Richard A. Hudlin was a man of quiet but significant accomplishment. Mr. Hudlin or, “Hud,” as we who knew and worked with him affectionately called him, was a great man. That’s indisputable.
What is troublesome to me is the relative obscurity to which Mr. Hudlin’s legacy has been relegated. The stark lack of accessible information about the profound positive impact he had on the tennis community of St. Louis is reprehensible.
I share the blame because I knew him well. While he was living I could have, and immediately following his death I should have, documented the many selfless things that he did in the interest of fostering tennis for those of lesser means.
This post is my apology and personal tribute to the man who never received the recognition that he so richly deserved.
Arthur Ashe won the Wimbledon singles title in 1975. A year later during a visit to St. Louis, I snapped this photo of a proud Richard Hudlin (seated on the lower right), and his star pupil, Arthur Ashe (seated on the desk).
My association with Mr. Hudlin began in 1974. I first met him at Fairgrounds Park in north St. Louis. He was conducting a tennis clinic of sorts with a ragtag assemblage of kids. Half of the gaggle didn’t even have tennis rackets. That didn’t matter to “Hud” because one day they would have rackets even if he had to provide them.
I was hitting against the board while alternately watching with fascination as Mr. Hudlin effortlessly shuttled back and forth between the two courts he was using. He provided instruction for those with rackets while utilizing those without to chase and retrieve balls.
After fifteen minutes the positions were reversed. Those with rackets happily handed over the instruments to those without and dutifully began shagging balls. The former retrievers now got instruction. There wasn’t a disgruntled kid amongst the lot. I remember thinking, “What a great system.”
The whole affair ended in about forty minutes. A few last words were dispensed to the group and away they dashed. One little boy stayed behind to help Mr. Hudlin gather up balls and deposit them into two A & P grocery shopping bags.
I watched as Hud lugged the two bags to his car parked on Natural Bridge about forty yards away. He had a little green Volkswagen Karmann Ghia. After storing the bags he returned to the courts and walked straight to me.
Without introduction he asked quizzically, “Whats that thing in your hand?” Because I thought it was obvious, I replied in a somewhat confused fashion, “A tennis racket?” “Well what are you trying to do with it?” Bewildered I answered, “Practice?” “Oh, I see. From the looks of things you aren’t getting in much practice.”
His smile told me he was egging me on. So when he asked, “Well why are most of your balls flying over the fence?” I replied, “because the fence isn’t high enough.” That got him. He doubled over in laughter.
Mr. Hudlin then proceeded to give me a three minute crash course in how to hit a tennis ball properly. That was the only instruction he ever gave me regarding my own tennis. He then turned abruptly and began walking away.
“Thanks,” I called after him. Seemingly as an afterthought, he turned and said, “I’m Richard Hudlin.” “Thanks again Mr. Hudlin, I’m Martin Rogers.” “I know,” he said. “You’re Fred’s son.” And with that he was gone leaving me perplexed as to how he knew me.
Though St. Louis is a reasonably large city, within the black community, it often seems small because everyone seems to either know you or at least know someone who knows someone else who somehow knows you. I later learned that my father and Richard were longstanding acquaintances. That’s how he knew me.
Over the next few weeks I saw Richard with greater frequency. As always he was working with kids. During a couple of my practice debacles, after having knocked all my balls over the fence, Richard called me down to do something useful-toss balls to his kids.
To the best of my knowledge, at that time, Mr. Hudlin was donating his services. I never saw parents paying him for the time he spent working with their children.
It didn’t take long for me to learn that Mr. Hudlin had connections to Althea Gibson, the first African American woman to compete on the world tennis tour and win a Grand Slam tournament. He also coached the great Arthur Ashe during the time Arthur spent in St. Louis honing his skills at the Armory tennis courts and completing his senior year at Sumner High School.
Under Hud’s tutelage, within the confines of the Armory, on the slick, lightening-fast wood surface, Arthur was transformed from a back-court player into a serve-volley specialist. It was Richard Hudlin genius.
Mr. Hudlin was a champion of Civil Rights as well. Against stiff resistance towards blacks gaining inroads into the sport, Mr. Hudlin filed and won a lawsuit to gain access for his Tandy Park Muny tennis players to city-wide Muny Parks to which they had been vigorously excluded. It was an unprecedented victory.
Richard Hudlin died in 1976, one year after Arthur won Wimbledon, the oldest and most prestigious tournament in tennis. He lived just long enough to see Arthur become a champion both on and off the tennis court.
Richard A. Hudlin was a champion as well as a maker of champions. He was also a teacher, leader, mentor, supporter, donator and defender.
Thanks Hud, for the three priceless minutes you donated to my forehand. I’m still working on it and am happy to report that far fewer of my balls are sailing over the fence now.