The genesis of some of Nevada’s most popular sports, the preservation of its historic sites and the founding of a regional hospital are interwoven with the accomplishments of women who made headlines long ago, but who haven’t gotten a lot of attention from historians.
Nevada’s first Olympian was a female ski champion who became an air racer; Reno’s first Rodeo queen went on to become a beloved teacher; and Northern Nevada’s destination golf courses began with a woman player who also designed and managed the area’s first golf courses.
A woman worked to preserve some of the Silver State’s most historic sites before they were allowed to vanish. And during the Great Depression a Reno a nun overcame her own health problems to heal both residents and destitute travelers while building what is now one of the region’s premier heath care systems.
We give the remarkable women their due in our closing installment celebrating Women’s History Month.
Racing to the Olympics
Doris Barbara “Dodie” Post was the first Nevadan, male or female, to be named to an Olympic team. She qualified for the U.S. Olympic women’s ski team in spring 1947, capping a string of local accomplishments as a young athlete. At age 18, she was the top junior skier in the Far West Ski Association. She won the Silver Belt at Sugar Bowl and the Silver Dollar Derby at Mt. Rose ski resort. A former Olympic team captain, Elizabeth Woolsey, described Post as “the nation’s most graceful woman skier.”
After breaking her ankle on a training run in Switzerland, she was unable to compete in the 1948 Olympic Games, but continued as team captain. She was captain of the U.S. women’s Olympic ski team at Aspen, Colo., for the Alpine Ski World Cup in 1950.
The hall of fame
Post taught skiing in the 1940s and 1950s at many ski resorts, including Mt. Rose, Squaw Valley, Sun Valley in Idaho, Jackson Hole in Wyoming and even in Chile. She managed U.S. Olympic teams in the 1950s. In 1973, Post became the first woman elected to the University of Nevada’s Inaugural Athletic Hall of Fame, and in 2001, she was inducted into the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame.
Her life changed when she met and married famous novelist/aviator/sailor Ernest K. Gann in 1966. The couple sailed the world on his brigantine, the Albatros, and piloted their Cessna 310 airplane. They lived on a cattle ranch on San Juan Island in Washington state. Dodie competed in air racing in a Cessna 172 and she and her partner, Phyliss Baer, won first place in the women-only 1979 Air Race Classic.
Rodeo queen and teacher
Esther Louise Laiola, born on the 101 Ranch on what is now Longley Lane in Reno, won the title of the first Miss Reno Rodeo in 1937. She was disappointed because she had to wear a formal long dress with a train and ride in a stagecoach instead of on her horse in the rodeo parade.
Fifty years later, she was honored by the Reno Rodeo Association as the Grand Marshall of the Rodeo Parade. In 1998, as the honorary Reno Rodeo Queen, she rode in the parade on horseback. At one time, she owned 27 horses on the 101 Ranch.
Laiola’s teaching career began in a fifth-grade classroom in Smith Valley, while she also worked in a dress shop and commuted to Reno to attend night classes. For a short time, she worked in New York City as a model and a flight attendant, and audited education classes at Columbia University, where she absorbed innovative teaching methods that inspired her to return to education — and back to Reno.
Educating with animals
Under her married name of Bennett, she taught at several Reno elementary schools including 36 years teaching in the first grade at Hunter Lake Elementary. She used her love of animals to teach personal responsibility, science and English to her students, who cared for hens and their chicks, caterpillars and butterflies, hamsters, lizards, rabbits and snakes in her classrooms.
In 2000, the Washoe County school board named Esther Bennett Elementary School in Sun Valley in honor of the beauty queen who went on to inspire generations of Nevadans.
Golf pro designed, managed courses
Descending from leading golfers in Scotland and England, May ”Queenie” Dunn was uniquely endowed by her family heritage with knowledge and enthusiasm about the sport when she arrived in Reno in 1917 with her sister.
Dunn saw great potential in the small city for golf and set about forming the Reno Golf Club, raising funds to acquire land for a course, and designing the course and clubhouse herself. She became manager and head instructor, the first female professional golf teacher in the country and the first female course architect in the world.
The Reno Golf Club
Charles Bliss of the Tahoe Tavern hotel near Tahoe City enlisted Dunn to design, and then manage, a course at Lake Tahoe for several years. In 1919, a wealthy New York capitalist, Adolph Hupfel, came to Reno for a divorce and golfed at the new Reno and Tahoe golf courses.
Hupfel courted the female golf professional and he and Dunn were married in San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel in 1923. After the official opening of the new Reno Golf Club in a clubhouse designed by Reno architect Frederick DeLongchamps, the couple moved to New York where May played golf for recreation and also took up landscape painting.
She died at age 68 and is buried in the Bronx, N.Y.
Sr. Seraphine of Saint Mary’s
At age 39, Sister M. Seraphine, formerly Kathleen Murray who had joined the Catholic Dominican sisters order in California at age 26, was sent to Reno to take over Saint Mary’s Hospital in July 1931. She was terrified that she was not up to the job.
The hard-working sister handled everything from purchasing to acting as a substitute switchboard operator, and even worked from her hospital bed where she recovered from ulcer attacks. During the Great Depression, patients from the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma came through the city on their way to California in search of jobs. When they showed up at the hospital with a range of ailments, she allowed them to pay by barter – taking chickens, produce or whatever they could spare in return for medical care.
The hospital expands
In later years, the hospital made big expansions under her leadership and the Saint Mary’s Guild was created. Sr. Seraphine served on many medical boards and was honored locally and nationally for her work.
For her Golden Jubilee with the Dominican Order, President Richard M. Nixon sent her a letter of congratulations. In 1971 she received the Brotherhood Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Sr. Seraphine died in the San Rafael convent in California at age 95.
Preserving Fort Churchill, Bowers Mansion
Alice Addenbrooke loved the history of Reno and Northern Nevada. She worked tirelessly with civic groups to preserve important sites that were being neglected and falling into ruin.
As a charter member of the Sagebrush Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Addenbrooke raised funds for the restoration of Fort Churchill, a U.S. Army fort and way station on the Pony Express and Central Overland routes dating back to the 1860s.
The D.A.R. also took on the giant task of securing Bowers Mansion in Washoe Valley for the public. The mansion was built by Comstock mining couple Sandy and Eilley Bowers in 1864 and became a favorite picnic and tourist spot for Nevadans.
Pennies from children
Addenbrooke and a few allies collected everything from pennies donated by schoolchildren to large donations from women’s groups, including the Reno Women’s Civic Club, and from out-of-state donors. She finally convinced the Washoe County Commission to pony up not only the rest of the $25,000 down payment for the property, but also to pick up the tab for the whole purchase and take over the park.
She then engaged in the task of restoring the mansion to its historic conditions, collecting items ranging from silver door knobs and hinges to old ale bottles. She published a book of stories associated with the mansion just prior to its opening to the public in 1950.
She died in April 1972 in California; her memorial service was held in Reno.
Nevada HerStories is a Reno News & Review series in celebration of Women's History Month. The vignettes are condensed by journalist Janice Hoke from longer biographies written by various authors for the Nevada Women's History Project.