Dorothea Lensch entered the park and recreation profession in a most unusual way. While reading Cicero’s Orations in her high school Latin class, Dorothea developed a sense of commitment toward community. She entered college with a focus on medicine. Towards the end of her college career, she asked her family doctor which medical school she should apply to. It was his advice that Dorothea think of another profession because the pre-med programs were not open to women. She pursued her interest in physical and health education and received a Masters Degree in Health from Wellesley College.
Her first position was in the field of dance, teaching at Rockford College in Illinois. Dorothea moved to George Washington University as Chairman of the Dance Division and Director of Student Practice Teaching. During a trip home to Portland for the summer months, she read with great enthusiasm the job announcement for a recreation position with the Bureau of Parks and Recreation for the City of Portland. She applied and took the examination. To her surprise, C.D. Keyser, Superintendent called and asked if she would accept the position. To her dismay, she had to say the contract with George Washington University could not be broken. Several days before leaving Portland to return to her college position, he called to say he was so impressed with her skills and abilities that he convinced the City Council to offer Dorothea the position, and immediately gave her an extended leave of absence so that she would be able to join the City of Portland in the summer of 1937 upon conclusion of her current contract with George Washington University.
While serving the City of Portland, she pursued a Ph.,D. After completing her Ph.D., she found school administrators more willing to open their facilities for recreation programs. She is most proud of the agreement between the schools and the City, which allowed for afterschool activities from 3:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. and school gymnasiums were open on weekends in critical areas.
Being a professional woman in the field of parks and recreation demanded full time energy and effort. Dorothea never married, "You couldn’t do all that was required and have a family at that point in time." Her mentor and role model during her entire career was the Superintendent of Parks, C.D. Keyser. He had a total knowledge of the importance of parks and recreation. Dorothea stated, "He always took me with him to meetings to provide exposure for my efforts."
Dorothea did not retire and go away in 1972. She has maintained an active, vital community life. She’s involved with the Portland Japanese Garden, on the Board of the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame, and on the Board of Marylhurst College, started the Musical Theatre Company of Portland, served as President and continues to serve on its Board. She is extensively involved with the Young Audiences Program, brining arts and culture into Portland schools. She started the Portland Opera, and serves on the Board of the Eugene opera. She is also very active in the health field as a member of the Holladay Hospital Foundations. A woman for our time, pursuing recreation and well being for others even in her retirement.
Her most notable effort in retirement is the Forty Mile Loop Trust. Throughout her years of service, Dorothea had hoped the city could feel the necessity of fulfilling the dream of Mr. Keyser and the Olmstead Brothers. That dream being a pathway around the city that linked all the parks, giving an easy outlet for all those who enjoyed walking and biking. This was called The Forty Mile Loop. When Dorothea retired, it was natural for her to be on the formation committee of The Forty Mile Loop Land Trust. The purpose was to establish the loop trail, but now the need was for a circle that composed 140 miles. The Trust involved the jurisdictions, developed the plans, secured funds, and got the master plan accepted by all. At present, many parts of the Trail have been completed. More effort continues as the need for completion grows. Dorothea continues to serve on the Board making sure the complete project is realized.
Dorothea’s advice for current professionals, "Get the broadest education possible. Don’t be isolated, mingle with other professions. Understand what it takes to do the total job. Believe profoundly in what you do."
Dorothea M. Lensch, a pioneer woman within the profession of parks and recreation. A woman who paved the path for all of us, male and female alike. Dorothea, a role model.
Dorothea M. Lensch, the grand dame of Portland parks who expanded recreation programs and facilities to include the arts, music and drama, died Thursday. She was 92.
Lensch was a Portland native who circulated as comfortably among the upper crust of the West Hills as she did among low-income families for whom she fought to expand recreational opportunities. She was the city’s first recreation director, serving from 1936 to 1972.
"She was a huge, huge figure for Portland parks and she always will be," said the Parks Bureau’s deputy director, David Judd. "She was the creator of many of the programs you still see today."
During her tenure, the city increased its number of community centers from two to 18, and she lobbied for adding many nontraditional facilities such as the Community Music Center, Pittock Mansion and the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center. Lensch also introduced summer outdoor concerts to Washington Park.
Although Lensch was an enthusiast of tennis and modern dance herself, she developed recreation programs in theater, music and the arts at the same time she pushed for most ballfields, gymnasiums and recreational sports teams.
"She had no children of her own," Judd said, "so she created programs that served an ever increasing, vast number of kids. She was the grand dame of Portland Parks and Recreation, and she always will be."
After retiring in 1972, Lensch continued to be active in community activities, serving on the boards of many educational and cultural organizations, including the Portland Opera Association, Chamber Music Northwest; Japanese Garden, the Eugene Opera, the Portland State University Foundation and the 40-Mile Loop Trail. She also was a founder of the Children’s Museum.
Lensch served as a member of the Regional Arts and Culture Council as recently as two years ago, when she quit because of declining health.
In a retirement interview in 1972, Lensch summarized her public recreation strategy: "Our philosophy, then and now, was that there be in recreation a blending of physical, cultural and social programs, community centers and playgrounds."
Lensch was born October 5, 1907, in Portland. She graduated from Grant High School and received a bachelor’s degree in physical education for the University of Oregon. She later added a master’s from Wellesley College and a doctorate from Oregon.
After teaching stints at Rockford College in Rockford, Ill., and George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Lensch returned to Portland in 1936, when she joined the Parks Bureau.
She also returned to her parents’ home in the Alameda neighborhood of Northeast Portland. She resided there until three years ago, when she broke a hip in a fall while gardening.
Among her early duties as city recreation director, Lensch developed programs for the Vanport area, which was built to house World War II ship-building workers. As she did throughout her career, she promoted sports activities for girls and encouraged racial integration.
Lensch paid special attention to children with mental and physical disabilities and low-income families as she developed programs throughout the city.
"We still have what we call the ‘Dorothea factor’ around here," Judd said. "When we look at how much we should charge for activities, we always ask what Dorothea would have wanted. She wanted to be sure we weren’t pricing low-income families out of anything."
Throughout much of her career, Lensch raised money from private and charitable sources to pay for programs she started.
Lensch developed a wide reputation in public recreation circles. The U.S. State Department sent her on a mission to Germany after World War II to help establish recreation programs, and she later served on another government sponsored mission to Australia.
After retiring at 65, Lensch maintained a hands-on interest in many activities, including giving tours at Portland’s Japanese Garden and serving refreshments at theatrical and musical events.
She received numerous awards during the years. The most recent was her induction this year into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame. In 1981 she won the George Russill Community Service Award for her work for the community’s benefit. She also received the Aubrey Watzek Award from Lewis & Clark College.
Source: Oregonian, Obituary: Lensch dies at 92; her work was play July 29, 2000, page a11
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