As a professional, Gaydena Thompson is remembered as a force, a trailblazer, a woman with integrity. To those who knew her personally, she was all that and a woman whose kind smile stayed true to the end.
Thompson, former Clark College athletic director and the first woman to hold the position at a Washington community college, died Dec. 31. She was 84.
“Her patience, caring, loving warm heart is what she needs to be remembered for,” said her son, Brad Thompson.
“A woman of noble character,” added his wife, Nancy Thompson.
Gaydena Thompson’s career at Clark College began in 1962, where she was a physical education instructor who taught swimming, fencing, dancing and fitness classes. In 1977, she was promoted to athletic director following the retirement of Skeet O’Connell; she held the position until 1982, when she stepped into a department chair role so she could focus on teaching.
“I could have more contact with students instead of being in meetings,” Thompson told The Columbian in 1997.
Thompson was hired at a time when women in administration, let alone in the athletic department, were scarce.
“She was a path blazer for women,” said Dori Hawkey, who was hired by Thompson in 1979 to coach the Chicklet volleyball team. Hawkey added that Thompson was committed to equity in the department, particularly in the aftermath of the 1972 adoption of Title IX. The educational amendment prevents schools that receive federal funding from discriminating on the basis of gender.
“She was the best boss I’d ever had,” Hawkey said. “She was classy and professional.”
Roger Daniels, who succeeded Thompson, recalled his former co-worker as an innovator who helped develop classes and programs focused on helping students live a healthy lifestyle. She established the Clark College fitness center, which was later named for her.
“It wasn’t just a place to build a resume and move on,” Daniels said. “She chose to make Clark College her life’s work, and the campus really benefited from that commitment. We need more people like her.”
Brad Thompson followed in his mother’s footsteps, pursuing a career in education and even doing a short stint as Clark College athletic director from 1995-96. He remembered spending time with his mother in the physical education department. She encouraged him to explore ballet, tap and jazz dance.
“She wanted us to have experience being gentlemen,” he said.
Nancy Thompson was a student at Clark College on the track team, and one of her future mother-in-law’s students. She recalled Thompson’s follow-through with students, gently reminding them to keep track of their performance to continue improving.
More than that, she remembered Thompson as a kind woman who always found the good in everyone.
“She loved life,” Nancy Thompson said.
Thompson earned local and national accolades during her time on campus, and following her retirement. In 1994, she received the Service Honor Award from the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance; she was the first Northwest community college staff member to win it. She was named one of Clark County YWCA’s Women of Achievement in 1995. Thompson received the Clark College Foundation’s Exceptional Faculty Award in 1996.
In 2002, she was inducted into the Northwest Athletic Conference Hall of Fame. Clark College launched its own Athletics Hall of Fame in 2012, inducting her into the first class.
“I was very proud of everything she accomplished in her life,” Brad Thompson said. “She followed through with whatever her goals were.”
A celebration of life Thompson’s life will be held at 2 p.m. Feb. 1 at Gaiser Hall on the Clark College campus, 1933 Fort Vancouver Way. Those who wish to do so can donate to the Clark College Foundation in Thompson’s by visiting www.clarkcollegefoundation.org/campaign/give/, selecting “Other” in the drop down menu and specifying the “Gaydena Thompson Fund.”