Friday Flashback #229

Everyone remembers their first job. Staples High School Class of 1963 graduate David Grant — now a California resident — remembers his.

As far back as I can remember, my parents loved playing tennis.

My father and his regulars played doubles from 9 to 11 every Saturday and Sunday morning. My mother played singles with her friends. Now and then my folks played mixed doubles, but that was usually only for a tournament.

My mother, the clothing designer, wore her Midge Grant tennis dresses. My father wore a white t-shirt and sharkskin shorts.

They played at the Doubleday courts next to what was then Staples High School on Riverside Avenue (now Saugatuck Elementary School). The pro was Freeman Marshall; everyone called him Doc. I started taking lessons from him when I was 10, and continued for several years. Doc Marshall was also my high school tennis coach.

The Doubleday tennis courts are behind PJ Romano Field (formerly Doubleday Field) at Saugatuck Elementary School. (Drone photo/Brandon Malin)

The Doubleday courts were made of clay. They take much more maintenance then asphalt or concrete. They have to be watered regularly and get a weekly dose of calcium chloride so they don’t dry out. They needed to be rolled often, brushed daily, and lines had to be painted on as needed.

Doc Marshall hired me when I was 14 to help maintain the courts. I rode my bike 3 or 4 miles to the courts, arriving (if I was on time) by 7:30 to get the courts ready for each day’s play. At first my lines were a little squiggly, and needed to be straightened. After a while, perfect.

In 1957 — several years before David Grant entered Staples — the tennis team posed with Coach Doc Marshall (standing, far right).

There was a tennis shack at Doubleday. We took reservations, set up tournament pairings, sold tennis balls and soft drinks, and strung racquets. Eventually I took over most of these chores while Doc was on the courts teaching. I kept my job for 8 summers, earning $80 a week — a king’s ransom to me.

As I got older I was also allowed to teach, from 12 to 1 each day and 6 to 8 in the evenings. For that I charged $6 per half hour.

After I’d been working at the courts for several years, Doc hired my best friend Jerry Keneally to help with the work of the courts and shack. It was so great for us to work together and play tennis into the dark after everyone went home. I had the greatest job and the most fun imaginable.

David Grant’s 1963 Staples High School tennis team.

When there was little to do I would pick up trash, or hit balls against a practice wall. Quite often someone would need someone to play with or fill in a fourth for doubles, and there I was.

There was an artist named David Levine, best known for his caricatures. You could see his works regularly in the New York Review of Books. David spent summers in Westport. One day he asked me to hit with him, then on to a set of tennis. I played right-handed, David Levine left-handed. We played, I won.

David challenged me to switch hands, so in our second set I played left-handed and won again. My reward was a trip to his studio in Brooklyn to pick out one of his artworks called “Spies.” Almost 55 years later, I still have it.

“Spies,” by David Levine.

11 responses to “Friday Flashback #229

  1. Sharon (Sherry) Nelson Hauser

    Dave was not a personal friend, but I remember him from my senior English class with Mr. Meyers. It’s always fun to hear from our classmates.

  2. I learned tennis in the 60’s at the Weston Field Club. Clay courts, wooden rackets and tennis whites. Close friend is a popular Westport tennis pro…Gene Chappell

  3. This story really touched me. I learned to play tennis, during the summers, at Longshore, when the courts were red clay and Erwin was the pro. If there were no courts at Longshore for us scrawny kids to hit on, we biked over to Doubleday.

    My father introduced me to the game, and it’s still my passion, although my body is battling me on that!

    My father, David Levine, also introduced me to painting, my central passion.

    All these years later, I spend my summers in Westport just as he did, painting and playing tennis, with some consulting work sprinkled in.

    David’s story about my father rings so true and is so representative of who he was: a kid from the streets of Brooklyn who loved to connect with people, sometimes through a pickup game of tennis, sometimes through a shared love of art, sometimes through heated political debate…and, often, through all three!

    My dad was born a lefty (including his politics), but was forced in school to become a righty (but never in his politics). He had a crafty spin serve, a solid forehand and a variety of backhand slices, but if the ball was too far to reach on the backhand side, he would flip the racket to his left hand and hit a forehand.

    He used to tell me that if they cut off his right hand, he could still draw his caricatures with his left…and that if they cut off that hand, too, he could do them with his nose.

    I have to believe that when he challenged David Grant to the first set and played lefty, he was having fun and trying to set David up for the second set, in which he would play with his stronger hand! Obviously, and hilariously, David was better than my father off of both sides. Or, perhaps my father knew that he’d lose playing either way, having seen David’s game, and that it was all an excuse to play two sets against a better opponent (which all true tennis nuts try to find a way to do).

    That was the fun-loving part of my father. The other part of the story — the invitation to his studio in Brooklyn — was the generous side of my father. The giving of the art was only a part of the transaction. At the heart of it was his interest in knowing his fellow humans, and celebrating life. It’s what you see in his caricatures and paintings.

  4. Hi David,

    what was your dad’s first name? I have a feeling that my father, Colin (aka “Ben”) Gunn was one of his regular doubles partners. Doc Marshall taught me to play tennis on a private court on Compo Road South. We called it the “Parc Cummings (sp?) court” and if I recall Mr. Cummings was still living there when I was taking lessons in the summer of ’67 or ’68. I remember it was hard as a kid to play at Doubleday, I believe they didn’t allow children or women to play on those courts in the ’60s on weekends, or maybe just weekend mornings. My father had a very similar relationship with Doc Marshall as you did. He worked with him at the courts giving lessons but in the 50s and maybe as early as the immediate post-war era or even the 30s. I have a trophy inscribed “Ben Gunn, Doc Marshall, Oct 4, 1952.”
    I’m guessing they teamed up and won a doubles tourney that year. Doc’s wife worked at Kleins. I think I knew her because she worked in the toy department.

    • Parke Cummings was a famous writer. He lived on the northwest corner of South Compo Road and Bridge Street. His tennis court was one of the first private courts in Westport. It’s still there — with a few houses in between — though no longer used. He died in 1987, age 84.

      And for those who don’t know: John Gunn’s father, Ben, was for years one of Westport’s leading attorneys.

  5. David: I have some similar memories to yours but they are from my having worked at Longshore starting in the summer of 1970, when I was employed at the shack leading into the pool and tennis courts, checking for hand-passes and collecting guest fees (for the pool). As part of that job, I collected guest fees for tennis and did court assignments if I worked the late shift and after the tennis pro shop closed for the day.

    I apparently made a good enough impression on the club pro and his wife—Erwin and Barbara Mach—and their assistant, Steve Klein (who remains a friend to this day), that I was asked to join the Longshore tennis pro shop the following year.

    Maintaining those clay courts absolutely required some real effort but we took pride in doing that job. At Longshore it was also a social scene as Erwin and Barbara were very friendly with a number of the tennis players—including David Levine—and were very helpful in setting up games for newcomers after assessing their ability. Plus, the pro shop had a far more extensive collection of tennis-related sportswear and gear compared to Doubleday to the best of my recollection. (I took lessons at Doubleday in the summer of 1966.)

    I think tennis whites were required (at least for the first couple of summers I worked at the Longshore courts).

    I enjoyed playing tennis too growing up but I failed to make the cut at Staples; there were some superb players in my class, who went on to win the state title our senior year. I see that Denis Colacicco was your Staples tennis teammate. He was (as you know) a great soccer player at Staples and he inspired me when I watched Staples soccer for the first time after my family moved here and my brother made the varsity as a sophomore in 1964.

    Thanks for sharing the memories and photos.

  6. David Marshall Grant?

  7. Hello John Gunn – My father’s name was Howard Grant. I remember you dad very well. When I was young your father was a very good player on the high school team and had the job I described taking care of the courts at Doubleday. So he and I shared Doc Marshall as a boss. One of Doc’s favorite lines started with ‘The better part of valor…’ I’m not sure what he was trying to say. After a while he’d just say ‘The better part’ and we knew what he meant to say. Later on your father did the estate plan for my parents.

    Matthew Levine – Your father was very generous to me. When I got to his studio I was trying to choose between two pieces of art. After a while your dad said I could take both. I don’t have that second piece anymore, gone in a divorce 40 years ago. Are you a caricaturist like your father?

    Fred Cantor – I also worked at Longshore too but my heart was always at Doubleday.

    Sherry Nelson Hauser – When I think back to my favorite teachers two always rise to the surface. Mr. Meyers from 12th grade English and Mr. McKelvey for 9th grade English and Latin. From Mr. McKelvey I learned a direction that I remember to this day: ‘Whenever you express a wish, doubt or possibility, always use the subjunctive’. Still today, if someone says ‘I wish I was’ versus ‘I wish I were’ that directive says that’s not proper English.

    • Matthew Levine

      David, I am not a caricaturist but I am a painter and studied for 35 years with my dad. I paint around Westport and Norwalk all the time.

  8. Hi Matthew. The other piece that your father gave to me was a caricature of an old English author named Ford Madox Ford. I’ve now seen some of your work on line. Beautiful!