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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, October 29, 2007

Thompson honored and immortalized

By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Dr. Donnis Thompson, who started the women's athletic program at the University of Hawai'i, was honored by Jan-Michelle Sawyer with a sculpture that will remain on display at UH.

GREGORY YAMAMOTO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Watching Rainbow Wahine sports mature into a national force over the past 35 years is no longer all there is to remember the University of Hawai'i's original women's athletic director. Yesterday, Donnis Thompson's nurturing presence in those early, difficult days was perpetuated in a bronze sculpture unveiled and dedicated on the concourse of the Stan Sheriff Center.

The sculpture, by former UH professor Jan-Michelle Sawyer, will remain on the concourse to educate those such as Kanoe Kamana'o and Lauren Duggins Chun, born too late to realize Thompson's role in Rainbow history. They were among the crowd of about 250, including scores of former athletes, honoring Thompson before last night's Louisiana Tech volleyball match.

Ashley Watanabe was also there, introducing herself to Thompson. So was Chanteal Satele, daughter of former Rainbow Wahine Lee Ann Pestana Satele. Now a Word of Life senior, Chanteal will go to St. Mary's on a volleyball scholarship.

"I wanted my daughter to see the woman who made it all possible," Satele said.

Her warmest memory of Thompson comes from 1981, when the team trained in Japan and Satele hurt her back. Thompson took her to three Japanese doctors to make absolutely sure she would be OK.

Thompson moved to Hawai'i in 1961 to start a track and field program, and serve as a professor.

In 1971, she asked the school for $19,000 to start a women's athletic program. The legislature gave $5,000 and Thompson started with track and volleyball, 20 student-athletes and one scholarship. UH would add five sports and win the first of four national volleyball championships within a decade. All those athletes were acutely aware of what Thompson had done for them.

"She was full of energy," said Diana McInerny McKibbin, who played on the 1979 AIAW Championship volleyball team. "She was very calming and very genuine. Her goal was to be there as much as she could to give as much as she could to the university."

There are now 200 female student-athletes playing 12 sports at UH, and a $4 million budget. Thompson was women's AD from 1972 the year Title IX began to 1981 and formed the nucleus of a program Cindy Mazda and Marilyn Moniz-Kaho'ohanohano would continue to nurture. Moniz played on the first volleyball team in 1974, which reached the national final with a team whose tallest player was 5 feet 8.

"It's a slow process to change attitudes," Thompson said that year. Clearly, attitudes have changed. Thompson will always be remembered for playing a major part in that change at Manoa.

"I hope when people see this they won't think of Donnis Thompson," she said yesterday. "I want them to think of the opportunities for girls and women with all their choices. ... It's wonderful to be part of that."

Reach Ann Miller at amiller@honoluluadvertiser.com.