A 90-Year-Old With Fire in the Belly: A Growing Number of Young "Old People" Play Tennis to WIN!
Tom is 90. Here he is in action on the tennis court. In the photo at left, he's going for a volley with partner Carl in the background. In the other photo, he is hitting a backhand.
And after a nearly two-hour tennis workout, including an all-out competitive round-robin singles, he skipped up three flights of stairs for an equally competitive game of pool, eight ball.
“You don't take the elevator?” I asked, feeling the stairs.
“Nah,” he said dismissively.
The tennis session and pool took place at The Overlook, a Life Care Community in Charlton, Mass. It was conducted by a certified tennis instructor, Jim Kane. Jim is certified by the PTR (Professional Tennis Registry) and is also a member of the USTA. Jim had told me that he had a 90-year-old who was “really good,” and I was intrigued.
Not only that, Jim said, but after tennis, the nonagenarian always insisted that they have a “friendly” game of pool. Tom is as competitive playing pool as he is on the tennis court. “He beats me every time,” Jim said
I went to see for myself.
Tom, at 90, was the oldest. But, to my surprise, age was beside the point, though I had come to the session thinking it was. These were eight tennis players out to play the game, play hard, improve, and enjoy it – and win.
Jim Kane put the group through a series of exercises on fundamentals: forehand, volley, overhead, movement. The pace was brisk, continuous, and very physical. For nearly two hours , Jim had them running, lunging, swinging a tennis racket, whacking a tennis ball.
Jim was more than the tennis pro. He was also a good friend. Having conducted tennis sessions at The Overlook for four years, Jim was on a first-name basis with everybody in the group. He gave nonstop encouragement. “Good hit, Sally,” he would say. Or “Nice movement, Carl.” Or “Racket back, good Tom.”
There were squeals of delight at a solid stroke. There were exasperated sighs at messing up. All were fully into it, running around, hanging on Jim's every word, responding to his encouragement, pushing themselves to do better.
Then came the final challenge: a singles round-robin to crown the day's champ. Intensity settled over the group. Competitive juices flowed. There would be one winner and everybody wanted to be that winner. Weaker players for whom winning could only be a dream, dreamed.
Tom, who had played tennis for 20 years before taking a break several years ago, was the top seed. He moves like men half his age. Sally, whose age I did not have the guts to ask, was the second seed.
As expected, top seed Tom came on strong and surged to an early big lead. He quickly accumulated nine of the ten points needed to win. Sally was a distant second with three points. But then a dark horse emerged from the pack, Carl. As Carl surged, Tom was repeatedly not able to put away that last point.
Determined, focused, Carl, 82, battled uphill and came from nowhere to win. Here he is exulting in his unexpected, come-from-behind victory. Of course, he is only 82, a relative youngster.
A few days later, when I came out to The Overlook to have a chat with Tom, he said, “I let Carl win. I should have won that. To top it off, afterwards Jim came up and beat me in pool for the first time.”
In the photo, Tom is shown lining up a shot in that pool game with Jim Kane. He is using a bridge, which he calls “the old lady.” He said that he hates the old lady, no doubt because he does not like to call on her, or anybody else for that matter, for assistance.
Jim Kane and Tom actually played two pool games. Tom won the first as usual. He lost the second, his first ever to Jim. Even though the pool session ended up at one win apiece, a tie, Tom doesn't see it that way. He remembers the win that got away.
At 90? Jim Kane sees no reason why Tom should not push himself, improve, and play to win in tennis as well as in pool. He says that players age 90 and over, something unthinkable not very long ago, are becoming more and more common.
Jim cites a story told by Vic Braden, a legendary tennis teacher, of a match between a 90-year-old and and 94-year-old at the Super Senior National Championship in Georgia. The 90 year old was in better shape and kept running the older player from corner to corner. Finally the 94 year old player stopped and had to take a break, shouting across the court "Oh, to be 90 again..."
How does an older tennis player get to that level? Jim, passing on Vic Braden's time-honored advice, says you should always play low to high on forehands and backhands. This is true regardless of ability, Jim says.
Like Vic Braden, Jim breaks each player's ground stroke down to the one basic rule many tennis players seem to forget: Your arm/racquet movement has to go from low to high in order for the ball to clear the net.
Even though Tom was edged out by Carl in the singles competition and lost a game of eight-ball to Jim Kane, he has clearly been doing something right. He has come a long way in his life, from nowhere in fact.
Born in Cambridge, Mass in 1920, his father was a traveling insurance agent for Met Life. His mother died in 1929 and his father remarried. He was the oldest of two brothers and two sisters. A sister and brother survive, the sister living in Shrewsbury, Mass and the brother living in Carver, Mass. He sees them often.
He has vivid memories of the Great Depression. “My father sold policies from door to door for as little as 10 cents,” Tom said. “ We were always on the move, going from apartment to apartment, always renting, never buying. We were fairly poor, though not as poor as some. We didn't waste anything. One of my jobs was to sift through the ashes of the coal-burning stove in the basement for bits of unburnt coal. I also walked along the railroad tracks picking up unburnt coals from passing trains.”
He graduated from eighth grade at St. Clement's in Somerville. He went on to Arlington High from which he graduated in 1937. The family moved yet again, to Brighton, and he immediately went to work. College was not an option.
He worked at all kinds of jobs, from filling seed packets in Boston to soddering radio tubes for Ratheon. Finally, he found a job that he liked and was good at: as a machinist's apprentice at Watertown Arsenal. The company was owned and run by the U.S. Government.
With a stable job and income, Tom married his high school sweetheart in 1940. He was 20 years old. He had barely settled into married life when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and America was at war. In 1942, he joined the U.S. Air Force. He qualified for pilot training and completed training as a multi-engine pilot and also as a B-29 pilot.
Commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, Tom received his wings in 1945. After a hard-scrabble childhood, he was now a certified officer and gentleman. He had received orders to be shipped out to the Pacific when the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
“My wife was praying hard,” he said, that he would not be shipped out. Her prayers were answered.
After the war and back as a civilian, Tom could have opted to work as a commercial pilot. He thought hard about it. “I was good at it,” he said, “but I didn't like it.”
He finally decided against flying for a living and has “never regretted it.” The officer and gentleman went back to machine work. But he had dreams. He was willing to push himself to make them come true. He worked as a machinist by day and went to Northeastern University nights. For five years, he did this, finally receiving a B.A. Degree in Business Administration.
From there it was nowhere but up. He worked for GE in Lynn, Nuclear Metals in Concord, Xerox, Avco in Wilmington. Each time he changed jobs, he moved up and made more money. He also worked many years at various U.S. Government agencies, such as the National Army Lab.
He says that one of the best things he ever did was when he unretired and went back to work at a government job for three years. It allowed him to reach 23 years of U.S. Government employment and thus qualify for federal retirement and health benefits.
He has the same generous benefits as members of Congress. “You know how President Obama is always saying that this is what he wants everybody to have. Well, I'm one who has.”
But it hasn't been all work. For the past 30 years he has also indulged in a great passion: sailing. Over the years, he has owned many sailboats and sailed out of Marblehead, Boston Harbor, and Winthrop. He sailed to Maine on his 20-foot Barnegat or 34-foot Pearson. In later years, he sailed chartered boats in the Caribbean, Greece, Turkey, and elsewhere.
Over the years, Tom enjoyed a 50-year marriage and raised four boys. He lost his one daughter in infancy. Ten years ago, he lost his youngest son at forty. He died in bed and doctors were not able to determine the cause of death.
Tom's three surviving sons from oldest to youngest, Tom, Sean, and Dennis, live within driving distance, in Concord, Belchertown, and Northhampton respectively. “They are very good to me,” Tom said. “They come here frequently.” He has two grandsons, 11 and 21.
After losing his wife of 50 years, Tom remarried. He and his wife Anita moved to The Overlook together three years ago. A smoker, she came down with a fast-growing lung cancer and passed away 18 months ago after 12 years of marriage.
Losing her was hard, Tom said. “She was much loved. She was a dynamic character that everybody remembers for her laugh. If people heard a loud laugh, they knew it was Anita.”
In Anita's waning months, he was grateful to be able to see her every day at the Health Center. All it took was a few minutes walk to the critical nursing section of the Health Center. Of his being able to do this at The Overlook, he said, “I can't praise enough.”
Tom loves living at The Overlook. “There's everything I want here. I couldn't ask for any more. People here are very friendly. We're like one big family. Nobody should feel alone here. You can be as active as you want with all the activities and trips. They should be paying me to say this.”
As Tom escorted me around, there certainly seemed to be everything that anybody could want. There was a cafeteria, formal dining room, performing arts center, health and fitness club, convenience store, computer center, salon and barber shop. We passed the library filled with residents sitting on overstuffed armchairs quietly reading newspapers, books, and magazines.
Below the tennis court is a gardening area where residents grow fruits, veggies, and flowers. Residents went about their gardening as Tom and his fellow tennis players took part in Jim Kane's tennis clinic. Two activities that could not be more different took place practically side by side – a telling indication of the diversity of choices at The Outlook.
The choices are what Tom likes most. “I can take part in all kinds of activities or not. I can be with people or not. It's my choice.” He says he can dine out alone or with friends or go upstairs to his spacious apartment home and prepare a meal and eat by himself.
Tom has a reclusive side and enjoys alone time. “Tonight,” he said, “I'm going up and I'm going to take out a frozen turkey leg, cook vegetables and potatoes, and eat by myself.”
I hinted that I might want to join him. Check that. I invited myself to dinner.
“No,” he said immediately.
“What if the other tennis players hear about you turning me down like this? What are they going to think?”
He smiled. “I'll tell them I heard you didn't like turkey.”
Tom no longer drives and he misses it terribly. “I don't like having to depend on other people to get me to places where I want to go,” he said. But he quickly points out that The Overlook has terrific transportation options for residents, and that it's easy for him to hitch rides with his three sons and friends. “I have no trouble getting where I want to go and when I want to go there,” he said.
How did Tom make it to 90 when so many of us ordinary mortals don't? He could not be clearer. “Very early in my life I became convinced that exercise and hard work are good for the body. I have always lived that kind of life.”
“I have to exercise,” he said. “If I don't exercise, I can't sleep.”
He takes a lot of medications, to control cholesteral and blood pressure, for example. He has occasional unsteadiness on his feet and periodic bouts of restless leg syndrome. Yet, overall, Tom is in excellent health.
That morning he had gone to the doctor for his regular check-up. “Everything's good,” he said. “It was routine.”
“Do you expect to live forever?” I asked.
“Forever is a bit too long,” he said. “I look forward to another 10 years.”
Tom is tall, handsome, healthy, has all his cookies, is polite and soft-spoken, has a ready dry wit, and loves life. He is also single. He is an obvious catch for one of the many women at The Overlook. Women greatly outnumber men. The tennis group was made up of five women and three men, for example.
I asked him if he would be interested in getting married again or had any romantic inclinations. He smiled. “You know those thoughts do occur to me, but I dismiss them quickly. Thanks for the compliment, though.”
P.S. I think 90-year-olds are ganging up on me. Albert Southwick is 90 and is the country's oldest working columnist for a major newspaper, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. We exchanged written words. Here is his recent column and my response to it. My response ran as the Letter of the Week.
NOTE: My novel, State Kid: Hero of Literacy is now available on Amazon and with the Nook.