Emma Ody Pohl was a popular physical education teacher at the Mississippi Industrial Institute and College (later Mississippi State College for Women and now Mississippi University for Women) from 1907 to 1955. Pohl became revered, sometimes feared, and ultimately beloved for the Zouave drill and dance teams that she oversaw. The length of her tenure and the intensity and caring of her instruction made Pohl one of the most legendary figures in the history of the W.
Pohl was born on 17 December 1880 in Greenville. In 1907 Henry Lewis Whitfield, president of Mississippi Industrial Institute and College, hired Pohl to create a physical education and recreation program. She immediately became a force of energy and change by developing various dance classes, organizing the school’s May Day ceremonies, and reforming the Junior-Freshman Wedding Pageant from a burlesque romp into a serious occasion affirming sisterhood and loyalty to the college. Under Pohl’s leadership, physical education courses became mandatory for all students, and the school hired two assistants to fill out the department. When Whitfield left the college in 1920, he singled out Pohl’s efforts as the most important factor in the development of a “distinctive college spirit” at the W.
Pohl developed the Zouave routines from French military demonstrations she had studied in Chicago during a summer training program for physical education teachers. Beginning in 1912, Pohl’s Zouaves performed annually before the entire school. Pohl’s dancers ate a strict diet, endured marathon training sessions, and lived under the critical eye of their indomitable mentor. The hard work paid off in the form of splendid performances that gave the college a unique identity and its own set of traditions. Dancers played a particularly prominent role in the performances and received the most attention from Pohl, but the entire student body eventually participated in the extravaganzas. The Zouave drills became so popular that they brought alumnae, parents, and relatives to the college from all over the state.
Pohl retired in 1955, and the Zouave performances retired with her. She lived her remaining years at the Alexandria Hotel in Clinton, frequently visiting the alumnae office at Mississippi State College for Women and attending chapter meetings of the school’s alumnae association all over the state. She died in Clinton in June 1966. The W has honored Pohl in numerous ways. The Pohl Gymnasium was named in her honor in 1947, in 1964 the Carrier Chapel was dedicated to her, and in 1976 the school erected the seventy-five-thousand-square-foot Emma Ody Pohl Education Assembly Building.
- Columbus Commercial Dispatch (6 December 2006)
- Bridget Smith Pieschel and Stephen Robert Pieschel, Loyal Daughters: One Hundred Years at Mississippi University for Women, 1884–1984 (1984)