On a Saturday morning in late fall of 2012, after having taught several morning lessons, I sat and reflected on how those sessions went. It’s habit. I always replay the hour I spend with a student to assess where they are, but more importantly, what if anything needs to be changed to further their advancement. I make notes…written notes, not keystroke notes. Writing allows scratch outs with the scratched word or phrase still there in case I’d like to revisit it. Deleting by keystroke is permanent, especially if later I don’t remember the specific words or phrase that resonated with me at the time.
For me it’s all about progress. I’m 100% dedicated to that goal. Being a part of a student’s forward leaps is as important as deciphering why he/she isn’t progressing in a timely fashion if that be the case.
On that day in 2012, during that particular ponder session, inexplicably, an image of Richard Hudlin popped into my mind. I sat back, relaxed and allowed the image to transport me back in time to the early 70’s.
That’s when I met him in St. Louis at Fairgrounds Park. He was using two courts while working with a group of kids.
I was hitting against the board. Intermittently I paused to study that group session. I couldn’t help but watch because the scene was so compelling. What appeared to be random pandemonium was in truth a well orchestrated group tennis lesson for beginners.
Kids were scampering around all over, some hitting tennis balls, others trying desperately to catch the things. But there was a “method to the madness.” The kids chasing balls soon replaced the ones hitting and the hitters now became chasers. It had to be done that way because only half the kids had rackets.
Gleeful laughter filled the air. Mr. Hudlin simply chuckled.
I liked what I saw. The kids were not dressed in prototypical tennis attire. Rather, they had on long pants or makeshift shorts created by parents cutting off the lower portion of an old pair of blue jeans. Blue jeans mind you, not Levis.
For the record, I was wearing a pair of my old pocket less basketball shorts, a simple white T-shirt and well-worn running shoes.
Mr. Hudlin was wearing tennis whites, head to toe.
He looked sharp.
Though I couldn’t hear spoken words, I saw motions he made, knees slightly bent, a path with his right hand from behind his back, forward in an arching pattern completed above his left shoulder. He was showing them how to execute a forehand stroke. The kids then tried to emulate with their rackets what he had done with his hand. The results were amusingly variable. Still, after several practice swings, Hudlin, dropped a ball for each kid to take a swipe at.
That’s when all hell broke loose.
Several kids whiffed, didn’t come remotely close to making contact with the ball. Of those, a couple, in their exuberance, did complete 360’s. Hudlin chuckled. One kid made solid contact but the ball went almost directly into the ground before somehow clearing the net on the second bounce.
Miraculously, three kids actually sent balls hurtling thru the air across the net. Those waiting tried catching the balls which had no predictable flight except they were traveling north. The catchers skills were, at best, exercises in futility.
Hudlin chuckled again but also clapped.
All three sets of kids laughed merrily. The whiffers laughed at themselves, those making contact laughed at the resulting flight of the ball and the catchers laughed at their inability to snare a ball whether from the air or off the bounce.
I laughed at it all while thinking, “what a great system!”
When it ended, Hudlin gathered the kids in front of him, said a few words and away they went. One little guy stayed and helped gather and deposit the balls into two grocery shopping bags. Hudlin wiped his brow and said something that made the little boy laugh as he skipped away.
After storing the bags and his racket in his car, I noticed him walking back towards the courts. I thought he’d probably forgotten something. But after coming through the gate, he made a beeline west to where I was still practicing. He stopped and waited until I hit the ball I had in hand towards the board and hit the rebounded ball back a second time. I framed it. Naturally, as I felt his eyes on me, the thing sailed over the fence.
He chuckled. I winced.
Mr. Hudlin then spent no more than three minutes demonstrating with his hand, just as he’d done with the kids, the proper path the racket should take to hit a good forehand stroke. He also changed my grip explaining that the one I was using was too extreme. To this day, I still use the eastern forehand grip that he showed me.
Although that was the last information about my tennis that he ever gave, that exchange began my priceless association with him that was to last until his death in 1976.
And so it took me from 1976 to 2012 to have, what I can only describe as “a moment” that prodded me to want to know more about Richard Hudlin.
Of course, I knew that he had coached Arthur Ashe during his senior year spent at Sumner High School. I knew he taught Social Studies at the school in addition to coaching their tennis teams and I knew he had worked some with the great Althea Gibson.
So, to become more knowledgeable, I did a google search but was dismayed to find almost nothing. “How could there be almost no information about a man who briefly coached the only African American male in history to have won Wimbledon?” I thought.
That question led me to do something I hadn’t done in years. I went to the library, main branch, 14th and Olive, downtown St. Louis. I began regular visits during which I would sift through books about tennis history. Some I read cover to cover. Others I leafed through because the index didn’t convince me there might be any pertinent information.
Finally I came across a book which referenced another book entitled, “Blacks at the Net,” volume 1 by Sundiata Djata. There was not a copy in the library so I ordered a copy to own.
After beginning, I was stunned to find on page six, paragraph two, the following sentence. “For instance, Richard Hudlin was the captain of the University of Chicago tennis team and the first black captain in the Big Ten Colleges.”
“What!?” I thought. Mr. Hudlin never told me that. There was no mention of the year so I contacted the University of Chicago Archival Department for verification. They were very cooperative but unable to substantiate it. After some calculation based on Hudlin’s birthday, I asked if they could search from 1920-1930.
Bingo! Three yearbooks were found from 1926, 27, and 1928, each with a photo of the tennis team, all included Richard A. Hudlin. The caption beneath the team photo from 1928 listed Hudlin as captain.
I had struck pay-dirt and from that day forward learned far more in death than I knew of him in life.
Mr. Hudlin’s life was devoted to doing for others. He never spoke of his many and varied accomplishments, so for me it was a no-brainer that he should be recognized for the extraordinary contributions to tennis, especially in St. Louis, in the Missouri Valley.
After gathering all the information I’d amassed, in 2013 I completed the necessary USTA Mo Valley nomination application and submitted a packet to the committee several months prior to the deadline for making a nomination.
A year elapsed in which I heard absolutely nothing in response. I was baffled. I’d been informed by a friend who had first hand knowledge of the system that the nomination was good for three years, still I was concerned that maybe the information hadn’t reached the proper person(s).
Confused but undeterred, I submitted exactly the same set of information to the ATA Black Tennis Hall of Fame, a national organization. I was delighted to receive a swift response from them stating that Hudlin’s induction was assured and that he had received 100% “yes” votes.
It’s been said that, “All good things come in time.” I think that’s true
Yesterday, to commemorate his induction, I made a trip to Fairgrounds Park, walked through the gate straight to the board. I took a ball from my pocket and began hitting forehands, one after another…10, 11,12,…feeling I could continue easily without missing. But then it happened, on number 17, I shanked one. Over the fence it flew!
I bet he would of chuckled.