I should probably add that it's the only tennis prize I ever won.
By the time I won that medal, I already knew who Lester R. Fry was. He was the Old Guy who showed up at the Hiram College courts now and then to sell rackets, balls, presses, and other equipment. He would pull his old car up to the courts, raise the lid of the trunk (oh, was it full of Tennis Treasure!), and unload his heavy iron stringing machine. And he would spend the day stringing rackets and shooting the breeze with whoever came by.
I liked Mr. Fry right away. He was friendly. Gave me things now and then. Was grateful when I sent others up to see him. I recently Googled him and found out he was born in January 1892, so the summer I won that mighty medal, he was sixty-six years old. That Old Guy was a year younger than I am now ...
I didn't know anything about tennis when my family moved to Ohio in the summer of 1956. I was a few months away from my twelfth birthday. Back in Oklahoma, tennis was a country club sport. I knew no one who played it. But my dad, for some reason, had an old racket, a signature model bearing the name Ellsworth Vines, a name that sounded vaguely tropical (I was into Tarzan at the time), a name Id never heard before. (Later, I would learn that Vines, who died in 1994 at the age of 82, was a Wimbledon champion--he defeated Bunny Austin in 1932! He also won a couple of U. S. championships. Later, he gave up tennis and turned to professional golf, where he played well but never won.)
I don't know why my dad had that Ellsworth Vines racket, but it was always around with our clutter, and when Johnny Kelker, one of my first Hiram friends, wanted to play tennis one day, well, at least I had a racket to use. Johnny was patient with me--taught me the rules and had little trouble beating me in the early days. But I eventually improved. It was Johnny whom I beat in 1958. (His older brother, Norm, was a different story. He was an excellent player.)
Although I lacked great tennis skills, I compensated with a fiery temper. (Thus my later fondness for Connors and McEnroe.) Tennis released into the air the ugliest of my demons. I threw rackets, broke them, bashed balls up onto the roof of the college library (right next to the courts). In college--where I played on the varsity for four years, a varsity that was probably the worst in North America--I learned from a teammate named Phil the fine art of whacking my racket against my leg when I was angry. Admirers of Phil, a lot of us on the team did that. You could tell a Hiram tennis player--he was the guy who lost a lot and had bruises up and down the outside of his right calf.
Mr. Fry was perfectly happy with my temper for obvious economic reasons. Every time I went off, he could ring up another sale.
A couple of times I drove down to his home/shop on East Exchange Street in Akron. As I remember it, the front of the house--an enclosed porch--was where he did his sales and stringing. He and his family lived in the rest of his place.
I saw Mr. Fry every summer throughout my years in Hiram--secondary school, college (I graduated in 1966). And later on I went down to his shop a couple of times for new rackets, a string job. And then I stopped going.
And then I quit playing and pretty much forgot all about him.
Until last week when my grandson Logan, 7, began wondering if his Silly Papa (his name for me) would play tennis with him. He's started playing a little with his dad. Loves it. Has heard that Silly Papa was once pretty good ...
I'll probably play with Logan one of these days. But I don't have a racket any longer (see post tomorrow!). And although my leg is completely healed, I'll have no Mr. Fry (he died in 1984) to help me when the Tennis Demons--released at last!--force me to smash my racket against a net post.