The Parkettes. It sounds like a '60s girl band, but it’s not. If you’ve dipped into the world of gymnastics beyond watching the Olympics every four years, you probably already know that the Parkettes—the name applies to the team, the building, and the program—is a national training center for U.S. gymnasts in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
In many ways, the Parkettes is indeed a product of the '60s, and the story of their origin is a heartwarming, classic American saga. Donna Strauss, who founded the club with her husband Bill, told me about its early days as we walked around the cavernous 35,000 square foot space that is its home. The floor was bustling with girls flying from one uneven bar to another, muscling through sets of pull-ups, pounding at top speed toward a leaping flip over the vault, and walking on their hands in rows, with precise upside-down posture across the floor. Doing anything they were doing looked impossibly, implausibly difficult.
In the 1960s, Donna and her husband Bill were teaching in the Allentown public schools. This was the pre-Title IX era, of course, and as a PE teacher, Donna was keenly aware that while the boys in Allentown had their football, basketball, and wrestling, the girls' athletics were spare. So she decided to start a girls' gymnastics program and asked the principal, a man named Carroll Parks, for help with space.
Principal Parks came through, daring to carve out floor time for them from the boys’ basketball practices, and then opening the gym doors on Saturdays to the girls as well. He was such a motivator for Strauss and the girls, said Donna, that they named the now-legendary Parkettes in his honor.
The early gymnasts practiced at school, at a church, in a barn, and in a neighborhood backyard. The high-school shop teacher built the girls their first set of uneven bars. The program grew and flourished during Allentown’s first glory days, when next-door powerhouse Bethlehem Steel was making jobs for the region and steel for the iconic structures of America—the Golden Gate Bridge, the Hoover Dam, and the Empire State Building, to name a few. The Mack Trucks headquarters and plants were right in town, as was the elegant, busy Hess's department store, a regional attraction for the Lehigh Valley and beyond.
Allentown’s philanthropists were generous. In 1979, Donna approached Alfred Pelletier, the Canadian-born CEO and Chairman of the Board of Mack Trucks, a legend of his own, having worked his way up from the shop floor to run the company. The Strausses took Pelletier to see the gymnasts training in their borrowed space, then an upstairs floor of the Allentown Symphony Hall, and asked if he would help them raise money for a real gym.