Menlo-Atherton High School’s Pamela Wimberly to retire after 55 years
Pamela Wimberly, beloved P.E. teacher and pillar of M-A’s athletics department, will retire at the end of this school year. She has spent her entire career at M-A, teaching through 55 of M-A’s 72 years and under 14 different principals. Wimberly helped create the interscholastic girls athletics program, led her girls basketball teams to 24 championships, and taught over ten thousand students.
She said, “I could’ve retired 15 years ago, but I enjoyed what I was doing and wanted to touch the lives of as many students as I possibly could.”
P.E. teacher Tim Bowler said, “The one word that describes her is passionate, and Ms. Wimberly’s passion was physical education. She was the kindest person, an icon.”
M-A is throwing a small party for Wimberly in Ayers Gym on Thursday, June 1st at 2:30 p.m. Interested community members are welcome.
Raised in a military family, Wimberly grew up living around the world. “Every couple of years, we were going somewhere else,” she said. “From Atlantic City, to Naha, Okinawa, back to Atlantic City, to Fort Devens, Massachusetts, then to Germany, and then to Fort Holabird, Maryland.” Throughout all of this, the consistency in her life was athletics. She said, “I would always be playing softball or baseball with my brothers.”
Recalling a family vacation, Wimberly said, “At nine years old, sailing underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, I told my parents, ‘I want to come back to California.’”
As she grew older, Wimberly wanted to attend West Chester University in Pennsylvania since it had a top P.E. program. However, she said, “As an African-American person, I really couldn’t attend the colleges that were all white.”
“When I was growing up, you couldn’t eat in a restaurant, you couldn’t sit at the counter, you couldn’t ride at the front of the bus. Those things have all been resolved, but now there’s a subtle undercurrent of racism. And that’s what we have to get out of the way, and I think it’s going to take a long time,” she added.
She is proud to have received her degree in Physical Education from Morgan State University, a historically Black university in Maryland.
During her senior year at Morgan State, the Sequoia Union High School District assistant superintendent visited several historically Black colleges and universities as part of a campaign to recruit Black educators. Wimberly said, “They were looking for Black teachers because there were many African-American students in the District and that was one of the things that the African-American community was asking for.” After a phone interview, she flew across the country to begin a lifelong career at M-A.
Wimberly described her start at M-A as “tumultuous.” Several policies, like a new bussing policy that made buses available only to those living more than two miles from campus, contributed to heightened racial tensions on campus and race riots in the late 60s.
She explained, “[M-A] didn’t have many students of color from different cultures at all. People used to call this school the country club of the Peninsula.”
When asked about her first day, she said, “I was outside with my first class and all of a sudden I saw a garbage can go through the window of what is now the E-wing. I didn’t know what was going on. It was frightening. I can’t remember how many windows were busted in on campus, but there were a lot of them, rows and rows. The next thing we knew, people were spilling out of the classrooms. Some kids were getting hit and hurt. Then, the National Guard had been called in. There were helicopters above us. And boy, that was like fire and fury; it was crazy. But that first day of school was, I think, very tragic and very surprising to me.”
Initially, Wimberly had wanted to be an English teacher, but decided that she would much rather teach P.E. She said, “Why would I want to be surrounded by four walls all the time? I’d rather be outdoors or moving around in a gymnasium.”
Nearly six decades later, generations of M-A students have passed through her classes. M-A alum DeBraun Thomas ’01 said, “At the beginning of each class, we would each run laps around the track. I found out a family friend of mine had passed away right when I was going to leave for class one morning. When I got to M-A, I was really sad, grieving, and in general not moving with much enthusiasm. Instead of running with everyone else, I walked, and Ms. Wimberly ran around the track to catch up with me. I thought she was going to get on me for not running or that I was going to get a lecture of some kind. Instead, we spent the next 15 minutes talking about my friend and focused on the positive aspects of knowing him. Those 15 minutes have stayed with me since that day.”
He continued, “That’s Ms. Wimberly — she’ll be on you to make sure you’re getting your work done, but she’ll always be there to support her students through anything.”
Wimberly strives to leave all of her students with lifelong lessons from their time in P.E. “I’m just hoping that [my students] find some enjoyment in some of the activities that we did and continue playing them down the road as a lifelong activity.”
She feels that student athletics provide more value than simply exercise. She said, “Athletics is so important because it teaches you to be a good citizen, teaches you discipline, teaches you about your sport, teaches you how to organize yourself, how to organize your life, and how to organize your studies.”
Wimberly has learned from her teaching career as well. She said, “Teaching P.E. has made me more organized and more able to work with different people and different personalities, and taught me how to handle conflict. I’ve learned to also listen to [my students], because even though they’re young adults, they have good ideas and good intentions.”
In addition to teaching, Wimberly has coached both basketball and softball. She said, “One of my fondest memories was taking the softball team to their first CCS game because we had always been the doormat.” She has a deep appreciation for both sports, and said, “Basketball is my first love to coach; softball to play.”
When Wimberly first arrived at M-A, girls could only play sports during designated “play days” in the spring, when girls throughout the District would gather at one school to play various sports. Only in her second year did girls have the opportunity to play sports in interscholastic leagues under the newly-formed South Peninsula Girls Athletic League.
Wimberly coached six-player girls basketball for the first two years of her coaching career, until the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) changed game rules to the standard five-player game. “I was one of the people who helped to move girls from six-player basketball to five-player basketball,” she said. “[Officials] felt that we were so weak that we could not run across the half-court line and dribble the ball more than two dribbles.”
Wimberly went on to coach basketball for 42 years. She said, “I felt that we had a program that we were building and we wanted to keep a dynasty going.”
Wimberly believes that a good coach has a responsibility to their students beyond what happens at practice. She said, “Number one, a good coach has knowledge of the game that they’re coaching. Secondly, they take good care of their student-athletes, talking to them about nutrition and making sure they are doing their academics because it’s not ‘athlete-student,’ it’s ‘student-athlete.’ What it comes down to is that you have an education and you’re ready to go out in the world.”
Wimberly found more value in coaching than simply winning. “Sometimes we played super tight games, and sometimes we should have won the game but we didn’t. I learned how to teach the team to take a loss and show good sportsmanship to opponents who had just beaten us,” she said.
Alongside her coaching and teaching careers, Wimberly has served as Athletic Director for 24 years and hired many of M-A’s longtime staff members. Wimberly explained, “I tried to bring in a rainbow of colors to coach the students here because our students are a rainbow of colors, so they would have a role model that they can look up to.”
Wimberly hired her former student Ted Minnis to coach boys water polo in the 90’s. Minnis said, “I remember the day she hired me. She said to me, ‘I’m not sure why I’m doing this. I remember you from when you were in high school, and I’m gonna give you a chance because I think you’ll do a great job.’ And that’s something that always stuck with me; I was gonna make sure to do her proud.”
He added, “I don’t know if I’d be coaching at Harvard if it wasn’t for her giving me a chance to coach and learn how to do what I do.”
Wimberly also hired Bowler, who said, “I’m fortunate and very proud to say that I was her very first hire as department head.”
Wimberly’s efforts transformed athletics at M-A. She said, “I helped to develop and grow the girls athletic program, but also the boys. We started lacrosse, added golf for girls, and added water polo for girls. I helped to build the athletic program.”
As coach, Wimberly’s varsity basketball teams won 20 Peninsula Athletic League (PAL) championships and four Central Coast Section (CCS) championships. Wimberly had a win-loss record of 663-340, which, according to The Mercury News in 2017, ranked her “No. 1 in Northern California and third in the state.” One of her fondest memories at M-A is winning her first basketball CCS championship in 1983.
Wimberly earned dozens of honors throughout her coaching career. She was inducted into the San Mateo County Sports Hall of Fame and received the CIF Model Coach Award, the Women’s Sports Foundation Coaches Award, and the California Coaches Association Coach of the Year Award. M-A recently renamed the basketball court in Ayers Gym to Wimberly Court in her honor.
So, what is Wimberly’s secret to having the longest tenure in M-A history?
“I just enjoyed working here, I enjoyed the community, the teachers that passed through here, and the students. And, just staying active. I always say, ‘Keep moving!’ and I think that’s helped me,” she said. “You’ve got to enjoy what you’re doing and enjoy the school you’re at. I know for myself, this was the place. The key thing is that being a physical educator, with all this land out here separate from the rest of the school, I was able to be the teacher I wanted to be, supported by the administrators and supported by the teachers. The hard part for teachers nowadays is you can’t really live in the community because it’s so doggone expensive. I used to live here, around East O’keefe, and now I live in Redwood City. I really think that’s why a lot of our teachers move on, because they can’t afford to live in this area or drive millions of miles to teach here.”
Wimberly’s tenure will remain an essential part of M-A’s history and her impact on campus will continue for years to come.
Minnis said, “I hope I could just touch half as many people as she has and be half the person she is. Some day there has to be a Pam Wimberly shrine of some sort on campus because she’s meant so much to the Menlo-Atherton community for so long.”
When asked what she will most remember, Wimberly said, “The people — different cultures, different races — at M-A that try to work together as a team.” She said, “It’s a work in progress, always, but I just believe that the man upstairs placed me in a place where I can work with people from all walks of life.”
With her retirement, Wimberly looks forward to continuing to coach her senior softball team, which plays in tournaments throughout the country. She plans to stay athletic in other ways as well, continuing to exercise, playing pickleball at Mitchell Park. She also plans to learn more about her genealogy. She said, “It’s very difficult to figure out where my people came from because they always said that you were a Black person even if you were of mixed races, but I’m going to figure it out.” Wimberly also plans to write a book and learn to play guitar. Finally, she’s going to visit her siblings and her daughter’s family in New Jersey.
As a closing message to the M-A community, Wimberly said, “I just wish everybody the best here. I know things will keep rolling. There’ll be good days, there’ll be bad days, but this is the place to be. There are many teachers and staff members here who want to see students be successful and are working hard to do that. Hopefully students will accept that and do their very best, because four years goes by very fast. Before you know it, you’re off to a J-O-B. The time I’ve spent here has been enjoyable—there’s been ups and downs, but it’s been an enjoyable journey—and now it’s time for me to move forward to the next chapter of my life.”
Amala Raj wrote this article with Megan Lam for the M-A Chronicle; formatting issues prevents us from showing a joint byline
Top photo of Pam by Irene Searles taken for InMenlo in 2017