Juanita Milani nearly blew her stack when a woman barred her husband, Mark, from entering the Catonsville Community College gymnasium in November.
For 13 years, the Glen Burnie High School head volleyball coach had been trying to reach the Class 4A state championship game. And now her moment of triumph was being tarnished by a tournament official who simply did not believe that a white man was married to the black coach.
A Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association rule permits free admission to the spouse of a coach whose team is competing for a state title.
Yet even after an argument, during which her husband produced his driver's license and even called over Juanita for verification, the woman at the door refused to let him in without paying.
"I wrote a letter to the state committee that (asked) 'Is it a problem that my husband is white?' " Milani said. "He had all of the equipment -- the medical box, the balls -- and he came in after us.But they didn't believe he was my husband because he didn't walk in with me."
After shelling out $3 to get in, Mark stood on the sidelines as the Gophers defeated Oxon Hill for the title and finished theseason 18-0.
"He came over before the game and said 'Juanita, every coach in the state wants to be where you are. Forget about what happened and enjoy (winning the title),' " Milani said. "I was relaxed about the game, but inside . . . I mean I was fuming."
Later, Milani, 34, phoned the argumentative woman at the door.
"I told her I wanted a check for $3 written to my husband," she said. "I just wanted it back based on principle."
Paul Rusko, the county's coordinator of physical education and athletics, expressed shock when told of the incident while attending the recent county wrestling tournament.
"I was at the state volleyball tournament and talked to (Milani). She didn't tell me anything about it," Rusko said. "I could see something like that happening many, many years ago, but today?"
Juanita Milani is the kind of person who resists anything she deems an injustice, not just those having to do with the color of one's skin.
"I don't back down. You can probably see that in the way I coach. If you ask some of my older players, they'll say things like 'Don't get her mad,' " said Milani, who as a youngster used to scrap with her brother, Bill Murdock, who is two years her elder.
"My mom says I'm mouthy, but she doesn't mean that I'm disrespectful, just that I tell people what I think. If there's something that isn't the way I think it should be, I'm going to find out why."
Born in Germany, Milani never lived in one place for more than three years while growing up. Her father, Ray, 63, served in the army's artillery branch.
Shewas transplanted from North Carolina, Texas and Alaska before movingto Fort Meade and eventually to the Glen Burnie area during the middle of her eighth-grade year.
"With a parent in the military, I grew up on military bases and led a very sheltered life," Milani said. "During the time when Martin Luther King got killed, I lived in Alaska, which was like being in Europe. We read about it. We heard about all the burnings and the protests and marches in Baltimore, but Baltimore was on the other side of the world.
"My dad grew up in North Carolina, so he's experienced a lot of prejudice. He's the biggest influence on me. I can just remember growing up and hearing him saying, 'Who cares what color the guy is next to you; he's probably going to be the guy who saves your life down the road.' "
In 1970, the Murdocks bought a house in Glen Burnie. While her father served in Vietnam, Juanita and her younger sister, Debra, attended Marley Junior High. Her brother attended Glen Burnie High.
"The neighborhood kids had all grown up with each other. Sports was my way of blending in," said Milani. "When I got to Glen Burnie I had an automatic set of friends. I don't think I was a very popular person in high school, buteverybody knew me because I was really into sports. That was my big outlet. I remember staying after school on days by myself and just hitting a tennis ball against the wall. I could do that for hours. I was pretty much a loner."
Although Glen Burnie had no varsity teams for girls until her senior year, Milani remained active. She played tennis, basketball and volleyball. She was sports editor of the schoolnewspaper, was involved in the yearbook and pep club and served as the scorekeeper for boys basketball coach Terry Bogle for three years.
"I took trigonometry and calculus and I probably was the only black person in those classes, although it never really occurred to me that I was," Milani said. "I could understand the anger that some blacks felt, but I didn't feel threatened. I don't think until my 12th-grade year that I actually ran into any conflict at Glen Burnie."
That's when four black girls cornered her in the locker room.