Honoring a barnstormer | Our Corner

Bonney Lake's Joan Rupp stands with a Seattle Police woman during the halftime of the Aug. 16 Seattle Storm basketball game.

At 6-foot tall, Joan Rupp is not necessarily a little woman. Back in her day, she played forward, even once patrolling the paint at Madison Square Garden.

But even from the distance of the first row of seats at Key Arena to watch the ladies of the Seattle Storm battle Phoenix Mercury, it was obvious that today’s basketball players play a slightly more physical game than in Joan’s day.

“Whoa, she’s a big sucker,” Joan said, reaching for her program to get the name of the woman playing what was her position for the Storm. “I’d have to play guard these days!”

And that’s high praise from a woman who shared the floor with Wilt Chamberlain and Meadowlark Lemon!

In the week in – week out world of community journalism, stories come and stories go. Truth be told, after more than a decade of doing this, a lot of the stories tend to blur together when you look back on them: another council meeting, another police blotter, another photo op.

While I take pride in the work I do and the stories themselves are actually important, news is a fleeting business and stories are usually only important for a few weeks. It’s on to the next cycle, the next issue, the next story.

What stands out are the people, especially the true characters. And small towns like those in East Pierce County are usually packed with them.

Shoot, sometimes they run for office. Sometimes they even win.

But my favorites are always the ones hidden in plain sight and, honestly, it’s often the seniors. I love the senior center because some of the stories you hear about the people there are the best around.

Last October I had the opportunity to meet one of those characters and tell her story, highlighting a time and place that seems so foreign now that it may have been another country, not just 60 years ago.

The woman, of course, is Joan Rupp and for those to whom her name does not ring any bells, she is the Bonney Lake woman who back in the 1950s was a part of an all-women’s barnstorming basketball team called Dempsey’s Texas Cowgirls.

To read the original story about Joan Rupp’s experience with Dempsey’s Texas Cowgirls, click here.

Rupp and her fellow cowgirls traveled around the country in a Mercury station wagon, taking on local mens teams and putting on shows à la the Harlem Globetrotters (with whom the Cowgirls also traveled and played, though the trotters still had to sit in the back of the bus and use different water fountains, something that baffles Joan to this day).

Not only did Joan get to see the country, she made it to Europe to play as part of a USO tour.

After six years, Joan called it a career – though she admits they were the best six years of her life and she wishes she had played longer.

She got a real job and eventually moved to the Pacific Northwest, where she worked at Boeing until she retired. After retirement, the road called again and Joan climbed behind the wheel of an RV and went back out to see even more of the country.

After the story was published, a copy made its way to the offices of the Seattle Storm, the WNBA team and this year, for their 30th anniversary celebration of Title IX, the team invited Joan to the Key Arena to watch the game and be part of the halftime celebration of female athletes.

Now, Joan’s playing days were well before the passage of Title IX, the 1972 law that required schools to offer sports programs for girls as well as boys.

But that makes her story even more impressive, really. She saw the Cowgirls play in her town, drove a state over for tryouts, and then didn’t make the team. But instead of letting it get her down, Joan practiced all year and when tryouts were held again, she made the squad.

She still has that tenacity today and is as “ornery and determined” – her words – as ever, even into her late 70s.

The problem, however, is that Joan still lives by herself – by choice – in her little house in the woods and does not like to drive at night and especially not all the way up to Seattle and back. And none of her friends, also mostly seniors, could not make the drive.

But when Erin Hovland Moffitt, daughter of the man that owned and managed the team, heard that Joan had been asked to be a part of the game, but wasn’t going to be able to get there, she called me and asked if I knew anyone who would take Joan to the game.

I immediately volunteered.

Joan is easily one of the most interesting people I have met in my days reporting and I knew what it would mean to her to get to be able to get to the game. When I told her I’d be happy to drive her up to Seattle and back, I could hear the energy and excitement in her voice.

Joan is not all that interested in the recognition – most of her friends didn’t even know of her past until they read the story in the paper – but she is proud and she is a Storm fan and was excited not only to go to the game, but to represent all of her barnstorming teammates on the floor during halftime.

At halftime, Joan was honored along with female Olympians from the area, current college athletes, high school athletes, members of seattle’s women’s football team (the Majestics) and female coaches at local colleges.

The Storm PR people asked that the honorees wear a uniform or bring some kind of prop, but with her Cowgirl days long gone, even a replica Cowgirl’s jersey is difficult to come by. But Joan headed over to the Sports Connection in Bonney Lake with some photos from her playing days and they, like me, were immediately charmed by her, making a special uniform top for her with her team’s logo and original number on the back.

The woman who owns the store told me she wanted to lock the door behind Joan so they could listen to her stories all morning in stead of dealing with other customers.

At the game, waiting for the halftime parade to begin, we waited under the bleachers at the Key and Joan hob-nobbed with her fellow athletes, including Joan Bonvicini, the Seattle University women’s basketball coach. The two swapped stories and Bonvicini’s eyes grew wide as Joan told of going from town to town to take on the local mens teams.

All of the girls’ heads turned and the women who were closer to Joan’s age were even more impressed, because they knew the era and time of what Joan did. Before the halftime was over, Bonvicini offered her tickets to a Redhawks game this fall.

When the time came to go out on the floor, Joan was accompanied by a Seattle Police woman who was listening with the rest of us before halftime and offered to help steady her as they called her name.

But I could see Joan’s eyes dance as they read her name over the PA and she was able to walk once again out on to a basketball court to a roaring crowd. I couldn’t help but jump up and cheer myself. I even missed the photo because of it.

This year, the American women lead the way at the Olympics – including Sue Bird of the Seattle Storm, whom Joan was especially excited to see play – bringing home more medals (and more gold) than their male counterparts.

Thanks to laws like Title IX, young girls all around the country can dream athletic dreams just like their male friends and we are a better, stronger nation for it.

But before Title IX even, there was Joan Rupp and hundreds like her, blazing trails and storming barns and not taking no for an answer.

And even after an evening in which she was one of the stars, when random women on the way back to the car stopped to thank Joan for being part of the ceremony and for helping knock down walls and when for just a second, she once again shared the court with some of the best players in the world, Joan was most excited about one thing: The Storm won, and did so in impressive fashion.

How is it even possible there was a time when they wouldn’t let her play? So here’s to Joan and all of the other trailblazers we met at the game. Thanks for leading the way, even if all you wanted was simply to play.