The '70s: Jeanne Eggart

Ahead of her time.

It's the most common phrase used to describe Jeanne Eggart (now Helfer), still considered one of the best all-around athletes from the state.

But Helfer says that's because Walla Walla was ahead of many cities in the state when it came to girls athletics. And she credits Charlotte Wirth, her former coach, for much of that.

"She was a pioneer who was willing to go out and fight for things," Helfer said.

Helfer remembers playing basketball in elementary school — at a time when some high schools still didn't have girls programs — and believes the boys and girls teams were treated equally at Walla Walla High School.

"My (future) husband played on the boys team, and I don't remember feeling he got anything that I didn't," she said. "But our teams were really good."

The Blue Devils lost in the state-championship game Helfer's sophomore and junior years — the second time to Benedetto's Sammamish squad — and placed third when she was a senior in 1977.

Helfer became the first female to receive an athletic scholarship at Washington State — $1,500 toward room and board. Once she met other women basketball players at WSU, she realized how truly fortunate she had been at Walla Walla. Some of these had never played on an organized team before.

"I was flabbergasted," she said. "I thought to myself, 'No wonder they aren't that good.' I mean, if they'd played as much as I had, they would have been better than me. I guess I was kind of in la-la land, some little kid from the sticks who had been pretty sheltered. At that point, it was a little more eye-opening. I'd had everything in my life provided."

Helfer had no complaints, which is why she declined to be part of a class-action lawsuit against WSU filed in 1979 by 10 coaches and 26 female athletes charging that the school was out of compliance with Title IX.

"I couldn't sign something saying I was against the men's programs when George Ravling (then men's basketball coach) was the one who provided the money for me to get an athletic scholarship," said Helfer, still the school's career scoring leader in women's basketball. "I didn't see them being out of compliance, although there were some discrepancies."

Helfer, also an accomplished javelin thrower who just missed making the 1980 Olympic team, went on to coach girls basketball at Mead High School in Spokane, leading the Panthers to state titles in 1990, '92 and '96 before leaving to start a new program at Mount Spokane. She has seen the progress Title IX brought, and some of the fallout — like year-round programs that discourage three-sport athletes — but believes the overall effect has been positive.

"Anything that fights for equality is a good thing," said Helfer, who has a 10-year-old daughter. "I want the same kind of opportunities for my daughter as I would if I had a son."