The “Pewter Mug” in Perspective


The now dented Pewter Mug won in 1966


Today marks the five month anniversary of my right shoulder rotator cuff  operation, but today is more important for another reason: Our son Ben, our daughter-in-law, Kristin, and two of our grandchildren, four year-old Flora and eighteen-month old Logan arrived today from Connecticut for a visit.

Vickie and I are thrilled!

Aside from the sheer joy of seeing them, their visit takes my mind of the ongoing “it comes and it goes” pain I still feel in my shoulder. I had hoped that would be over by now, but I still ice regularly, go to PT three times a week and have need for an occasional dose of OTC pain killer.

And frankly, though I am trying to be patient, I find myself wondering if I’ll ever be able to play tennis again. It certainly won’t happen while this on and off pain lingers.

And then …

Logan came clomping down the stares dragging “the Pewter Mug” that I won in the fall of 1966 as champion of the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC), College Division, Draw II Fall Tennis Championships.

At the time I won it that Pewter Mug was probably my most prized possession on earth. It represented five of the best matches I ever won.

I was unseeded and not given much of a chance against Swarthmore’s Kirk Roose in the second round, but I earned a marathon (in those pre tie breaker days)  11-9, 6-3 victory. The semi final against Pakistan’s Sandy Salaun of Lehigh was also tough, but I won, 8-6, 6-2.

In the final my opponent was Bob Mendel of Franklin and Marshall. We split the first two sets, 3-6, for him and 6-4 for me.  In the deciding set I jumped out to a 5-2 lead. “Don’t think this is in the bag, Steve. Stay focused,” I kept telling myself. And it wasn’t. Bob came charging back to tie it at five all.

Then (I can feel the nervousness I felt then as I type this) I told myself over and over, “Stay calm; don’t panic,” and I won the next two games and the match.

Now that tournament in Trenton, NJ, is a long way from Wimbledon in more ways than one. But I was over the moon at what I had achieved. There were long lonely afternoons of running on the dark indoor Hamilton College track that surrounded the hockey rink to prepare. I know those wind sprints pulled me through.

It was so long ago.

But today as Logan came clomping down the stairs with the “Pewter Mug” it all came rushing back.

Once upon a time I would have jumped up grabbed the precious mug from his tiny hands for fear that he would dent it.

Today, I could have cared less.

More than half a century later that mug and the other trophies I have won over the years don’t matter, But the life lessons I have learned from playing and teaching tennis surely do.

Playing competitive tennis has taught me: to always do my best,  to be a good sport, to stay calm under pressure and most of all, to never ever look for any excuse for a loss except, “He played better than I did.”

I still hope to play tennis again, and if I do I will still try to win.

But having my children and grandchildren come to visit puts winning in perspective and gives that word a totally different definition, a definition I am thankful to understand.

The Teacher (Lehrer) —Wolfgang Henke

Wolfgang Henke who adds lister to an already honored profession in Germany: Teacher
Wolfgang Henke who adds luster to an already honored profession in Germany: Teacher

In Germany “teacher” (Lehrer) is an honored profession. How refreshing it is to see that!

My wife Vickie taught school for over thirty years. Like too many American educators she was overworked and underpaid. As the years went by the imperative to “teach to the standardized test” robbed her teaching of much of its creativity and joy.

Here in Germany because of the exhibit about Vickie’s mother we have made more than a dozen visits to schools and spoken with more than twenty teachers. Without exception they felt their work was respected, important and appropriately compensated.

The USA could definitely take a lesson from Germany in this regard.

Last year the exhibit stayed in one school, the Holstenschule in Neumünster. For weeks we worked hand in glove with the teacher in charge of the project, Wolfgang Henke. For us Mr. Henke is the epitome of the German teacher. He is modest, soft-spoken, extremely well schooled and supremely competent. He treats the students with respect and caring, and they treat him the same way.

It is easy to see why. 

He spent months preparing for the exhibit with Pastorin Ursula Sieg. Together they set us a Jewish Wohnzimmer (Living Room) in a classroom set aside for that purpose in the Holstenschule last year. Students could come there and chat informally with Vickie and me during certain times when we visited.

This year he spent an additional untold number of hours as a volunteer helping coordinate the visits of the exhibit to several other schools in the area. His dedication is inspiring.

Wolfgang Henke presenting me with an official
Wolfgang Henke presenting me with an official “Tennis Halle Neumünster Tee shirt after we hit a few weeks ago.

Mr. Henke is also an excellent tennis player, and he graciously invited me to hit with him on an off day at the Tennis Halle in Neumünster.

After five summers as a tennis instructor in a private club in New Jersey and at the famous Concord Hotel in the Catskill mountains, I believe I can tell more about a person’s personality by watching him or her for fifteen minutes on the tennis court than I can if I were to interview the individual for half an hour. My observations have nothing to do with how well a person plays but everything to do with his or her demeanor on the court.

In the case of Mr. Henke, all of the qualities I had already observed (and noted above) while working with him were evident when we played. It was a most enjoyable hour that confirmed for me that Wolfgang Henke certainly deserves one of Germany’s most honorable titles: Teacher!

Role Reversal

Yesterday was a special day because I played tennis with my older son Leo. Tennis is a strong bond between us, but at this point he clearly does  me a favor by hitting with me. Leo is a good local tournament player, who at 38 is a little—but not much—past his prime. At 69 I do not come close to matching his pace, consistency or stamina.

Once upon a time …

But it seems like yesterday when he was very small, and he sat transfixed next to Vickie by the side of the court as I won a hard fought final to claim my third Columbia, MD, Memorial Day Singles title. The moment my opponent and I shook hands (that was his signal) he gleefully came running down to the courts with his racket ball racket for me to play with him. That became our ritual every time I played a match.

Who’s your coach?

We played a lot over the years. I loved it, and I taught him everything I knew. As he got older he also took clinics from pros. But when he started playing Junior Tournaments, the first question people asked him was, “Who’s your coach?”

Unlike the other players he didn’t really have coach, but I was the closest thing to it. So jokingly I suggested that when people asked he should say, “I go to O.M.P.T.A.” No one ever asked, but O.M.P.T.A. stands for, “Old Man Pops Tennis Academy.”

A Treasured Gift

Looking back, I am not precisely sure when the balance tipped and he became the better player. By the time he became Brandeis’ number one, though, he had long since snatched the baton. One Fathers’ Day, when he was in college, he presented me with a gift I still treasure. It was a warm up suit, with O.M.P.T.A. embroidered on the back of the jacket in big letters, and “Head Coach” stitched in small letters on the front. When I would play Sr. Tournaments, he gave me advice, and I listened very carefully. It always helped.

Coming Full Circle

Yesterday, we played again. Although it was certainly not a challenge for him, I am glad he enjoyed it. As for me,  I took to the court filled with the same joy I saw on Leo’s face when he ran to play with me—after the handshake—when he was very small.

Life Lessons from My Love Affair with Tennis — 1

Tennis and I go back a long way, ever since I was a little kid, and my Dad first taught me how to play.  Make no mistake; I was never a good enough to play the grand slams, but I love the game and owe it so much!

As a sophomore I was the number one player on our East Orange High School tennis team.  I posted a 2-13 record that year.

The first of the “2” occurred when the number one player from our cross town rival Clifford Scott, Henry Paillard, was not playing, and I got a win over their not-as-strong number 2, Bob Lawrie.

My second win, though, was huge!  We played each of our conference rivals twice.  In our first meeting at West Orange, I did not only lose; I received a 6-0, 6-1 drubbing from Jay Saunders.  Maybe Jay took me for granted when they came to our courts a couple of weeks later, but I earned a 6-4, 6-4 win. I was so proud!

I was EO’s number one for three years, and in those three years I lost to Kearny’s Cal Trevenen six straight times.  In those six matches I won only one set, the first set of the first match we played when we were sophomores.

At Hamilton College I became a better player earning a 50-3 record in three years on the varsity and winning a couple of NCAA, college division, regional tournaments and being the finalist in another.

My breakthrough came freshman year.

In those days freshmen were not allowed to play varsity, and I was the number one player on our freshman team.  Who should walk out on the court as my opponent for our opening match against Colgate – at Colgate, no less – but Kearny’s Cal Trevenen!  But this time I did something I honestly thought I couldn’t do and grabbed a straight set victory.  I defeated Cal again when Colgate came to Hamilton.

I reached out to Cal about two years ago (he is a successful attorney in Montclair, NJ), and though he was very gracious, he really didn’t even remember who I was. I can never forget him, though, for helping teach me one of life’s most important lessons:

Yesterday is gone.  It doesn’t matter anymore.

Do the best you can right now, and who knows what good things can happen?