Norbert Van de Walle (born Jan., 1941 in Belgium), having arrived in the U.S. with his parents in the late 1940’s, begins playing table tennis at the Swift Playground on Chicago’s North Side. His highly regarded Coach there is Lew Krandel who’d also started Hall of Fame founder Steve Isaacson on his long table tennis career.
Thirteen-year-old Norby makes his first appearance in Topics at the 1954 Western Open where he loses to South Bend’s John Kromkowski.
Losing, however, is not something one associates with Van de Walle. Later that year, he scores a 1st in the Boys 12-13 All-American Singles in Chicago. And by 1955 he’s the U.S. Open Boys Under 15 Champion—in the final annihilates that same Kromkowski, 8, 7, 16, and is on his way to stardom.
Norby plays on the winning ’55 U.S. Junior Team at the prestigious Toronto CNE tournament—wilts down Howie Grossman’s much-admired pompadour in the deciding 3rd. Follows that by winning the Boys in straight games. Though LA’s Erwin Klein is a sensation at this Open, winning the Men’s, the Men’s Doubles with Bernie Bukiet, and the Junior’s, U.S. Team Captain Tibor Hazi says Van de Walle’s play is the “high spot” of the tournament. Norby loses his Men’s Singles semi’s badly to Klein—but forces Erwin into the 5th in the Junior’s.
That Norby gets very good very fast and sustains such play can be seen a few months later when at the National Team Championships he beats the 1954 U.S. Open Junior Champion Bobby Gusikoff.
Norby says hello to just turning 15 with a remarkable showing at the Jan. St. Joe Valley Open. From the four events he’s eligible to play in, he produces three wins and a runner-up. In the Men’s, before losing to Bukiet in the final, he downs Defending Champ Harry Hirschkowitz, and, though primarily a defensive player, stuns ex-U.S. Open Champ Bill Holzrichter, unleashing “time and again fantastic kill shots, both on forehand and backhand.” He also wins the Doubles with his Chicago Net & Paddle Club sparring partner and mentor Marty Prager—over, first, Bukiet/Hirschkowitz, then in the final over Isaacson/Tim Boggan. In the Junior’s, he knocks off former U.S. Open Junior Champion Dave Krizman 25-23 in the 4th in the semi’s, then Cleveland’s Sandy Potiker in the final.
At the ’56 National’s, Norby retains his #1 U.S. Boys Under 15 ranking, again wins the event—over Mike Ralston in 5. He’s also awarded the Open’s Sportsmanship Trophy.
At the CNE that year, Norby loses to perennial Canadian Closed Champ Max Marinko in the International Matches, drops the quarter’s of the Men’s to the eventual winner Gusikoff, and comes runner-up in the Junior’s to Ralston. Partnered with Net & Paddle Club President, twice U.S. Open Champion Millie Shahian, he’s a finalist in the Mixed Doubles to 7-time CNE Mixed winners Sol Schiff/Leah Neuberger.
1957 U.S. World Team Captain Bill Gunn speculates as to how Van de Walle, who’d won the Western Open over Prager, the Indiana Open over Allan Levy, 28-26 in the 4th, will play at the upcoming World’s. Bill speaks of Norby’s “great love for the game,” and says he might persevere in time to become “a threat in world competition.” However, at the moment, Bill says, Norby has “too much of a willingness to go on the defense,” and lacks a counter-attack. Although Bill didn’t expect more than a “few fair wins” from him in Sweden, Norby is undefeated in his first 8 Swaythling Cup matches. Eddie Kantar, former Minnesota table tennis star and later a highly respected Bridge player and teacher, observes our Team in action in Stockholm and thinks that Van de Walle will soon be “our best player.”
Captain Gunn is upset over the gambling some of our men are doing, though “of course” not Van de Walle, inviolate, uncorrupted. Meanwhile, Bill, in his dallying with Marianne Bessinger, forgets to give Van de Walle/Sharlene “Sherri” Krizman their Mixed schedule. Had they not been defaulted they would have had the fun of playing the paired-up Japanese World Singles Champions Ichiro Ogimura and Fujie Eguchi. Sherri, particularly, is pissed at this missed opportunity.
At the ’57 U.S. Open, Norby asks Holzrichter to play doubles. At first, Billy demurs, says he hasn’t been playing, but Norby insists—and, surviving a down 2-0, deuce in the 3rd scare from Marty Reisman/Marcy Monasterial, they win the title.
That summer, because Norby isn’t a U.S. citizen, he can’t accompany Gunn and Bukiet (having himself only just received his citizenship papers) on their Asian Tour, including a gala performance before the Shah of Iran, and is replaced by Bobby Fields.
For the second straight year, Van de Walle wins the NTC Outstanding Player Award. But though in ‘56 many were wondering why, with an uninspired 7-2 record, he was given the Award, in ’57 his 17-1 record prompts no such discord.
After Norby takes the 1958 St. Joe Open, he doesn’t have a memorable National’s, but is selected to go with Ralston on an Australian Tour where he wins Melbourne and Sydney tournaments. When the Australian TTA official says that he might arrange matches for the two on their way home in “Singapore, Saigon, Hong Kong, Tokyo,” Gunn feels these 17-year-olds need to be accompanied by an older person. Like guess who? But such extended play doesn’t happen.
Back in the States, Van de Walle, week after week, wins Midwestern tournaments. It’s amazing to me that his game just never seems to grow “cold.” How does he stay “up,” keep from being upset?
Norby beats Ralston and Lenny Cooperman to win the 1959 U.S. Open Junior’s.
Preparatory to playing in the ’59 World’s, Norby, in the warm-up Belgian Open, thrills his home-country fans by putting up a brilliant but losing 18-in-the-5th defense against the tournament’s runner-up, the North Korean Pak Sun In. Then at Dortmund in Swaythling Cup play he beats Brazilian wonder-boy Biriba Da Costa, and with Barbara Kaminsky reaches the 4th round of the Mixed before losing deuce in the 3rd to a Chinese pair. Dick Miles said that when he was playing China’s Jung Kuo-tuan that 5-gamer in the Singles semi’s, only Norby among the U.S. Team members was rooting for him.
At the 1959 English Open, Norby plays a strong but losing -19, -23, 11, -17 match against Yugoslavia’s World #10 Vojislav Markovich. Cooperman, meanwhile, goes Norby one better—is up 2-1 on Hungary’s European Champion, World #5 Zoltan Berczik before losing. The two Americans will meet in the final of the Consolation—with Norby getting the better of Coop.
When Van de Walle returns from his overseas play, he has a transition period, doesn’t seem to want to play seriously, though he goes to the Net & Paddle Club, does a little hustling, more or less goofs off. There he encounters friction with Shahian, for she says he has to be straightened out. Of course she has plenty of critics who vehemently say the same thing about her.
Anyway, Van de Walle’s soon back playing in earnest, and how does he do at the ’59 NTC’s? Pretty good—he’s 21-0.
On into the ‘60’s, Norby continues winning. He takes the ’61 CNE Doubles with Marty Doss. At the NTC’s he’s 13-2—beats Bukiet and Gusikoff, loses to Fields (23-1) and Miles (15-3). Then he wins the ’62 Central Open over Klein, deuce in the 4th.
At the 1962 National’s, he ousts Burns, 19 in the 5th. Afterwards plays that incredible 23-21 in the 5th semi’s match with Fields. For 90 minutes, all has to be heart-throbbing (one point is said to last 6 minutes). Play becomes the more pulsating after Van de Walle suffers leg cramps. Bill Marlens reportedly comes out to minister to him, and Miles, who’s later to win the Doubles with Norby, dead-pans the line, “I wonder who’ll be the sentimental favorite to win this match.” Though Bobby leads 19-14 in the expedited 5th, Norby is able to win, as Pauline Somael says, on sheer guts. Photos show that Fields on losing flings his bat to the table, then exchanges a sporting hug with Norby. Bobby says the story I’d been told earlier, that he afterwards meets his brother-in-law-to-be, Marty Doss, laments his loss to him and gets the reply, “Tough s---,” really didn’t happen.
It did happen, though, that for a while now, listening to as many Frank Sinatra recordings whenever and wherever he could, Norby has been going off on USO Tours with his friend Miles. They visit such far away places as distant from one another as Vietnam and Alaska where the weather outside is 55 degrees below zero and inside in the exhibition hall 80 degrees above. At least once, Dick tells me, they think their plane is going down, and exchange stiff-upper-lip partings.
At the ’63 U.S. Open, Norby beats the visiting English looper Derek Baddeley in the quarter’s, then falls to Gusikoff, 18 in the 4th in the semi’s. Afterwards, he plays his last match in the States, losing the final of the Men’s Doubles with Miles to Bukiet/Klein.
In Swaythling Cup competition at the ’63 Prague World’s, Norby downs the English #1, Ian Harrison, who’d more or less destroyed him 6 years earlier. In Singles play he edges perennial Indian National Champion Gautam Divan 23-21 in the 5th, follows with a 15, 25, -20, 19 slippery escape from Kalnyns, who’d been a member of the Russian Junior Team that had come to the U.S. in the 1960 cultural exchange program, then stops Stellan Bengtsson (not the “mini” Bengtsson, the ‘71 World Champion) in 5…before losing to China’s Chang Shih-lin in straight games. In Doubles he partners Fields to get by an East German duo deuce in the 5th, then understandably loses in 5 to a Chinese pair.
By the time of the ’65 World’s, Van de Walle (who, though he’d learned the game in the U.S. and played on three U.S. World Teams, was never to become a U.S. citizen) is playing for Belgium, and playing so well that in a 1966 Top Ten tourney there he posted a 9-0, 18-2 record and so finished 1st. He would continue to play competitively and become the many-time Belgian Champion. Indeed, in later years, he’d have his picture taken with his compatriot, formerly World #1 Jean-Michel Saive. Norby will also become very active in the Sinatra Society of Belgium, and in 1989 a photo shows him side by side with Frank at a concert in London’s Albert Hall.
Forty years after leaving the U.S., Norby returns, accompanied by his wife, Linda, and cheered on by some of his old schoolmates, to enjoy his USATT Hall of Fame induction.
The Belgian papers, with pictures and stories, play it up big.