ALBANY, Ga. (WSAV) – No one has worked at Alice Coachman Elementary longer than Wilhelmina Kalip.
“From the ground up. Brick and mortar,” as she likes to put it. The longtime secretary has 21 years of memories to look back fondly on, yet few stand the test of time quite like the moment she met the woman the school is named after.
“I guess you could call it star-struck at first,” Kalip said with a smile. Coachman, the first Black woman to win an Olympic gold medal, often visited this elementary school in her hometown of Albany, Georgia to read to the kids.
“She was always so proud to come in here and look up,” Kalip remembers. “Her eyes — it was probably like she was at the Olympics, to see her name up and her pictures up. She loved it.”
Much like she blazed a trail for Black athletes with her win at the 1948 London Games, Coachman still serves as an inspiration for students at Alice Coachman Elementary, even after her passing in 2014.
“There’s nothing you can’t do once you put your mind to it,” Kalip said when asked what Coachman’s name stands for in the classroom. “When you see that happened to a little girl who grew up in the same neighborhood as you now become famous, become an athlete, and she did what she could for the community as well.”
This summer, an Olympics summer, is a special one for this school in particular. Kalip said students run around the track with a torch to pay tribute to Coachman, they’re encouraged to play sports, and the children’s book about Coachman is displayed everywhere.
Coachman truly has become part of the curriculum.
“We put Alice Coachman up there as one of the role models they exemplify, not only because she got out of Albany, but because she came back,” J.D. Sumner, public information officer for Dougherty County Schools, explained. “She did it with humility and she did it with class. That’s all lessons we can learn from today.”
Born in 1923, Coachman cleared massive hurdles on and off the track. This next-generation may not face the exact same trials and tribulations, but staff still want them to know they’ve got a whole host of people in their corner when they walk down the hallways at school.
“The longer I’m here, the longer I realize these children need us,” Kalip added. “To encourage them to be like an Alice Coachman.”
When school is out for summer, Kalip still finds ways to stay busy. Sitting in her office near the front desk, Kalip answers numerous calls from parents and helps organize the school’s summer programs. If she ever needs extra motivation to help these kids, all she has to do is look over her left shoulder and see the photograph of Coachman signed by the legend herself.
“We can all be whatever we put our minds to be. Circumstances won’t dictate your accomplishments and your progressions in life. You can do what you put your mind to.”
You can catch the full story in WSAV News 3’s special presentation, “Olympics: Then & Now.”