Remembering Scotty

Scotty Mitchell

Scotty Mitchell died on Wednesday. Tennis players in Salisbury (a.k.a. great friends) will miss him mightily.

As a player, he had an amazing forehand crosscourt return of serve. The angle was so sharp it made one wonder how the ball could realistically get over the net.

In my 20’s and 30’s, I played a lot of doubles matches against Scotty. In the traditional manner of the day, I served and volleyed, every time. Always serve and volley. Always.

Being a teaching pro and a tournament player, 35 years younger than Scotty, I used to look at the old man and assume I could overpower him.

So I would serve, come in, and then watch these effortless returns scoot by me, WAY out of my  reach — almost sideways to the net. Amazing.

But of course it was the conversation that set him apart the most.

I only saw him at three places. Primarily at the tennis courts. But also in coffee shops and at the library. Scotty was a constant reader, always sharing something fascinating from the book he was currently in. He was kind of a reluctant scholar — an extremely well educated man with tons of life experience who could relate to absolutely anybody.

And I mean anybody.

A lot of characters show up at the tennis courts (especially back in the day, when pick-up games were the norm in tennis in Salisbury). Oftentimes, one shows one’s true colors in a close match. Scotty was great with everybody.

I remember a pick-up match in which an argument erupted over a line call. Two of the guys started getting nasty. One of them (seriously, now) pulled a knife out of his tennis shorts and flicked out the blade.

I was watching. Scotty was on the court, playing. He wasn’t rattled in the least.

“Put that away,” he said. “Ad out.”

If my memory serves me correctly, he was 55 when he moved to Salisbury. That was in the City Park tennis era and the sport of tennis was riding a wave of popularity. The courts were full much of the time. You didn’t need to make phone calls. I would just ride my bike down there and find a game. It was quite a family.

He retired from G.E. about the time Catawba built it’s new tennis center (about 28 years ago?). He became the tennis coach there. It was a labor of love. I know, because I applied for the job myself and didn’t get it — possibly because my jaw dropped when they told me the pay.

I live two blocks from those courts and in those years made my way there daily. Scotty was the maitre ‘d.

My son grew up playing there and being the recipient of Scotty’s warm encouragement. I loved hitting with Aaron, but he preferred playing with Scotty. During much of his childhood and teen years, he would ride his bike to the courts almost every day and hit balls or play sets with Scotty. The man was in his late 70’s and early 80’s then, and he was a magnet for tennis players.

We couldn’t afford for Aaron, my son, to take a lot of lessons. I taught him the fundamentals myself. But it was Scotty’s incredible generosity that was largely responsible for Aaron having a tennis scholarship in college.

Many days, I would hang out at the courts and talk Scotty’s ear off while he strung rackets, listened to my various woes, and shared his wisdom. A Dartmouth grad. A WWII soldier in the Pacific. An avid reader. A father of six.

He said he played tennis as a child and then turned to golf until he was in his 50’s and moved to Salisbury. Then it was all tennis.

He, Dr. David Smith, Dr. Joe Corpening, and my father were all about the same age. Scotty was the oldest, I think — by a year. He died Wednesday at the age of 92, outliving the other three. They were all remarkable people and tougher than nails, accomplished tennis players who kept running and hitting balls until their bodies would no longer allow them to.

I regret that I can’t be at the funeral tomorrow and be a part of the sharing of memories.

I last saw him a couple of months ago, at the City Park. He was sitting on the bench, watching a doubles match. He asked me about my life, my work, my family. I asked him if was going to join the game — if he was still playing.

“Play?” he said. “I can hardly walk!”

Scotty was witty, funny, kind, and wise. He was unique. But these memories of him are not unique. I know I speak for countless others when I say I loved him, I’ll miss him, and I’m extremely grateful to have spent time with him in this life.

Citizen Tapi


Tapi is an American citizen now — and he’s proud of it!

He came here as an AFS exchange student, from Finland, in July of 1972. He brought corduroy pants and thick flannel shirts.

He was my AFS brother. He had had years of English in school, but it was limited in those early weeks. It was my job, in those first weeks after his arrival, to figure out what he was saying and teach him some American customs and wait for his English to kick in.

I got to name ordinary things as if they were new and discover my world. He would point at something and say, “How do you say?” Learning to enunciate slowly with perfect diction, I’d say “hot fudge sundae” or “touchdown” or “flat tire” or whatever it was, and he would repeat it a few times, inviting me to correct his pronunciation. Naming old things anew. It was like being a real time poet.

I was 16 and had had my driver’s license a whole week, so I showed him around. And he taught me quite a bit also — like what it was like to discover my own life and surroundings newly, through another’s eyes. The world was actually a much bigger place back then, before cable and VCRs and internet.

The second week he was here, he played in a tennis tournament in Wilmington, NC. The mid-summer heat and humidity was a shock to his Finnish system.

He graduated from Salisbury High School, returned to Finland for another year of high school, and then returned the following year on a tennis scholarship at Wake Forest. I also went to Wake Forest, so we roomed together most of those years. He returned to Finland mid-college for one year to serve a year in the Finnish army.

After graduating, he got an awesome job as tennis director for the City of Winston-Salem, but he wasn’t able to work out the legal stuff and stay in this country. He returned to Europe taught tennis in Austria and Germany for 20 years, and then came here again.

He’s now married, living on Hilton Head, and teaching a lot of tennis.

And a few days ago he became an American citizen.

He called me, proud and excited.

He had aced the exam and won praise for his answers.

Having come from a small country that had to play its cards exactly right to stay neutral and make its way in the world anyway, Tapi had an interest in politics (Finns don’t have much of a choice) — and he had a bit of an American civics lesson many years ago.

He arrived in time to witness the Nixon-McGovern campaign. In fact, I remember the two of us standing at a strip mall in the heart of Kannapolis, the Saturday before that election, handing out brochures for McGovern. Imagine that. Long hair. Foreign accents (mine from Salisbury, his from Finland). I doubt we did good Senator McGovern any favors.

He had Marie Miller, the queen of political talk at Salisbury High in those days, for two classes a day (as I did), and rode to school each morning with me and another save-the-world guy, Boyd Gilman.

Because he was an exchange student, Sonny Allen, our mayor, invited us to go with him to the inauguration of Governor Jim Holshouser in Raleigh.

And Earl Ruth, our Congressman, got us excellent tickets for Nixon’s inauguration and had us into his office beforehand.

All of those gracious folks were Republicans, and we were way left Democrats.  And yet, back in those days, Democrats and Republicans were not enemies. They were not objects to be scorned and ridiculed. They were still human beings who could vote and think differently — publicly — and be friends with each other.

So the citizenship questions had been so easy for Tapi that he requested from the examiner something more challenging.

“Ask me another question,” he said.

She asked if he could name the original 13 colonies.

He could — and she told him he was the first to do that.

My grandparents — all four of them — were immigrants who achieved citizenship. It was automatic for me, and most of us, and isn’t really something I think about enough to be proud of — but for many people it takes something — and it’s a profound blessing. My parents had soft spots in their hearts for immigrants and what their parents had gone through to be here. They were Tapi’s American parents and would have been so proud to know about this.

Congratulations, Tapi.

Larry King, Piers Morgan, and Keith Olbermann

larry kingPiers MorganKeith Olbermann

Despite the fact that his ratings were in decline, I always liked Larry King.

In fact, back in the day, when he did the radio show, I called twice.

Once, I asked Bud Collins a question about Björn Borg.

I wanted to know why Collins thought Borg never won the U.S. Open, and if he thought the problem was the cold reception he got from American spectators in New York.

Collins told me that my interpretation was off the mark.  They liked Borg fine in New York, he said.  But they adored John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors.

Looking back, the answer to my question is obvious.  Why didn’t Borg ever win the U.S. Open?  Because he got beat.

Another time, I called Larry’s radio show and asked Scott Meredith, the literary agent, a question about publishing.  This was a long time ago and I can’t remember the silly question I probably asked.

Both times, when Larry said “Salisbury, North Carolina, hello!” I hesitated for a split second and got reprimanded for it.

“Go ahead!” he said impatiently.  “What’s your question!”

I remember one time somebody asked Larry King (on radio), who in all of history he would most like to interview.

“Jesus Christ,” he said.

“What would you ask?” the person said (I don’t remember who this person was; it’s been many years).

King said that he did not prepare a list of questions.  He just started with one and then went from there.

“The obvious question to start with would be ‘Are you the son of God?'” he said.

I wasn’t an addict who watched the show every night — by no means.  Like many of us, I spend more time on the computer these days than watching TV.  It’s more productive.

But I was a fan, for sure.  I spent many evenings watching Larry King Live.  When both of my parents were alive and well and in their home (three blocks from mine), I often checked in on them and visited around that time.  We watched together.

When my father’s health was in decline, with my mother working many nights, I often showed up at 9pm.  The last night of my father’s life, I was at Port City Java, right at closing time.  He called and told me that Jon Stewart was to be the guest on Larry King.  He knew I was a Jon Stewart fan.  I drove right over and we watched the show. Then we switched to basketball.  Then my mom arrived from work and we all visited for awhile.

I’ve been a little disappointed with Larry King’s replacement.  I don’t dislike Piers Morgan.  (I don’t dislike anybody on TV; I don’t know them).  But I watched the show for a few minutes and did not find his interviewing style to be…highly captivating.

And now Keith Olbermann is gone from MSNBC.

If CNN could do a redo, would Keith Olbermann be the perfect replacement for Larry King?

Olbermann and King are almost opposite in style.

  • King is neutral.  He his there to learn, not judge.
  • Olbermann is not neutral.  He’s there to judge.
  • King never inserts his own views.  Olbermann always inserts his own views.
  • King asks a lot of questions.  Olbermann doesn’t ask many.  He basically  reports the liberal perspective.

But I was a big fan of Keith Olbermann and will miss the opportunity to check in, on occasion, and see what he’s ranting about.

While the solution to 9pm on CNN is obvious to me, there’s no chance that will happen.  Olbermann will probably end up on Oprah’s network, or somewhere else on cable.

A work of balloon art named in my honor

balloon art tennis player
Sammy, balloon art tennis player

When I was in Party Connection and saw this balloon art,  I told Melonie, the owner and creator of this work, that I had a soft spot in my heart for tennis.

In a former life (before age 35), I spent a large percentage of my time on the tennis court, playing and teaching.

She named it Sammy, in my honor, and emailed me a picture.

10,000 steps a day in 2009

my pedometer tonight
my pedometer tonight
pick-up basketball
Walking tonight: pick-up basketball on an empty Catawba College campus. Spring in NC.

Is it a habit?

An obsession?

Whatever – it’s a New Year’s Resolution.  And certainly the only one I remember fulfilling.

Pedometers are not new to me.  I’ve counted my steps for years.  When I worked in schools, I did a lot of walking – going to classrooms to troubleshoot computers and hoofing it around the computer lab itself.  My feet got tired.  I got in a lot of steps.

When I stopped teaching and started my own business, Coffee News, I delivered the papers and got plenty of steps that way. I once got over 17,000 steps delivering Coffee News.  But that was only a couple of days a week.

I eventually hired people to deliver and now spend my time with sales, layout, and ad design.  Sitting.

When business slowed this past fall (as did everybody’s business), we let lapse our lifelong membership to the YMCA.  Wasn’t using it much anyway.

My exercise used to be tennis.  I’ve spent much of my life on the tennis court – playing and teaching.

About ten years ago, for various reasons, that stopped.

There were many injuries:  knee, elbow, shoulder, feet, wrist, neck, back.  I’ve had surgery, shots, wraps, drugs – and plenty of heat and ice.

I played a lot of tournaments, and spent a lot of time playing with my son.  He got better and wanted to have a little more fun.  He wanted harder hitters and competition.  And, like me, he didn’t like competing hard with his father.

My father was my best practice, and about the time my son didn’t want to play with me my father was forced to stop playing. Often, when my dad and I got on a tennis court, the first rally would last so long that he’d say, “Well, you want to call it a day or hit another ball?” It was a valid question. We had hit so much with each other over the years that we rarely missed.  Neither of us had to run.  We didn’t need a bucket of balls or even a can.  We could have easily used one ball.

When his health declined and he stopped playing, I stopped.

Thus, I noticed last year I was getting a little sedentary.  I was getting five or six thousand steps a day, or less.  Sometimes much less.

On New Years Day, I made a resolution to get 10,000 steps a day in 2009.  The economy seemed to be shot.  Why not get in shape?

I admit my feet were a little sore the first couple of weeks.  I’ve only bought one pair of shoes since then – and that was for $12 in the mall, during my walk, on an impulse.  They are completely shot now and I need a new pair soon.  I procrastinate with shoes like I do with haircuts, and with steps.

Some days, I walk to the drug store, or grocery store, or coffee shop, or convenience store, or knock around town calling on businesses.  These steps add up.  A short walk in the evening completes the 10k.

Most days, I walk to my mother’s house.  Sometimes two or three times.  That’s 1200 steps, round trip.

If I sit around all day, the evening walk is fairly long.  Usually, I use the Catawba Nature preserve.  If it’s dark, I walk around the campus.

Sometimes I put the dog in the car, go downtown, and walk there. Once, I walked to the theatre downtown, and back home.

In bad weather, I’ve done my share of walking in the mall, Walmart, and Lowe’s. Boring.

I think I’m in better shape than my dog.  She starts to drag after about twenty minutes, sometimes lagging a hundred yards behind.

But she certainly enjoys every moment — the anticipation, the walk itself, and the aftermath. The highlight of my day is looking at my pedometer and contemplating a walk (I don’t even have to say anything anymore).  She starts to smile, jump, and whine with excitement.

She used to dart after the deer.  She doesn’t try anymore.  She knows she doesn’t have a chance.

On warm days, she takes a swim.  Or two.  Or three.

There have been a few days when I didn’t feel like it – but not many.  It’s basically become a part of my day, like brushing my teeth or making coffee.

Often, I procrastinate.  At 11:30 pm, I pull myself off the couch take a few laps around the Catawba campus.

A few times, I’ve gone uptown for a beer before finishing the steps.  I’ll drink one, walk around the block, and return to the bar.

One cold night, I walked a thousand steps inside Brick Street Tavern. This would have been embarrassing, but it was such a slow night at the bar (Robert Jones, Bobby — the bartender — and maybe a couple other people).

The night Obama spoke to both houses of Congress, I had had a busy day and recorded only six thousand steps.  I wanted to watch the speech and all the talking heads blather afterwards.  That night, I put in four thousand steps walking around my couch, watching the new President.

Sound crazy?  Hey — a goal is a goal.

No, I haven’t lost any weight.

Question is, what about 2010?  Do I increase the goal to 11,000?  I’ll be older, but I certainly don’t want less than 10k.  Maybe I should increase the goal to 12k and then decrease by one thousand when I turn 60 (seven years from now) and then down to 10k when I’m 70.  That should keep me in decent shape for a while.

The great thing about walking is that it’s easy to be consistent.  There aren’t many injuries and you can even do it when you’re a little sick (although I haven’t been sick).  I did have a tooth pulled and took hydrocodone.  I may have walked a little slower that day, but the buzz was rather pleasant.

I find that walking is the most productive part of my day.  Either I’m thinking, which is good.  Or not thinking (better).  I’ve listened to some great books on my iPhone.  I’ve grown to appreciate my neighborhood and taken lots of pictures. I’ve enjoyed my wife, my dog, communed with deer, beavers, herons, geese, turtles, frogs, trees, flowers, grass, water, vines, streets, students, neighbors, parking lots, and sidewalks.

Don’t know where this will go – but at least I know I’ve found my post-tennis sport.  Except it’s not a sport, I don’t think.