Alyce Cheska was a professor of Kinesiology, Community Health, and Anthropology at the University of Illinois from 1966 – 1987. She was a leading academic in the field of sports and an early figure in combining anthropology and athletics. Her accomplishments include heading the University’s Women’s Physical Education Department and her founding role in The Association for the Study of Play.
Alyce Cheska was born on July 9, 1921 in Duluth, Minnesota. She excelled as a student, and received a four-year scholarship to study Anthropology at the University of Chicago. However, living expenses in Chicago prevented Cheska from attending. She instead attended college at the University of Minnesota in Duluth and Minneapolis. The University of Minnesota did not have an Anthropology department at the time, and she decided that whatever subject was on the left-hand side of the door at registration would be her major.
The subject on the left-hand side was physical education. Cheska’s seemingly-flippant decision proved to be an important one, and she would pursue a more than 40 year career in this area. After graduating at the top of her class in 1943, she began working as a women’s physical education teacher for several years before becoming director of the women’s physical education department at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington.
She served as chair of the physical department for women at Central Washington State University in 1953 and Northern Arizona State University in 1959 before accepting the same position at the University of Illinois in 1966. During this period, Cheska also received an M.A. in educational psychology and an Ed.D. in physical education. She would go on to work at the University of Illinois until her retirement in 1987.
She is renowned for her early work relating the fields of anthropology and athletics. Cheska connected these two fields of interest during her studies, and was an early figure to do so. Commenting on the connection between the two subjects, she stated that “all cultures have some type of sport, some type of play, something that is linked closely to the culture,” which “deserved to be studied” (“From Work to Play: the Life of Alyce Cheska”).
Recognizing the need for further academic exploration of this connection, Cheska convened a meeting of anthropologists and physical education professionals in 1974. This meeting resulted in the creation of the Association for the Anthropological Study of Play, now named the Association of for the Study of Play (TASP). The organization was founded with the purpose to research the anthropological and cultural aspect of sport. According to tasplay.org, TASP is “the premier professional organization in academia dedicated to interdisciplinary research and theory construction concerning play throughout the world.”
During her career in athletics, Cheska received numerous titles and commendations. She served at varying times as Officer, Chairperson, and National Vice President for the American Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation (AAHPERD). She also served as the first faculty representative of the University of Illinois to the Big Ten League and the NCAA, and was the first female to do so. Cheska received the Big Ten Athletic Conference award for outstanding service, and was a nationally ranked basketball official from 1953 – 1965.
Alyce Cheska passed away in 2012 at the age of 91 in Urbana, Illinois.
- Freer Hall holds the Kinesiology Department, which was Cheska’s home department
- Davenport Hall is home to the Anthropology Department. Cheska combined sports and anthropology for her research.
- University of Illinois, Archives Research Center, Location of Alyce T. Cheska Papers
The Association for the Study of Play. (n.d.) About Us. http://www.tasplay.org/
The Association for the Study of Play. (1987). A Tribute to Alyce Cheska. TASP Newsletter 13(4), 3 http://www.tasplay.org/taspfiles/files/vol13no4.pdf
Barcelona, L. (2017). Alyce Cheska. Illinois 150 for 150. https://gec150.web.illinois.edu/1960s/alyce-cheska/
Giacobazzi, K., Bayci, E., Allen, L., Rizzo, P., Naatz, R., Wieber, M., & Kajla, J. (2010). From Work to Play: the Life of Alyce Cheska. Illinois Ideals. http://hdl.handle.net/2142/33785
The News-Gazette. (2012, October 10). Alyce Cheska. https://www.news-gazette.com/obituaries/alyce-cheska/article_1db86f57-d139-555b-83cb-d9232a934f86.html