Ex-athletes recall ‘Donna Momma’ Davis as ‘tiny, huge gal’

Scott Swanson

Donna Davis is remembered for a lot of things.

That piercing whistle, which would cut like a knife through the crowd noise at competitions, supporting Husky wrestlers on the mat and swimmers in the pool.

The end-of-the-season spaghetti dinners.

The no-nonsense concern for kids’ welfare and improvement.

The constant, positive presence.

Those leg-shaving parties for her swimmers before big meets.

“A tiny, huge gal,” was how former Husky swimming star Leah (Land) Bishop put it.

“She was a little gal, but she had a voice like a boombox,” said Alex Paul, whose son was a wrestler and who knew Davis well. “You definitely knew where she was in the wrestling room. Boy, could she get the attention. She wasn’t afraid to get on the referees if she thought they were wrong.”

“She was always there,” recalled former Husky state wrestling champion Shane Cochran. “Always there. Every meet, every tournament.”

“I think anybody who knew Mom, she was their friend, for sure,” said her son, Bruce Davis.

Donna Davis, who died April 18 at the age of 81, was married to one of the renowned coaches in Oregon wrestling history, Norm Davis. But she was a lot more than the wife of a successful coach. She was one herself, raising successful swimmers of her own and mentoring many others as a youth swimming coach.

“I love Donna Davis,” said current Sweet Home wrestling Coach Steve Thorpe, launching into a long list of Davis’ contributions and attributes, which will be touched on momentarily.

“She was supportive,” retired longtime Athletic Director Larry Johnson recalled. “She was friends with everybody.”

“She was a really positive force (in Sweet Home),” said former wrestling coach and longtime official Jim Phillips, who was a friend and adversary of Norm Davis’ during their coaching careers.

During Norm Davis’ nearly 30 years of coaching at Sweet Home, Donna Davis was known as “Donna Momma” by many during that span, as she served as team mom.

“She was a very smart person, a very energetic, loving person,” Paul said. “She and Norm both did a lot for many, many young men and women in the school district. She would work with the stat girls.

It was a wrestling family and she and Norm were at the head of it. They spent many, many hours working with kids.”

“She was always helpful,” Coch-ran said. “You could ask her for anything and she would do it.”

“She made being a senior special for kids,” said Thorpe, who was one of those at the time. He and others recalled how she knitted green and gold stocking caps for senior wrestlers and how she would put on an all-out spaghetti feed for the entire wrestling team at the end of the season.

“Some of those caps are still around,” Thorpe said, noting that after the Davises retired, others stepped up to continue that tradition for a while.

“She was extremely supportive of the program,” Johnson said. “She was a great lady.”

Then there was the whistle.

“It was really loud,” Thorpe said. “That was kind of her thing. One time at a dual, where she was sitting next to my wife, she asked, ‘Is now a good time to whistle?'”

Johnson, asked what he remembered most about Davis, turned to his wife Candi: “What do you remember about her?” he asked.

“The whistle,” she said.

“She was very loud up in the stands,” Cochran said, chuckling. “She was always in a great mood, always real upbeat, fun to be around.”

“She was always known for her being so small, but so loud at wrestling meets,” Bruce Davis said. “You could tell where she was in the crowd because there was usually a space around her.”

Donna Davis hand-lettered “every single award” given out to wrestlers during her husband’s tenure.

“It’s a lost art, but it’s something she did,” Thorpe said. “Not only that, but she would calligraphy the brackets at tournaments.

“She didn’t try to coach. She did little things that were very special.”

“She was just one of the most dedicated wrestling fans I knew and she was one of the most dedicated Norm Davis fans that I know,” Coch-ran said.

While Davis played the role of team mom in wrestling, she was an accomplished coach in her own right – in swimming.

She took over Sweet Home’s youth club program in the 1970s when Doug Peargin stepped down to concentrate on running the high school program.

“She did a great job,” he said. “She always did everything she could to make them better.”

And she was successful, turning out scores of swimmers who helped turn Sweet Home High School into a state power in the sport. Two, her son Bruce and Leah Land, were multiple state champions and high school All-Americans, who went on to swim at Division I colleges.

“I appreciated what Donna did,” Peargin said. “She put some real competitive people out of that program.

“She was fun to be around. She always wanted to learn, always asking a question or two. If she had something new she wanted to try, she’d ask me to see if I’d tried it in the past, whether it worked.

Peargin said Davis was demanding, but in a positive way.

“If she decided something should be done, that’s the way it would be done. With kids, you have to be a leader. She was a strict disciplinarian, but she did her job. The kids that stuck with her got tough.”

“She was a remarkable lady, an outstanding coach,” said Land-Bishop, now a pharmacist in La Pine, who swam for Davis from the late 1970s through 1989, when she graduated and moved on to compete at the University of South Carolina. “The way she could keep track of those age-group swimmers, all their stats, in her head. It was amazing.”

One of her most vivid memories, Land-Bishop said, was when the Junior National West Championship competition came to the Portland area in 1985, for the first time, and Davis decided her athletes were going to qualify for that meet.

“After practice one day she starts laying down a plan to make Junior Olympic times. She goes, ‘We’re going to do this and we’re going to do that. You’re going to make your cuts.’

“I didn’t even know what she was talking about.”

Land-Bishop was a typical three-sport athlete, she said, but Davis “saw something in me. She thought I could do it.”

And she did. Land-Bishop said the experience woke her up to the fact that she might have a future in swimming.

“I was kind of surprised at myself, but I had a fantastic time.”

Like others, Land-Bishop said she remembers Davis’ love and devotion to her family, “not only the ones in her house but all of her athletes, swimmers and wrestlers.”

“She was an immensely hard-working and gifted coach. She developed and implemented a solid training regimen in a field she didn’t have a background in herself. She instinctively knew how to train athletes. If we needed a pat on the back or a kick in the pants, she had that knack that gifted coaches have for knowing what to do. She really loved seeing us succeed.

“She was just an angel.”

Bruce Davis said that when his mother retired from coaching, she focused that energy on her family, which included daughters Cindy Ellis and Shelley Gridley of the Portland area, six grandchildren and four great-grandkids.

“She just loved her family to pieces. She would do anything for anyone,” he said. “Later in life, she loved her crafts (making cards, calligraphy, sign language, gardening) and doting on her grandchildren.”

She was a vital key to the success of both swimming and wrestling at Sweet Home, coaches said.

“Nothing goes without having your spouse on board and supporting you with it,” said Thorpe, who is in a position to know. ” She was an incredible lady. I believe there was quite a reunion when she got to be with her husband and her son.

“She’s not gone; she’s just gone home.”