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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 26, 2001

The '70s: Wahine born of tears and dreams

 • The roots of an athletic revolution
 •  Stunning growth, but more to do

By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer

Donnis Thompson returned to the University of Hawai'i in the late 1960s with a doctorate title before her name and a yearning to do research and climb to full professorship. A navel got in her way.

Waynette Mitchell received one of the first women’s athletic scholarships at Hawai‘i and went on to become an All-American volleyball player.
With her track and field program banished, Thompson "hid" in the Physical Education department where she taught and dreamed of personal academic accomplishments. Then a female student knocked on her door, in tears because she had been kicked out of swim class for showing her navel.

Thompson might as well have been hit by a sledge hammer. She quickly called the medical school to ask the difference between a women's navel and a man's. That's ridiculous, she was told.

Thompson already knew that. A Wahine athletic program was born, with Thompson as its demanding leader, though she wouldn't be named — or paid — as such for a few more years.

"I realized then that I had been hiding," Thompson recalled. "This was discrimination on campus. It was like a spear that went through me. I said, 'I can't hide anymore. Women have the opportunity to participate and this is ridiculous.' I was a victim and other women were victims and it was just wrong. Somebody had to speak out."

She organized students and colleagues, talked with high school teachers and went to the legislature. Chancellor Wytze Gorter was one of her few supporters in the administration, and he was adamantly in her corner.

Eventually, Thompson got $5,000 from the men's athletic department. Another $5,000 promised by the university never materialized. She was asked to oversee the track and field and volleyball programs, which split the money.

"You've got to be a genius to know how to spend that on two teams sitting in the middle of the Pacific Ocean," Thompson recalled.

Volleyball coach Dave Shoji, one of her first hires, found that Thompson's genius sometimes meant a $6 motel room in a city far, far away.

"One of her things was to spend as little money as possible, because we didn't have any," Shoji recalls. "I remember she told me one time, 'You guys need to stay at Motel 6. Everywhere you go, you have to stay at Motel 6.' And we did."

Many miles and multiples of six later, a national champion was born. With both Honolulu daily newspapers covering them in Carbondale, Ill., the Wahine won the university's first title in 1979. The state was euphoric, but the program's growing pains persisted.

Lenore Muraoka tied for eighth at the AIAW national golf tournament.
Thompson vividly recalls the not-so-silent majority that was adamantly opposed to Wahine athletics. She calls the near-absence of that attitude the most dramatic difference between then and now.

The most dramatic moment early in her program came at Blaisdell Center, in 1976. Thompson kept hearing that no one would pay to watch Wahine volleyball. She wanted to bring in UCLA — with a $3,500 guarantee — to prove them wrong. She couldn't get anyone here to sign the contract.

"I just knew I had to do this," Thompson recalled. "Finally, I went to someone — probably the chancellor — and told him, 'You hired me to be the athletic director for women and you won't let me direct. Either I give you the position, or somebody will sign this contract right here.' Maybe they thought I'd fall on my face and they could get rid of me."

She fell into the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Thompson, with a support group that included Pat Saiki and First Hawaiian Bank's Ann Simpson — who invited the media to lunch at the top of the bank — somehow sold out the arena (7,813).

To this day, no one knows how.

"I have a lot of memories of Donnis," Shoji says. "One is when I first sat in her office and she told me she needed a coach temporarily, if I could fill that role a year or two.

"That was in 1975. Then, she's telling me she's going to bring UCLA over and wants to fill the Blaisdell. That was mind-boggling to me, almost laughable at the time. A year later, she did it. I have no idea how. No idea why we had 7,800 people at that game."

A Wahine volleyball star was born, and Thompson put her program on all five of its points.

"We had to show people in Hawai'i that there was something we could excel at," Thompson says. "The program itself is built on dignity and, with a lot of help, it became a program the community embraced. Maybe that's the most thrilling thing."

Thompson, 68, now lives in Palm Desert, Calif., but is thinking about moving back here. She is recuperating from a corneal transplant in June, determined as ever.

"I'm trying to get well," Thompson says. "So I can go and celebrate the anniversary."