women's sports.
It was the early 1970s. Her secretary had stumbled upon a bill for the football coaches' shoes. They cost more than $5,000. Women's sports had $5,000 total to spend that year.
So Gunderson approached her boss. "That's basically how we blackmailed them," she said, laughing as she finished the story.
The moment was recorded in a video featuring Gunderson and other tennis legends, and in the week since her death May 15 at age 88, some of Gunderson's former students have found themselves returning to that clip.
"That is classic Belmar," said Linda Lander, a student who stayed in touch with Gunderson.
Nearly 50 years after that confrontation, Gunderson is known as the U's "mother of women's intercollegiate athletics," credited with starting 10 varsity sports at the state's flagship university. Today about 260 women participate in 13 sports programs run through the U's athletics department.
"What she established, what she started, her expectations will still carry true to this day," said Julie Manning, the U's deputy athletics director and senior woman administrator. She credits Gunderson with creating opportunities for women, even before Title IX.
Athletic prowess ran in Gunderson's family. Her father, Clarence Harvey Gunderson, was a colonel in the army. Her mother, Belmar Shepley Gunderson, was a talented swimmer, and her brother, Raymond Eric Gunderson, was a boxer.
Gunderson developed two loves during her childhood that would stay with her for the rest of her life: tennis and horses. She played tennis at the national level for roughly a decade, earning a No. 11 ranking in women's singles and a No. 2 ranking in U.S. women's doubles. She stood just 4 feet 11 inches tall, and played four times at Wimbledon. Journalist and sportscaster Bud Collins dubbed her the "Tiny Tiger."
She earned degrees from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Pennsylvania State University, and Texas Woman's University. She took a job at the University of Minnesota in 1962, famously telling her students that the budget for women's sports clubs at the time was just $5.76.
It took students a while to learn about Gunderson's tennis accolades.
"The focus was never on Belmar," Lander said. "It was always on other women and giving them opportunities in sport."
In 1975, Gunderson became the U's first director of women's intercollegiate athletics. Her hiring represented a new era in sports that left "big, strong men around the country literally running scared," the Minneapolis Star reported at the time.
It was a phenomenon that puzzled Gunderson, who told the paper: "I'm all for the men's program. We're not out to ruin it. Whatever we do will only justify more and strengthen more the total athletic program at Minnesota."
When she left the U in 1979, the budget for women's sports had grown to $330,000. She'd helped start a scholarship program for female athletes, and some of her students were launching coaching careers of their own.
"We really owe our professional careers to Belmar Gunderson," Lander said. The female physical education majors in the Class of 1969 were so grateful to Gunderson they invited her to their 50th reunion.
Gunderson continued to win tennis titles into her 70s, and was credited with starting a division for people in their 80s. In the last years of her life, Gunderson split her time between Wisconsin, where she and her husband, Dan Lay, raised horses on their ranch, and Florida, where she continued to play tennis.
She is survived by her niece, Karen Gunderson Elliot, and her nephew, Raymond Eric Gunderson Jr. Memorial services will be private.