Remembering Charles Huggins: Tennis Instructor and Friend
Publisher’s Note: The author of the article that follows – Tim Larew - is both a writer for The Sports Department as well as a lifelong Ellington resident. Tim worked with the late Charles Huggins as an instructor in the Recreation Department’s youth tennis programs during the past few years. When Mr. Huggins passed away last month, Tim asked if he could write something about his friend.
We are running this story uncut. Because of its length and space constraints in our paper, the first part of Tim’s story appears in this edition of The Sports Department, while the second half may be found online at TheSportsDept.com.
Back when we were both in high school together four years ago, my brother and I created “The List.” Basically, as silly as it might sound, it’s a running list of the best people we’ve encountered – some that were a part of our lives for just a fleeting moment, others that we’ve known as long as we’ve lived. Regardless, everyone on the list affected us positively in some manner and made a lasting impression on who we are today. One of the 78 current “list members” is our grandfather. One is Kathleen, the owner of every Ellington resident’s favorite convenience store, I-Beez. One of the list members is Charles Huggins.
A little over a week from the time I am writing this, my brother informed me that Charles had passed away in his sleep. At first I was overwhelmed with emotion, more in shock than anything – a sensation anyone who has lost a loved one can relate to. A few hours later, though, when I was back alone in my apartment right around midnight, reality set in, and memories came rushing back, and with the memories came tears. It had been a long time since the last time I cried too.
I started writing this that very night, but it took me a while to make any real progress in the time since. Maybe that’s just because I’ve had a busy week, but I want to believe it has something to do with the fact that I’m just not ready to say goodbye to my 73-year-old friend. I don’t think I ever will be ready, but in terms of paying tribute and honoring his memory, this is the best way I know. I’m not sure it’s even possible to paint an accurate portrait of the man Charles was, but I’m going to give it my best shot.
In short, Charles was The List. He was one of the greatest people I’ve ever met, and even though I only knew him for two years, I consider myself incredibly lucky to have had him as a part of my life at all.
I met Charles in May of 2010. I had just gotten home from my freshman year of college, and my parents were bugging me to get a job to make some money before my “real” job as a summer camp counselor started five weeks later. Jim Maitland, a family friend and the head of Friends of Ellington Tennis, offered me an opportunity to assist a local tennis pro named Charles in teaching young kids the game at an introductory level for the next month. It was only a three-hour nightly commitment, but it still took some convincing from my parents before I reluctantly accepted the job.
My brother had actually worked with Charles the previous summer doing the same job I was about to do, but I never really absorbed any of the good things he told me about his experience. I went in blind with no expectations, and I came out a changed person. I didn’t notice right away, and I didn’t even notice after that first month, but looking back now, Charles was transforming me into a better person each minute I spent with him over the course of the past two years. And it all started on that first day.
I think the first thing I noticed about Charles the first night on the job at Brookside Park was how genuinely happy he was to meet me. While I would’ve rather been home playing basketball with my friends, it was clear right away that there was nowhere in the world Charles would’ve rather been; if that wasn’t true, he did a damn good job of making me believe it was. Some people say a first impression tells you everything you need to know about someone, and in my experience with Charles, that first impression in which he embodied nothing but happiness truly did tell me everything I would come to learn.
From that night on, I started looking forward to the three hours I’d be spending with Charles each day. I love the sport of tennis, and earning money for being outside on early summer evenings was great, but it was Charles that really made the job special. It didn’t matter what the weather was like, how many kids showed up or if he had been having an off day prior to the lesson; Charles was excited and eager to teach every time he stepped on the court.
Charles was an incredible person, so sometimes I find myself forgetting to talk about what an amazing tennis instructor he was. I grew up playing the game and had five different instructors in my eight years taking lessons at Ellington Ridge Country Club, but none of them were anywhere near the teacher Charles was. That’s no knock on them either; Charles was simply on another level. It didn’t matter if he was coaching four-year-olds or seniors in high school; he just had this magical way of captivating his students and making them truly enjoy their time with him. There are so few people who can be effective with such a wide range of ages, but Charles had that ability.
He knew how to handle everyone and everything, and there was never a player he couldn’t teach or a problem he couldn’t solve. He never gave any child negative feedback either. He had three classic lines he used when teaching – “That’s not bad,” “That’s pretty good,” and “Oh, that’s real good.” If someone swung their racket and whiffed completely, he’d say, “That’s not bad,” and tell them something positive about their swing while giving them tips on what to do better the next time. At the end of every lesson each night, every kid left the court smiling, and that’s no exaggeration. In a time where youth sports have become filled with pressure and stress, Charles reminded everyone what it’s really all about, and seeing that positive response each night was something special.
On a personal level, Charles was so much more than just someone I worked for. When I say I lost a friend last week, I truly mean it, because that’s what he was to me. While it’s painful to think we’ll never share another laugh together or pick up our rackets and hit back and forth in between lessons again, I’m at peace knowing the great memories I have of Charles will never fade away.
When I was heading back to school in fall of 2010, I got a text from Charles out of the blue wishing me luck with everything and telling me how much fun he had working together throughout the summer. I got a text on Thanksgiving too… and on my birthday… and on Christmas. I don’t think any of the texts were ever free of spelling errors, but it was beautiful because that was Charles. The little things didn’t matter; it was all about the big picture with him. Honestly, I never even knew his last name until this week. He was such a special person in my life, and I couldn’t have even told you what his last name was while he was alive. It’s funny, but again, that’s just how he was. Details like that didn’t matter. The personal connections did.
I’m never going to forget the little things. Every time a major tennis tournament like the Wimbledon or the US Open rolled around, Charles knew who was going to win. He would never make his prediction before the tournament, but as soon as it ended, he told me he knew whomever won was going to win. I’d meet him over at Brookside and we’d be having our normal conversation before the evening’s lessons began when I would ask him if he watched the Wimbledon final, for example. He’d say something like, “No, because I knew Nadal was going to win.” I would ask him why he didn’t tell me that when I asked him the week before, but he would reassure me that he knew it all along… every time. We always laughed about it together, and though it seemed insignificant at the time, it’s one of those things I’ll always remember about Charles.
Another story that I’ll be telling a lot of people when they ask me about Charles is the pen story. Early this past summer, he handed me a pen prior to a lesson to write down a parent’s email address on his notepad. I put the pen in my pocket after I was done using it and forgot to give it back to Charles before I left that night. I got a concerned text from him later that week asking if I had accidentally taken the pen. I looked to my left and sitting on the kitchen table was the pen, so I told him not to worry and that I had it.
A couple weeks went by, and I kept forgetting to bring Charles’ pen with me to the lessons. I knew he had asked for it back, but there was no urgency – it was just a pen. Charles never gave up, though. He reminded me every night the second I saw him, and he sent me a text just about every other day too. He wasn’t going to let this pen get away. It became a joke between us after a little while as he said I must have just wanted to steal anything I could from him. I finally asked him what the deal was - why the pen was so special. He told me that a young girl that he coached at Enfield Tennis Club went to the US Open and bought that pen for him and gave it to him as a gift. Suddenly it all made sense. It was exactly those types of little things that Charles held close to his heart, and he would have been genuinely upset if he never got that pen back in his possession. Needless to say, I went home that night and put it in my car immediately to return to him the next night.
On and off the tennis court, Charles made everyone smile, and I know for a fact my life wasn’t the only one he affected in an immeasurably positive way. Parents loved him, kids loved him, even some of my friends who would stop by the courts waiting for me to get out of “work” (I stopped calling it that early on because it certainly didn’t feel like it) talked to him for a few minutes and loved him. At the end of last summer, I started running basketball lessons at the courts adjacent to the tennis courts at Brookside at the same time Charles was running his lessons. One evening, no one had shown up to Charles’ lesson yet and I had eight or nine kids on the basketball court while we waited for the rest to arrive. Charles jogged over and two minutes later, he had three kids watching him while he showed them the right shooting form. Of course, he had them all smiling and laughing while he was shooting around with them, and I remember being upset when he had to go back to the tennis courts, just like I would’ve been with any other friend.
Now that I think about it, that was one of the last times I ever saw Charles, and in a way, that’s a perfect memory to cap off a special time in my life that I shared with him. He had 50 years on me, but he was just as youthful and fun to be around as any of my 20-year-old friends.
I never got a chance to tell Charles he was on The List. I guess I had plenty of chances, looking back, but that’s just how life works. You never know when that last chance is going to pass you by. Even though he never knew anything about The List, somehow, I’d like to believe he knew he was on it.
I can find solace in the fact that Charles passed away in his sleep just as peacefully as he lived, and I can definitely find solace in the fact that in his time on Earth, he truly lived and left his world better than he found it. My mom sent me a text in response to my message of disbelief upon hearing the news the night after he died reading, “Glad he touched your life. All kinds of email circulating with stories of what a great man he was. Aspire to be that good of a person.” Knowing what Charles accomplished and the number of people he affected so strongly - I can find solace in that too.
As I sit here with a heavy heart, writing the final words to perhaps the most well deserved tribute of all time, I know that the book that was his life will never truly be closed. Charles will live in my heart, and in the hearts of so many others, long past the date he left us. I’ll never forget Charles Huggins, and I know he’s somewhere beautiful right now, smiling down on all of us with that US Open pen tucked away safely forever.