Hanson lost mom, others during historic four-decade journey

Diane Hanson (middle) poses with friends at the annual Scramble for a Cure, a fundraising event for cancer at Evergreen Golf Course in Elkhorn. Her friend, Cindy Rogers, passed away Jan. 27 at age 55 after a long fight with breast cancer. (Submitted/SLN)


By Mike Ramczyk


Last fall, Teri Leach won her third volleyball state championship at Burlington High School.

Diane Biedrzycki turned BHS gymnastics into a powerhouse.

And Rosemary Dolatowski has built a legit, popular girls tennis program at the school.

None, and I repeat none, of their historic accomplishments would’ve been possible without Diane Hanson.

A teacher and coach for 35 years, Hanson not only had success on the fields of play, but she also pioneered for women’s rights and equality.

During a time when girls sports were merely an afterthought and wages were exponentially higher for male coaches, Hanson persisted and kept a laser-focused vision amid the chaos – make kids believe in themselves.

This year, Hanson was inducted into the Barneveld High School Athletic Hall of Fame for her passionate dedication to girls sports, physical education and uncanny gift of helping kids find themselves.

“I just wanted kids to believe in themselves,” Hanson said. “I talked to them and said they have a lot of talent, use it, don’t cover it up, get out there and appreciate what you’ve been given.”

Hanson, 71, now resides in Elkhorn, where she lives in a peaceful country home with a lifelong friend and cat.

In 1976, Hanson became the head basketball coach of the Demons and was immediately named the Burlington Standard Press coach of the year for taking a team with a two-year, 26-game losing streak and going 9-9 in her first season.


One-woman band

Challenges like this were nothing new for Hanson, who did it all for Barneveld, most significantly starting girls athletics teams including basketball, track, tennis and volleyball.

While men’s sports had head coaches that were paid and actual teams that got to compete in a league against other schools, Hanson was literally forced to only have scrimmages among her players, during school hours no less.

But nothing could stop Hanson’s insatiable appetite for equality, which culminated with her filing Title IX while at Barneveld and having to face the music against a hesitant School Board.

Title IX, which was enacted in 1972, allowed girls to have organized athletic teams, and also gave female coaches the same pay as men.

There wasn’t a budget for her hoops girls. In fact, there weren’t even uniforms.

Hanson would even give the girls rides home.

A small, farming community southwest of Madison, many of her players would have to milk the cows after school before even thinking about playing their games.

Hanson said they’d even show up a little late, but it didn’t matter.

“It was everything, equality, getting equal gym time, I had to take my first hour to allow the girls to practice, when I was supposed to be teaching, very early in the morning,” Hanson said. “We had no luxury, no money, no budget, no uniforms, just “pinnies” with a number on it. You’d take it off and put it on the next girl, like a bib.”


Job on the line

These challenging, at times unfair obstacles never deterred Hanson, who thrived under pressure. Thanks to advice to file Title IX from a few colleagues, she even put her coaching job on the line.

The School Board didn’t like her maverick attitude at the time, when a male head coach was making $500 and Hanson made $125 to coach tennis, track, volleyball and basketball, varsity and JV, all by herself.

After she asked for better pay, a meeting was called to non-renew her contract, but her players’ parents attended to show their support.

Though the administration backed off, Hanson left town for a new opportunity at Burlington, a much larger school.

Once the advisor for the GAA, or Girls Athletic Association, the only girls athletic outlet at the time, Hanson’s vision was realized as Barneveld adopted sanctioned girls’ sports and equal pay for female coaches, but it was time to move on.

“Basically, I won,” said Hanson, who asked for equal pay years prior but was denied. “The parents showed up for me. I was scared, and I was surprised they didn’t want me back. My dad was in the area feed business, and they were customers of his.”

“My job was on the line, because I went and asked for some equal pay. Nevertheless, I persisted.”

A self-taught coach who embraced mistakes, Hanson must’ve been doing something right.

Just before leaving for Burlington, she was one of three finalists for the University of Wisconsin-Madison women’s coaching job, but she would’ve needed a Master’s degree to teach and coach.

“I was just honored to be there,” Hanson said.


Tragedy clouds triumph

Excited to teach physical education and coach in Burlington, Hanson’s world was ripped at the seams a week before she left Barneveld.

She was attending the funeral of her childhood sweetheart when an ambulance whizzed by.

Little did Diane know it was her mother being rushed to the hospital.

Only one week later, she died unexpectedly at the age of 51.

“She was worried about me moving because she wouldn’t be able to help me,” Diane said. “That week, I was to work at a basketball camp, and my mother still wanted me to go to it. She was always a source of support.”

“Growing up in a small town, we were always taught, ‘What would the neighbors think?’ I knew she was very proud of me in promoting equality for girls in athletics.”

An outsider at BHS, Hanson had to fight to make a name for herself.

Still in the early stages of girls athletics, teachers were often thrust into coaching roles by the administration, so suddenly there was competition among female coaches, something Diane really didn’t experience in her previous 5 years of coaching.

When Hanson, someone with real coaching experience, came on board in 1976, she made waves right away.

She transformed a dormant girls basketball program into a solid competitor in one season, and by 1979 she reached the 100-win plateau and earned an award from the Wisconsin High School Coaches Association.

Hanson also was the head track coach.

Some of her first basketball players included Sue Schenning, Libby Ripp-Forte and Donna Cerwin Sturdevant, all current BHS Wall of Famers. Overall, five of her players are in that exclusive club.

Hanson also volunteered with girls golf and eventually became head coach, succeeding the late Gene Edmundsen, and coached tennis in the 1980s.


Stryker earns first scholarship

Hanson said one of her fondest memories was taking a gangly, shy 6-foot-2 girl named Prudy Stryker and helping her turn into a Division 1 college basketball player, in all of two years.

Ashamed of her height, Prudy would hunch over to try to fit in. Hanson changed all of that, and learned something in the process.

“It was about keeping Prudy feeling positive,” Diane said. “Just because you haven’t played, just keep trying. Her youngest sister was short, and a cheerleader type, so Prudy wondered where did I fit in?”

Stryker, who didn’t even want her height listed on the program, was a quick study when Hanson convinced her to try basketball as a junior.

She dominated on the court and earned a scholarship to play at Marquette University, the high school’s first basketball scholarship for a girl.

Tragically, Stryker was killed in a car accident shortly after graduating college.

“It’s one of those little joys, like this little kitten discovering the world, she was just awesome,” Hanson said.

Politics and parents helped lead to Hanson’s first setback at BHS.

Only about five years in as head coach, parents clamored for a new coach, and Hanson stepped down.

Her first love, basketball, was taken away from her, she felt.

“It hurt, because I loved it,” Hansen said. “That’s where I made my mark, maybe if I was a little more mentally tougher, I could’ve stuck with it.”

But Hanson’s journey was far from complete.

Edmundson, the boys and girls golf coach, asked Diane on his death bed to take over girls golf, but Hanson refused.

She recommended Bill Berkholtz, who would go on to coach golf for two decades and join the school’s Wall of Fame.

Hanson was an assistant for Berkholtz and later became head coach.

A few years before retiring in 2004, the owner of Towne & Country Lanes, Merrill Draper, approached Hanson to help coach boys and girls bowling.

After becoming a certified bowling instructor, Diane helped establish the first BHS co-ed bowling squads.


Enjoying retirement

Still active in the Burlington community, Hanson raises funds for Transitional Living Center (TLC). She actually just sent in donations of more than $1,000 Monday morning.

She’s been in charge of a women’s golf league for decades in Burlington, and she remains a teacher and mentor at Plymouth Church. Hanson also participates in Meals on Wheels.

“Now I try to enjoy golf,” Hanson jokes. “With every good shot, I say, ‘Thank you, Gene.’”

Hanson is most importantly big on family, with eight nieces and nephews.

She is no stranger to heartbreak and loss, as a good friend died two weeks ago, and her oldest nephew, her brother’s only kid, passed away Monday unexpectedly, at the age of 50.

With a strong support system, she’s been leaning on family all week, including spending the entire day last Monday at the hospital.

“Aunt Diane” knows a thing or two about bouncing back and persevering, as she made a career out of it.

She babysits for her sister’s grand-kids, Jordan, 7, and Jackson, 2.

Diane’s pool and jukebox are the biggest hits.

“Kids are great, I love them,” Diane said.

Countless kids, now all grown up, still see Diane and thank her for molding and shaping them into the men and women they are today.

Hansen, who learned from a young age from her mother to be humble, hasn’t forgotten where she earned her stripes.

“It feels awesome,” she said about joining the athletic Hall of Fame. “I wasn’t the only one. A lot of people cared back then. It wasn’t about me.”

“I thanked as many families as I could at my induction ceremony. I thanked them for letting their girls play.”

As for teaching, Hansen always tried to stay away from competitiveness and just encourage kids to get out and get moving.

She says physical education is so important because it’s your body and mind, and one can’t excel without the other.

“If you’re not healthy, it doesn’t matter how smart you are,” she said. “You have to use your body. Phy ed really increases your brain power. You’ve got to get up and move.”


It almost didn’t happen

Hansen oozes strength and resiliency, and she always makes the most out of tough times.

She’s overcome countless losses throughout her life. A former prom queen in high school, Hansen saw her prom king boyfriend and his friend, along with a family friend, all die before Hansen was even 20 years old.

Her fearless life of pioneering change and advocacy for women’s rights and sports could’ve easily not happened.

“These deaths of such young people almost made me quit college immediately, but I had taken out a loan and would’ve had no means of paying it back so I hung in there,” she said. “I was the first in my family to graduate from college. My parents were proud.”

Hansen is committed to women’s equality to this day, and she can’t help but smile when female sports are in the limelight.

In June, the Burlington softball team advanced to its first state championship game in nearly 35 years, a once unheard-of concept Hansen and friends fought hard to even make possible for girls back in the 1970s.

What’s more is the game was televised live on Fox Sports Wisconsin, something that’s only happened for a few years now.

From being heckled and told their passion wasn’t even a sport to playing on live TV for thousands of viewers, it’s been a rocky, but satisfying road of redemption.

“Isn’t it nice that the girls have the same opportunities now as the boys do?” Hansen said.