Remembering Happy Days at Sutter Lawn Tennis Club
September 17 – 22, 2009
Updated Oct. 25, 2009
About 85 photos mainly taken during the trip by Betty Nolan are posted at www.ritzpix.com in five separate albums under member name of Lewis “Buzz” Nolan’s email address. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for instructions on how to access. One album of 20 photos taken at Sutter Lawn Tennis Club in Sacramento contains pictures of several veterans of the club’s swim team of the early 1960s.
A link to an earlier remembrance of the Sutter Lawn swimming program and team, including some downloadable photos from the early 1960s and later as well as brief comments from coaches and team members made in April, 2005, is at sutterlawnswimmer.html.
By LEWIS NOLAN
My wife, Betty, and I spent about three hours in Sacramento with some really neat people who were very important to me during a pivotal time in my life.
I was a long-time
member of the Sutter Lawn Tennis Club about three blocks from my family’s house
I learned how to swim at about age 9 at Sutter Lawn and was taught by Earl Hoos, who was a professional coach at Sacramento City (Junior) College and worked as pool manager for the club in the 1950s. I was fortunate to have enough natural ability – and a lot of drive to train hard – to become one of the faster members of a swimming team that subsequent club pool managers like Dick Boyd, a diver on a U.S. Olympic team in the 1950s, and Earl’s nephew, David Hoos, coached.
During the warm months, I spent just about every day – and nearly all of the day when school was out – at Sutter Lawn and in its L-shaped pool that was exactly 25 yards long. That was long before the company I eventually worked for in the 1980s, Schering-Plough Consumer Operations, developed with the federal Food and Drug Administration the SPF system of approved sunscreens. My shoulders, ears and nose were badly burned by the injurious rays of the sun back in those unprotected days. (I’ve had three relatively minor surgical procedures in recent years to remove basal cell carcinomas, the least invasive of the skin cancers, paying the price for my youthful over-exposure to the sun.
Despite the persistent sunburn and long hours spent hanging out at Sutter Lawn, my time spent there was some of the happiest of my young life. For me, it was a dream-come-true that I was given the opportunity to work at the club as a lifeguard. In exchange for coaching the swim team, my partner, Bob Reid who also had Red Cross certification as a Water Safety Instructor, and I had the use of the club pool to make extra money by teaching lessons to club members and others who paid an extra fee. To this day I still get flak from onetime members of the swim team for holding practice at 6 a.m. But now I can confess an important motivation for early hours was to free up the mid-morning hours for teaching lessons and making money.
I recall we had as many as 100 or so kids aged 5-to-16 on the team at a time. But in reality, despite the single-minded devotion of some parents to their kids’ swimming prowess (which sometimes delayed family vacations), there were always substantial numbers of kids not available for practice or swim meets due to family travel in the summertime.
Regrettably, I’ve lost touch with all but a little of what was a central point of my life when I was 18 or 19 years old, the really great kids I loved to coach and supervise. I don’t think I fully realized it at the time, but these were largely children of privilege at a time of relaxed life in the U.S. Most parents had spacious homes with stay-at-home-moms. They were within a few blocks of Sutter Lawn and the kids would walk or ride their bikes to the club and spend the day there. I recall being a “champion” of the “Johnny Cross the River” pool game and sometimes nearly going batty because of so many kids chanting “Marco” and “Polo” in another pool game.
I truly loved my charges and was extraordinarily privileged to work with several dozen really terrific and mostly quite smart youngsters. They nearly always managed to overlook my sometimes pushy and competitive spirit at that young age. They also looked beyond the quick fuse and occasional gruffness of my partner and close friend Bob Reid and somehow sensed his true heart of gold. We never let the nubile flirtation of budding beauties lead us down forbidden paths - as fond as I became of several.
Having been warned of the inevitable “crushes” some young girls might have on their coaches they considered to be handsome and worldly, I tried hard to walk the tightrope of being a likeable, cool guy with an element of grown-up standoffishness always in reserve. I like to think I was rewarded for having a healthy balance there and for avoiding touching the young girls and never, ever even hinting of any romantic interest.
I seemed to gain the confidence of the parents of the girls on the team, who rewarded me with amazing support and help in anything I asked of them. I remember them all with much esteem, fondness and respect. In 2009, it saddens me that most of the parents – and a few of their kids - have passed on to what I hope and pray is Heaven for all; I am also sorry that I missed what was described as a glorious, Irish wake of sorts filled with booze and fun after Dr. Pat Leonard – father of nine children including several of our team’s best swimmers – died at an advanced age after a long and very successful career in gynecology and obstetrics.
For me, it was like a fantasy come true – being an uncrowned prince of a Magic Kingdom. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but those of us whose summers were spent in and around the Sutter Lawn swimming pool were spared from a lot of the turmoil going on in the outside world. Even the adolescents and teenagers weren’t much clued in to the British Invasion of pop music. Nearly all seemed to prefer surfing songs by California’s Beach Boys over the Beatles and their much-imitated English hair and style that sold millions and millions of records long before the days of tapes, disks and MP3 players.
I’m pretty sure that at least during the warm months I spent more time at Sutter Lawn because of our hard-to-get, family membership (with some quiet help from the parents of one of my swimmers in paying club dues once my mother fell on hard times following her divorce) than I ever did at my home about three short blocks away. I probably spent about least as much time at the club as I did at the David Lubin Elementary School, Kit Carson Junior High School and Sacramento High School. All the public schools serving some of the middle and upper class children of East Sacramento were within bike or walking distance of the neighborhood where I lived near 41st and Folsum. (Interestingly, all three schools were largely replaced by new buildings in the 1970s because of earthquake fears fanned by the construction industry.)
I got lucky enough to work fulltime at the club – beginning at the age of 17 - during the summer as a lifeguard and also as its swimming coach with my lifetime friend Bob Reid. Before then, he and I would earn money to buy cigarettes and have a little spending money for the club snack bar. We both threw newspapers and made a little more by washing tennis courts during the pre-dawn hours with large hoses hooked to a fire plug. We would squeegee off the excess water and let the sun do its morning drying work so the courts would be clean for the many accomplished players of all ages. Some of the players had local, state and national rankings in the sport and the club hosted on an annual basis one of the most celebrated tennis tournaments in the nation at that time.
By showing up to play in the National Hardcourt Championship for amateurs – the biggest names in tennis of the day were quietly given appearance money under the table. Bob and I were among the children of club members who worked as volunteer ball boys and ball girls for the big-name matches. The players would sometimes reward us with almost-new tennis balls they used in the matches. The big tournament was played at Sutter Lawn from 1959 through 1972.
During my visit to the club in September, 2009, it pleased me to see that the club’s “ladder” of players was still on display even though their relative rankings and procedure for “challenge matches” against the field were not visible. I was also pleased to see that the old linoleum flooring had been replaced with stone tile, the snack bar had been refurbished and an upstairs meeting room had been added to the clubhouse. Locker rooms and rest room facilities had been brought up to modern standards and new shake shingles had been installed on the roof. Grounds were manicured and well watered.
I was a little disappointed that the few trophies awarded to outstanding swimmers during my time as coach – which were still displayed when I visited in 2005 – had either been shelved somewhere or tossed.
The swimming pool was basically unchanged. It is L-shaped and 25 feet long, with its four racing lanes now marked by tile and black paint on the bottom. Starting blocks are now of molded fiberglass and are permanently mounted on the deep end, a replacement from the wooden blocks made of plywood at home by a parent which were bolted in the shallow end just before swimming meets. The pool pump house has been mildly redone, with the door to the control room now missing. The door to the lifeguards’ equipment and change room – which on a few occasions served as a “make-out chamber” for when girlfriends of lifeguards visited – is now partially screened.
The change rooms where Bob and I used to periodically plug drilled-out, peep holes in the wall between the boys’ and girls’ areas were still intact in a separate, wooden building housing restrooms. No holes were visible, which I’d like to think was due to kids with better manners. I remember being surprised that the girls’ room was nearly always the messier of the two back in the early 1960s and required more cleaning time by lifeguards.
I was told that Sutter Lawn’s Wednesday evening “potluck” suppers – featuring extended swimming pool hours - continue to be popular events for many members and their children. I remember bringing a covered dish of tamales most weeks that my mother would heat up from a can.
Sutter Lawn was founded in 1919 – a year when World War I ended and the New York Yankees purchased the contract of Babe Ruth.
I was surprised to learn – from an excellent newspaper feature story in the Sacramento Bee of Sept. 20, 2009 that marked the club’s 90th anniversary – that club monthly dues had been increased fivefold, to $100 over the last 40 years. The initiation fee is still only $1,500 – far less than what I had paid a few years ago for a membership at Old Waverly Golf Club in North Mississippi, one of the top 100 courses in the U.S.
Despite the relatively low costs at Sutter Lawn, I understand the waiting list is only a year and a half, which is a reduction in the length of the multi-year wait from when the Nolan and Reid families joined in the 1950s.
There have been any number of notables who belonged to the club, including former California Gov. Ronald Reagan. A story about his wife, Nancy, is still retold and laughed about. It is about when she once exceeded polite boundaries and asked that the team’s swimming practice time be moved to better accommodate her family’s busy schedule. The father of two excellent swimmers on the team, a businessman who served on the club’s board of directors, declined her suggestion of rescheduling team practices to accommodate the Reagans; he reputedly but politely told the State’s First Lady that the team would miss having the Reagan child on the team. (Oddly, I heard a somewhat similar story about Nancy Reagan’s overreaching when I was on a VIP tour of the White House in Washington many years later. I learned about her sometimes overbearing demands on the kitchen staff while her husband was President.)
Nearby neighbors of the club during my years of working there included Bev Hack, divorced wife of a manager of the Chicago Cubs whose teenage daughter was a tennis standout; Florence Rich, whose husband owned and managed a leading ladies clothing store downtown; the Schrader couple, who owned a regional oil company and whose daughter Sue was one of the highest-ranked junior tennis players in California; and the Pope family, with the mother-doctor’s wife, Sydney, serving as a National Committee Member and local chair of the Republican Party.
Some of those and other well-connected women had the leisure to gather under a green, canvas awning close to the club pool and spend most of their afternoons in the shade playing bridge. A few drank a lot of beer. A popular pastime that Bob and I started was to clear the pool of kids for 10 minutes every couple of hours so the “bridge club” and other adults could join the lifeguards on duty by dipping into the pool without endangering their carefully coiffed hairdos with splashing water and the kids could temporarily dry off.
It was unspoken authority, but Bob and I knew that the always-polite ladies of the bridge club held brass knuckles when it came to Sutter Lawn club politics and policy. Evidently one or more of them complained and a friendly, older maintenance man by the name of George was directed by the club manager to never again remove his boots and cool off his feet in the pool. I recall thinking at the time how unfair and class-discriminatory that commandment was. But even I had the good sense to keep my mouth shut.
What pleased me the most during my half-day visit back to the club in 2009 was the presence of some once-great kids who’ve grown into manhood and womanhood very successfully. Those who showed up for the informal lunch reunion organized (and paid for by Bob Reid) included:
The snack bar food served at the reunion gathering included some hefty-sized cheeseburgers, hot dogs, nachos and even salads – a big step up from the bare-bones minimum menu served in the early 1960s by the Stowes, a retired couple who operated the then-tiny facility.
Back in the early 1960s, the club’s general manager was J. B. Cantrell, who was also the club’s tennis professional who taught lessons. There was never any doubt in my mind about who was boss or that Bob and I were merely summer employees who served at his pleasure. But our problems, thankfully, were few with him. Now, Sutter Lawn has two co-managers, Joe Pane and John Rodrigues (also tennis director), who were most hospitable to our group. The club’s website – at sutterlawn.com – also lists other managers. Those pictured are those serving as tennis pro, kitchen and grounds supervisor, head swimming coach and in accounting – indicating that the club’s professional staff has grown in number even while membership has remained level.
Our celebratory, reunion group broke up as scheduled at 4 p.m. It was one of the most pleasant afternoons I’d enjoyed in a long time, being with people who had meant so much to me during a critical period in my development as a young man. I happily found that conversations with my now-grown-up swimmers seemed to continue uninterrupted despite not seeing one another for as much as a half century. There was none of the “power jockeying” for relative position and dominance that I had seen so much of when meeting with corporate people for the first time.
I am so very proud of what nearly all of my club swimmers have done with their lives. I think most had loosely kept up with me through Bob Reid or my brothers, Bill and Pat, who are still in Sacramento. Most of my former swimmers knew that I have been married to a beautiful woman for a long time, have a high-achieving son (Casey Lewis Earle Nolan) and enjoyed two reasonably successful careers. My first career job post-military service in the Marine Corps was as a newspaperman (I worked my way up to be Business Editor of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis and an area stringer for The Wall Street Journal) then in corporate communications. I left newspapering’s low pay and long hours in 1984 at the age of 40 to become a vice president with Schering-Plough, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. I moved on to become a vice president with Guardsmark in 1996, one of the top security firms in the U.S., and pretty much retired in 1997.
That evening, Betty and I were joined by my brother, Patrick Thomas Nolan, for dinner at the Bistro Biagio Restaurant at the Courtyard by Marriot Hotel. I stayed with my low-carbohydrate diet and went for a salad topped with roast chicken. Visiting with Pat was a real pleasure. I learned that he is enjoying retirement after a good career as an inspector for the local utility, SMUD. Our youngest brother, William Ray “Bill” Nolan, wasn’t able to join us due to travel related to his post-retirement work for the California Water Resources department; his contract work entails meeting with various vendors who provide services to the agency where he worked for many years.