A tight-knit group of alumni has shown their enduring care and affection for a true icon of Southern Arkansas University — Dr. Margaret Downing, a former coach of women’s athletics and an inaugural member of the SAU Sports Hall of Fame.
Loved as a pioneer, coach, mentor, and friend, Downing was the Riderettes’ basketball coach from 1965 until 1984. As head coach of the SAU women, she led the Riderettes to 223 wins against 163 losses, a winning percentage of .578 — the best in its history. Downing also guided the Riderettes to a volleyball championship in 1974 and coached golf, track and field, swimming, and softball.
During her remarkable tenure, Downing influenced hundreds of students, including those who still consider themselves her children and grandchildren. To make sure Downing feels their appreciation, these caring alumni have gone on camping trips to Lake DeGray with their former coach and continue to check in on her during the pandemic.
“We get to spend quality time with our buddies and our coach,” Janet Cooper Wood (78) said of their excursions. “It doesn’t get any better! And we always throw in an activity — golf or disc golf — just to give ourselves a little competition.”
The group has used camping trips to Lake DeGray as an opportunity to relive memories from Southern State College and catch up. Karlene Coleman Hooker (78) hopes the tradition will continue.
“A few years ago, we said, ‘let’s all go to DeGray,” Hooker said. “I wasn’t able to make that first trip, but the next year, we all visited and just had a great time. But, we nearly froze! We had a big time on the Eagle Tour; Dr. Downing got to view some bald eagles from a pontoon boat.”
The time spent with Downing is meaningful to all. “It’s important that we continue to reach out to her as a group, that we reach out individually,” Hooker said.
“Dr. Downing was actually my camp counselor in Girl Scouts a few decades ago,” said Sallie Dalton (70). “So, when I was a student at Southern State (1966-1970), she told me to skip her Camp Counseling course, because she had taught me all she knew!”
Downing versed her students in the essentials, including making biscuits on a stick, building a campfire, and cooking hobo dinners. Hooker recalled putting these skills to the test at Lake Ehrling and DeGray. “We built the latrine, we slept in lean-to’s — this was primitive camping!” she said. “Camp and Camp Counseling was a semester-long class. We took all that knowledge to the camp site with us.”
Their recent excursions have offered a chance to strengthen the decades-old bonds. “It’s the Riderettes’ love we share, no matter the years,” explained Sara Wooly (77). “We talk about old, new and future events in our lives. Camping is what we all enjoy and is a perfect setting for the adventure. Did I forget to mention, the laughter we share is wonderful!”
Of her recent outings with her former students, Downing said, “It certainly is an informal, fun, and reminiscent time for all of us.”
The friends pay personal visits, call Downing at home, and use social media to keep tabs on her health. “She stays close to home,” Hooker said. “I was in the area recently and called to say I wanted to stop by and sit on her porch. She said, ‘no hugging!’ We’re glad that she is playing it safe during this time.”
The group has found innovative ways of keeping in touch with their former coach. “Last year, when Dr. D was sick, we decided we’d each take a month, and that was our month to check on her,” Hooker said. “We’d send a card, or call her, or stop by. That was our mission. About six months later, when I was talking to her, she said, ‘there is something going on. I think you’re checking up on me!’”
Looking to the coming year, Hooker said she hopes the group can continue its annual campouts. “We haven’t made definite plans, but I feel we will, if the world gets back to normal. I don’t think it’s something we’ll stop doing. We enjoy being around each other. We’re home.”
The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame inducted Downing in 1987 and the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2012. In 2018, alumni, Mulerider softball fans, and former players packed Dawson Field inside the Mulerider Softball Complex to watch SAU President Dr. Trey Berry reveal the facility’s new name: Dawson Field at The Dr. Margaret Downing Softball Complex.