Irma Schoennauer Cole

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Irma (Schoennauer) Cole
Born (1920-01-15)January 15, 1920
Seattle, Washington
Died November 6, 2003(2003-11-06) (aged 83)
Tacoma, Washington
Nationality American born
Other names Irmgard Ida Ottilie Schoennauer
Occupation Civil Servant
Known for Swimming
Spouse(s) Melvin Leroy Cole

Irma (Schoennauer) Cole (born as Irmgard Ida Ottilie Schoennauer; January 15, 1920 – November 6, 2003) was one of the United States’s premier swimmers in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Born in Seattle, Washington, she was the daughter and eldest child of Chicago native, Arthur Charles John Schoennauer, and Prussian immigrant, Ida Amalia Ottilie Welk. Irma’s father was a career typesetter employed by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for most of his life; her mother was a seamstress and clothing designer. As a teen, Irmgard attended Lincoln High School in Seattle, and graduated from the University of Washington in 1942 with a BA degree in Communications. As a freshman, she was a member of "Chi of Phrateres," a philanthropic-social organization for female college students at the University.[1]

Born the year female swimmers became the first American women to achieve full Olympic status,[2] Irma began her competitive swimming career as a child at Green Lake in Seattle, having local swimming champion Helene Madison[3] as her older role model. Quickly recognized for her natural swimming ability and competitive spirit, Imgard was invited to join the swimming team of the Washington Athletic Club in 1935, soon winning numerous local, regional, statewide, and multi-state telegraph races,[4] and was a member of the 400-yard relay team that won the National Championship in 1938.[5] Groomed to compete in 1940 Summer Olympics, she continued competitive swimming after the outbreak of World War II, even though the Olympic games were suspended by the IOC. It is very likely, had it not been for the war, she would have competed on the United States Olympic swim team, possibly alongside peer, Esther Williams of California.

She made a career as a civil servant for the Federal Government for over 40 years; starting with the Department of the Interior at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state after graduating from college, the Department of the War (Army & Air Force) in California during the latter part of World War II, and the Social Security Administration from about 1953 in various states, including California, Kansas, Maryland and finally Washington, where she retired about 1982.

Irma married Melvin Leroy Cole of Arkansas in 1955 in Ellensburg, Washington. Because they both worked for the same government agency, after married they rarely resided in the same city.[6] Although two children were born of this union, partly as a result of this forced separation, they divorced in 1963. Besides her lifelong interest in swimming, she enjoyed travelling by train (she never got a driver’s license, owned a car, or flew in a plane), investing in real estate, and researching her family history. Irma died in Tacoma, Washington at the age of 83.[7] Her body was buried at Lake View Cemetery in Seattle, next to her beloved father. Upon her death in 2003, she was survived by one of her brothers, her two sons, and one grandchild.


  1. ^ "The 1939 Tyee: A Year of University Life," University Yearbook, published by the Associated Students of the University of Washington, Pages 361-2; as reprinted by and accessed at U.S. School Yearbooks on 2011/08/25.
  2. ^ The International Swimming Hall of Fame’s Timeline of Women’s Swimming History Archived 2010-10-29 at the Wayback Machine.; accessed 2009/08/11.
  3. ^ SportsReference/Olympic Sports: Helene Madison Archived 2012-10-21 at the Wayback Machine..
  4. ^ See Auburn Tigers swimming and diving for an example of another facility in the 1930s that telegraphed competitive swimming results: “The program had to telegraph their timed results to other schools and compare as the pool was too small for competitions;” and “Swimmers were timed and results were telegraphed to other schools for comparisons.”
  5. ^ Although she swam competitively while as a student at the University of Washington during the 1938-39 school year, because of the politics of the university swimming program and because of her professional loyalty to the Washington Athletic Club and the personal loyalty to her coach, outside of that one year she reserved her competition swimming under the WAC sponsorship.
  6. ^ For further information on the U.S. Government's nepotism and dual-career couples policy, see extract of "Handbook of state government administration" By John J. Gargan. The policy was enforced very strictly in the Social Security Administration during the 1950s.
  7. ^ Obituary from The Seattle Times, Seattle, WA; November 8, 2003.