It’s difficult to get a “grip” on how the passion for tennis shared by a few cattle and goat ranchers and peanut farmers in Mason County could evolve from a “country” sport into a legacy of Texas athletics. One thing is certain: the pioneers of this hill country community, known for their grit and endurance, could never have imagined that the tennis racquets they carried in their pickups along with their deer rifles and ropes would propel their children and grandchildren all the way into the 2013 U.I.L. archives as the “Winningest tennis town in Texas”. Mason has unsurpassed U.I.L. tennis records with 80 State U.I.L. Championships; two 4-time consecutive state tennis championships; the first team to win a four-sweep U.I.L. Championship; 22 State Team Championships; and two coaches inducted into the Texas Tennis Hall of Fame (Helen Tallent and Paul Smith). All of this was accomplished over the course of fifty years with merely four coaches. Only Dallas Highland Park, a much larger school system that is very well endowed financially, comes anywhere close with 45 State U.I.L. championships. (That’s still 30 fewer than Mason.)
U.I.L. Boy’s Tennis in Texas began in 1914, and U.I.L. Girl’s Tennis was added in 1920. In 1935, Steve Latham won Mason’s first U.I.L. State Singles Championship in his senior year. His father, Judge Latham, taught him as a young boy to play on their backyard dirt court.
Around 1933, third-graders Helen Sell (Tallent), Doris Kasper (Grote) and Frances Kruse (Bode) were taught tennis at Peter’s Prairie School by Walter Adkins. In the Art school area, Roy and Rae Lehmberg were teaching themselves to play tennis on a similar patch of bare earth with cedar posts holding up a “net”. Racquets, if you could claim to own one back then, cost a quarter. For Mason, the love for the game of tennis had begun!
Childhood friends Helen Sell (Tallent) and Frances Kruse (Bode) were born 4 days apart and grew up 3 miles from each other. They became life-long friends and life-long doubles partners. In 1941 and ’42, these small-town tennis partners advanced to the State U.I.L. finals competition in Girls Doubles, prior to Class Divisions, which had them competing against what would now be classified as 5A schools. After completing college, both ladies returned to Mason to teach school and began fostering the love of tennis among another generation. Around 1955, Billy Bode, Frances Bode’s husband, convinced the Mason Jaycees and the PTA, with strong support from Marvin McMillan, to supply the labor to build the first two Mason multi-purpose courts. In 1961, Helen Sell Tallent served as the first coach, with the support of Frances Kruse Bode, in the school’s tennis program and was soon winning matches around the state. Her teams accomplished this on two concrete courts full of grass-filled cracks! Helen, for the greater part of her 17 years coaching, never received a coaching salary until Roy Lehmberg shamed the school board into paying her an annual stipend of $100. She taught and played for the love of the game and the children. Both ladies held strongly to their belief that to build a winning program, you had to start the kids young and provide good facilities.
The lady partners were responsible for launching the “Mason Open” as a way of raising money to build more courts in order to provide more playing time for kids and the community. Not much public interest or support was generated in those early years, so in 1967 they had to beg, borrow and (in their words) practically steal everything they needed to start the tournament. The Mason National Bank donated the first trophies for the tournament; Jack Hofmann sold concessions out of the back of his ranch truck; and the used tennis balls were sold after the tournament for $1 a dozen to recoup the cost of tournament balls. The first tournament generated 146 entries, which were played on two town courts and two country courts in three days.
It was from this tournament and the community’s growing interest in the game of tennis that the Mason Tennis Association (MTA) was organized with the express purpose of building two more courts. Jack Hofmann was elected as MTA’s first president. By 1970, there were a total of six courts. In 1974, another four were added, bringing the total to ten courts. In 1975, the “Mason Open”, which began with 146 entries, had grown to 1,120 entries! In November of 1976, Sports Illustrated was so taken with Mason Tennis Madness that they did a six page article appropriately titled “TENNIS IS HOME ON THE RANGE”. You can’t talk about the growth of the Mason Open without mentioning 1973, when Mason shut down half of the town square in order to set up courts for overflow entries. Billy Bode, Roy Lehmberg, Jack Hofmann, Kelly Schmidt and few fellow cohorts drew lime lines on the square and made improvised backstops from chicken wire (which are reportedly still stored in Billy’s barn for future use). The backstops were constructed by Al McDonald and Grosse's Lumber. With growing interest, support and participation, courts were popping up in the country like wildflowers! According to the Sports Illustrated article, “Mason’s twenty three courts equated to something like 12,500 courts in a city the size of San Francisco.”
Frances and Helen were always there running the show. Their families and friends were steadily drawn into their mission of building a tennis program in Mason. Committees were needed to house participants in the Mason Open, work concessions and manage transportation to the country courts. Imagine housing over 1,100 kids and adults in a county of 1,200! If you were a member of MTA, you were obliged to have one or more houseguests. By 1976, MTA membership grew to over 400 members. Carlene Brollier kept the records and pictures. Jack Hofmann was still running the concessions (but with help now) and also had the new task of keeping records and minutes of the meetings, which he did…in the brim of his hat. It’s believed, if his old hat were found, his concession totals and cattle sales would still be there. Jane and Corky Eckert were transporters, hosts, cooks, and players and to this day… they still are!
When you live in a small town, you often have to make your own fun, and that is exactly what those ranchers with racquets did during the glory days of rural Mason tennis. During the 1970s, impromptu tournaments were held at the Dan Lehmberg, Roy Lehmberg, Corky Eckert and Billy Bode ranch courts with pot-luck dinners and ten to twenty people playing well past midnight for the privilege to claim the most coveted ART WORLD INVITATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP. The trophy was hand-made by Tim Lehmberg out of wood with a hot iron and to this day is a much sought-after keepsake, with many families claiming the final championship and wondering who has the trophy. Tennis had become a Mason way of life. When work on the ranch or farm was completed…then it was time to play! There is some confusion whether tennis in Mason was started for kids or for their parents. Either way, it began a love of the game that has been shared for a full three generations, with a fourth generation taking up the racquets as well.
It’s fair to say that Mason tennis began about seventy-eight years ago with a recorded win in 1935. Today, in 2013, the tennis bug still has a hold on the kids and the community. Nothing succeeds like success, and Coach Paul Smith has 21 State Team Tennis wins and 60 State U.I.L. Championships to his credit. Of course, no coach could have done it without the kids and the support of the community. Reflecting on Mason’s tennis history, we’ve been able to follow Helen Tallent’s advice of starting them early and providing them with good facilities. Brenda Lehmberg Lange taught many of the state champions in their early years, and today, Susan Grote continues the tradition of teaching Mason’s youngsters the basics of the game, even some of those fourth generation players!
We’ve lost a few of the great players who were instrumental in Mason’s tennis legacy, but there are still quite a few of them around, several of whom are in their eighties and early nineties. Some of those “originals” still play the game on Sundays at the Bode Ranch.
Join us in honoring the pioneers of Mason tennis Saturday, June 15 at 9:00 A.M as we dedicate The Tennis Pavilion in their honor, followed by the first Mason Tennis Founder’s Day Reunion Tournament.
When did it really begin, what’s the secret of Mason’s success and how far can it go…
Who knows…Let’s just play tennis!