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A Lasting Legacy

Last week, America lost a revered pioneer when Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died after a lengthy battle with pancreatic cancer at the age of 87. We wondered, “Who stands out as a pioneer when it comes to women and sports in our Aloha State?” A few people immediately come to mind, including the late Congresswoman Patsy Mink, there’s another name that stands above the rest: Doctor Donnis Thompson.

Nearly 50 years ago, Thompson became the University of Hawaii’s first Director of Athletics. Her contributions to the university and our sports community in general cannot be overestimated.

Here are 10 facts about the amazing life and career of Dr. Donnis Thompson:

♦ Donnis Hazel Thompson was born on April 1, 1933 in Chicago, Illinois. She attended public schools in the area and became an accomplished track and field standout. In 1953, Thompson became the national shotput champion pson’sat a competition in San Antonio, Texas.

♦ She graduated high school at the age of 16 and, when she was 20, earned her bachelor’s degree at George Williams College in Hyde Park, Illinois (now Aurora University). She would later obtain a Ph.D. in Physical Education at Northern Colorado University.

♦ Thompson moved to Hawaii in 1961 and became the first coach of the school’s fledgling track and field program. Upon her hiring, she also became one of the first African-Americans to coach at an NCAA institution.

♦ In 1972, Thompson was named UH’s first Director of Women’s Athletics. She was given a budget of $5,000 to fund volleyball and track. She had only one scholarship to work with, and it went to a drum majorette.

♦ Hawaii Congresswoman Patsy Mink consulted with Thompson on the foundation of what would become known as Title IX, the landmark 1972 civil rights legislation that prohibits gender discrimination in any educational program or activity that receives federal financial assistance.

♦ In 1975, Thompson hired Dave Shoji to serve as a part-time coach for the women’s volleyball program. His starting annual salary: $2,000.

♦ Under Thompson’s leadership and vision, Rainbow Wahine Athletics grew immensely, bringing championships and honors, not to mention educational and athletic opportunities for hundreds of young women in Hawaii and across the world.

♦ Thompson left UH to serve as superintendent of the Hawaii State Department of Education from 1981 to 1984.

♦ A statue to honor Thompson was unveiled at the Stan Sheriff Center on Oct. 28, 2007. The sculpture was created by nationally-renowned artist Jan-Michelle Sawyer, a former professor at UH and Thompson’s longtime friend.

♦ The following year, in 2008, Thompson was a recipient of the Women Leaders in College Sports’ Lifetime Achievement Award for “pioneering the commencement and tremendous growth of women’s intercollegiate athletics in Hawaii.”

♦ Thompson passed away on Feb. 2, 2009 at the age of 75. Shortly before her death, she reportedly remarked, “I’m not quitting. I’m surrendering myself to my next adventure in life.”

♦ Dave Shoji on Dr. Thompson: “She just felt there were so many inequalities for women athletes. She was an athlete, and she felt like there weren’t enough opportunities for women like her. She was the only person here that was fighting for women’s athletics. She was visionary, she saw great things in the future for women.” (2009, to the Honolulu Advertiser)

Thompson (standing, third from right) with the 1979 University of Hawaii Rainbow Wahine volleyball team, which had just captured the school’s first national championship. That’s Dave Shoji standing second from left.

Dr. Thompson at the official statue unveiling in 2007.

Dr. Donnis Thompson: “Women’s athletics could always be an outstanding diamond in our whole program. But it was a matter of convincing a lot of people that that dream could be a reality.”

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