Donna Phelan

Dieringer School District Swimming Instructor/Para Educator 1973-1993
Dieringer Education Foundation Hall of Fame

Born Donna Haney, the oldest of seven children, Donna Phelan would go on to live a life of contribution and service to both the Dieringer School District and the entire Lake Tapps Community.  

Donna grew up in the small eastern Washington community of Tonasket where the town’s swimming pool beckoned her and her sisters and brother during the warm months of summer.  In addition to the acquisition of swimming skills that she would use and enjoy throughout her life, Donna was also the majorette for the band and a cheerleader for the Tonasket sports teams graduating from high school in 1955.

In an effort to break away for the summer, Donna traveled to Montana after graduation to visit her grandmother.  While there, she met a tall, handsome Irish Catholic, Bob Phelan, who swept her off her feet. Donna returned to Tonasket at summer’s end, but by Christmas Bob paid a visit, and in his pocket was the ring that would lead to their wedding that February. 

Donna and Bob started their own family in Montana where Bob worked in construction as a crane operator.  After several moves, the young couple settled in Puyallup to work for Bob’s father who had recently moved to Tacoma.  Donna attended school at Clover Park Business College despite the challenges of raising her growing family. And grow the family certainly would, first with daughter Kelly, followed by Shannon, Matt, Rob, Julie and finally, Tyler.    

Donna’s swimming career had taken an extended break by the time she convinced Bob to purchase a home in a remote eastern part of Pierce County known as Driftwood Point on Lake Tapps.  The lake and community park at Driftwood provided Donna with her classroom where her children would be taught the basics of water safety and ultimately go on to become excellent swimmers in their own right.

One summer the Phelan family returned to Tonasket and begged their mom to take them to the community pool.  Standing outside the chain link fence, the 5 children, ranging in ages 4-12, looked longingly at the youngsters cavorting in the pool.  Presently the town’s swim coach came to the fence and invited the Phelan clan to join in the fun. He later invited them to participate in the swim meet the following day against a neighboring town.  What took place that next day is the stuff of legend. Propelled by the Phelan ringers, Tonasket won its first competition in over three years. 

Back home at Lake Tapps, Bob and Donna embraced the Driftwood community.  Bob, with the help of the Julum, Baber and Miller families, created a volunteer fire department which for many years served the west side of Lake Tapps.  Bob would eventually go on to become fire chief while Donna dedicated her energies to create the lake’s search and rescue program. The cold, murky waters of Lake Tapps were known to claim the lives of unprepared or unskilled swimmers, and after one body recovery too many, Donna challenged her family, “We have to teach these kids how to swim!”

Soon thereafter, Donna was regularly driving the roads of Driftwood Point picking up kids and taking them to the park where they would be taught the basic swimming skills they would need to navigate the lake’s waters safely.  Donna was later hired by the Jenks Park Community to provide swim lessons for their children.

The Dieringer District dedicated a swimming pool for the school and community when the Dieringer Gymnasium was opened in 1921.  Swimming lessons were offered throughout the years, but in 1973 the district was looking for someone to replace Joe Black who had moved on to teach and coach in the Bainbridge School District.  Donna Phelan was the natural choice. For many years Donna would provide two-week swim safety units for all elementary students. She also taught swimming as part of the middle school physical education program and coached Dieringer students in local AAU competitions until the pool closed in 1988.       

Many of Donna’s swimmers would go on to win events and set numerous records at high school state swimming competitions.  Donna’s daughter, Shannon, held the high school record in the 500-yard freestyle until that record was finally broken after 41 years by a Sumner High School student in November 2017.  

Donna’s swimming job wasn’t all glamour and acclaim.  Keeping the old facility going required a great deal of TLC and elbow grease.  Each year the pool needed deep cleaning, scraping and painting. The locker rooms, balcony and offices were also under Donna’s purview, so she would often work late into the night with tremendous drive bordering on obsession.  Bob would often lament to the kids, “If we don’t all go down and help Mom, we won’t get dinner.”

Donna was certainly a taskmaster as her children and Dieringer staff would attest.  Complaining of a stuffy head or sickness would result in her direction to swim a few laps to clear up that cold.  PE teachers and coaches would moan that their players were required to sometimes swim on the day of the big game.  They would slowly climb the stairway and appear at Donna’s office, hat in hand to and beg her to go easy on the kids in class, only to have them report for the game with legs of rubber after completing a timed mile swim.  

To fuel her own competitive juices, Donna participated in numerous masters swimming competitions until 1988 when an injury and the closing of the Dieringer pool brought an end to her athletic career.  Then when Dieringer Middle School closed in 1992, Donna completed her teaching career with perhaps her greatest challenge as a physical education instructor working with several different opinionated male PE teachers.  

Bob and Donna Phelan passed away within five weeks of each other in December 2014 and February 2015 respectively.   A couple that lived long and rewarding lives of service to others left behind a loving family. In addition to 6 surviving children, there are also 10 grandchildren and 6 great grandchildren.  One thing they all have in common… they are all excellent swimmers!