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Club History

Old Traditions, New Beginnings

A Brief History of the St. Paul Tennis Club By Jean Gehan and Otis Godfrey Jr.

This brief history of the St. Paul Tennis Club has been assembled with bits and pieces of information gleaned from conversations with longtime members and neighborhood residents, newspaper clippings, photo archives and many fond memories. As some of the information may possibly be inaccurate or need additional detail, please feel free to add to the story!

‘Promotion of the Game of Tennis’
The St. Paul Tennis Club was incorporated August 21, 1912, and duly registered with Minnesota Secretary of State Julius Schmall. The Articles of Incorporation state that the club was organized for “the promotion of the game of tennis, and the affording of facilities to members of the club for the playing of said game, including the requisition by lease, purchase, gift, or devise of any and all property, real or personal therefore.” The names of the incorporates were: John Hersey Wheeler; John S. Dodson; Aldred G. Norris; Donald P. Haynie; Martin P. Coonan; Howard W. Kingston; and Joseph Thomson. The incorporation document was among the possessions of Myra McGee, whose late husband, John McGee, was one of the tennis enthusiasts who helped build the club. The land on which the four tennis courts and the original clubhouse were built belonged to a man named Walter Coller. Tradition has it that he donated the land to the club. After the title to Coller’s land was obtained, master clay-court builder Arnt Grindheim created the courts. Upon completion, Arnt, who happened to live in the house directly west of the club, became a vigilant caretaker. Every day, the courts were rolled with a hand-roller, dragged and relined. No one stepped a foot on the courts until Arnt gave the go-ahead!

Courtside, 1920-1940
The original clubhouse was a one-story clapboard structure that included a shower and toilet for the men. Minimal facilities for women were added later. A screened porch furnished with a few tables and chairs ran across the side of the clubhouse facing the courts. This provided a social center for people waiting for courts, and a pleasant space for the younger set to play cards and argue over the finer points of tennis form. Arnt kept a supply of cold pop in an ice locker in a small area where he also strung racquets. If Arnt was in a festive mood, he provided shaved ice as a treat. The clubhouse was later rebuilt, and somewhat enlarged. During this period, about 1920 to 1940, the club flourished. After work and on weekends, men played tennis in long, white pants and long-sleeved white shirts. Slowly, styles changed and a few brave souls began to play in white shorts, including Joe Goswitz, known as a fashion trend-setter in his day Some of the names from this era include Pegs Albright, Myron Hutchinson, Wells Farnum, Charles Britzius (father of former club pro Glen Britzius) and Joe Armstrong.

State Tournament Action
The big event of each summer was the State Tournament, during which the club fences were covered with canvas and admission was charged for spectators. A small grandstand was erected along Court 1 for the finals. The most colorful player to enter the tournaments was John Hennessey, who seemed to win every time he played. Hennessey’s credentials included competing on the Davis Cup team with George Lott, and a legendary victory over Bill Tilden, who was ranked No. 1 in the world for seven years during the 1920s. Hennessey would show up for the State Tournament finals wearing several sweaters that he shed, one at a time, as his matches wore on. He used a large, wooden racquet that looked like an antique -- even in the 1920s. In those days, even the best players had to maintain amateur status to participate in big tournaments. This meant many top players were dead broke, and had to rely on the good will of tennis fans for sponsorship of housing and travel expenses. Much of the top talent landed in St. Paul for the State Tournament, and club members witnessed many exciting matches on the clay courts.

Days of Davis & Kesting
Not many women played tennis competitively in the club’s early days. This made Marguerite Davis even more spectacular to behold. She first won the women’s singles division of the State Tournament in 1911, at the age of 21. And she won every consecutive year until 1933, when she lost to Elizabeth Kesting, also a member of the club. Davis’ nephew, John Harrison, said his aunt was once ranked No. 12 in the United States, and she played against the legendary Helen Moody in 1921. Davis and Kesting were both later inducted into the Minnesota Tennis Hall of Fame, now called the USTA Northern Hall of Fame. (Davis in 1987 and Kesting-Harris in 2002.)

The Arth Era
A decline in club membership began in the mid-1940s, likely associated with the war-time climate. Although membership continued to dwindle in the 1950s, it was nevertheless a hugely proud decade for the club because of the incredible talent of Jeanne Arth. Celebrated as one of Sports Illustrated’s 50 Greatest Minnesota Sports Figures of the 20th Century, Jeanne grew up just four doors down from the club, and learned to play tennis under the watchful eye of her Dad, Len, who served as the club’s semi-official pro. Jeanne had traded hockey and football for tennis at age 12, and it wasn’t long before she and her older sister, Shirley, were dominating women’s tennis in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest. One favorite story recounts a lovely Sunday morning during the summer of 1950 when Shirley (17) and Jeanne (15) played two college men from Duluth during an inter-club tournament. As the men walked onto Court 3, one asked, “Who are we playing?” His partner answered, “I don’t know ... just a couple of girls!” The Arth sisters won the match 6-1, 6-2, leaving two surprised young men asking, “Who were those girls?” In the early days, Shirley won many matches against her sister, frequently by lobbing shot-after-shot, a style that Jeanne absolutely hated. The story went that when Jeanne lost patience, Shirley won. Jeanne’s progress continued, though, and working with longtime club member Lou Soukup, among others, she developed what was described as one of the hardest serves in tennis. She played year-‘round, even when the only indoor court for winter practice was at the Naval Air Station. After graduating from Central High School and the College of St. Catherine, Jeanne went on to become an internationally ranked player. She and her doubles partner, Darlene Hard, won the U.S. Championships in 1957 and 1958. And they won Wimbledon in 1959. Jeanne was ranked No. 5 in the world when she retired from the international circuit at 26. She became a full-time teacher and counselor, enjoying a long and successful career. She returned to Wimbledon in 1989, on the 30th anniversary of her doubles title. In an interview with the International Tennis Women’s Hall of Fame, she said, “I was filled with pride. I had actually played and won on Wimbledon’s Centre Court.” Jeanne was inducted into the USTA Northern Hall of Fame in 1979 and Shirley Arth-Loeding was inducted in 2002.

SPTC Reborn
While Jeanne Arth was leaving her mark on the tennis world, a long series of events and benign neglect had reduced club membership to six by 1959: Ted Dwyer, who had served as president for about 20 years; Marguerite Davis; George Evens; Mrs. Fred Weyhaeuser and Harry and Dick Ryan, who ran the St. Paul Milk Company. It seemed there had not been a membership meeting or election of officers since before the start of World War II. But on the evening of Aug. 20, 1959, the tide turned. John Greenman was elected president, and the newly elected board voted to hire an architect and develop plans for a new clubhouse and a pool. An enthusiastic and successful membership drive launched early in 1960, with100 individuals and families added to the club membership. Pus: Arnt Grindheim came out of retirement to serve as club manager, maintaining the courts he had laid down himself in 1913. By spring 1961, all 300 shares of stock in the club had been sold, generating sufficient capital for improvements. The board also entered into delicate negotiations to purchase the lot directly west of the club, on which the Grindheim home was built. The plan included relocating the Grindheim home to a nearby lot, but as closing approached, Arnt and his wife said they had a change of heart. Hours of cajoling, threats of legal action and appeals to the loyalty of the club followed. In the end, the deal went through, and the Grindheim house was moved to north side of Fairmount Avenue, between Victoria and Avon Streets, where it still stands. In the fall of 1961, members hosted a “farewell party” for the old clubhouse. Some in attendance described the event as “joyous, raucous or even out of control, but no arrests were made.”

In the Swim of Things
With the new pool and clubhouse -- which included showers! -- the club was again the place to be in St. Paul in the 1960s. Joe Raymond became club manager and the first swim coach. He soon developed swimmers who became inter-club champions, much to the dismay of clubs with year-’round swimming. Tennis activities likewise increased, in volume and quantity of play. Club news was regularly covered in the sports and society sections of the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the St. Paul Dispatch. Photographs from the 1960s feature members in tennis whites, sitting in canvas chairs, casually enjoying cigarettes. Popular names from the 1960s include the Corrigans, Greenmans, Gehans, McCartneys, McGees, O’Briens, Plunketts and Suttons. One fun photo published in the Dispatch on July 15, 1968, captures the “Second Annual Lawn Social” hosted by Karl V. Klein, who lived at 1056 Fairmount Ave., across the alley from the clay courts. Karl dressed in coat-and-tails and top hat to entertain his guests, a group of women who were regular players at the club. The photo caption reads, “The luncheon was given with the blessings of Mrs. Klein, and both guests and hosts agreed it would be an annual event.” In the 1960s, witty club members also produced a hilarious newsletter titled The Racqueteer. Snippets from the May1963 edition include a “Girl-Watchers Report,” recipes for cocktails named “The Half Volley” and “Half-Gainer,” an “Ask Sadie” advice column, seemingly for the love-lorn.

An annual awards list included:

Crabbiest at the Pool: Joe Goswitz
Most Effective Serve: Pat Corrigan
Most Happy-Go-Lucky Irishman: Mike O’Brien
Least Distracting Serve: Jean Baker.

Olson & King
Leonard “Bucky” Olson was lured from the plush surroundings of Town & Country Club to the friendly confines of Osceola Avenue in the1960s, and is remembered as one of the club’s favorite tennis pros. Bucky’s widow, Shirley Olson Graham, said many of her family’s happiest memories are from the club days. Bucky loved tennis, Shirley said, but he loved the friendship and fun of the club just as much. Shirley still has a cartoon from a 1970s edition of one of the St. Paul newspapers, showing a player with a panicky expression on his face being carried off the court. The caption reads, “He’s been stiff like this since he learned he’s gotta play Bucky Olson in the first round.” When Bucky died unexpectedly, St. Paul Pioneer Press sports columnist Don Riley wrote, “The world lost a friend in tennis pro Bucky Olson. He had a sensitivity to peoples’ needs that far exceeded the domain of his courts and schoolrooms.” Bucky’s legacy lives on, though, with his son, David, working as a tennis instructor. In fact, David was featured in the Highland Villager newspaper in July 2011 while coaching a program on the Bucky Olson Tennis Courts at Central High school. John King, a contemporary of Bucky’s, is another proud credit to the club’s history. John was a teaching pro at the club, but is perhaps more well known for developing urban youth tennis programs in the Twin Cities. In 1970, he teamed with Jack Thommen and Bob Speed to launch the Minneapolis Urban Tennis Program, and in 1989 started the St. Paul Urban Tennis Program.

Today, Tomorrow & Beyond
In 1914, one share of St. Paul Tennis Club stock was valued at $15. In 1980, one share was valued at $200. Today, the value has grown ten-fold. And while club membership had declined to 6 in 1959, the wait to become a member is now six-to-eight years long. The club foundations and traditions established in 1912 by John McGee and Arnt Grindheim are continued a century later by club manager Gary Grey and tennis director Greg Hiers. We owe a debt of gratitude to generations of club members for the spirit that pervades the friendly neighborhood spot we call the St. Paul Tennis Club. Long may it continue.

-- Content updated April 2012 by Patricia McMorrow