Day 76, June 17 - The Wonderful World of Disney’s
“I can see you’ve got potential.”
Continuing along with this week’s theme of honoring our sport’s patriarchs, today I would like to tell you about the table tennis patriarch from my childhood: Charlie Disney. Unfortunately, he is no longer with us. He passed away in mid-April, and it was just last weekend that many of us celebrated his life at a special memorial service in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Here’s a little background on how my family got into the sport. My parents decided one day to buy a table for a room in our basement that seemed perfectly suited for the game. My oldest brother Jerry especially enjoyed playing with his friends. One day he finally defeated a friend of his. That friend in turn urged him to take on someone even better than him. “Okay, invite him over,” Jerry said.
His friend replied, “He doesn’t play in a basement! He plays at a club.”
“A club,” my brother Jerry thought, “I’ve never even considered that such a thing existed.”
So he got the information and went to the club. The person he wanted to challenge wasn’t there, but the club manager, Don Larson, greeted him and invited him to play a few friendly games.
Later, probably one-by-one, my four other brothers and I steadily began to tag along. Of the seven Soderberg kids in my family, only my sister Noel (who passed away in 2003) never played.
Since I was the sixth child, I didn’t actually go to the club until most of my brothers were already heavily into leagues, training camps, and tournaments. What caught my attention was that a lot of people were wearing shirts with depictions of American and Chinese flags in the shape of ping pong paddles with slogans like “Ping Pong Peace” and “Ping Pong Power.” Everyone kept talking about China, table tennis, and Richard Nixon. I asked someone what they were talking about.
“Don’t you know?!”
I said, “Hey, I’m just a little kid. I don’t know. But I would like to know.” So I received a quick history lesson about Ping Pong Diplomacy. In essence, China and the United States were enemies for a long time until Chairman Mao invited the U.S. table tennis team to China. This news made headlines all over the world. And now everyone knows that table tennis is the sport that changed the world.
The sentence from that story that would reverberate in my head was: “Table tennis is the sport that changed the world.”
“Table tennis is the sport that changed the world,” I thought, “well, then it’s the sport for me!”
From that day on, I’ve been committed to promoting our sport and carrying on the legacy of Ping Pong Diplomacy. Ironically, my zeal didn’t leave me a lot of time to actually play the sport.
Later on, I learned another interesting piece of news. Charlie, who had often encouraged club members to experience table tennis at the international level by attending the World Table Tennis Championships, had been to the WTTC’s in 1971 as well in 1975. It was at the WTTC’s in 1971 that the U.S. team was invited to visit China. As people close to the story know, China chose to issue the invitation to the U.S. not through the USTTA President Graham Steenhoven, but through Rufford Harrison. When Charlie got wind of the invitation, he said, “Well, has anyone informed the president?” That was how it happened that it was he who tracked down Graham Steenhoven to share the news.
As that story reveals, Charlie was indeed a character. And it’s not surprising that when it came time to change the club’s old name of “Magoo’s,” Charlie chose to name the club after himself and the hint of a magical promise: “Disney’s.” We even had our “costumes.” Being serious about our sport meant that we always dressed the part. Table tennis brand clothing was required. And, eventually, we all owned tracksuits with “Disney’s” neatly embroidered on the jacket.
In essence, I, along with several of my brothers, grew up at the wonderful world of Disney’s. Charlie always took a lot of pride in what even our own Mom (who passed away in 1993) would give him credit for: “raising the Soderbergs.”
Long before our ITTF President Adham Sharara introduced the concepts of P4, now P5, and DBI, our club was living it. Periodic meetings and a club newsletter informed the membership of the strategic PLANNING and priorities to help support the club’s PROFIT intention. PARTICIPATION and POPULARITY were everyone’s responsibility. And we were all involved in multiple aspects of PROMOTION.
There was no need for “Date-Base Intelligence” because it was already the way we all operated. By watching Charlie’s example, we viewed strangers as friends we just hadn’t met before. So, when newcomers came to the club, whether they were foreigners or walk-ins, we were always friendly and helpful. Many people joined our table tennis family. By getting to know them, even though many of us were very young, we could help steer them toward one of our club’s needs. And Charlie made sure that we all got exposed to different aspects of the sport. Almost no one would have thought of themselves as “only players.”
"Friendship First, Competition Second," was a popular Ping Pong Diplomacy slogan. It could just as easily have been our club's motto. Our club had an underlying esprit de corps. There people found their self-expression by volunteering as tournament organizers, promoters, coaches, umpires, writers, managers, salespeople, etc. It seemed that there was always someone who gravitated toward doing the things that were required to keep Disney’s running as an ongoing enterprise.
At the same time, there was always an urgency with Charlie. He was extremely committed to “getting kids off the street and into the club.” Perhaps because he had lost his father at the age of 9, he was especially concerned about targeting troubled or neglected youth. He felt that the direction they needed could be found at the club and the kids would be much better off “addicted” to our sport than drugs or alcohol.
Charlie had a talent for bringing out everyone’s own unique gifts. He often would encourage newcomers with the words, "I can see you've got potential." Then we would all see amazing transformations!
That’s how it was. Our lives revolved around Disney’s, where we made lifelong friends. We all flourished and had lots of unforgettable stories about our adventures into far off places because we learned genuinely to value and appreciate others as well as to be curious about the world.
Some of us followed in his footsteps serving on USATT's Board (Gus Kennedy, Sheila O'Dougherty and me). And I, like him, served as president of USA Table Tennis.
Others went on to represent the U.S. as members of our National team -- Brandon Olson, Sheila O'Dougherty, Takako Trenholme, and Mitch Seidenfeld. Like Charlie, who was a 10-time state champion, my brother John, at the age of 15, took the title.
All of Minnesota’s three USATT Hall of Famers – Bob Fox, Mitch Seidenfeld, and Gus Kennedy – were products of Disney’s.
While all five of my brothers spent a lot of time at the club, John and Jerry were the most serious. In later years, when we would attend U.S. Opens, people used to say, "John goes to play. Jerry goes to watch. And Sheri goes to talk!"
Through Disney’s, I met a lot of international stars, some of whom later became my friends, among them were Zlatko Cordas (the ITTF’s first Competition Manager) and Zdenko Uzorinac, (the author of Table Tennis Legends), who visited Disney’s in the early 1970s. Zoran Kasanovic and Houshang Bozorgzadeh were other international visitors. Charlie also had recruited three players from Thailand – Charlie Wuvanich, Chuchai Chan and Apichart Sears – to be our club’s pros right around the mid-1970s.
For those of us who grew up in that special era of the club's heyday, we learned to live life to the fullest. So, last March, when my family received news that Charlie Disney was coming to visit us in Florida, it was treated as a special occasion. Along with Jerry, John, and me, our brothers Jim and Jeff were also in town. I remember especially the funny anecdotes all of us were sharing with our Dad and Stepmom one night. And Charlie, as always, was brimming with pride about what a good job he'd done raising us!
It's not often that shortly before one passes away he gets to have his life and his contributions especially highlighted. But that's exactly what happened. I especially enjoyed going out to lunch and dinner with him most of the days during his visit. I thanked him for the difference he’d made in my life and told him, in particular, about my latest venture: the trip to Dubai where the ITTF’s P5 and DBI were unveiled. “It’s all because of you, Charlie, that I’ve had so many great experiences and opportunities,” I told him.
Last weekend, we celebrated the many contributions he had made to all of our lives. Along with having the chance to gather with so many friends again, we met his sister Susie Kanemitsu, and her son, Daniel. And they became part of our happy table tennis family too.
At one point, Don Larson produced a decree from the State of Minnesota in 1972 declaring June 17th as Table Tennis Day, along with a photo of Don Larson, my Mom, the then Governor of Minnesota Wendell Anderson, Rich Sinykin and Charlie Disney.
I told everyone, “Then I will honor Charlie on June 17th.”
Thank you, Charlie, because of you, what a life so many of us have had!
May the celebrations of his life continue. Personally I hope that he's in heaven regaling my mom and my sister with many stories. May he, like them, rest eternally in peace. But chances are, if it’s up to him, he’s also hustling new prospects. I can just picture him now with his famous promotional pitch, “I can see you’ve got potential.”