SOME SAY IT got so hot in Morgantown, W. Va., in the summer of 1950 that you couldn't take a dip in the winding, slippery-banked Monogahela River without getting scalded.
That didn't matter much to Patricia Lester. At 14 she could spend all day playing baseball with her three older brothers out near the coal fields. On the girls' team in town she could whip the ball from center field to home plate on a line, and her .352 batting average was about the best around.
Twenty-seven years later, Sister Karen (formerly Patricia) Lester is athletic director at Pallotti High School in Laurel and Mother Superior at the Pallotti Convent. She can't hit the cutoff man the way she used to but she's still the best warmup catcher and practice pitcher the boys' baseball team has ever had.
"A few of hte coaches around the league have asked whether I'd play on their teams," smiled Sister Karen. "I just like to take an active interest in our team in addition to an administrative one. But I'll tell you, a few years back when we had an automatic pitching machine, I was really socking that ball."
A coal miner's daughter, a nun since the age of 16 and a graduate of Catholic University, Sister Karen came to Pallotti, a small coed Catholic high school, as a calculus instructor in 1960.
It disturbed her to see how few of the school's 100 students were involved in sports. After two years of organizing informal sports competitions, news of a job opening popped up. When school opened in the fall of 1962 she was the new athletic director.
"Things went slowly in the beginning," she recalled. "Our first big achievement was installing a row of lights in the gym to encourage our basketball team. Oh, I'd get out there and shoot layups with them and during football practice I'd throw spirals to our receivers . . . We had a lot of fun getting things started."
Still, it took nearly seven years for Sister Karen to organize the sport she loved most - baseball.
"The nearest field, if you can call it that, was just about a mile away," she said. "We couldn't share the field next door because it belonged to the old Laurel High School, so we usually had to walk all the way to the other one. It was just too hard to keep the players motivated."
But in 1969, thanks in great part to the efforts of Sister Karen and various booster clubs, the city of Laurel renovated a nearby field. The energeteic nun then led a work contingent to rake, line the field and paint the bleachers. The father of one of he players offered to coach and Pallotti had its baseball team.
The team has remained at a .500 caliber for most of its existence and Sister Karen has missed only a handful of games over an eight-year span. She has arranged and often provided transportation, pulled out her old Spalding to warm up countless players and then, as always, taken a seat in the bleachers, following the game with quiet intensity.
"She has a very sophisticated knowledge of baseball and athletics in general," said Pallotti baseball coach Bob Peterson. "But what I appreclate as a coach is that she doesn't force that knowledge on you. She never interferes, but she's always there whenever a player has a problem or if you need to consult about anything."
In 1974, Sister Karen was appointed Mother Superior of the Pallotti Convent, a job that demands long hours and insight. She was already in her fourth year as board member and secreatary of hte Laurel Walk-In Health Clinic. And, in addition to her athletic responsibilities, she was teaching calculus and physics at Pallotti.
"She just never seems to get tired," said Pallotti principal George Repass. "Aside from her contribution to sports, she's an invaluable member of our teaching staff. Recently she was teaching six advanced math courses a day. That alone would be a heavy load for anyone."
Today Pallotti has an enrollment of 400 students and more than half are involved in some form of athletics. Outside Sister Karen's office two showcases are packed to the brim with trophies, many from the nine varsity sports she has instituted since becoming athletic director.
"It is very gratifying to me," she admitted. "I remember the first year on the job, we had scheduled a home basketball game with Cardinal Gibbons from Baltimore, which was supposed to be on our level of play. They were so tall that they literaily had to duck to get into our gym entrance.
"Needless to say, they beat us pretty badly. But after the game their coach came over to me and said, 'Don't worry, Sister, things will get better.' He was right."
Sister Karen's guiding philosophy throughout her years at Pallotti has been to get her students involved, keep them off the streets by giving them activities in which they can benefit physically and emotionally. But the key success has been her involvement in every program she has instituted.
"She's not afraid to get her fingernails dirty," said Peterson. "She gets involved and when people see that they say, 'Well maybe I can give it a try, too.' I don't think we'd have the sports program we do without her."
So if you make it over to Pallotti, you might see Sister Karen operating one of the tractors, cutting the grass on the baseball field. Or you might see her running one of the food concessions out at a game to raise money for some new equipment. Or she might just be sitting in the bleachers, silently scrutinizing the action, thinking back to the games in Morgantown when she was just about the best.
To the people at Palloti, she still is [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]