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Virginia Danke, a ‘trailblazer’ for women’s sports in Spokane, dies at 94

UPDATED: Wed., Feb. 19, 2020

Virginia Danke, a pioneer for women’s sports in the region, died Sunday at the age of 94. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Virginia Danke, a pioneer for women’s sports in the region, died Sunday at the age of 94. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

The woman considered the mother of girls high school sports in Spokane has died.

Virginia Danke, the head of the physical education department at her alma mater, Lewis and Clark High School, when she retired in 1977 after 29 years, died Sunday at age 94, 23 days shy of her 95th birthday.

“Virginia was a trailblazer,” said Dale Goodwin, director of public relations at Gonzaga University and a volleyball official who called Danke “one of my mentors.”

“She was a champion of promoting girls and women’s sports,” Goodwin added of the Spokane Area Volleyball Referees Association Hall of Famer. “And she was an outstanding official.”

In a story in The Spokesman-Review in 2012 celebrating Lewis and Clark’s 100th anniversary, Danke looked back at her career that began in 1948 and recalled:

“Until that latter part of the 1960s it was all in-school (sports) for girls.”

“It was a different era back then,” Danke told The Spokesman-Review’s Jim Meehan last summer. “I fought for a long time in Spokane to get things going. It was a matter of just pushing, even to get a line in the paper.”

She first coached golf and tennis, then the only interscholastic sports offered to girls, and went on to coach basketball and volleyball, winning a city title in the latter. She helped start the gymnastics program in Spokane, and all along coached the LC cheerleaders too, acknowledging that although sometimes it meant 16-hour work days.

She also started the Ti-Girls marching unit at LC.

Although she retired from teaching and coaching at the age of 52, she never “retired.” You’d never find her ensconced in a lounger, curtains drawn, watching soaps and eating bonbons.

She was a founding member of the Hobnailers hiking club in Spokane in 1951, a regular participant and “its president for 60 years,” said her nephew, Bob Kenyon, of Ritzville:

“That was a big part of her life.”

So was her involvement in Meals on Wheels, and she held on odd job or two through the years, like working the “will call” window for TicketsWest to help pay the bills and for “pocket money,” and leading travel groups.

“She never let age stop her from doing anything she wanted to do,” said Goodwin.

“Going home, up Perry Street, I’d sometimes see her out walking,” he said, adding that in the last year or so those walks were aided by a cane. “I don’t think she liked” having to use a cane.

A concession to aches and pains, not will.

“She was quite a person; a fantastic lady,” said Doug Bender, past president of the Inland Empire Softball Hall of Fame that inducted Danke in 2004.

“She was one of the pioneers of women’s softball” in the Spokane area, he added. “She coached at WSU (then Washington State College) when she was going to school there.”

Besides softball, Danke played tennis in her younger years, and was a golf “lifer,” still playing the sport at 94 that she took up in her 20s.

“She loved Spokane,” Kenyon said, “and she loved her cabin at Lakeview (on Lake Pend Oreille). She spent a lot of time there in the summers.”

Danke, who never married, lived all her life in the same house on the South Hill that was built for her parents.

A bout with pneumonia recently put her in the hospital for a spell, Kenyon said, after which she took up residency for a short time at Touchmark.

“Her neighbors there took great care of her,” Kenyon said.

Death, he said, was age-related. “They told me she died peacefully.”

Danke, who graduated from Washington State with a bachelor’s degree and earned a master’s from Whitworth, taught one year at Clarkston before arriving at LC.

“I wanted them to respect me, I don’t care if they liked me,” Kenyon said Danke told him of those early years.

“I talked with someone who had her for homeroom. She said we didn’t get away with anything.”

Born in Spokane on March 9, 1925, Evelyn Virginia Danke is survived by a brother, Dr. William Danke of Chelan, Washington, two nieces and Kenyon.

No services have been announced.

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