Accolades continue to add up for Walla Walla sports legend

Jeanne Helfer, formerly Eggart, will be inducted in the Washington Interscholastic Activities Hall of Fame Wednesday after a storied athletic career that began in Walla Walla.

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The more she protests, the less she is heard.

Or so it seems.

Spokane's Jeanne Helfer - formerly Jeanne Eggart, the girl who turned Walla Walla upsidedown with her high school athletic exploits back in the 1970s - is adamant about her dislike for the attention that accompanies awards and accolades when they come her way.

But they keep coming just the same.

On Wednesday, Helfer will be in Renton where she will be formally inducted into the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association Hall of Fame. The luncheon and induction ceremonies will be held at the Spirit of Washington Events Center.

This is not a first, of course. In fact, it will make five halls of fame in which she is enshrined.

Quite naturally, she is a member in good standing of Wa-Hi's Athletic Hall of Fame since her induction in 2000.

The 1977 Blue Devils graduate is largely credited with helping lift girls athletics out of the dark ages and into the spotlight - not only in Walla Walla but across the state - as a four-sport star. She specialized in basketball by leading Wa-Hi to two seconds and a third at the Class 3A state tournament, and in track and field, where she was the state javelin champion in 1976.

Then it was off to Washington State University as the first Cougars female athlete ever to receive an athletic scholarship. She became the school's all-time scoring leader in basketball, set the school record in the javelin and came within a whisker of qualifying for the 1980 U.S. Olympic track and field team.

And in 1988, she became a member of the WSU Athletic Hall of Fame.

After her athletic career ended, Helfer turned to coaching girls basketball at Mead High in Spokane and later Mount Spokane. Her three state championships at Mead (1990, '92 and '96), in part, led to her induction into the Inland Northwest Hall of Fame and the National High School Hall of Fame.

She's appreciative, to be sure. But she's not crazy about all that goes with it.

"I've never lived my life for these type of accolades," she said in a recent telephone interview between classes at Mount Spokane.

"Of course I am honored and appreciative. But as you get older, you realize that it has a lot less to do with you and more to do with circumstances and others in your life who have contributed to your success."

Helfer gave up her head coaching responsibilities in 2006, partly because she didn't want to coach her daughter, Amanda, who was an incoming freshman that year.

As it turned out, Amanda gave up basketball as a sophomore and turned to cheerleading.

Partly, Amanda said, because her mother was no longer coaching.

"That broke my heart," Helfer remembered.

"But I made the right decision. I think when she is older, Amanda will realize I saved her from the struggles of being a coach's kid. I am not good coaching her. She is not my personality. I was a little too intense for her."

And perhaps for others as well, which is why Helfer has no plans to return to the bench as a varsity head coach.

"With all of the politics and parents who go overboard a little bit, it's probably good that I am out of it," she said.

"I don't play the political game," she continued. "I am up front, direct and challenging. And I believe in roles, and some of those roles are as practice players. It was their job to get the starters ready, and if they didn't like that role, they had to do something to change it.

"Today, coaches are expected to play everybody. I played the team that gave us the best chance to win."

Helfer has been able to remain in coaching as an assistant on the track team working with the javelin throwers, and as the seventh-grade girls basketball coach.

Helfer admits that this week's WIAA honor comes as something of a surprise.

"I think it's because I'm being selected as an athlete," she said. "And it's been a long time since I was in high school, so this is something that kind of shocked me a little bit."

She'll have some familiar company, however.

The other four athletes who will be inducted Wednesday are Tom Gorman, a professional tennis star who graduated from Seattle Prep in 1964; Joe Steele, a University of Washington running back who played his high school football at Bishop Blanchet and graduated in 1976; and Rick Noji, a 1985 Franklin High grad who holds the all-time state high jump record of 7-foot-4.

Steele, in fact, has Walla Walla roots. His older brother, Steve, was an outstanding athlete at DeSales and graduated in 1970. The family moved to the west side shortly thereafter.

It will be a quick trip to Renton for Jeanne and her husband, Mike, because they plan to make the return drive to Spokane Wednesday afternoon. Helfer plans to be back in school and at track practice on Thursday.

"Nobody around here even knows about it," she said of the WIAA induction. "I've known since February, but I've tried to keep it under the radar. I get embarrassed."

Like it or not, Jeanne, you should be getting used to it by now.

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