To know where you need to go, it’s best to learn where you’ve been.
And in high school sports in Southwest Washington, there are few people better equipped to do that than Leta Meyer.
On Friday, which was the final day of the school year for Evergreen Public Schools, Meyer closed out a career as an educator, coach and administrator that spanned four decades, including the final 20 as the only athletic director Heritage High School has ever known.
And that’s why I decided to sit down and talk to Meyer about her career and prep sports before she retired.
We spoke for two hours, and I think we only scratched the surface.
“Some people have to go to work,” Meyer said. “I get to go to work. And I’ve had that for almost 40 years.”
Meyer grew up in Kelso, a daughter of Italian American parents with three older brothers, which meant she grew up playing sports.
“My parent always told me to do what you love, follow your heart,” Meyer said.
When she got to high school, opportunities were limited for female athletes. As there weren’t team sports at Kelso for girls, Meyer went out for tennis and track and field. She also played softball, but not for the high school.
That changed her senior year when the Greater St. Helens League was formed for girls sports.
The year was 1975.
“Before my senior year, there were a bunch of us girls who would go to the upstairs gym and play basketball while the boys team practiced downstairs,” she said. “We just wanted to play. We just loved it. I don’t ever remember complaining that we didn’t have a team. We just wanted to play.”
It’s hard to miss something you’ve never had.
Kelso did get a girls basketball team her senior year, although the team didn’t get its uniforms until after the season ended.
From there, Meyer went to Lower Columbia College where she played volleyball (even though she never played it before) and basketball. In her second year at LCC, her team played a tournament in Hawaii.
“I had coach come up to me and say ‘We’d like to talk to you about playing at the University of Hawaii,’ ” Meyer said. “And I was like ‘OK!’ And then in my next game, three minutes in, I blew my knee out. I was devastated. That was the end of my playing career. But it turned me into a coach.”
She went on to get her degree from Central Washington University before returning home to work as a substitute teacher and assistant basketball coach at Lower Columbia.
In 1983, she applied for coaching positions at Mountain View High School. She was hired as the Thunder’s volleyball coach, softball coach and assistant girls basketball coach.
She coached volleyball at Mountain View from 1983-99, was the girls basketball head coach from 1968-91, girls golf coach from 1991-99 and an assistant track coach from 1988-91.
“I think the most important thing I got out of coaching were the relationships,” she said. “Winning and losing? I can’t remember what my win-loss records were. But I do remember kids I worked with, how much they were struggling and the encouragement I gave them to get better. Those are the memories that stay with you.”
In 1999, when Heritage opened its doors, Meyer became the Timberwolves’ first and, up until Friday, only athletic director.
“I always tried to be the kind of AD I would have wanted when I was coaching,” she said. “This was kind of what I was meant to do.”
In her tenure, Meyer has served on the district’s eligibility committee, has been a member of the WIAA’s representative assembly as well as the WIAA’s executive board. In fact, she said she has volunteer to serve on District 4’s eligibility committee next year as a retired AD.
“I have 20 years experience with this, and I want to stay involved,” she said.
Meyer reminds people that the purpose of the eligibility committee is not to police against or prevent transfers.
“Their job is to see how they can, within the rules, make a kid eligible, not to see how they can’t make a kid eligible,” she said.
Meyer said the goal is to encourage participation in sports, as sports serve as vehicle in the educational process.
“Whenever I meet with parents of athletes at the start of the season, I tell them our job is to get your kid to graduate,” Meyer said. “That’s our No. 1 job. Everything else is a bonus.”
Because of that, Meyer doesn’t see students transferring to other schools as a big issue, even though she heads an athletic program that has struggled in recent years.
“We’re teaching life lessons through sports,” she said. “Sportsmanship, developing character. When they leave here, we hope they’ll be good members of the community.
“So if a kid doesn’t want to be here, they don’t want to be here. Or whatever situation takes them to another school, that’s fine.”
Meyer said the biggest issue she’d like to see change is allowing coaches more access to their athletes in the offseason.
“Right now, in the offseason, kids are going other places for instruction, and we’d rather have them here getting instruction from their high school coach,” Meyer said. “But kids go to see this club coach, or that private trainer, or play with that AAU team. But that’s just a select few, particularly at school like ours because of the monetary piece. The kids that can’t afford it, they aren’t doing anything. And that isn’t helping anyone.”
As she leaves her post, Meyer wanted more coaches, both male and female, and the athletes, especially the female ones, to get a better understanding of the history of women in sports and battles they’ve had to fight over the years.
Meyer pointed out that when she played at Lower Columbia, the women’s teams were known as the She-Devils. But calling them the Lady Devils, Meyer says, is just as bad, which is why she gets frustrated with schools that use Lady in front of their mascots.
“If I were at those schools, I’d say no,” Meyer said. “We’re not doing that, and here’s why. Here’s what you need to understand about girls and women’s sports, and how hard and how much we fought. We wanted to be respected as athletes. We didn’t want people to say ‘that girl is pretty good.’ We want them to say ‘she’s a great athlete.’ ”
Meyer said she’s proud of the legacy she left behind at Heritage, and with her family, as she now joins her father and two brothers as former teachers/coaches.
“All together, that’s like 130 years of teaching and coaching,” Meyer said. “I think our family has done pretty well.”
Tim Martinez is the assistant sports editor/prep editor for The Columbian. He can be reached at 360-735-4538, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow his Twitter handle @360TMart