Pamela Wimberly, a beloved coach, physical education teacher and pillar of Menlo-Atherton High School's athletics department, will retire at the end of this school year. She spent her entire 55-year career at M-A, teaching under 14 principals. Wimberly helped create the school's interscholastic girls athletics program, led her girls basketball teams to 24 championships and taught over 10,000 students.
“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,” Wimberly said.
P.E. teacher Tim Bowler called Wimberly "an icon" and "the kindest person."
“The one word that describes her is passionate, and Ms. Wimberly’s passion was physical education," he said.
Raised in a military family, Wimberly grew up 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.”
She said the one constant in her life was athletics. “I would always be playing softball or baseball with my brothers.”
Recalling a family vacation, Wimberly said, “At 9 years old, sailing underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, I told my parents, ‘I want to come back to California.’”
She wanted to attend West Chester University in Pennsylvania since it had a top P.E. program, but "as an African-American person, I really couldn’t attend the colleges that were all-white,” she said.
“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 said.
Wimberly 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.
“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," Wimberly said. After a phone interview, she flew across the country to begin what turned out to be a lifelong career at M-A.
Wimberly described her start at M-A as “tumultuous.” Several policies, like a new busing policy available only to those living more than 2 miles from campus, contributed to heightened racial tensions on campus and race riots in the late 1960s.
"(M-A) didn't have many students of color from different cultures at all," she said. "People used to call this school the country club of the Peninsula.”
Her first day on the job, there was a riot.
“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," she recalled. "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 wanted to be an English teacher, but decided that she would much rather teach P.E. “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. DeBraun Thomas of M-A's class of 2001 said he found out a family friend had passed away right when he 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 (laps) 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," Thomas said. "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.”
“That's Ms. Wimberly," he said. "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 said she strives to leave all of her students with lifelong lessons from their time in P.E. 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.”
In addition to teaching, Wimberly coached both basketball and softball.
When Wimberly first arrived at M-A, girls could only play sports during designated “play days” in the spring, when girls throughout the Sequoia Union High School 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 the 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.
“I felt that we had a program that we were building and we wanted to keep a dynasty going,” she said.
Wimberly said she believes that a good coach has a responsibility to their students beyond what happens at practice. She said, “No. 1, 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.’”
Wimberly found more value in coaching than simply winning.
“I learned how to teach the team to take a loss and show good sportsmanship to opponents who had just beaten us,” she said.
Besides her coaching and teaching careers, Wimberly served as the high school's athletic director for 24 years and hired many of M-A’s longtime staff members.
“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,” she said.
Wimberly hired her former student Ted Minnis to coach boys water polo in the 1990s.
“I remember the day she hired me," Minnis said. "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.”
“I don't know if I'd be coaching at Harvard (University) if it wasn't for her giving me a chance to coach and learn how to do what I do,” he said.
Wimberly’s efforts transformed athletics at M-A. She said she helped to develop and grow the athletic program for both girls and boys, including introducing lacrosse and adding golf and water polo for girls.
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. ... 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."
"I was able to be the teacher I wanted to be, supported by the administrators and supported by the teachers," Wimberly said.
She expressed sympathy for teachers grappling with the high cost of living.
"The hard part for teachers nowadays is you can’t really live in the community because it’s so doggone expensive," she said. "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.”
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.”
Minnis said he hopes he could just touch half as many people as Wimberly 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,” he said.
After retiring, Wimberly said she 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, like playing pickleball at Mitchell Park in Palo Alto. She plans to learn more about her genealogy, write a book and learn to play guitar. She also aims to visit her siblings and her daughter’s family in New Jersey.
“I just wish everybody the best here," Wimberly said. "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.”