They are the true originals, although Bob Coker will remind you that he is not only an original, but also the instigator.
After 40 years, Coker and Clyde Bennett continue to play in the Saturday morning tennis league out of Tennis Rhode Island West Bay on Centerville Road. The league, which starts play in next month and runs through May, began shortly after Toll Gate High School opened.
The school’s tennis coach, Coker, was faced with a dilemma. The back end of the Toll Gate courts were built on fill and tennis was a bit of up and down play. He sought other courts and contacted the Kent County YMCA, just up the road from the school, and its indoor facility with six courts not far from the school’s entrance.
Eventually, he worked out something with the Y but, as a result of his contact with the Tennis RI, the idea of a faculty league that would use all of the club’s six courts from 7:30 to 9 Saturday mornings was hatched. Coker needed 24 players. When he couldn’t round up enough Toll Gate teachers, although Principal Robert Shapiro signed up, he extended his reach and recruited Clyde Bennett.
Bennett wasn’t a tennis player.
“They were hunting to get 24. They were shopping,” recalled Bennett. And he remembers what he was told, ‘It’s just for fun,’ and I said, ‘OK, I’ll give it a shot.’”
Forty years later, Coker and Bennett are still playing tennis. Furthermore, they’ve signed up for the league’s 41st season starting next month.
As the instigator, Coker was the league’s first “commissioner,” a title that most players would just as soon not have; the commissioner works out the schedule, ensures everyone has paid the fee so there’s a new can of balls for every court, has a list of substitute players and addresses any issues that might arise with the club. The commissioner also has the dubious role of setting policy, such as what happens when a player shows up late or can’t complete three sets because of an injury.
“I wish I had kept a list,” Coker says, when asked to name the originals.
In addition to Bennett and Shapiro, Coker got a strong response from the math and science departments. Grace Freeman, who taught chemistry, was an original. Others included Edward McElroy, librarian Dorothy Stevens and Jack Cooper, who taught carpentry at the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center, and his wife, Doris, who taught physical education. Also among the band of originals were Maurice Blais and Julius Breit.
Bennett’s “shot at tennis” turned into an obsession.
“That’s how I got the bug,” he says. He owned a boat but, after using the runabout only five times in a summer, it went.
“I spent my time trying to hit the ball,” he said.
He’s not the only one. Over the years the league has transitioned from casual to competitive play.
When it started, players would rotate so that everyone played with everyone else over the course of the winter. Coker said that worked because better players could be paired with weaker ones and the Saturday morning play was between a group of people who knew and worked with each other. Coker even produced a weekly bulletin recapping the events of Saturday play. It changed, however, as substitutes were brought in and people outside of Toll Gate and the School Department became interested. After about five years, Coker implemented a more structured regimen. A scoring system and ladder were introduced whereby after six weeks of play, depending on the number of sets won, a player either moves up, down or stays where they are on the ladder. In a course of a morning, a player plays one set with each of three other players assigned to a particular court. One of the other players is always at the same level while the other two may be at the same level or one above or below.
It makes for some competitive tennis that has seen women drop out of the league. It has also resulted in a waiting list of people looking to become regulars. Today, people in a number of professions, including physicians, lawyers, judges and bankers outnumber teachers.
The old days evoke fond memories.
Of the many players Bennett remembers is the late superintendent of schools, Domenic DiLuglio.
“He was the Bermuda traffic cop,” Bennett said with a laugh. Like Bermuda traffic cops, who stand on pedestals in the middle of intersections, DiLuglio was planted in one spot on the court and would swing his arms around. He didn’t chase balls.
“He would call, “That’s your ball,’” Bennett said.
McElroy, who left the school system and went on to become the president of the National American Federation of Teachers, was accused of never winning a point; he negotiated them.
And Blais, Coker remembers, always ducked down below the net and held his racket above his head.
Strong friendships have also come out of the league.
When the late Manny Gorriaran, who played the upper levels of the ladder, started showing signs of Alzheimer’s, he was urged to keep playing. He was the commissioner for many years.
Even after he ceased playing tennis, Gorriaran would return on Saturdays and join the guys for breakfast at their frequent haunt, the Miss Cranston Diner on Quaker Lane.
Many who play Saturday continue play later in the week, or even the summer. Matches would be held at Richard and Florence Sousa’s home or, as Coker and Bennett have been, on courts where Bennett lives.
As for his tennis, Bennett says, “It’s been a huge bubble.”
To his recollection, he never got higher on the ladder than a 3. But that doesn’t matter.
The league has been 40 years of a good thing and there’s no reason to think it won’t continue.
The originals know.