Early in his career, George Hanson played basketball for the Gophers and then coached other players in the University of Minnesota men’s basketball program. But his larger achievements came later, when he championed athletic opportunities for children, especially those with disabilities.
Hanson, of Minneapolis, died Sept. 22. He was 81.
“George was a good solid citizen, a Rock of Gibraltar type, and you could depend on him for anything,” said Joe Selvaggio, a friend who knew Hanson in his later years.
Hanson was born in Superior, Wis., on April 12, 1935, and became a star high school athlete. He was drafted to play professional baseball but decided instead to accept a football scholarship to the University of Minnesota. He joined the Gophers basketball team as a walk-on and played in the mid-1950s as he earned a degree.
Hanson married high school sweetheart Karen Hill in 1956, graduated the next year, served in the U.S. Army and then settled in Detroit Lakes, where he coached basketball and golf and taught history for seven years.
Gophers head basketball coach John Kundla recruited Hanson to be an assistant coach, and Hanson returned to Minneapolis in the mid-1960s to work with Kundla and his successor, Bill Fitch. He followed Fitch as Gophers head basketball coach for one season in 1970-71.
Karen Hanson, his wife of 60 years, said her husband’s interests in sports went far beyond college basketball. “The most important aspect of his life was the need to have all kids have an equal ability to enjoy athletics,” she said.
After he left coaching, Hanson became director of physical education and health at the Minnesota Department of Children, Families and Learning. He worked with others to create adapted physical education programs for students with disabilities that became a model for other states.
“The reason he did it is that he’d been coaching all these [college] athletes and realized how many advantages they had,” said his son, Peter Hunter-Hanson of Minneapolis. “He really cared about and protected people that weren’t afforded all the benefits of being physically healthy.”
At the time, Hunter-Hanson said, those with disabilities were called “handicapped” and had few opportunities. His father noticed when he took his own children to play in Lynnhurst Park in south Minneapolis that other children in wheelchairs or on crutches could only watch.
“Kids would come to the park, and people would stare at them because a lot of them had visible disabilities,” Karen Hanson said. Her husband developed a program and for five years on Saturdays took able-bodied and kids with disabilities on outings to bowl and play tee-ball and other sports. “He had kids with autism and cerebral palsy and mental retardation, and instead of watching, they participated with all the other kids,” she said. “It was very innovative … and the parents were so appreciative.”
Hanson also invented and holds patents on several games for kids with disabilities, which he created as a side business and later sold to another company.
One of his biggest achievements was helping found the Minnesota Adapted Athletics Association to provide interscholastic athletic competition for students with disabilities. He and others successfully convinced the Minnesota State High School League in 1992 to become the first in the nation to sanction adapted sports for kids with disabilities.
In addition to his wife and his son, Peter, Hanson is survived by a sister, Marge of Superior, Wis.; sons Kurt of Minneapolis and Tony of St. Louis Park; daughter Mia Olson of Bloomington, and 10 grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 27, at Lake Harriet Spiritual Community Center, 4401 Upton Av. S., Minneapolis.