More than 40 years ago, at about the same time that Japan's Hiroji Satoh was astonishing everyone by winning the World Championship with his strange sponge racket, George Hendry married Marilyn Schuessler and soon thereafter gave up playing table tennis to establish his own accounting practice. Then, after an absence of more than a quarter-of a century, in 1979, the year our USATT Hall of Fame inductees began to be honored at our first Hall of Fame Banquet, he returned to play in his first modern-day U.S. Championship.
Since then, George, who's now 78, has won not only the World Over 70 Men's Singles Championship, but more than 35 U. S. National Championships, or, on the average, two a year. Not a bad record, eh?
Now I want to tell you about some of the 17 years when George was a good player.
The St. Louis Y--that's where, in the early '30's he started, and where, from the beginning, he played, not, as you might expect, with a sandpaper but a hard rubber racket, and where he was helped by the well-known table tennis/tennis player/coach Bill Price, soon to be, and for years afterwards, one of his most tenacious rivals.
Among the first wave of St. Louis inter-city players George knew who came to the Feb., '34 Championships at the Hotel Morrison in Chicago were (1) the former lawn tennis champ, later a reporter covering the "Gas-House Gang" for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, W. Vernon Tietjin (TEACH-in), and (2) the promising Ernie Trobaugh (TRO-baw), Jr. Tietjin was a good knuckleball server--that is, he shot the ball out from his fingers, snapped forcefully from his thumb like a marble, and, because of the angle at which he held the bat and the direction in which he shot the ball, he produced some quite unpredictable serves. His teammate Trobaugh included in his varied repertoire a serve that anticipated, in miniature, the high-toss perfected by the Chinese decades later: he took the ball with the tip of his thumb and first two fingers, squeezed so that the ball shot upward to some controlled height, then, watching it drop, he struck it however he wanted to, and off it went, hopping like a Mexican jumping bean. Some fun for young George back home to watch these guys, huh? But George himself never tried to learn these serves that sometimes would fool self as well as others, for the USTTA (though not the ITTF) quickly banned the knuckleball serves and, though permitting the player to throw (not rub or deform) the ball into the racket, gradually diminished the effectiveness of and indeed interest in serves that would set up the point or even win it outright.
Moreover, since George, under Price's tutelage, was primarily a defender, he wasn't looking to initiate any serve and follow play. Understandably, while others invariably talked about 5-time World Champion Victor Barna's great backhand, it was Victor's defense that George was always much impressed by. For George, as perhaps the earliest table tennis picture of him ever taken might backhand-chop-at-the-ready bear witness to, the archetypal player was never the slashing hitter. It was more the fellow that said, "You can't get through me."
In Jan., 1935, when Hendry was 14, the Barna-Glancz "Circus" had a Tour stop in St. Louis, and, though it was 14-year-old Robert"Buddy" Blattner who got to play and defeat Barna's 1933 World Champion Doubles partner, Sandor Glancz, 21-l9 (in a typical exhibition game?), George, too, had a vested interest in the Hungarians coming--as witness the all-dressed-up picture in which, flanked by these World Champions, he looked very, very serious indeed. As well he should, for at the Apr., '35 Chicago National's he would be the best Champion he could--and just like Barna and Glancz would soon accept the offer of an endorsement. "Children will eat their whole wheat enthusiastically in the form of WHEATIES" the cereal box with George's picture on it would read. And this child, this Champion ("Wheaties scores the biggest with me"), was a natural for any flour named Gold Medal.
On reporting "Hendry Wins Boys' Title," Topics, using a questionable metaphor, getting the ages of at least some of the participants wrong, and seeming to praise the loser at the expense of the winner, had this to say:
Stocky little George Hendry (St. Louis) plowed through Don MacCrossen (Milwaukee) 21-17, 21-11, 17-21, 21-17 to win the first national boys' [Under 15] title as the crowd yelled its approval. True to human nature, it favored the smaller lad over the taller Don, whose flashy hard drives off the corners indicate he will be a tough customer in men's singles in a year or so.... Entries: 37, all under 14 years.
Maybe eating (it seemed forever, said George) all those boxes and boxes of Wheaties (and banking the $25?) allowed the "stocky" Hendry to slim down, look even younger, for his "Breakfast of Champions" cover picture? But, as the reference on the ad to "Men's Western Table Tennis Champion 1936" suggests, George is coming of age.
In that '35 U.S. Open, the first one to bring together all the Champions of both the old Parker Brothers' American Ping-Pong Association (APPA) and the new USTTA, Hendry, for whatever reason--Boys weren't expected to play?--didn't compete in the Men's along with his vaunted St. Louis contemporaries--U.S. #4 Mark Schlude (SCHLOO-dee), U.S. #5 Richard Tindall, U.S. #6 Blattner, U.S. #8 Price and U.S. #9 Jack Nix). So, not having lost a match, he must have been feeling pretty good. But though George doesn't know it yet, these National's are indirectly going to cause him grief. Why? Because when first the Men's semi's between Abe Berenbaum and Jimmy McClure, and then the Men's final between Berenbaum and Schlude, turned into endless push-push-push "agonizing and disgraceful matches"--matches that finally ended at 2:30 Monday morning and drew from the audience that remained not just applause but boos--USTTA officials began to feel they had to do something to prevent these "chiseling" or "pooping" matches from ruining the game. Hence the eventual move (beginning with the '36-'37 season) not only to enforce the Expedite Rule but to lower the net from 6 and 3/4 inches to 6 inches, which of course, to the detriment of defenders, would increase the force and effectiveness of the attackers. George, though he could pick-hit, would need time to adjust.
Back in the summer of '34, Blattner, Price, and another of the St. Louis players Destiny had clustered together for greatness, Garrett Nash, had all taken a vacation from the 8-table St. Louis Club Blattner's father managed ($1.25 a month allowed you unlimited playing time) and had come to Cleveland, Ohio for the Great Lakes Open--a very unusual and very windy tournament, for it was held outside on 40-50 tables set up at the Euclid Beach Amusement Park. This '35 summer, however, none of his budding rivals, only the youthful Hendry, came East--to a Chautauqua, N.Y. tournament sponsored by the U.S.'s greatest popularizer of both the sport and the game, Coleman Clark, whose father used to be on the Chautauqua staff. This was an historic tournament, for it marked the USTTA's initial nation-wide rigid enforcement of the so-called "bat rule" that would not be rescinded for almost 60 years. George lost in the Men's final here to 1933 APPA Champion Jimmy Jacobson, but showed--and this is 6 years before they'd go out on Tour together--that he could team up o.k. with Clark, for they won the doubles over Jacobson and Sid Biddell, soon-to-be not only Capt. of our Team to the '36 World's but the momentary USTTA President. Good results, good connections here for a 14-year-old far from home.
With the coming of fall and a new season, the first St. Louis Membership tourney was held, and would you be surprised to learn it was won by Hendry? Seventeen-year-old Don Hendry, George's brother. He could play some too.
At the Jan., '36 Chicago Inter-cities, George, just turned 15, barely got to play, but he was the honored 4th man on the powerhouse St. Louis team of Tindall (13-2), Blattner (9-4), and Price (4-4). Many of the spectators hoped that young Hendry would get to play the 16-year-old, 5' 1" New York Boy's Club star Lou Pagliaro, but that didn't happen as St. Louis finished second to New York when Sol Schiff climactically won all 3--beat Price, 16 in the 3rd, Blattner, 19 in the 3rd, and Tindall, 22 in the 3rd.
While Blattner and Tindall were at the '36 Prague World's (this is the one where Bud and Jimmy McClure, on their way to winning the first of their World Doubles Championships, are down 2-1 and 19-11 in the 4th in the semi's to the Hungarians Tibor Hazi and Ferenc Soos), Hendry reached what he'd later call a turning point in his table tennis career. After beating two good Chicago players, Herb Aronson (often he had two hands on the racket) and Defending Champ Mort Ladin, he upset "his tutor, top-seeded Bill Price, -19, 15, -18, 16, 18," to win the Mar. Western Open in St. Louis.
Thus, while still 15, he was ranked #7 in the country.
But now came a new season, the lowered net, and George's period of adjustment. It was the USTTA Ranking Committee's practice to rely heavily on the results of the Inter-cities for picking the 4-man U.S. Men's Team to the World's. (In fact, if you didn't play in the Inter-cities, you couldn't even be considered for the Team.) So by the time these matches were to be played at the Lake Shore Athletic Club in Chicago at the beginning of Jan., the 16-year-old Hendry was in contention--along with '35 U.S. Champion and '36 runner-up to Barna Abe Berenbaum; the World Champions McClure and Blattner; and the '36 American Zone winner over Tindall and McClure, Sol Schiff. (As it would turn out, Sol, having won a free trip to the World's in this tournament, as well as the '36 title "U.S. Champion," couldn't go to Baden-near-Vienna because he was last-minute suspended--technically for contracting with Parker Brothers "to receive royalties on a racket without permission," but more to vindicate USTTA President Carl Zeisberg's obsessive attack on Parker Brothers' "p. p.," as he called it.) With Tindall retired and enrolled at West Point (in Feb., '45 he'd be killed in action in Italy), only U.S. #5 Price and U.S. #6 Pagliaro would appear to be the others standing in Hendry's way. And floater-defender Price, at an equal disadvantage with Hendry now that the low net was in use, had recently lost to him, and Pagliaro was not on the N.Y. Team. Moreover, though recently Hendry had lost in three St. Louis tournaments to U.S. #3 Blattner, he knew his game well ("You had to play Buddy's far forehand first, then go to his backhand") and only the week before had had three match points on him.
So what happened? Did George make the 4-man U.S.World Team?
One thing that the officials, if not all the players, agreed on was the improvement in play provided by the lower 6-inch net. No longer could Schiff, for instance, perenially complain that on these slow Becker tables in Chicago the hitter was at a disadvantage. This year powerful attacks were commonplace. No "pooping" now. "Never before have such interesting and exciting matches been seen in America," said Tournament Chair and USTTA lst Vice-President Dougall Kittermaster.
Schiff was 10-1, McClure and Blattner, 9-2--good enough here, coupled with their marvelous past play, to assure their place on the Team.
But, surprise, N.Y. slugger Bernie Grimes (where'd he come from? he wasn't even ranked last year) posted a perfect 12-0 record. Still, since no assurance had been given anyone that even a perfect record here would automatically put one on the Team, and since Grimes hadn't really compiled much of a record last year or this (in the N.Y. Metro, he'd lost to Schiff, 3-0, in the semi's), he'd have to prove himself through another full season of play before representing the U.S. in the '38 World's at Wembley.
Abe Berenbaum, the other favorite to make the Team, had come into these Inter-cities as the winner of the very strong N.Y. Metro Open. Not only had Abe beaten Sol in the final, -22, 16, -17, 18, 14, after being down 2-1 and 17-13 in the 4th, he'd also scored an even gutsier -17, -18, 7, 17, 21 victory over Pagliaro in the semi's. So from this and many another Championship everyone admired his fight. And now here, especially, his sportsmanship. Officials were impressed that defender Abe "would not resort to pushing while losing to McClure"--and, though Kansas City's erratic V. Lee Webb (4-10) blasted him off the table, they were also impressed that, "courageously playing while ill" (he compiled only a 3-3 record), he "stuck out the last two points of his match" with Chicago's Jerry Lavan (luh-VAN). After which, he immediately "collapsed on the floor at the players' exit," then "was carried to his room, where Dr. F. Stanley Morest found him suffering from a cold, temperature elevation, and lack of rest. Not until assured a place on the team would he consent to remain in bed."
So. Schiff, McClure, Blattner, and Berenbaum--that was our '37 Team.
And Hendry? He wasn't at all happy with that low net. Who, with his talent, would be, for he'd had a very mediocre 9-6 record (not much better than Price's 4-3). Perhaps, faced with a divide that threatened to separate his winning defense from the Championships he wanted, table tennis was not really the sport for him? After all, he played basketball and soccer, and many of his classmates at Beaumont High wouldn't be at all surprised sooner or later this summer to find out that he was also the St. Louis Municipal Junior Tennis Champion. (George had come to tennis after he'd gotten good at table tennis and felt that the spin in tennis was nothing compared to what he'd seen in table tennis.)
Entries in the '37 National's, held in early April at the Grand Ballroom of the Mosque Theatre in Newark, N.J., had two outstanding foreign entries--1936 Czech World Champion Standa Kolar and the 3-time Hungarian World runner-up Laszlo "Laci" Bellak. The ITTF called this Open our "International National Championships," so we were supposed to use their 6 and 3/4 inch net, were we? Well, we didn't. And nobody seemed to much care--including Hendry. For by now, having learned he couldn't just float the ball back, he'd acquired a heavy chop, a close-to-the-table defense, and, keeping the ball down, he'd given the eventual winner Bellak, the "Clown Prince of Table Tennis," a few not so comical moments in losing to him in the 8th's, deuce in the 4th.
Losing in the 8th's, too, was Blattner, upset--very upset--by Pagliaro. Two months earlier Bud had again won the World Doubles title with McClure, and had also had his moments in both the Team's and the Singles, beating some good players, including Bellak. "Blattner's forehand was the best I've ever seen," said Hendry, reminiscing. But because it wasn't good enough to win these National's, Blattner would begin to lose interest in table tennis and concentrate on becoming a professional baseball player (by 1941 he'd moved up from the Columbus and Sacramento teams to join the Cardinals, then later the Giants, and afterwards turned to announcing games).
At the '37 Inter-cities, St. Louis was represented by U.S. #8 Hendry, U.S. #12 Nash, U.S. #24 Don Hendry, U.S. #31 Edwin Woody, and unranked John McCloskey (Price, exhibition ballet-master extraordinaire, was out on Tour with Coleman Clark). The whole St. Louis team had to be psyched by their hometown, climactic positioning in the draw. They played the last of their so far undefeated ties (cheered on no doubt by the Hendry twin sisters, Margaret and Melba) against Defending Champion and heavy favorite New York.
Both Hendry and Nash, who'd earlier taken turns beating one another in St. Louis tournaments, came into this final tie against New York with 11-0 records, and so both were in contention for the Outstanding Player Award. In the first match, Hendry and, as one fellow put it, his "curiously surviving push game in this age of hitters," caused a sensation by beating U.S. #6 Pagliaro, 15 and 14. "Paggy tried, but couldn't get through me," George would say later. However, as it happened, that was the only win for St. Louis, for Johnny Abrahams (where'd he come from? he wasn't ranked last season) downed both Nash and Woody in straight games, Paggy took out Nash in 3, and U.S. #1 Schiff, though having no trouble with Woody, reflected that young Hendry "in appearance and style of play" was so much like the current World Champion Richard Bergmann, that Sol just did 19 in the 3rd get by him.
Never mind, 13-0 or 12-1, 17-year-old Hendry's record was tops and deservedly earned him the Outstanding Player Award and a place on the U.S. World Team. USTTA Ranking Chair Reginald Hammond noted Hendry's poise and spoke highly of his game: George, while still not as aggressive as some of the others, showed that he can and does put the ball away for sure winners when the chance comes and that in the process of building up for that last blast, he does not waste points in errors or ill-advised kills." He goes on to say that both Hendry and Pagliaro, who, along with McClure, Schiff, and Grimes, will be one of George's teammates at the '38 Wembley World's, have the "sound game and absolute courage required for international play."
In early Swaythling Club matches at the 8,000-seat, beautifully tiered-round Albert Hall, Hendry held his own in our 5-2 win over Poland, losing only to 1936 and '37 World runner-up Alex Ehrlich. Then, in an important match against Austria, which we would lose 5-3, Hendy fell victim, as did Schiff and McClure, to the very experienced Alfred Liebster (playing in his 11th straight World's). George did, however, have a marvelous chance for a glorious upset against the Defending World Champion Bergmann, only to lose the opportunity, 8, -19, -7.
Surprise, though. England, whom we'd beaten 5-1, upset Austria 5-4. According to today's tie-breaker rules, based on the percentage of matches won and lost among the contending teams, the U.S. (8-6) would have finished ahead of Austria (9-8) and England (6-9) and advanced out of their Group to the final (where they might have successfully defended their historically unique 1937 Championship). However, since there were no tie-breaker rules in effect in 1938, there had to be an additional round-robin play-off among the three top finishers to determine a Group finalist.
In the play-off, England, with 5-1 losses to the U.S. and Austria, was not a factor. However, the tie did give Hendry the chance to play London's East End eccentric lefty, Ernie Bubley, one of the countless individual internationalists of that era, who in the first tie with the U.S. had 19, 20 beaten McClure. Back when he began to play in earnest, Ernie was a stage violinist and now wore a glove on his playing hand to protect his fingers and/or to give him a better "feel." England's great player Adrian Haydon acknowledged Bubley's lack of fluid strokes, his "rather ugly style," but correctly affirmed it's the player's record that counts. Another commentator put Bubley's game into better perspective when he spoke of his "fine half-volley defence, an extremely heavy forehand chop, and a most effective backhand flick."
Though in this second U.S. vs. England tie, Bubley got the better of Pagliaro, 26-24 in the 3rd, he probably found Hendry's close-to-the table defense too uncomfortably a mirror of his own and irritably accused George of using the now ITTF-banned fingerspins against him. Although some elaborate service wind-ups of the time still allowed players to use fingerspins without detection, George did not take kindly to being unjustly accused. But as "the two captains agreed that Hendry had broken no rule," play proceeded without further incident."
George did not play in the decisive tie against Austria, which the U.S., in failing to win six out of seven 19 or deuce games, again lost 5-3. Perhaps, too, the fact that the English spectators were not on our side played a part in our loss. They cheered Bergmann (now living in London) and his unchanging, inscrutable expression. As Topics reported, they frowned on our verbal involvement of "Attaboy!"..."Hot diggety!"...and "Jumping Jehosephat!" Such exclamations most of the 5,000 watching found unsporting, abhorrent. But Eric Filby of the English Team in a later article for Topics attributed the English success to the cues they took from the Americans: "...bridge table etiquette and respectful silence was all right in its place," he said, " but nervous and tense point-gettings calls for an occasional out-let of feelings and a few timely exhortations from the gallery."
In the Men's Singles, Hendry opened with an 18, 21, 17 win over Erno Foldi of the winning Swaythling Cup Hungarian Team. Then he gave up 62 points, but nary a game, in stroking out a 12, 31, 19 win over England's Stan Proffitt--the second game being perhaps the more remarkable for not exceeding the ITTF 20-minutes-a-game Time Limit Rule ("Stop!" the umpire would say--and whoever was ahead would be the winner). Astonishingly, even after this match, neither Hendry nor his Team Captain and future USTTA President Morris Bassford ("He was a nice guy," said George, "but he didn't know much about table tennis") were aware of this Time Limit Rule.
In the 16th's, Hendry again gave Bergmann more than a few uneasy moments before losing 16, -22, -17, -12. According to news reports, Hendry in the lst simply outplayed Bergmann "at his own tireless game." Reportedly Bergmann had already played some taxing team matches and so repeatedly he "was forced to cool his eyes with a glass of water." Perhaps it was while Bergmann, with a lead, was making one of these periodic stops that George was suddenly made aware of the Time Limit Rule? Anyway, more tired than tireless this particular evening Richard might have been, for by the time the Bergmann-Hendry match got underway, it was so late the spectators had been cleared out of the Hall. Hendry, up 1-0, might have won the 24-22 second game as well, the reports went on to say, but he "began overdriving the table and missing easy points." Had George known about the Time Limit Rule would he have done that--tried to hit through the world's best defense? I like to think, "Why not?"
In the English Open at Blackpool that followed, the ebullient American players--McClure and Schiff especially, for they'd just beaten Barna and Bellak to win the World Doubles Championship--again made their presence felt. Schiff beat Bergmann before losing, like Pagliaro and McClure, to Bellak. And Hendry...Hendry had an incredible match with the eventual winner Barna, holder of 23 World Championships, losing, OHHH, 28-26 in the 5th. "I was running everything down," George said years later. "Oh, yeah, Barna really ran me. But so what? I was only 17." Schiff has remarked on how well Victor carried himself, how no one ever said anything bad about him--but Sol personally felt Barna was a little standoffish. Hendry, too, found Victor a proud, aloof person. After this incredible 5-game match--the two games Barna lost were the only ones he'd lose in the whole tournament--he hadn't a word to say to George. Had he forgotten how many miles and months ago they'd had a picture taken together?
Just as Schiff on his return from the World's won the Eastern's (in a very controversial expedite match with Philadelphia's Izzy Bellis), so Hendry on his return won the Western's--"took the attack away from" a much improved Garrett Nash in a 5-game -17, -18, 6, 21, 11 thriller (after which Garrett "outslugged" George to win the Lake Cities Open).
At the '38 Mar. National's, held at the Hotel Broadwood in Philadelphia, Hendry pick-hit through the resolute defender ("wouldn't hit a ball") Bellis in straight games. "Bellis was a real con artist," said George. "One time before we were to play he stole my racket and sold it. But I found the guy he sold it to and got it back." But then, in a semi's match George really wanted to win, he lost in 5 to Schiff. One gets a clue as to what this match might have been like from what Sol would say in his (or maybe I should say Doug Cartland's) book Table Tennis Comes of Age (1939):
Hendry gives you a ball that looks easy to hit. But try and kill it! It keeps coming back, back from one side, back from the other, from twenty, thirty feet away, until finally in disgust you either miss an easy drive or take a desperate and rarely successful chance. ...[Hendry] fools the attacker time and time again by clever wristwork. Particularly on his forehand, Hendry varies the spin so well that on one shot you have a skidding, breaking ball that scarcely rises from the table and on another shot you have a normally bouncing ball with very little spin.
But in this 20, -19, -15, 12, 13 semi's match, George didn't fool Sol enough--though he might have won the match three straight. Up 20-18 in the lst, he missed a game-point kill--and as he said, "It shook me up." Of all the matches George has played, this is the one he most regrets. For, had he beaten Sol, he thinks he might have held off the attack of the repeat winner Bellak in the final--they'd played for shillings in England and he'd done alright--and so would have won the National Men's Singles Championship. But it was not to be.In 1938 he had to settle for being ranked U.S. #2 behind Schiff.
Since the USTTA would not be sending a Team to the 1939 Cairo World's, and in fact had scheduled our National's at the same time, the Inter-cities, where our Team had been traditionally picked, apparently became of so relatively little importance that no hospitality to the competing teams was being offered by the host city Philadelphia. So of course the St. Louis players didn't enter. (Hendry had just won the Missouri State over Nash, 7, 9, 6! in the semi's and Price in 5 in the final.) However, Sandor Glancz and USTTA officials promoted an all-expenses-paid East-West Match in early Mar. at the New York City Hippodrome in which the East (Schiff, Grimes and Bellis) beat theWest (McClure, Hendry, and Nash) 5-4. George, described earlier in Topics as "the steadiest and most reliable player in the country," had come to New York only a few days after he'd lost the Missouri Valley to Price 24-22 in the 5th (stopping momentarily in the last game to repair his accidentally damaged bat). At the Hippodrome, a week before the National's, he was beaten by all three West players.
Nevertheless, at Toledo he did not do badly. As 7th seed in the Singles, he drew the #2 foreign seed, the visiting 2-time World semifinalist Hazi, in the 8th's and, caught by surprise by Tibor's first-time-difficult-to-play-against angled-off shots, lost to him in 4. But in the doubles, in the 1/4's, George and Bill Price, mixing the spin well on their returns, upset World Champions McClure and Schiff before eventually losing in the final to the foreign team of Bellak and Hazi. Thus George at least achieved a U.S. #1 ranking in doubles.
So O.K., I've shown you here that the young Hendry, competing against the best players in his era, could win a few matches long before he turned 60. At this point of course he's still 17, still ranked among the Top 8 in the U.S. as he has been for the last four years, and much awaits him.
He'll join his brother at the Culver-Stockton Military School in nearby Canton, Mo.--will receive a full scholarship in return for playing exhibitions with Don at halftimes of basketball games and at various community affairs. He'll break two bones in his right hand in a college kid's football scrimmage, have one appendectomy, and win two U. S. Intercollegiate Singles titles.
He'll lose to Bellak in the 8th's of the 1940 National's and begin to see his game start to slip--though losses to future Hall of Famers Eddie Pinner and Bill Holzrichter won't set him brooding, at least not for long, not if he's going to stay in school.
But then comes an opportunity he can't pass up. From June, '41 until he returns to Culver in Jan., '42 for the winter semester, he'll be touring with Coleman Clark. They'll be booked big time--Chicago, Pittsburgh, Montreal. In New York, they'll play the Roxy Theatre and Radio City Music Hall. Along the way they'll share celebrity billing with renowned band leaders Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey, and Cab Calloway. And it'll all be great fun, so long as George remembers not to play anything to Cokey's backhand or chop that first ball.
In June of 1942 George is drafted....But by Nov., '46 is back, taking classes at Washington University with his brother, and of course playing in a St. Louis tournament. He's now 26. His one married sister, Melba Hendry McClain, is his winning Mixed Doubles partner; the other, Margaret Hendry Weidner, has rather recently given birth to a baby daughter. George begins to play doubles with another Don--a junior player named Don Schuessler. By the '50 National's he'll not only be playing Men's Doubles with Don, he'll be playing Mixed with Don's sister Marilyn.
Expected and unexpected events, wins and losses, will continue to occupy Hendry's life, but I can't presume to go into them here. The window I've opened to his past begins to darken. In the fading light, his youthful table tennis life seems almost gone. My still searching eye makes out George's last late 20's hurrahs--his 25-23 in the 5th loss in the Western's to 1944 U.S. Champion Johnny Somael, his 15 in the 5th loss in the National's to 1947 U.S. World Team Member Schiff. Retirement beckons, but in that 1949-50 season, his best from '46 to '52, he's still ranked U.S. #6.
Definitely time to quit then--to concentrate on making a living.
How could he possibly believe--dream--he'd one day, far in the future, be World Champion?
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.”
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 playing 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.