When Joan Burger arrived at Chestnut Hill College for her freshman year in 1963, she had no way of knowing that she was starting a scholar-athlete family dynasty.
Joan Burger King (Class of 1967) went on to become the proud wife, sister and mother of four other family members who all graduated from and/or worked for the College, even further connecting their lives. Those included her sister, Judy (Class of 1975); Joan’s husband, Joseph, now deceased, who attended CHC on the GI Bill (Class of 1979); plus two of Joan and Joseph’s five children, Jodie King Smith (Class of 1994, M.S. in 2001) and Julie King Gorniak (Class of 1999).
In the 55 years since Joan first set foot on the campus until 2018, when Jodie left her administrative position at the College, a lot has changed – and much hasn’t.
“When I was a student at CHC, there were no men on campus,” Joan King recalled in a recent interview that included her and her two daughters. And what hasn’t changed? “My lifelong friendships I made there. And I don’t mean occasional friends. I talked to one of them just yesterday… the College sounds the same, it smells the same, it’s like you are coming home.”
Getting degrees from the College weren’t all that that the mother and two daughters had in common. All three were scholar athletes, and all three went into teaching as careers.
Joan was the oldest of five children and every one of them earned a college degree. Her mother was a registered nurse but otherwise, Joan was the first woman from her family to graduate from college. She came to Chestnut Hill from nearby Mount St. Joseph Academy and was an English major/education minor.
After a couple of years at the College, “I finally felt myself jelling as a personality and as a student,” Joan said. “The younger students looked up to you as a student, a teammate, and as a future teacher. Plus, I had a job when I left. All of that really meant a lot… I intended to be a teacher from the beginning.”
Joan’s first teaching job was in Montgomery County’s Methacton School District, where she also coached girls' basketball and field hockey. She taught for four years before she and Joseph married and started their family. Then she picked up her teaching career again, at St. Philip Neri School in Lafayette Hill, where she taught physical education and started a field hockey program for grades 6-8 at the request of the pastor. For the next 22 years, she taught at Conestoga High School, in Chester County’s Tredyffrin/Easttown School District, retiring in June 2021 as a reading specialist.
She also coached basketball and volleyball at Chestnut Hill College as a young mother. But in terms of athletics, Joan is perhaps best known as one of the early head women's basketball coaches at Villanova University, a position she held from 1975-78, with a winning record even as she was busy raising her children. This coincided with a revolutionary period for women’s college sports, after the 1972 passage of Title IX, the federal civil-rights law that prohibited sex discrimination by any school that received federal funds. Joan said that era invigorated women’s college sports but also made her realize that she wanted to devote more time to her own young daughters.
Joseph King’s time at the College also was remarkable in that he attended before it was a co-ed institution; when he studied there, men were permitted to take night classes only. It wasn’t until the fall of 2003, after 79 years as a women’s college, that Chestnut Hill’s School of Undergraduate Studies officially became co-ed. It’s a transition that Jodie King Smith remembers well, as she was working in admissions at the College at the time.
“I remember that we brought in a lot more men than we expected because of sports,” Jodie said. “It was complicated at first -- you had two or three classes remaining that were not co-ed, and we needed men's bathrooms and housing so the residence halls had to be figured out…but it was a good decision.”
Like her mother, Jodie also had attended The Mount. But Jodie initially wanted to go to college on the West Coast. Realizing the benefits of staying closer to home, she enrolled in Chestnut Hill, where she was on the basketball, field hockey and lacrosse teams. After graduation, she taught for two years locally and then left to do volunteer work at St. Michael Indian School in Arizona. When she came back east, it was for a position at Chestnut Hill College, where she advanced to vice president of enrollment management. Meanwhile, she and her husband, David, were raising three girls of their own, and she left in 2018 to be a full-time mother.
Julie, who’s now a teacher at Corpus Christi Catholic School in Lansdale, said her decision to attend the College was easy “because of the women's sports, and Jodie had paved the road for me.” After graduation, she started at Corpus Christi as a third-grade teacher, left for several years to raise her and husband Greg’s three children, and then went back to teach fifth grade.
“I'm so happy I chose CHC,” Julie added. “I still have very good friends from there.”
Through all their years of memories, Joan, Jodie and Julie say they still treasure their involvement with the College, and relish the growth and other changes that have occurred. As athletes, for example, they appreciate the new, bigger gymnasium. In fact, Joan is still a regular at women’s and men’s basketball games, and one or both daughters often go with her.
To Jodie, that makes perfect sense. “People go to that college because they feel welcome, they feel at home,” she said.
All three of them also donate money to the College, seeing it as a way to give back. “We are three alums in different phases of giving,” Jodie said.
“The Chestnut Hill Colleges are few and far between,” she added. “They serve a tremendous purpose and must keep existing.”
- Donna Shaw