December 2021 ~
Having girls sports on the menu in the 1970s meant more than fun and games for Brenda Skinner, Marshall High Class of 1977.
“If it wasn’t for basketball and sports and the coaches at Marshall, I’m not sure I’d be here today,” Skinner says. “I struggled my freshman year. I could have gone either way. Could have dropped out. The sports, the role models and the coaches and teachers were the things that kept me going.”
Skinner’s was a rags-to-riches story. Going through high school, she lived with her big brother and wasn’t always sure where her next meal was coming from.
But the 5-3 spark plug starred in volleyball, basketball and softball at Marshall, and did a little high jumping and cross country as well. She then went to go to college – something that beat the odds – and played four years of both basketball and softball for Portland State, earning a scholarship after walking on her freshman year.
Brenda Lee Skinner – named for the diminutive singer — made it to the PIL Hall of Fame in 2008, and retired in 2011 after working for Grant High, Portland Public Schools, Multnomah Education Service District and the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office.
None of which probably would have happened without the opportunities to compete in athletics.
Skinner was born in Mountain Home, Idaho, to an Air Force dad and her mother. She remembers early childhood at Northeast Eight Avenue and Dekum Street. She moved to Seaside with her mother and attended third through seventh grades there. Then it was back to to Portland for eighth grade at Woodlawn.
While in Seaside, she played summer-league softball and some soccer but mostly remembers just shooting baskets in the gym and the joy of doing that.
Title IX, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools, was passed in 1972. By Skinner’s sophomore year, much to her delight, girls at Marshall and elsewhere in Oregon were getting more opportunities to play sports.
Her mother and other siblings – there were seven kids in the family – had moved to Salem, but Brenda stayed. Her brother, Richard Cain, who was five years older and had a machinist job, took her in at his place at Southeast 72nd Avenue and Henderson Street.
“I felt like my life was turning around, and I didn’t want another change,” Skinner said.
As much as possible, she would hang out in the gym at Marshall.
“I’d either walk, run or ride my bike there,” she said. “My brother knew that was where to find me.”
She recalls starting in volleyball and basketball with the Minutemaids her sophomore year. Rod Jones coached her in volleyball, starting at Woodlawn. Ken Trapp and John Hughes were her high school basketball coaches. Chuck Withee was the Marshall softball coach; that sport was added to the athletic lineup for her senior year, which allowed her to play three sports full-time. Chet Greene and Don Francin coached cross country, and Greene coached girls track.
“After my freshman year at Marshall, and especially when I had sports, my whole life turned around,” she said. “The best time of my life was playing basketball at Marshall for Trapp and Hughes and with the players. It was such a family for me. It probably was the thing I needed the most.
“I enjoyed the camaraderie and the friends, and we had some success. I don’t remember any cliques. We all seemed to get along really well.
“I think Marshall was one of the greatest schools. I can’t think of anything negative.”
Skinner was all-PIL all three years in basketball, once in volleyball and in her only year of softball.
And before she was done at Marshall, Skinner received another honor she laughs about today because of how improbable it seemed.
“I was voted Homecoming queen,” she said. “I didn’t even know I was on the ballot. I never really realized I was a popular kid.
“I think people might have just wanted to see me in a dress.”
But first, she had to get a dress. Her brother and others helped with that. She says it was the first time she had ever worn one. “I always went to school in sweats or shorts, depending on the weather, and always in my basketball shoes, ready to go.”
She started off the Homecoming festivities with the first dance and rode into the stadium in a convertible the next day for Saturday afternoon’s football game.
“It was a great honor,” she said. “People can’t believe it when I tell them I was Homecoming queen.”
Getting her high school diploma was “a big deal for me,” she said.
Finding a place to play sports after high school was the next big step. Trapp and Hughes “kind of got me recruited,” she said. “They sent letters to colleges.”
Going to college was another big step.
“I really felt safe at Marshall. I loved the coaches and felt like I was going to be taken care of there,” she said. “It was very frightening to leave my comfort zone.”
She lived on campus and had little opportunity to get home.
“I was on my own for the first time, and had to work during the summers, but I had good support there,” she said.
Basketball always was her best sport “by far,” she said. “Softball was my other main sport. I wasn’t much of a volleyball player.”
She survived and thrived at Portland State for Karen Morgan and Wendy Hawley in basketball and Teri Mariani in softball.
In college, she moved from shortstop to second base in softball (she was a big baseball fan and favorite players included Joe Morgan and Pete Rose).
Her PSU softball teams made the AIAW regionals all four years and placed fourth, seventh and ninth at the national tourneys. She made the national all-tournament team.
“I fit in at Portland State,” she said. “It turned out to be a great time of my life. Great coaches, great people. It taught me a lot. I had to grow up fast.”
Growing up, she was a “terrible” student who missed a lot of school through third grade, largely because of rheumatic fever, but she worked at it enough to become “average” in the classroom.
But she was a good kid, “kind of independent, and you never had to wake me up to get to school.”
She didn’t get a college degree, but the connections she made in athletics helped her land a couple of jobs that she loved and that provided what she needed.
Her first job after college was at Grant High as a campus monitor and volleyball coach. Carolyn Fitzwater, a Hall of Fame coach at Grant, helped her get started and coached above her. She also coached some softball at Grant and later helped coach Cleveland volleyball and basketball under Linda McLellan. She also was a varsity assistant in basketball at St. Mary’s Academy.
After five years at Grant, she was bumped up to a job in special education. She worked for 15 years alongside classroom teachers and doing job training for the learning-disabled, ages 17 to 21.
“The job would train me, and then I would train the special-ed student,” she said. “Or I would show them how to do things like laundry or using a microwave.”
She then went to the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Department of Corrections for nearly 14 years.
Skinner also officiated a lot of basketball and volleyball. She did high school basketball for 15 years and volleyball for 28, refereeing at many state tournaments before retiring this year. In 1996, she went to Atlanta to try out for officiating professional women’s basketball games, but wasn’t selected.
Today, she is retired and living in Oregon City. She likes to travel, camp and fish.
“Anything outdoors I like,” she said.
She follows PSU sports, Oregon and Oregon State women’s basketball, the Seattle Mariners and more, but “if somebody asked me to go camping or fishing, that’s what I’d do.”
Times have changed in so many ways.
“Female basketball and volleyball players are so far advanced and such great athletes,” she said. “But I considered myself a pretty good athlete for my team, and the people in my era, like Karen Strong, Karyl Wing, Kathleen Sherman and Teri Mariani, we started the path to opening more sports for girls.”