Nehemiah Atkinson (September 8,1918 – February 9,2003)
The following is a portion of the Obituary published in the New Orleans Times Picayune on February 19, 2003.
Nehemiah Atkinson, a retired tennis professional, entered into “Father’s House of Many Mansions” on Sunday, February 9, 2003, at 10:10 a.m. Funeral services at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, February 19, 2003 at Ephesus Seventh Day Adventist Church, 2400 Delachaise Street Corner LaSalle Street. Final resting place, Biloxi National Cemetry, Biloxi, Mississippi. (Section 54, Site 381.)
The Repass held at Stern Tennis Center, New Orleans, Louisiana, on Thursday at 4:00 p.m. Invitees: Triumph The Church and Kingdom of God in Christ Church and all tennis professional players and teams.
Nehemiah Atkinson was born in Biloxi, Mississippi, on September 8, 1918, to C.C. and Josephine Atkinson. His family moved to New Orleans in his youth when his father was appointed as Bishop of the diocese of the Holiness Church. He attended Thomy Lafon and J. W. Hoffman schools in New Orleans, and at the Louisiana Industrial Training School in Farmerville.
Lyman, Tim “Jumping the Net With skill and grace, Nehemiah Atkinson has redrawn the boundaries of tennis in New Orleans.” Gambit 10 December 2002.
When World War II began, he entered into the Army. After completing basic training, he was assigned to the 97th Regiment, the Army’s Black Corp of Engineers. The 97th was assigned to help build The Alcan Highway. After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States military was fearful of an attack on the West Coast and/or Alaska. The military decreed that a better connection between the remote territory and the lower 48 states was essential, and the ALCAN (Alaska-Canada) was the solution. 11,000 soldiers, including 4,000 from the 97th, bulldozed their way into engineering history. Stretching 1,500 miles from British Columbia to Fairbanks, Alaska, the ALCAN traverses incredibly difficulty and hostile territory, crossing the Canadian Rockies, raging rivers and dense forest. Remarkably, it was built in just eight months. The 97th served in Alaska until March, of 1944; after a short tour in the U.S., was shipped to the Pacific Theater. It remained there until the end of the war.
After the war, Mr. Atkinson returned to New Orleans. He began teaching tennis to the youth in his community during the day while holding night jobs. He used public parks and the tennis courts at Xavier University.
In 1973, the New Orleans Lawn Tennis Club moved to a new location, and the City of New Orleans acquired the tennis facility on South Saratoga Street and renamed it the Stern Tennis Center, honoring Mr. Percival Stern, a local philanthropist.
The New Orleans Recreation Department (NORD) needed a tennis professional for the facility, and Atkinson was named Director. He held this position until his retirement in 1995. In his honor, the tennis facility is known as the Stern-Atkinson Tennis Center.
BLACK COLLEGIAN ARTICLE:
The following article entitled “Elderly Tennis Phenom Nehemiah Atkinson Spends his Golden Years on the World’s Tennis Courts”, was written by Mr. Robert G. Miller in April of 2001, appeared on blackcollegianonline, The article is reproduced, in its entirety, by permission of blackcollegianonline. www.black-collegian.com.
Nehemiah Atkinson first hit a tennis ball as a nine-year-old boy in the Deep South long before the start of the Great Depression. Now, over seven decades later and nearly 83 years of age, he’s still swinging a racket but now capturing worldwide recognition on the international tennis circuit for seniors.
Atkinson is truly a man before his time. As a young African-American child in New Orleans, he was attracted to the game of tennis, which was largely confined to the ranks of the elite. According to Atkinson, tennis was and still is a white man’s game. But he didn’t understand racial barriers and was determined not to let them interfere with his or other African American’s enjoyment of the game. What resulted was a lifetime of work to encourage more minorities to learn the game and expand their cultural exposure. After a stint in the Army during World War II, Atkinson studied offset printing, worked a night job as a supervisor for a Coca-Cola plant and gave private tennis lessons during the day to affluent whites. In all, he has taught tennis to untold numbers of young people of different ethnic backgrounds including nearly a 23-year track record as the tennis instructor and supervisor for the New Orleans Recreation Department, retiring in 1995. He believes in giving back to the community. This is evident from his longtime volunteer work with the American Tennis Association and the establishment of the Nehemiah Atkinson Scholarship Foundation. Numerous young tennis players have attended college because of Atkinson’s work.
Patience has its rewards and Atkinson has plenty of it. His crowning achievements as a tennis pro came in 1999. He reaped the benefits of his perseverance in high-level competition by winning four gold balls in national and international matches. After years of finishing near the top in his age division in national competition, Atkinson succeeded in winning a national singles championship in the Men’s 80s(age bracket) National Hard-court Championship in San Diego. This milestone victory came on the heels of Atkinson’s winning the gold ball in doubles with his Florida partner Gardnar Mulloy against a Spanish team during the World International Senior Tennis Championships in Barcelona, Spain. He is currently ranked number one in nine southern states. “I’ve had a lot of fun playing in the senior tennis tournaments. I’ve met some of the best tennis players in the world such as Bitsy Grant, Bobby Riggs, and Gardnar Mulloy, and it has been a thrill to play with them, “ he said. Atkinson is not bashful in assessing his success in senior tournaments. He remarked, “I’ve got better wheels than most people I play. Also, I play a lot of young folks and I’m simply out on the court a lot. Tennis keeps you young. It stimulates your heart, keeps your body in shape and your eyes sharp.”
Atkinson expects to play abroad at least once this spring in the World International Tennis Championship in Australia, senior’s division for players in their 80’s and he’ll compete this year in four national tournaments in San Diego, California; East Orange, New Jersey; Arlington, Virginia; and Boise, Idaho. When asked if the had any advice for senior tennis players, Atkinson, who has played before in international tournaments in Australia, Spain, and South Africa asserted, “it’s important to remember that tennis is played with the mind. You need to be patient and learn from your matches in order to continue to improve.” Ironically, Atkinson, a son of a preacher, made it to the top of the senior tennis circuit without ever having a tennis lesson himself. As he philosophically states, “God blessed me with everything I needed. It’s a hard road to travel in achieving success, but anyone can do it with hard work, dedication, and the will to win.”
Nehemiah Atkinson is the essence of a winner for all ages to follow.
RETIREMENT/ SENIOR TENNIS YEARS/HONORS
In fact, Atkinson did travel to Perth, Australia in April and May, of 2001, to compete in the IFT Super Seniors World Championships. Playing in the 80’s Singles, he defeated Frank Thomas in the semis 6-1, 6-1. Nehemiah, who was seated #2 then defeated the number #1- seated Robert Sherman 6-2, 6-1 in the finals.
He had been a member of the Gardnar Mulloy Cup IFT Team (80-84 age) in 1999 and 2000.
Other championships include:
1999, Atkinson and William Kuntz won the USTA Doubles Men’s Clay Court 80’s
2000, Atkinson and Gardnar Mulloy won the USTA Doubles Men’s Grass Court 80’s
2000, Atkinson won the Men’s USTA Singles Hard Court Championship 80’s
Southern Tennis: A History in Words and Pictures, page 70, Nehemiah Atkinson has a full -page picture with these words:
“Nehemiah Atkinson was recognized as a Louisiana legend long before he was inducted into the Southern Hall of Fame in 1997. He began playing in New Orleans during the 1940’s and was nationally known for leading the effort to provide facilities for young players. For 22 years, he was Director of Tennis for the City of New Orleans.
Atkinson won more than 15 Southern titles and represented Louisiana in the Southern Cup competition. He served as Captain for Team Southern’s Men’s 75 team, earning Silver Balls in the USTA national competition, and won the USPTR Men’s 70 Singles. In 1993, he was the USPTR Player of the Year. He was honored as the recipient of the first Kennedy Ripple of Hope Award and the T.N. Touchstone, Jr. Memorial Trophy, which is presented to a senior player who displays outstanding sportsmanship and support of southern tennis.”
Nehemiah Atkinson had previously been inducted into these two Halls of Fame:
1986 – Louisiana Tennis Hall of Fame
2000- Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame
The following was posted on the Professional Tennis Registry website: PTR was founded in 1976 by the world- renowned coach Dennis Van der Meer. Dennis saw the need to develop a universal language and progressions for teaching tennis. With approximately 14,00 members in 110 countries, internationally recognized tennis teaching certification, and more than 190 National and International Testers.
They also host an annual tournament, in which Nehemiah won the Men’s 65 Singles Championships in both 1989 and 1990. Later, he won the Men’s 70+ Singles in 1994 through 1997 and 2000-2001.
Also, the Professional Tennis Registry Foundation has established the Nehemiah Atkinson Humanitarian Grant. The grant is usually given to an individual who has demonstrated a remarkable commitment to improving the lives of others.
The grant is awarded annually at the PTR International Tennis Symposium.
Dan Miller, winner of 32 Gold Balls (National/International Championships in Senior play) played Nehemiah many times in both singles and doubles. He remembers watching Mr. Atkinson play doubles at a tournament and was so impressed by his serve, by his youthfulness and by all four players over 80 years of age who were having a great time playing this great game of tennis. Miller remembers that Nehemiah served as a pallbearer at Arthur Ashe’s funeral.
Miller observed that Atkinson often played doubles with Howard Kuntz and Paul Decamp, both from New Orleans. Both Kuntz and DeCamp were pallbearers at his funeral. (Dr. Paul T. DeCamp was inducted into the Louisiana Tennis Hall of Fame in 2003.)
Lloyd Dillon, a New Orleans tennis professional, remembers Mr. Atkinson.
“I can remember when Mr. Atkinson visited my high school in 1954. He played a classmate of mine who was also a good tennis player. Mr. Atkinson impressed me by the way he moved around on the basketball blacktop court converted into a tennis court for that event. He looked like he was gliding on air.
“Mr. A. ran tennis programs and used old wood racquets for kids each summer. He taught the basic tennis strokes, forehand, backhand, and serve; as well as the rules of the game. He had a way that made you love the game, even if you didn’t have any experience with the game.
“There were not tennis courts available for Blacks at that time in our neighborhood. Mr. A would use volleyball nets in parking lots or any place with space close by.
“Mr. A gave trophies to all participants. I remember that well because the first day I went to the program I received one. I didn’t take tennis very seriously because I was busy with other sports. In my neighborhood tennis was called a timid game in the ‘50’s. But, he made me stick with it. I became a solid junior player but not a Junior Tournament player, for I couldn’t afford to attend tournaments. He would always tell us about outstanding Black tennis players, and about the American Tennis Association. The ATA was founded 96 years ago for Blacks, since Blacks could not join the USTA.
“Mr. A recommend me to the tennis coach at Grambling State University as ‘fair to ok tennis player.’ I received a ½ tennis scholarship. However, tennis was not a popular sport and there were not many African American universities with tennis teams.
I received a degree from Grambling and began coaching sports at high schools and junior high schools for the following 30 years. In 1979 Mr. A hired me to work in that span of time as a New Orleans recreation leader assistant. The job paid $7.16 an hour. He knew I had a way to deal with children in a fair way, so he assigned me to organize and supervise the Junior Tennis Program at Stern Tennis Center.
“At that time I started playing tennis with him each morning, and I became a much better player. We then began playing as partners in doubles tournaments.
“ I saw the need to become a tennis instructor. Mr. A gave me his tennis racquet and his blessings. I passed the test with the Professional Tennis Registry, was certified and became a National Tester.
“ Mr. A was more of a father to me than my own daddy. He was all truth, honest, goodwill and treated everyone fairly. He never compared abilities in players. He taught a love for tennis.”
“He told me he was not going to retire unless he was certain that I got his job. Well, I did, but I knew it was going to be a tall order to do half of what he did with tennis and his life. Sometimes when I would get upset, he would always tell me to read Psalms 37:2,3.
Peace be with you.”
I was the Director of the Nehemiah Atkinson Tennis Scholarship Foundation, which was the main source of revenue for scholarships. We gave numerous upstart $500.00 scholarships to high school student tennis players. Unfortunately, the Foundation has been defunct since 2005, with the advent of Hurricane Katrinia.