Onson ‘wrote the book’ on women in sports
By Lily Kongslien.
Helen “Onse” Onson was a prominent name in sports, especially basketball, in the 1930s and ‘40s. She was also involved in tennis, softball, archery, bowling, skiing, and volleyball; ice skating, hockey, hunting, fishing and trapping.
Helen was born April 3, 1915 in Two Harbors, Minnesota. When she was four years old, the family with its five children moved to Rhinelander. Her schooling was at the old South Park School, the Junior High and Rhinelander High School, graduating in 1933. She was always interested in sports, and in the early grades she was already playing various sports in a vacant lot near the family’s home on Keenan Street, Jim Williams, then the Junior High School principal, was also the summer playground director and greatly encouraged Helen in the sports field. Although she was in the Athletic Club in high school, her real interest in basketball began while she played at the Episcopal Church.
During Helen’s high school years, Mr. Asher, busy at other duties, would turn his gym class over to Helen, knowing that the girls were in good hands and would learn a lot. Let’s not forget that back in those days it was not usual for girls to be involved in sports to any great extent. Helen ‘lived’ in the old Memorial Building on Stevens Street where she perfected her skills and taught other girls to be involved in all kinds of sports.
After high school graduation in 1933, she was hired at the Schultz Brothers Store on Brown Street where she worked in stocking and clerking. Her “off” time was spent shooting baskets or on the tennis courts, In 1936 she began working at the Oneida County Courthouse in the office of Jesse Reed, Oneida County Superintendent of Schools, who was also a great tennis player. While she was selling tickets one evening at the Memorial Building for a game featuring Grover Cleveland Alexander’s “Stars of the World” benefit basketball team she was informed that they were in need of another player. She joined them in Chippewa Falls and stayed with the team until the end of the season in April. It was during the years of 1936 to 1938 that she played professional basketball with this team, and also the Ozark Hillbillies for a season; she then joined the Helen Stephens Olympic Co-eds. These activities took her all over the United States and Canada, traveling 80,000 miles and meeting many “greats” in the world of sports, Her many pictures, scrapbooks and trophies are remnants from this part of her life.
After those years, it was back to her duties at her typewriter in the office of the County Superintendent of Schools. She was in the position for 28 years, when that office was closed by the state. She then was in the University Extension office from 1964 to 1971, and her last job was from 1971 to 1984 in the Planning and Zoning office. After all these years at the Oneida County Courthouse, she retired in 1984 and began her travels to 13 countries around the world.
We must not forget the many hours she spent, while still working, teaching tennis, archery, basketball and other sports to the children of Rhinelander under the auspices of the Parks and Recreation Department. After Helen’s retirement and her travels, she continued her sports interests, including cross country skiing, golf and tennis.
She always had a deep love for animals and was the Midwest Secretary of the Human Society for some time. She stated that in one year more than 300 dogs were placed in good homes. She had been a familiar figure on the streets of Rhinelander walking with her faithful four-legged friend. Helen not only loved animals but loved out youngsters and was a Girl Scout leader for many years. She organized the VFW Drum and Bugle Corps and was a member of that group for over ten years, and proudly noted that the group won five state championships.
Before he death in 2002, “Onse” lived in an apartment overlooking the old High School Bowl (now Sarocka Field). I’m sure the many pictures, scrapbooks and trophies that she had collected through the years helped her to feel a definite self-satisfaction as to her accomplishments in life.
Helen stated at the end of the interview that “health is so very important…health comes first…but do what you want to do during your lifetime.” She certainly has done this herself, and should have been proud of her many hours spent in sports, including those willingly given to instruct boys and girls. She had been a sports model for our youngsters.
Helen Onson was very modest about her accomplishments, especially her sports achievements. In all areas of her life she was an asset to the community. Her humor was evident as she leaves this message for us: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”