Brenda Gatlin never made it to California in 1967.
The Virginia native and young educator at Barbour Intermediate School on Detroit’s east side had only planned on staying for one year in the Motor City and then she was headed west. She ended up staying for the next 40 years, teaching and coaching in the Detroit Public School (DPS) system.
The educator, coach, advocate, and advisor was honored for her service to a generation of students with her own plaque at the Hank Greenberg Walk of Heroes, a new permanent feature at The Corner Ballpark Presented by Adient.
Made possible with funding by the William Davidson Foundation and the Greenberg Family, the Walk of Heroes exhibit features 12 stories of heroes who displayed exceptional character, innovation and trailblazing spirit in the sports field and the community at large. The exhibit officially opens to the public on Friday, October 4.
The honorees include: Hank Aguirre, Daedra Charles-Furlow, Detroit Demolition, Anne Doyle, Brenda Gatlin, Hank Greenberg, Willie Horton, Will Robinson, Diane Madsen and Jay Roberts-Eveland, Norman Thomas “Turkey” Stearnes, and Ron Thompson.
“I am humbly appreciative of this opportunity. I’ve been a part of this planning process for the last four years and to see it come to fruition is amazing,” said Gatlin. “I didn’t aspire to be recognized. I only wanted to inspire and motivate young people. It’s been a great journey and I appreciate all the young people that I’ve had the opportunity to work with.”
If you were to sum up Gatlin’s journey as an educator in DPS, the word trailblazer would be the perfect fit. And although she never taught or coached at Central, she had plenty of battles with them as head coach of the now closed Northeastern Falcons girls’ basketball team – a job she did not sign up for.
“I went to Northeastern to teach dance and the next thing I know, I was coaching girls basketball,” said Gatlin, who majored in health and physical education in college. “At first, my girls did not have the skills to compete and I didn’t want them feeling that way. So I rolled my sleeves up, talked to coach Smitty (Robert Smith) at Northeastern, and then the Williams sisters came into my life, and the rest is history.”
History was surely made at Northeastern under Gatlin, as she led the Lady Falcons to the first Detroit Public School League (PSL) girls basketball city championship in 1974. The following year, led by Helen and Shelia Williams, Northeastern became the first PSL girls basketball team to win a state title, 67-62, over Farmington Our Lady of Mercy. They also won the Operation Friendship game that year against Mercy, becoming the first PSL team to win all three major championships in one year: city title, Operation Friendship, and state title.
“With those kids from Northeastern, it was an uphill battle to win the state championship in 1975,” Gatlin said. “We should have won in 1974, too, but I’m not going to talk about that. But that time was great for Detroit. Then 10 years later, William Winfield won another one for the city at Martin Luther King. That goes to show you how hard it was for us, fighting for equality as women.”
In 1978, a new high school on Detroit’s far west side opened called Renaissance. Gatlin left Northeastern to teach there for three years, while also coaching women’s basketball at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. But when the principal at Renaissance left for Cass Tech, he took her with him to teach dance and coach girls basketball. That was the easy part for Gatlin, becoming the first team to win three consecutive PSL titles in the early 80s with the girls. But teaching in Detroit automatically came with its challenges and adversity and Gatlin was faced with another unfamiliar situation at Cass Tech in 1985. She was asked to coach the varsity boys’ basketball team and no was not an option.
“In 1985, after my Cass Tech girls lost in the state playoffs, I knew what was waiting for me,” said Gatlin. “The principal at Cass Tech at the time told me I was going to coach the boys and I knew not to tell her no. And so I became the first woman to coach a boys varsity basketball team in the state of Michigan. It was a fun year and we did quite well. The men coaches said they weren’t going to lose to me, and they did.”
Gatlin coached Cass Tech’s boys varsity basketball team for one year, where she coached current Cass Tech head coach Steve Hall, and then became the first woman athletic director at Southwestern High School in 1986. She returned to Cass Tech in 1992 to become an assistant principal and in 1999, she became the principal of her own school at Southeastern, until her retirement from DPS in 2009. At Southeastern, she managed to two buildings with over 2,000 students and renovation of the school built in 1917.
Forty-three years of determination, dedication, desire, and discipline to a school system in need of adequate educators had come to an end. But she left knowing that she gave disadvantaged students the same kind of love she received as a young girl growing up in a segregated school system in Jim Crow South of Virginia. She said Southeastern was her most challenging teaching job and the most rewarding.
After a very short retirement, Gatlin joined Cranbrook Horizons-Upward Bound program as its Academic Dean, a title she has held since 2009. She also coaches middle school basketball, of course.
“I’m still in the game,” Gatlin laughed.