At Joe Newgarden’s induction into the USTTA Hall of Fame, Billy Neely introduces us to his admired friend’s beginnings. We hear that Joe was born in Westport, New York on Independence Day, 1929, and that “he was one of eight children born to hard-working parents of English descent.” When Joe was 12 years old, he was too young for service in World War II, but being a serious young man “he began to work to fill jobs left open by men who had gone off to fight.” At one of these job sites, Joe discovered ping-pong and thereafter played every chance he could, so that it was no surprise his love for the Game would develop into “a lifelong passion.”
No way, though, was he going to make a living playing ping-pong. It happened, however, that Joe’s father “came upon a camera” and set up a darkroom in their home. Thus was a photography buff born, and, as the family moved about, their picture-taking business proved quite successful. But now what with his own camera work, school, “and other interests, such as fast cars and racing,” Joe’s ping-pong play was considerably curtailed—the more so with the additional “responsibilities of marriage to Leta and their children,” his father’s retirement, and the founding of his own Nationwide Studios.
Bard Brenner tells us in his “History of Table Tennis in Miami” (June 23-24, 1984 Capital Bank Masters Invitational Program, 20-21) that in 1972, one, Joseph E. Newgarden, who’d come from Illinois, was playing table tennis at David Park in Hollywood when he was “beaten so badly by a girl there that he quit playing for six months.” However, he’d met Miami t.t. enthusiasts Joe Sokoloff and Bob Walker, and when they took him to a Harlem Globetrotters performance and he saw Japan’s former World Doubles Champion Norikazu Fujii put on a halftime exhibition, something clicked, and Newgarden was encouraged to form “Miami’s first permanent club.”
First, “Joe’s playing partner Gary Gatchel came in to help manage the club,” then Fujii himself, hence the club’s name, “Fujii’s.” But in 1973 Fujii was gone, and Richard McAfee had taken on the job. Richard remembers how “during the summer months, children from the various recreation centers throughout the city were bussed in every day to the Club for instruction.” Then, in 1974, Marty Prager, having returned from coaching in France, became the longtime manager of the Club, which by this time was called “Newgy’s”—after Joe of course.
And what a Club Joe had. Here’s Bard after he’d first seen it in 1973:
“…It was the finest commercial club I’d ever seen. When you walk in…the first thing that hit you was central air-conditioning, not the sweating bodies of the local hotshots. To your left is a whole wall’s length bulletin board with all the local and national news. Even a newcomer can now not look like a total idiot when he first meets the players. The front area contains a lounge complete with television, munchies, and drinks for the players. The pro shop is also located in this area. The rear room contains the playing area complete with special floor and lighting for table tennis. The tables are separated from the spectator area by a low-running, wooden barrier that rings the playing area. When I noticed the holes in the top for placing my drinks, I felt I had to be in an expensive bowling alley. Hidden in the back with the rest rooms are the men’s and women’s locker rooms, complete with shower. If you need a partner to play with, you can never be the ‘odd man out’ for there is a robot to help you with your game. Yes, quite a place….”
The Club had class. And it not only was conveniently located near Joe’s Nationwide Studios in the Little River district, but was accessible for those coming from near and far either from Biscayne Boulevard or via 79th Street from I-95. With its emphasis on “Recreation, Competition, Social Activity, Physical Fitness, Weight Reduction, [and] Family Participation,” it offered something for everyone. And, for a while, it had a celebrity “live-in” anchor in the person of 3-time U.S. Champion Bernie Bukiet who never failed to have ever-eager “customers.” U.S. Team member Peter Pradit moved to Miami too, and Joe helped him, as he had Bernie.
Indeed, Joe helped so many, publicly and privately, including myself and my sons, that his contributions were legion. But, though Joe always kept a low profile, he didn’t just impersonally write checks. He had heart—he wanted to share his passionate love for the Sport with those who had his own intense drive and dedication. No surprise, then, that D-J Lee prepared for his successful 6th and final U.S. Open Championship at this Club—“I don’t think I have ever seen anyone work as hard as this man did,” said Caron Leff, wife of Florida Champion Marv Leff, a Newgy’s frequenter, as was Wayne Daunt and another Florida Champion, Greg Gingold.
For perhaps a dozen years, until Joe moved his Nationwide Studios business to Gallatin, Tennessee in the mid-1980’s, Newgy’s was a home away from home for many South Florida locals—including two U.S. Closed Class A Champions: in 1976, the Newgarden-sponsored Jerry Thrasher, and in 1978 Joe’s own daughter, Nancy, who’d help manage the Club. Newgy’s also began hosting prize money tournaments with international players attending. Another highlight was the 1981 Republic of China—USA Friendship Match played there. Both Marty Prager and Terese Terranova agree that Joe’s “impact on Florida Table Tennis is immeasurable.”
Neely points out that as early as the mid-‘70’s, Joe, having bought robots for his Club, became interested in improving them (for example, they weren’t able “to catch and recycle balls”). For years, said Billy, Joe persisted until he had a robot that was “inexpensive, compact, lightweight, easy to install, essentially maintenance-free and could catch and recycle the balls.” By the late 1980’s, Joe had “introduced his Newgy model 1929 at a total development cost of more than two million dollars.” Was it better than the Sitco and Stiga robots? Indeed it was, said Neely. “With the introduction of several models of his robot, Newgy became the largest manufacturer of table tennis robots in the world.”
Ever inventive and persistent, Joe added another feature to his robot. Billy explains:
“He incorporated into the robot system an interactive electronic game called Pong-Master. This game permits the players to compete against the robot and each other. It challenges the control of players to hit pre-selected targets while electronically displaying points made and games won and lost in a controlled period of time at varying ball speed, spin, and frequency. This game, complete with sound responses to points made, is the only game of its kind on the market today.”
Via exhibitions and demonstrations at schools and other institutions, Joe shows a range of robots—from the simple, sturdy basic one to one with all the accessories. (And he uses a virtuoso range of expressions from 2001 U.S. Champion Eric Owens to sell them. Eric says Joe’s “always made me feel like a friend rather than a Newgy player.”) Further, Joe’s expanded his RobO-Pong system/services to provide players with a Newgy Robot Coaching Clinic, and an Internet Newgy Coaching Forum (where one can get “info, tips and training advice”).
In addition, Joe has unselfishly contributed to the National Schools Program, High School Leagues, ACUI and NCTTA competitions, Training Centers throughout the country; and for decades has helped individual players. “Gracious and optimistic,” Scott Preiss calls him, thankful that Joe’s been so supportive of Scott’s son Austin. No doubt many of Joe’s contributions remain unknown—Larry Thoman, for instance, points out that “Newgy has donated thousands of paddles to the ITTF for use in developing countries and a number of robots to the national TT associations hard hit by the devastating Southeast Asia tsunami in 2005.” He has supported our Hall of Fame Booster Club, and has sponsored a number of tournaments. Here, paying homage to Joe after his initial $10,000 Newgy Robo-Pong Open at Murfreesboro, TN, is Alan Williams:
“…It’s not possible to say too much in the way of appreciation to NEWGY. [Twenty years ago Bard Brenner presented Joe with a plaque in honor of his contributions to Miami table tennis; just recently President Bill Neeley of the Knoxville TTC presented Joe with a plaque for his more recent contributions.] This outstanding company, in the person of Joe, Larry Thoman, Roger Dickson, and their whole crew, went out of their way to build an event that catered to the entrants. Every player who entered was given a free t-shirt, compliments of NEWGY. The welcome player party they held on Friday was free to every entrant. They completely underwrote the Open Singles prize money, which was as large as that offered at the U.S. National Championships. NEWGY also held a series of seminars with top coaches and instructors on the day before play began. [Advertised participants were: Eric Owens, Barney Reed, Sr. and Jr. (featured, too, in Newgy ads), Tahl Liebovitz, Dan Seemiller, Ludovic Gombos, Sean O’Neill, Christian Lillieroos, and Wendell Dillon offering Referee Training.] From first-hand experience I can assure you that NEWGY cares deeply about the growth and success of table tennis in America, and rarely asks public credit for their efforts….”
As Billy Neely, in closing his speech for Joe, so aptly put it, “Joe Newgarden is not just the man who sells robots, but the man who sells Table Tennis.”