A Life's Story
October 21, 2023
Softball legacy built on lifelong devotion
Evelyne Holenski, 88, was Manitoba Sports, Softball Canada Hall of Famer
By: Taylor Allen
You can’t tell the story of softball in Manitoba without Evelyne Holenski.
Her love for the game began when she was growing up in Brown, a small Icelandic farming community south of Morden that touches on the U.S. border.
Her father was a former member of Major League Baseball’s Chicago White Sox farm system, and after a long day of working the fields, the two would play catch.
Holenski got the call to play for the Morden Whiz-Bangs senior team when she was 13 years old.
Between 1948-50, the Whiz-Bangs played some of the top teams in Manitoba and northern United States, going 61-21 in that three-year period. In 2005, it became the first team from a small community to be inducted into the Manitoba Softball Hall of Fame.
Holenski — who died April 15 at Grace Hospital in Winnipeg, at age 88 — made her biggest impact on the sport as a teacher, coach and builder.
She did it with the help of her husband of 67 years, Roy, whom she married in 1956.
“I worked part time after school at Rabinovitch Brothers, a clothing store in Morden. Evelyne and her dad came in to buy her a pair of shoes. I fitted her, and I guess they were the right shoes,” Roy, 89, says.
Roy was well-versed in baseball as an assistant coach with junior team the Earl Grey Barons.
Holenski, a teacher in the Winnipeg School Division at Harrow School, started a female softball team at Grant Park Harrow Community Club, which featured 10 students from her Grade 5/6 class.
“She kept bugging me to help her with this 12-year-old team from Harrow. So, I finally went out and went to a couple practices. I was accustomed to using harsher language with junior-aged boys. Once I began helping to coach the girls, the language sure changed in a hurry,” Roy laughs.
“If you looked at these little girls, they’d start to cry if you (got upset). So, that’s where it all started — and I stayed with her for the next 45, 46 years.”
In 1975, with the help of a sponsorship from Smitty’s restaurant chain, the duo founded the Smitty’s Terminators. They recruited some of the top players in the province and guided them from bantam to senior, where they consistently appeared at the Western Canadian and national championships. But they couldn’t get over the hump.
Holenski realized something had to change if they were ever going to beat Canada’s best and bring home gold, and she devoted her life to making it happen.
As a way to generate more competition and give more players in the province opportunities to play, the Holenskis launched the Manitoba Ladies Super Softball League in 1985.
The sport blossomed, helping Manitobans such as Juanita Clayton, Karen Doell, Sandy Newsham and Heather Newsham (all products of the Smitty’s organization) develop into national team and Olympic players.
Holenski, oft-referred to as “Mrs. H” by her players, was team leader of Softball Canada’s national team at the 2000 Sydney Summer Games.
The Terminators remain in action today, with teams in several different age categories.
“They built the way for me to have the life that I have now with their interest in me, their belief in my potential and then their promotion (of the sport),” says Clayton, a catcher at the 1996 Olympics and social worker living in Birds Hill.
“In terms of getting a softball scholarship (at Utah State University), continuing to be able to come home and play for Smitty’s in the off-season, getting on the national team — they opened doors and that can be a huge thing… There’s lots of talented people who don’t have somebody advocating for them.”
Between 1995-97, Smitty’s won Softball Canada’s senior A fastpitch championship three years in a row — the first team from Manitoba to win the national crown since 1965.
It also won gold in 2008.
The Smitty’s dynasty was inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame in 2004, and the Softball Canada Hall of Fame in 2015.
Holenski is also in both halls individually as a builder.
“It was very emotional I think for Mr. and Mrs. H,” pitcher/shortstop Rhonda Denbow, who played for Smitty’s from 1991-2009, says.
At the 1995 national tournament in Burlington, Ont., Smitty’s knocked-off the defending champions from Dorchester, Ont., 3-1 in the final.
“They always believed in us, so for us to finally come through and capture gold, it was a big dream come true for them.”
Holenski taught for nearly 40 years, and once she left the classroom for the day, it was usually straight to the diamond. The Holenskis never had time to sit down for dinner during the week, and had to miss a lot of weddings and birthdays over the years as most weekends were spent at tournaments.
Holenski loved it. Even on vacations to Hawaii, the couple would go watch local university softball games.
“We were at nationals one year, and an errant ball went flying from an opposing team as they were warming up. Mrs. H was on the sideline and it hit her nose,” Denbow says.
“It was an awful mess, but she was such a trooper. She was like, ‘Oh no, I don’t have to go to the hospital. I’m OK.’ And we were like ‘No, you’re not!’ She did stay, and then a couple innings in, we said she had to go… It was hard to convince her otherwise.”
Holenski returned to the dugout before the game ended.
To say the Holenskis went above and beyond for their players and sport would be an understatement. The couple made a large donation to have a first-class international women’s softball diamond (Holenski Field) built at the John Blumberg Softball Complex.
“That was their family. They didn’t have children, those were their children,” niece Irene Peters says.
“They wanted to see all of them succeed to the extent where they helped in charitable ways, as well. If some of their players were having issues with being able to afford tournaments, uniforms or even schooling, college, vehicles, transportation, that kind of thing, they made sure they got what they needed.”
“She was a workhorse filled with integrity, love, generosity, and humility,” she says. “People that knew her got to know just a treasure of a human being.”
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