Mr. Cooley built a grand stage for Iowa girls

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My dad was teaching my daughter to pitch Saturday as news of E. Wayne Cooley’s death made its way around Iowa.

I guess that’s a fitting tribute to the man who led the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union from 1954 to 2002.

In fact, every time an Iowa girl fires a fastball, sinks a shot, spikes a volleyball or competes in any of nine high school girls sports programs, they’re paying a tribute to Cooley. Correction, Mr. Cooley.

I didn’t know him personally. But I felt as though I did. My dad began coaching girls’ softball and basketball at Woden-Crystal Lake in 1958. He coached softball until 2007.

So Mr. Cooley was a presence, someone my father deeply admires and talks of often. He was both a commanding figure and a man possessing great warmth and generosity. One of my favorite stories is about the time Mr. Cooley showed up at one of my dad’s softball tournaments. After the game, he told dad it was the first time in a long time that he had to pay admission to get in.

The girl working the gate told Mr. Cooley, “I don’t care who you are, Mr. Dorman says everybody pays.”

“Do you want your money back?” my dad asked, astounded.

“No,” Mr. Cooley said. “I want to know when she’s graduating so I can hire her.”

It wasn’t just that Mr. Cooley expanded opportunities for girls to play sports, which he did. It wasn’t just about equal access to athletic competition, as important as that is. What’s remarkable is how he built girls’ sports into a premium brand in Iowa, a product that became culturally important, magnetic and wildly popular. So much so that everybody wanted to be a part of it. The thousands of girls who played. Longtime coaches such as my dad and so many others who proudly stuck by it for decades. The thousands and thousands of Iowans from all corners of the state who flocked to the state basketball tournament to watch that curious six-player game.

My dad took teams to that tournament four times in the 1970s. Sure, the patriotic parade of states pageant on Saturday night and the guys in tuxedos sweeping the basketball floor to the strains of “Satin Doll” may seem a little corny in our jaded times, but it was special and unforgettable. Especially for girls who got a chance to play on the grandest stage in Iowa high school sports.

Mr. Cooley built that stage. The games and times have changed. But little girls in backyards still dream of getting there.


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