Obituary: Toni St. Pierre blazed trail for girls' sports

  • Article by: JACKIE CROSBY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 16, 2013 - 6:52 PM

Toni St. Pierre

Toni St. Pierre just wanted to run.

She was a junior at Hopkins Eisenhower High School in 1972, and a good athlete. But the school didn't have a girls' cross-country team, and St. Pierre wanted to compete.

So she sued.

The American Civil Liberties Union took up her case against the Minnesota State High School League, filing it jointly with Peg Brenden, who was a St. Cloud high school senior who wanted to play tennis.

The case went to trial in the spring of 1972 before U.S. District Judge Miles Lord, the crusty champion of the common citizen. Lord ruled in favor of the girls.

The decision was one of the first in the nation to deal with the issue of equal rights for girls in high school sports, and came a few months ahead of federal legislation signed by President Richard Nixon. That law, known as Title IX, prohibits sex discrimination in programs and activities at schools receiving federal funds.

"She just wanted to compete," said her brother Sam St. Pierre of Golden Valley, who was a year behind Toni in school. "She was the kind of person who said, 'Don't tell me I can't do that, because I'll figure out a way to do it.'"

St. Pierre, of Minneapolis, died on Feb. 2 of cancer, diagnosed in its late stages this past summer. She was 58.

After the landmark ruling, St. Pierre joined the boys' cross-country, track and Nordic ski teams in high school. During her senior year, she became state champion in the mile and the half-mile, and her speedy half-mile time of 2:18.3 set a national record. In 2006, Hopkins High (Eisenhower closed in the 1980s) inducted her into the school's Athletic Hall of Fame.

While a student at the College of St. Benedict, she ran with the men's cross country team at St. John's because St. Ben's didn't have a team.

As an obstetrical nurse with Fairview Health Systems, she also took volunteer trips to Nepal, Vietnam and other developing countries to provide care for pregnant women, her brother said.

But St. Pierre's lifelong love of sports never waned. She ran triathalons and marathons, and her Facebook page flagged Jesse Owens as a favorite athlete.

She was aiming for a run at the Boston Marathon before getting sidelined with a pain in her leg, which eventually was diagnosed as a relatively rare malignant cancer of the smooth muscle.

In his long legal career, Lord took on mining companies for dumping waste into Lake Superior and medical companies for malpractice over the Dalkon Shield IUD. But he considered the girls' case one of his "proudest decisions," said Priscilla Lord Faris of her father, who now is 93.

"I had just given birth to my first daughter, and he called and asked what I thought of the case," she said. "I said, 'If you can make it so girls can do something other than be cheerleaders, that'd be a good thing.' It played a big role in opening up all sports for women."

St. Pierre was honored earlier this month by the Minnesota Girls and Women in Sports Day at the State Capitol for her role as an advocate for girls' and women's sports. The ceremony, which honored seven others, took place four days after she died.

"I don't know what put the bug in her ear that this [the lawsuit] was the way to go about it," Sam St. Pierre said. "But she went at it. She was a rebel."

In addition to her brother Sam, St. Pierre is survived by two daughters, Jessica Heisel of Minneapolis and Alicia Jack of Minnetonka; a son, Timothy Heisel of St. Paul; her mother, Marie St. Peter, of Minnetonka; another brother, Garrick St. Peter of Little Rock, Ark.; a sister, Valerie Smith of Petoskey, Mich., and nine grandchildren.

Services have been held.

jcrosby@startribune.com • 612-673-7335

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