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Frank Deford
August 29, 1966
As a racial symbol Arthur Ashe sometimes has trouble keeping a straight face. On the tennis court, only lack of concentration stands between him and greatness
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August 29, 1966

Service, But First A Smile

As a racial symbol Arthur Ashe sometimes has trouble keeping a straight face. On the tennis court, only lack of concentration stands between him and greatness

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In spite of his limited means, Dr. Johnson is a true philanthropist. He has helped young Negro players for two decades now; National Women's Champion Althea Gibson was previously his most famous graduate. A bunch of them could be found this summer, too, playing on the court next to his comfortable frame house in a mixed neighborhood of Lynchburg. There were Negro boys and girls from New York and Durham, N.C., from Dayton, Ohio and from right next door, and a white girl and a Japanese-American girl from California. Dr. J., as they call him, puts them up, feeds them (Arthur, Dr. J. recalls, had a weird craving for rice), teaches them and carries them around to tournaments. They practice and play on his court—all day and even into the evening under the lights. The younger kids from the neighborhood swarm about with Dr. J.'s grandchildren—into the box bushes and the flower garden, over the jungle gym and even onto the court. But in all this pandemonium somebody is always slugging a tennis ball. Somebody is always learning.

It was the same sort of sticky southern summer when Arthur first came up to Lynchburg at the age of 10. "He was the youngest in the group and so skinny he looked like he had rickets," Dr. Johnson says. Ashe was not as good or as natural as many of the others, but he was quick, he had fast eyes and he always worked harder.

The only time he ever caused any trouble was upon his arrival, when he refused to do anything that clashed with what Ronald Charity had taught him. Dr. Johnson called Arthur's father, who the next morning made the three-hour bus trip up into the Virginia Piedmont, through Prince Edward County and then past Appomattox to Lynchburg, where he patiently explained to his son that it was Charity who had sent him here. He might as well come home if he was not going to do what Dr. Johnson said. Arthur listened to his father. He thought it over and stayed.

"I have never once in all my life talked back to my father," Arthur says. "My younger brother, Johnny—he's in the Marines ready to go to Vietnam now—he'd question him sometimes, and I'd shudder. I'd feel awful if I ever did anything at all bad that my father found out about. He trusts me completely."

Ashe's mother, Mattie Cunningham Ashe, died when he was 6 following an operation. Ronald Charity remembers the lazy Sunday morning. He was sitting out by the court with a group of kids when Mr. Ashe came out of the house and called Arthur. Charity watched the skinny little boy go to his father and then into the house with him, where he learned the news. "Well, Daddy, as long as we're together," Arthur said, "everything will be all right."

Ashe Sr. maintains that nothing Arthur has done since has made him so proud. "Look at these trophies," he says, his arm sweeping over the living room. "I'd just as soon take them, the ones in the attic and that placard from the city, and throw them all into the junk heap if he ever did anything to disgrace me." Mr. Ashe is never just melodramatic. He took Arthur the first day he went to the Baker Street school, ambling at his son's pace. It took 10 minutes. "That gave Arthur 10 minutes to get to school and 10 minutes to get back. Not 11," he explains. "And he was never late. I never laid a switch to him."

Mr. Ashe refused to farm his sons out to relatives but instead brought in a housekeeper until he remarried a few years later. He was determined to have a family life, as he had not had as a boy, and he was keeping a promise to his wife. "It was the last time I spoke to her," he says. "She looked up and said, *If anything should happen to me, Arthur, the boys are yours. I didn't born the children for your mother, and I didn't born them for mine. I born the children for you, Arthur.' "

It is his mother that Arthur takes after, in manner and appearance. On the mantel there is a picture of Mattie Ashe, an elegant, lovely lady in a long pink dress. The delicate features and the light skin are almost perfectly repeated in her oldest son. "Arthur Jr. has always been just like her," Mr. Ashe says. "Timid, quiet. She wouldn't swap three words with anyone. She wouldn't argue with a soul."

Despite this resemblance, Ashe's determination and ease, as well as his athletic ability, most surely come from his paternal forebears, especially Edward Ashe, the amazing man who was Arthur Sr.'s father. And Arthur Jr. shares something else with his grandfather—an ambiguous racial situation. For in a race-conscious society Edward Ashe had to manage as neither white nor black. He was half American Indian, half Mexican and known as Pink Ashe. "He wore a big, turned-up mustache out to here," Arthur Sr. says.

Pink Ashe was never fazed. He was a master carpenter and bricklayer, and such a craftsman that he could pick his own jobs. He was a ladies' man, possessed of a fine singing voice and an impressive capacity for whiskey. Arthur Sr. had six brothers and sisters, but altogether Pink Ashe fathered 27 children. Mr. Ashe can remember one afternoon when five of the other 20 children showed up out of the blue from Washington, D.C. in a Model T. Pink was so perturbed that he promptly disappeared, and Mr. Ashe heard nothing of Pink until 11 years later, when Mr. Ashe walked into a revival meeting in Durham, N.C. and found his father singing louder than anyone else.

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