Aug. 22, 2011, 6:54 p.m. (ET)
George Hendry BwI’ve already written extensively on the first of George Hendry’s two table tennis lives (see my Profiles on the USATT website) and will only quickly mention here some of those early highlights. In 1936, after George had won the 1935 U.S. Open Boys U-15 and the 1936 Men’s Western Open, his picture would appear on the back cover of the well-known Wheaties cereal box. At the 1937 Intercities, George, now 17, won the Outstanding Player Award and became a member of the 1938 U.S. World Team. At Wembley, Hendry’s play was likened to Defending Champion Bergman’s, his “tireless game,” and in two matches with the Champ himself George gave Richard plenty of trouble. On coming back to the States, Hendry was ranked U.S. #2 behind Sol Schiff, and #1 in Doubles with his early St. Louis mentor, Bill Price, whom in 1984 he’d write an obituary on for the official U.S. Table Tennis magazine.

Later, from June, 1941 to his return to Military School in Jan., 1942, he’d go on a Tour with the premier exhibition performer of the day, Coleman Clark. They played such places as the Roxy Theatre and Radio City Music Hall, and at times shared the billing with such notables as Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Cab Calloway. In the Service, George did a stint as a Medic in the Philippines, earned two Bronze Stars, then came back to table tennis, met and played Mixed with his future wife, Marilyn, then left the Sport in 1952. He established a career in Accounting, had children, and was eventually divorced. More than 25 years later, he returned to table tennis, and in the 1981 Closed Over 50’s had no trouble beating me, 10 years his junior, and a circuit regular.

Now for the second of Hendry’s two table tennis lives. After George returned to U.S. Open/U.S. Closed competition (1979-2009), he would win (I counted them) 35 Singles/Doubles Championships. Some of his most troublesome opponents, aside from Frank Dwelly, were Harry Deschamps (whom he beat, -22, 20, 12, 19), Mike Lieberman (whom he split matches with), Benny Hull (split matches with—lost one deuce in the 5th), Grady Gordon (split matches with—won one 23-21 in the 3rd), Si Wasserman (split matches with); and Leon Ruderman (split matches with—lost one 23-21 in the 3rd).

 The best matches among many I myself played with George were: the 1982 Closed 50’s where I lost after leading 2-1; the 1983 Closed 50’s where I lost, ooh, after leading 2-0 and at 20-all in the 3rd; and the 1984 Open 50’s where I won, deuce in the 3rd. We played Doubles together twice—won both an Open and a Closed. Someone thought it was I, as George’s Doubles partner, who during a point had slipped and fell, breaking my wrist in three places. But that was the previous year, 1982, when poor Sol Schiff was George’s partner and victim.

Though Hendry had won 20 U.S. Open/Closed Championships from 1979 through 1990, and had been inducted into the U.S. Hall of Fame in 1980, it was as if, old as he was, he must have died and been buried—for there was only one article on him in the U.S. Magazine in those 11 years. That was in 1983 when his friend Joe Windham introduced readers to George’s historic past and called him, currently, one of the two cornerstones of St. Louis table tennis; the other being Rich Doza’s Club where George played.

Finally, in the July-Aug., 1990 issue George HAD to be at least mentioned. In the U.S. Open, he beat me, 14, 20, in the 60’s; reached the final of the 65’s before having to default, won the 70’s, and, oh yes, in the World Veteran’s event, he became the WORLD OVER 70 CHAMPION with a 10, -18, 16 win over Cleveland’s tenacious Lou Radzeli.

Heyyy, I think now George is starting to get noticed. First hint of it is when Larry Hodges publicly comes up with some poetry, ala Lewis Carroll, to the tune of “You Are Old, Father William.” Sorry to give readers just this one stanza (the poem has a number of them): “You are old,” said the youth, “and your legs are too weak/To get to the shots that you hit; Yet I can see that your movements are still very sleek,/Pray, how do you manage to do it?”

Against me, George’s defensive style was to stay close to the table, pushing, chopping, keeping the ball away from my forehand. His own forehand was no more than a change-of-pace roll which I would always forehand block back, perhaps high but knowing he wouldn’t attack that ball. I played him pushing, blocking, until by backhand topspinning, suddenly thrusting a ball aggressively to one unexpected side or the other, I could get an opening to gain forehand advantage.

 Once, I remember, we played an unexpedited 1 hour and 15-minute match, which I ended up winning. People were surprised at my patience, but I wasn’t, ‘cause that was the only way I could beat him. Ah, but next time George quickly adjusted—he stayed even closer to the table and now gave me wicked chop after wicked chop, quickly, forcingly, into my down-the-line backhand, so I couldn’t start controlling the ball with my backhand roll—and, no, I didn’t beat him.

Another time, I’d had him five match points, and the serve to boot. I missed two serve and follows, then badly tightened—served into the net—then choked another away. Up 20-19, I tried a ploy. Hoping to mask my jitters as casually as I could, I served a ball rather high and soft (knowing from experience he wouldn’t be aggressive with it) to signal that, o.k., I wasn’t panicky, was ready to make him work for the point, was content to just controllingly push the ball back and forth with him (but of course my arm felt rigid, control is what I didn’t feel I had at all). We exchanged only three balls before, very uncharacteristically, he pushed one off. Then he followed with a very human curse and then a sporting handshake. Although overall George beat me more than I beat him, I of course remember and cherish the close matches I won from him, and I’m sure others as they advanced toward or entered old age felt proud of themselves if they found it possible to beat him.

Now, with even more acknowledgement clout than Larry’s, but with the same appreciation, comes an encomium from USTTA President Dan Seemiller—this after 72-year old George has beaten the 2456-rated Peruvian National, Andre Wong, in the 1991 U.S. Open. “In all my career,” says Danny, “I’ve seen thousands of matches, but this was truly the most amazing one ever.”

George is admired, has a reputation as a nice guy, but that doesn’t mean he occasionally doesn’t have a complaint or two. In a Letter to the Editor, he made it clear he wasn’t happy about playing early matches in an event on concrete, then later ones on carpet. One surface throughout the event, please.

Also, though you might well consider him an “iron man,” he could be momentarily stopped. In 1995, his former World teammate Mildred Shipman tells us, a table fell on George as he was moving it, breaking his leg and damaging his heel—he couldn’t play for at least six weeks. Later, when he was on blood thinners, he’d be having x-ray therapy for prostate cancer (41 radiation treatments by the time he won the ’97 Closed 70’s, 23-21 in the third, over Grady Gordon). But though he’d miss all or almost all the U.S. Opens from 1994 to 2004, during that time he won a succession of 70’s through 80’s singles and doubles in the Closed, and continued to play locally.

So how’d he do the last 10 years of his life? How, say, was his health when he beat his survival rival Ivan Slade to win the 2000 Closed 75’s and 80’s? Well, the elbow with the tendinitis that kept him from playing for a while, he HAS to rest—the only cure. He has eye trouble, but the dry kind of macular degeneration, so that, considering George’s age, doctors don’t feel surgery is called for. The arthritic hip? That’s often painfully stiff. He wears a hearing aid and has learned to lip read, so one on one, face to face, he’s fine, but, as he says, “Put me in a crowd and I’m lost.” And though he might figuratively mask a hearing deficiency, he quite literally has to wear a “C-PAP “mask”—to pump air through his nose, should he stop breathing as he sleeps.

But he sure stayed awake at the t.t. table. In his last serious playing years, what incredible Closed matches he had with fellow octogenarian Frank Dwelly who by this time had adjusted to his two artificial hips. At the 2003 75’s, George beat Frank, 11-8 in the fifth, and at the 2005 80’s, Frank beat George, 6, -11, -9, 10, 10. This was Frank’s last hurrah, for next year after returning home from matches he’d die of a heart attack.

Remarkably, despite all his ailments, George continued to play locally, to endure, even came back on approaching 90 to win the 2009 Closed 80’s over Slade. Not so remarkably, it wasn’t any competitor’s strokes that finally did George in, it was Destiny’s. His friend Rick Seiler was at the Sunday, Aug. 21 memorial service for George that was attended by such St. Louis Club regulars as George Conlee, Dale Dressel, and Stan Sokol, as well as by the Dan Seemillers, father and son, who happened to be in the area and wanted to pay their respects. Rick wrote me that even into early August, 2011, George was playing regularly at his Club. But then he suffered a severe stroke and lost all use of his left side, including the ability to swallow. He slowly declined for about two weeks and then passed away after what doctors believe was another stroke.”

            So, with George gone, how can I personally best sum up what I (and so many others) have to remember him by?

It’s this: When I played George I was always on my best behavior. He was one of those rare players that should you hesitate, look to have a disagreement on a net, edge, or score with him, he’d immediately want to hear your point of view, and was so ready to be kind and conciliatory that you absolutely no longer wanted to press your own differing viewpoint. Through his example he brought out the best in you. He made you play hard. But, more importantly, he made you what in your better moments you aspired to be—a sportsman. Forever unwilling to take unfair advantage, George brought to you in the court there with him integrity, justice, and an everlasting humanity.

Tim Boggan vs. George Hendry - 1983 Nissen Open. Image courtesy of Mal Anderson.
Tim Boggan vs. George Hendry - 1983 Nissen Open