Donnis Thompson, UH women's sports pioneer
By Stephen Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Stephen Tsai
In the final months, diabetes had stolen Donnis Thompson's eyesight, but certainly not her vision.
That can be seen in the growth and success of women's athletics in Hawai'i and across the country.
"Every time there's a woman who has success in any sport throughout the nation, Dr. Donnis Thompson should be remembered," Mayor Mufi Hannemann said. "A lot of people owe a lot to her."
Thompson, who helped start women's athletics at the University of Hawai'i and helped shepherd the passage of Title IX, died yesterday of kidney failure. She was 75.
"Before anyone else in this state, she had a vision of women's athletics," University of Hawai'i volleyball coach Dave Shoji said.
"Back in the '70s, she saw where it was going to be now. She was way ahead of her time. She was a champion of women's athletics and women's rights. I doubt we'd be where we are today without her persistence."
Thompson was UH's first director of women's athletics. She was the superintendent of Hawai'i's schools. She helped inspire Congresswoman Patsy Mink to write the legislation for Title IX, which made it illegal for any education program receiving federal assistance to discriminate on the basis of gender.
"They are the catalyst of where women's athletics are today — not only for Hawai'i, but for the nation," Hannemann said.
Growing up in Chicago, Thompson had two passions, track and education — appropriate for a woman who was on the fast track academically. She graduated from high school at 16; she earned a bachelor's degree at 20. She earned a doctorate in physical education administration from Northern Colorado.
BEGAN TRACK PROGRAM
In 1961, she moved to Hawai'i to start UH's women's track and field program. The track was dirt, the budget was dirt poor.
"We were pre-Title IX," said Lacey O'Neal, one of seven members of the 1962 track team. "Dr. Thompson was our mentor, our mother. She was a great lady. She was unselfish, always a giver. She always broke down barriers. She didn't see color. It was not part of her. She fought for the rights of the most needy, for children, for women. She was a woman of many talents."
In 1972, she ran the women's program on a budget of $5,000.
She hired Shoji in 1975 to be the women's volleyball coach. It was a part-time position that paid $2,000 a season. On the road, the team stayed in motels whose names ended in numbers.
In the volleyball program's infancy, the players received $25 monthly scholarship checks. The football players received $125 checks.
In 1975, the Wahines (as they were known then) reached the AIAW national title match against UCLA. Beth McLachlin, at 5 feet 8, was UH's tallest player. The Bruins had players as tall as 6-3.
After the match, the teams mingled. A UCLA player said her team brought a school counselor. McLachlin's sister, Cathy, said: "Our school sent our D.A."
Beth McLachlin recalled: "I said, 'Cathy, she's not a D.A. She's our A.D.' This was a whole new thing."
After that, McLachlin said of Thompson, "We all nicknamed her 'D.A.' We still called her that."
In 1976, Thompson surprised other UH officials when she brought in UCLA for a volleyball match in the Blaisdell Center.
Thompson then offered a bigger surprise: Charge admission.
"They couldn't understand that," Thompson said in an interview last year. "We weren't ever charging for volleyball."
The match drew a capacity-crowd of 7,813. UH won, rallying from a 14-4 deficit in the fifth game.
"You should have seen the arena go nuts," McLachlin said. "That was the start of people loving Wahine volleyball. She did that herself."
The women's volleyball team has been profitable ever since.
By the time Thompson left UH in 1981, the school had added five women's sports and won the UH's first national team title — the 1979 AIAW National Volleyball Championship.
"She was a trailblazer," sportscaster Jim Leahey said. "She was the one who said, through Title IX, the women were due equal opportunity. She lived absolutely what she believed. She's one of a kind. She will be missed just for what she did. Every female athlete at the University of Hawai'i has her to thank."
In 2007, Jan-Michelle Sawyer was commissioned to create a commemorative sculpture of Thompson.
The sculpture, displayed in the Stan Sheriff Center, has her standing with a volleyball under her arm and wearing a stopwatch. In her other hand, she is holding a book that symbolizes her career as an educator. "Title IX" is on the book's cover.
"She was so open and accessible," said Sharon Ferguson-Quick, who was in charge of the state commission on the status of women. "She impacted so many different generations of people."
In recent years, she lost her sight, a source of frustration for a woman who loved to read. She was on dialysis three times a week, with each session lasting up to six hours. She faced a decision on whether to continue dialysis.
But she told friends she would not make that decision until after Barack Obama's inauguration.
"She listened (to the inauguration coverage) on her headphones," McLachlin said. "The whole day, she had the TV going. She was so thrilled."
The next day, Thompson opted to stop treatment. She died peacefully at Leahi Hospital, surrounded by friends.
"It's a loss to mankind, trust me, and womankind," O'Neal said. "She had a lot more to give. We hope her legacy lives in Hawai'i and internationally. But mainly in Hawai'i. She loved Hawai'i."
Reach Stephen Tsai at email@example.com.