Story by Roger Moore
Last month, on a tennis court far, far away, multiple verbal exchanges between perhaps the greatest women’s player of all time and the chair umpire continued a narrative much larger than any friendly game of tennis. We should not be surprised that a playing field, a court, or wherever sport takes place, provided another teachable moment that has very little to do with forehands, backhands, forward passes, or how to bank a shot off the glass.
As a longtime player of tennis, from Stillwater High School back in the 1980s to the current slower, older version that frequents Stillwater’s courts, I have developed relationships with all modes of people, male and female, young and old, proficient and the athletically challenged. Living in a university community means a diverse group, a transient population that brings former members of the Greek Davis Cup squad, professors from Cyprus, students from Japan, and everyone in between. Often, those passing through learn about this community, some of its history and stories, at a tennis court near you. Being considered an “ambassador” for a community through a casual game of tennis best describes George Berry.
If you played tennis in Stillwater on courts where the Donald W. Reynolds School of Architecture currently resides, or at Sunset Park, next to the old Consumer’s IGA (now Sprouts) on Washington and Sixth, then you knew Mr. Berry. Born in 1915, the son of James E. Berry, the sixth Lieutenant Governor of Oklahoma from 1935 to 1955, George is part of a very prominent family that came to Stillwater in the Land Run era. In his mid-20s, George flew 108 combat missions with the 12th Army Air Corps during World War II; he served through the Korean conflict and retired with the rank of major from the U.S. Air Force. He returned to Stillwater to earn his B.S. degree in agricultural economics in 1958 and a year later began his long service at Stillwater National Bank, joining the Board of Directors in 1959 and becoming Chairman of the Board in 1969.
George Berry died in 1999 and the Stillwater Tennis Association continues to honor him with the annual George Berry Memorial Tournament; last May was the 20th Berry Memorial. It was played at the ultra-modern Michael and Anne Greenwood Tennis Center on the OSU campus.
The first thing you need to know about Mr. Berry is his choice of equipment in later years – the Weed racquet. This thing, about the size of the water tower at Boomer Lake, frequented all courts often. George would pedal on his bicycle from place to place looking for a hit or to make sure the newbies to town had a friendly hitting partner when needed. Not only did the rules of tennis play prominently when he was on court, but a genuine respect for others was also part of the game.
As a chair umpire, Berry worked more than a few high-profile matches. He also worked a few low-level tournaments as well, including a final in the fall of 1985 when a young whippersnapper named Moore faced off with the above mentioned former professional from Greece. As expected, the young, cocky local lost the match – and his cool – a number of times. The chair umpire that day had ongoing conversations about this or that, mainly borderline foul language and racquet abuse. At the time, from the youth’s perspective, the chair umpire was just an old man being annoying.
Thirty-three years later it seems that the “old dude” was probably in the right, not because he was a superior tennis player, or an elite scholar, or because he was a prominent banker, war hero, or leading figure in the community, but because he generally had respect for all those around him, be it professionally or on a green court with a net and some white lines.
Jokes are often made proclaiming the best way to get to know someone is on a golf course. Integrity and honesty is required in keeping your own score. The same can be said for tennis where, at a public court near you, players call their own lines. There are no chair umpires or linesmen, meaning a close call is a close call. Honesty, or at least attempting to make a call as you see it, is all that is asked. Being branded a “cheater” is possibly one of the most disparaging titles in almost any walk of life, tennis included.
So the next time you drive by Couch or Sunset Park, the old courts at Boomer Lake, the once proud Colvin Center complex, or the spacious facility on the corner of McElroy and Washington take a moment to think about tennis, not for its sporting nature, but for its possibility as a teaching tool. Like earlier this year at Karsten Creek Golf Club, Stillwater will host another NCAA Championship, this one the 2020 NCAA Tennis Championships, both men and women. Tennis, of course, will be the focus, but those two weeks should provide much more than talk of lobs and drop-shots, overheads, and doubles strategy. George Berry would have it no other way.