Women Who Made Pacific: Varina French

Varina French teaching
Varina French | Alumna, Coach and PT Founder

Even if she had done nothing else at Pacific, Varina Heinrich French ’56, MS ’65 would have been remembered for her 17 years spent coaching women’s volleyball, softball, track and field and gymnastics, and for becoming the first female physical education department chair in the West.

Beyond the university, she was a prominent advocate for the sport of gymnastics and played a national role in certifying gymnastics judges. She was a spotter for ABC’s television coverage of the sport in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, spending hours in close proximity to the finest gymnasts in the world, including Mary Lou Retton, who won the gold in the all-around.

“I got so excited watching,” French told Pacific magazine in 2004. “When Mary Lou Retton threw that 10 vault, that was something else.”

In 1974, she was elected vice president of the U.S. Gymnastics Federation Women’s Committee and continued to play a prominent role in the sport, even after retiring from Pacific. She worked international gymnastics meets and became international media coordinator for the federation.

“She was a pioneer,” said longtime Pacific Athletic Department leader Judy Sherman, another of Pacific’s notable women. “She was an advocate for women in sports and women in education.” French had “lots of energy” and was very forward-thinking.

Sadly, French’s gymnastics career ended 10 years after the Los Angeles Olympics, when she was severely injured in a traffic accident that put her in a coma. When she awakened, she suffered memory loss and other impairments.

Varina French and her husband Dan were both inducted into the Pacific Athletic Hall of Fame; she as a coach and educator, he as a standout athlete in the 1950s, men’s basketball coach and athletic director. She was honored with the Outstanding Alumni Service Award in 1986.

She died this spring; Dan French died in 2012.

An Educational Legacy

French made another, longer-lasting contribution to Pacific — one that influences the university’s direction to this day and into the future.

Her interest in athletics, and helping athletes recover from sports injuries, led her to help set in motion a plan to create a new school to train physical therapists. In the early 1970s, she, along with David Malcolm, PhD, then-dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, started planning for the program with the cooperation of the Oregon Physical Therapy Association.

The school was launched in 1975, a time when Oregon had no other programs to train physical therapists.

Dr. Jean Baldwin

Jean Baldwin

Heading the new program was Jean Baldwin, a physical therapist and PhD, who steered the program through its fledgling years. She oversaw the arrival of the first 16 physical therapy students in the fall of 1975 and their graduation two years later.

Baldwin retired in 1984. The next year, the program was redesigned to confer a master’s degree following three years of undergraduate study and three years of professional work. And in 2000, Pacific became one of just 14 accredited physical therapy educational programs to offer the doctor of physical therapy degree.

Baldwin died in Idaho in 2010.

The Dr. Jean Baldwin Physical Therapy Endowed Scholarship Fund was created in her memory in 2014 by a group of alumni to support students studying physical therapy.

The School of Physical Therapy became one of the initial members of Pacific’s College of Health Professions, now located in Hillsboro. And last year, the school changed its name to the School of Physical Therapy and Athletic Training, reflecting its growing master’s program in athletic training.


This story was part of a feature on The Women Who Made Pacific that first appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Pacific magazine. For more stories, visit pacificu.edu/magazine.

Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019