Wendy Mertz Slifka couldn’t believe it.
It was 1990, and Slifka, a Columbia College pitcher, had become the first Cougars’ athlete to have her jersey retired.
“I was dumbfounded that day at the athletic banquet,” she said. “Apparently my family knew all about it, but everyone managed to keep it a secret. I had no idea. That was absolutely the best moment and that moment has become even more special as time has past.”
Today will be another special day for Slifka. She will be part of the Columbia College Athletic Hall of Fame’s inaugural class. Cougars legends Sue Gerard, Rick Bueltmann, Marvin Malone and Amy Lodes Witte also will be inducted in a ceremony at the Country Club of Missouri.
“We just felt that our athletic history was rich enough and deep enough at this point that we should establish a Hall of Fame,” Athletic Director Bob Burchard said.
To give a sense of the school’s athletic history to the Hall of Fame, the first class is composed of athletes representing several eras dating to the pre-Columbia College days, when the school was named Christian College. Efforts were also made to represent each of the college’s athletic programs — only women’s basketball won’t be represented.
“In the collegiate athletic world, that bridging between past accomplishments and the current achievements is, I think, critical of ongoing success,” Burchard said. “I think these five individuals in particular are specially honored because they’re the founding class.
“There’s so many firsts here, and it just seemed to make so much sense for these firsts to be connected to the first class.”
Gerard represents the Christian College era. She spent 33 years at the school and was one of the school’s founders of athletic participation, teaching physical education and coaching intramural sports. She is remembered best for her work in swimming — in 1972, Gerard Pool was named to honor her.
Bueltmann became Columbia College’s first All-American in 1977. With him as captain, the 1977 soccer team moved into the national rankings for the first time.
“I am honored to be recognized in the first Hall of Fame class,” he said. “It is a special feeling for me to be representing the soccer program, considering the strength of the program over the years.”
In 1991, Malone became the Cougars’ first NAIA All-American in men’s basketball. The same year, he helped the team reach its first national tournament. Malone and teammate Thomas Roberts had their jerseys retired that year.
Witte starred on the Cougars’ volleyball team from 1988-92. She was District 16 Player of the Year and an NAIA Second Team All-American in 1991. She is the only volleyball player to have her jersey retired.
The Hall of Fame will be in Southwell Arena, where inductees will receive a plaque in their honor. Slifka said she’s just happy to be there.
“Now to be part of the inaugural Hall of Fame class … I still don’t really have a grip on it,” Slifka said. “It’s too much. It’s amazing to be honored in such a manner when all I really did was work hard and do my best.”