Battling It Out on the Court

A new movie comes out this week based on the 1973 tennis match between women’s tennis legend Billie Jean King and former men’s pro player, Bobby Riggs.  Both the movie and the now historic match is known as the “Battle of the Sexes” that pitted the athletic talents and skill of a woman, Billie Jean, against those of her male competitor.

Billie Jean King at Virginia Slims Tennis Tournament, 1975

But before Billie Jean and Bobby played took to the court on Sept. 20, 1973 for their televised match before 30,000 live spectators, there had been a far lesser known, less viewed such match in my small Kansas hometown.  I know because I was one of the two on the court facing across the net my high school’s boy’s tennis champ, John Hoffman.  John probably doesn’t even remember this less publicized event. Neither did I until I heard an interview on television’s CBS Sunday Morning with King.

I started playing tennis in junior high school, learning to swing a racquet and hit a ball by batting it against the concrete block wall of the gas station next door to my parent’s motel with a chalk mark indicating the height of the net.  To practice my serves, I’d go to the high school tennis courts and hit ball after ball over the net into the service court on the opposite side. On one of these occasions, I noticed an older, thin, almost gaunt gray-haired man, leaning against a black Cougar car with hounds-tooth checked rag top, watching me practice.

One of the few photos of me competing on the court was taken during a tournament in Scottsdale, Az. in 1974.

The man introduced himself as Jimmy Dodds. And Jimmy, formerly a tennis pro and coach in Los Angeles (Beverly Hills to be specific), took me on as one of his protégés. I will write another future blog post about him.

Under Jimmy’s tutelage and inspired by women tennis stars of the day, especially Billie Jean, I became a better and better player until I was competing in and winning local tournaments. I would have been on the high school girls’ tennis team but there were no girls sports teams then in that pre-Title IX era. Instead, I had to play for the local community college whenever I could or play against the boys, which I often did.

Women were making their voices heard about wanting the same recognition and opportunities men received in the workplace as well as everywhere else. And none of them were stronger on the tennis court than Billie Jean King. Billie Jean campaigned for equal prize money for women in the pro tournaments and led the efforts to establish a women’s pro tour.  She became the first President of the women player’s tennis union when it was founded in 1973.  And, with her then husband Larry King, created the Women’s Sports Foundation and launched the magazine, womenSports, for which I would later submit and write a feature or two.

Billie Jean King and Margaret Court head back to the court after a brief court side breather between games at a Virginia Slims Tennis Tournament, 1975 in Phoenix.

So it was against this early 1970s background that I stepped onto the court with my Wilson aluminum frame racquet to play a match against John.  The challenge came as the result of a friendly feud between the high school’s two gym teachers, Coach Martin and Ms. Stokes.  Ms. Stokes had compete confidence in my tennis talents and I don’t think cared much for Coach Martin. The exact details now escape me but at some juncture, Ms. Stokes told Coach Martin that she thought I could beat John on the court. Martin, being a bit of a sexist himself, of course scoffed at the idea. But when it was suggested that the two of us duel in a tennis match, Coach Martin accepted. I don’t remember that John and I had much to say about it except to agree to participate. I had, after all, played a lot with and against John at the City Park tournaments and open court nights.

The match took place one afternoon after school, I remember. Few, if anyone was there to watch except Janine and Coach Martin. John had a strong, fast serve and I always felt fortunate to be able to return it, let alone place the return shot somewhere strategically on the court.  He had a lanky body that disguised his muscle strength but was perfectly suited for tennis, and golf, the other sport he enjoyed.  Plus he was smart, (he was one of our two class valedictorians) and understood game strategy so that his was not just a game of power.

Billie Jean King returns a shot at the Virginia Slims Tennis Tournament which I covered as a young reporter in 1975.

We both played hard.  I honestly don’t remember much about the game itself except that it was hot.  I lost. I don’t recall the game score or whether we went three sets or not. There was no press coverage, no cheering crowd, no book deals afterwards. Women’s lib gained no victory that afternoon. I’m sure Coach Martin gloated but I didn’t feel that I had let anyone down. I had played my best although when it came to tennis, I was pretty hard on myself when defeated.

John and I remained friends. He went on to become an attorney.  I became a journalist and worked for a couple of metropolitan newspapers in Phoenix.  Phoenix is and was a mecca for tennis. I continued to play while living there. Occasionally, I covered women’s tennis for the suburban daily that I was writing for at the time. One day, the Virginia Slims women’s pro tennis tour came to town with, you guessed it, Billie Jean King. I was sitting court side to report on the action. Billie Jean had already played and won her big match against Bobby Riggs.  Women’s tennis was taking off at lightening speed.  After her match against Margaret Court, I snagged an interview for the paper with Billie Jean.

Billie Jean King and Margaret Court Smith shake hands following their match at the Virginia Slims Tennis Tournament in Phoenix in 1975.

Even before The Battle of the Sexes, Billie Jean was winning as many battles in women’s tennis as she was trophies. Her willingness and courage to demand that women be treated equal to men in the sport encouraged others of us facing similar challenges in our own careers. So while the movie about her famous match and endeavors off the court is just now coming out, her story inspired a generation of women, young women then, to stand up and speak out on and off the tennis court.

Honoring Good Women

The Bellingham YWCA is a remarkable organization.  It does incredible work within our community’s and is one of my favorite organizations to support whenever and however I am able.

The Y’s Womencare program, for instance, provides emergency, confidential shelter, 24 hour crisis support services and community education for women who are victims of domestic violence. It’s transitional housing program is available for single adult women in Whatcom County to give them a safe, supportive place to stay while connecting them with the appropriate resources to get their lives back on track and become self-supporting. The Back to Work Boutique provides low income women in Whatcom County with new clothes sot that they feel confident and look good while applying for a job. And, an especially popular program at this time of year is the Prom Dress Program, that allows young women of all incomes access to a formal dress for a special occasion.  The YW currently has more than 200 formal dresses in stock.

The Bellingham YWCA Northwest Women's Hall of Fame is Sunday, March 23.
The Bellingham YWCA Northwest Women’s Hall of Fame is Sunday, March 23.

The organization also sponsors the Northwest Women’s Hall of Fame.  Since its founding in 1999, the YWCA has honored 56 contemporary Whatcom County women, living and deceased, and 12 Legacy Award winners, from the early days of the county, whose service has inspired later generations.  This year’s awards event will be this upcoming Sunday, March 23 at Northwest Hall in  Bellingham.

I was honored to have been asked to photograph for the event three of this year’s four awards recipients–Julianna Guy, Ann Marie Read and Deborra Garrett whom I had photographed for her campaign in 2012 in her bid for Superior Court Judge. Ramona Elizabeth Phare Morris will also be a recipient. To be selected, honorees must have made a lasting impact, served as role models for women and girls, demonstrated perseverance and vision, and overcome obstacles to achieve their goals.  

Ms. Guy will be one of this year's Northwest Women Hall of Fame recipients selected by Bellingham's YWCA.
Ms. Guy will be one of this year’s Northwest Women Hall of Fame recipients selected by Bellingham’s YWCA.

Julianna Guy is a delightful woman whose eyes sparkle with life when she speaks.  I had a lovely time getting to know her during our studio session.  A former accountant for network and local television, she moved back to Bellingham to retire and is now persistent spokesperson for a park and branch library in the underserved Cordata neighborhood, She is now helping to create a park in the King Mountain area. Juliana formed the Cordata Neighborhood Association, resulting in a park being built & greenway being designated. She is a former  SCORE counselor, helping entrepreneurs – especially women – start new businesses.  Juliana is also involved with Planned Parenthood, and Big Brothers & Sisters.

The Bellingham YWCA is honoring Ms. Read for her service and dedication to parenting and childhood education.
The Bellingham YWCA is honoring Ms. Read for her service and dedication to parenting and childhood education.

Ann Marie Read and my path’s crossed many years ago when our sons were studying piano from the same teacher. I was delighted to catch up with her and to learn what she and her family are now doing.  During the past twenty-five years, she has been a parenting educator at Bellingham Technical College (BTC). She has provided critical early childhood education for parents in a variety of venues, including weekly parent/child classes, free drop-in groups for low-income parents such as “Baby Connections”. In addition, she has worked with special populations, including parents participating in the “Early Head Start” program, parents from the Nooksack Tribe, and student parents in BTC’s professional technical programs.  How she has done all this and been a mother of three sons too, I’m not exactly sure.

Deborra Garrett, who has been an attorney in Whatcom County for 30 years, is now a Superior Court Judge.
Deborra Garrett, who has been an attorney in Whatcom County for 30 years, is now a Superior Court Judge.

Judge Deborra Garrett is someone I also came to know through our sons who attended the same middle and high schools. (She was the subject of my blog post in August, 2012–Primarily Primaries which you can read by clicking on the link here.)  Her career in Whatcom County spans more than 30 years.  She has represented individuals, organizations & businesses.  Often her representation provided her clients the only remaining opportunity to resolve their legal issues. In 2013, Judge Garrett became the first woman elected to a Whatcom County bench as  Superior Court Judge and I was proud to contribute to her campaign by photographing her and some of her campaign events.

The fourth recipient is Ramona Elizabeth Phare Morris. She is a strong proud Native women who has advocated for Lummi People as well as all Native Americans, advocating in important areas such as jurisdictional and fishing rights, BIA Land Trust, roads on tribal land, Tribal Taxes (fish taxes) Treaty Tax Force (Nationally), Health Care and Youth Education, tax issues & concerns for tribal people. Ramona  has represented the Lummi People proudly and has worked alongside many other tribal leaders .

There’s still time to make a reservation for Sunday’s Northwest Women’s Hall of Fame dinner and ceremony to recognize the contributions and achievements of these extraordinary women who have all made Bellingham a better place to live.  I hope you’ll join me in supporting this, and other YWCA programs.  For more information just click on the link( in green lettering) or phone the YWCA at 360-734-4820.


Talking about ‘Body Talk’

I had a ‘sneak preview’ on Sunday of the upcoming performance of  “Body Talk” by Maria McLeod to be at the Firehouse Performing Arts Center in Bellingham this Friday and Saturday evenings,  September 28-29.    The cast had a dress-tech rehearsal during which I shot production photos for Maria  (full disclosure here).  But as I was moving around, to photograph the cast, I could see and hear the show which is a collection of dramatic readings based on true stories that Maria has written about what it means to be a woman.

Pam Kuntz at the reader’s stand, along with (from right) Sarah Wallace, Marie Eaton and Sheila Goodwin all seated, rehearses a scene from Maria McLeod’s “Body Talk.”

The readings–all short monologues–are terrific.  Maria is a published poet,  a freelance journalist, documentarian and assistant professor of  journalism at  Western Washington University.  The collected stories are all taken from in-depth interviews that Maria conducted over several years and include a mammogram technician, a nun, a new mother, an esthetician, a transgendered woman and a Buddhist feminist.   In their stories, they share and explore the definition of “womanhood”.   Their tales are explicit (not recommended for young children) but not uncomfortably so.

Marie Eaton performs as one of two women in ‘Body Talk.’

Maria has done a wonderful job of structuring the overall piece into a cohesive yet varied look at her subject matter.  The fact that each piece comes from actual memories and events  gives it even greater impact.  Her language, or that of her interviewees, is powerful in a way that causes you to stop and think about not only the lives of these women but your own as well.  Director Karee Wardrop has done a good job of  serving the text by keeping blocking and stage business to a minimum so as not to distract from the words themselves.  Likewise for the incidental music as performed by two jazz musicians.

The individual performances themselves are strong and bring to life the women behind each of the stories.  Actress Sheila Larkin Goodwin, in particular,  gives a moving interpretation of the marathon-running nun’s surprising story.

Actress Sheila Goodwin rehearsing in ‘Body Talk.’

But I would expect that from Sheila (also a personal friend) who has appeared in numerous television and theatre productions. However, all the women I saw in the cast–Marie Eaton, Pam Kuntz and Sarah Wallace (Kari Sevens was absent)–also gave weight to their women’s words.  I felt that each had, in some way, connected to their assigned woman and carried that across in their reading.

Cast member Sarah Wallace gives a moving reading of the new mom in ‘Body Talk.’

If you haven’t yet purchased a ticket for these performances,  I’d suggest you hurry.  They can be purchased on-line at http://www.BrownPaperTickets,  Village Books in Fairhaven or at the door for $15.   Both performances start at 7:30 p.m. with American Sign Language interpreters present on Friday evening.  A portion of the proceeds from the shows will be donated to Womencare Shelter.

The only regret I’d have about the show at this point is that there are only two performances scheduled.  It’s so wonderful to see something as fresh and new and different  as “Body Talk” staged locally and done well.