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John Crockett - An Unexpected Life

July 3, 2018 04:05 PM

An Unexpected Life


John Crockett did not pick up a tennis racket until he reached his fifties. Soon after that he wrote a surprisingly popular book about the game


By Toby Smith


I moved to Albuquerque in 1976. Rather than look for a job, I looked for a place to play tennis.

Driving about the city one Saturday afternoon I happened to pass the Albuquerque Academy. At that time no iron fence circled the campus as it does today. One entrance to the private school back then was a paved, uphill path veering off what is now Wyoming Boulevard.

When I motored up that driveway I came upon two banks of five tennis courts. This was some time before the Academy installed 16 handsome courts that sit just south of Harper Road.

In the 1970s, anyone could play at the Academy courts free of charge.
By the early 1980s, school officials requested patrons to pay portrait_cropped$20 for a yearly a membership and a key to the courts’ locked gates. I signed on.  

The first person I met on those Academy courts was a tall, stout fellow with a black caterpillar below his nose, a full head of hair and a grin like an open window. “John Crockett,” he boomed as we introduced ourselves. We rallied for about ten minutes when he approached the net and asked, “Look, why don’t we play a set?” 

“Sure,” I answered.

Right away I saw that nobody would mistake John Crockett for John McEnroe. John Crockett was a public parks guy with homemade ground strokes and less-than moderate speed about the court.  By today’s standards would be rated somewhere south of 4.0.

We eventually exchanged telephone numbers and made plans to hit with each other again.   


The man from Montana

In between our hitting John and I would occasionally chat. He told me he was from Montana. He had been in the Navy during the Korean War and was now in sales. In early 1977, I started working at the Albuquerque Journal. I was a newspaper reporter, I told him.

Not long after our Academy encounters, John filled me in about Beverly Park, which featured, he said, a large number of city-owned, terraced tennis courts that stood near I-40 and Louisiana. Built in the 1960s, Beverly had quickly become Tennis Central in Albuquerque.   

When I showed up at Beverly, or the Bev, as it was known, I swiftly realized how many tennis friends John had. Many of the men (and a few women) on the dozen courts there knew John well and paused to give him a shout-out.  

In the same manner, Beverly Park players appreciated John’s company, I noticed, because he laughed a lot. In fact, his resounding hoot could often be heard after he flubbed an easy shot. There was very little not to enjoy about the man.

“Everybody liked John,” Bill Wieser, 75, and retired from the realty business told me.

John and several of his tennis pals, I soon learned, had nicknamed themselves “The Beverly Bullies.” Such an appellation was made in jest and had nothing to do with being tough guys.


Lobs, laughter and late nights

“John would show up at Beverly when he finished work, often still dressed in a suit and tie,” Joel McCrillis said.  “He would take off his suit jacket and necktie and then join in, say, a doubles game, still wearing a collared dress shirt and his laced-up oxford shoes. “

“God, he loved the game,” Ken Summers recalled.

Tom Bise, a solid player in New Mexico during the’70s and ’80s, was a Beverly Bully. “John became a very good friend of mine,” Bise, now 73, and living in Laguna Woods, California, said in a telephone interview.   

Bise chuckled at the memory of traveling to El Paso with John to play in a tournament.  “To save money, we decided to share a motel room. I asked John if he snored. He said, ‘No, not at all.’  Ha! That night his snoring nearly blew the roof off our room.”

Bill Wieser had a similar experience when he doubled up in a motel with John.  “After that, I always took along earplugs.”

On occasion John would take leave of the Bev’s courts. He told me a couple of times his wife would be angry with him if he played any longer. He had two young daughters at home and a lawn to mow.

There were times when John would stay on a Beverly court until it was nearly dark.  He always had a match going somewhere in town, it seemed. He would regularly enter what then were called ABC tournaments.  These were self-rated local events, forerunners to today’s NTRP.

More than once I heard John say, “My wife is a tennis widow.”

John’s age at the time, this being approximately 1980, was over 50, I was certain. A job as a sales engineer for Texaco had brought him to Albuquerque in 1968. Before then he had not played much tennis—if any—growing up in a tiny, rural town in the far north of Montana. Not long after he arrived in Albuquerque, John discovered tennis. It was like he had found a chest of buried doubloons in his backyard. He was drawn immediately to the sport and he desperately wanted to get better, no matter how old he was or how long it might take.  He seemed to be practicing all the time—hitting against one of the two backboards at Beverly Park or hunting up someone to take on at the Academy.

In his attempt to catch up to better players, John became a member of Sierra Vista Tennis Club, which opened in 1974. The club sat on the site that is now Highpoint Sports & Wellness.  

He began to take lessons from Luis Cuadra, a native of Puerto Rico who then was the head pro at Sierra Vista. Cuadra, 82, and living in Colorado Springs, remembers his pupil well.  “John was a little different,” Cuadra related. “I think he was a 3.0 when I first saw him. He would talk to himself during a lesson.  He had written down some tips on the throat of his racket, such as ‘Keep your eyes on the ball,’ and ‘Move your feet.’ ”

In spite of John’s idiosyncrasies, the two men became very good friends.

After his lessons John would often sit on Sierra Vista’s patio, which  faced Court No. 1. He would study how others played, their good points and bad.

“Oh, I remember him” Alice Smith, long a Sierra Vista regular, reminisced.  “Who could forget that moustache!”

Because I worked for a newspaper, John would periodically ask me about writing. He said he’d like to try his hand at it, maybe even write a book some day. What stopped him, he said, was lack of a subject.

“You ever consider writing about tennis?” I asked.

“You know, I just might do that,” he said. 

In early 1982, some friends of mine held a party at their Albuquerque home to celebrate a book that I had written and that and was published by the University of New Mexico Press. I invited John to the affair, gave him directions and told him to bring along his wife. 

Before he left the party that night, John congratulated me.  He then revealed he had started working on that book about tennis, the subject I had mentioned. Now it was my turn to offer kudos. Though I saluted his news, I had my doubts about his book seeing print.    

I based such feelings on the belief that John had likely never written anything except a sales report for Texaco. On top of that, he was hardly a tennis expert. He definitely wasn’t a crackerjack player or even a coach. He was simply crazy-mad about the game.

As time passed, I would wonder how things were going with John. We weren’t playing much tennis together as we once had. My job at the Journal involved frequent out-of-town trips and night work. That left me with little free time.


A finished product

One afternoon in the fall of 1982, John telephoned me.  He said that the tennis book I had suggested to him some months before had been published. He wanted to give me a signed copy. 

To say I was stunned would be an understatement.

We made arrangements to meet in the Journal building, then located downtown, at 7th and Silver.
There John handed me a slim, crockett_book_jacket_croppedhardcover book with a mustard-colored jacket.
The jacket was decorated with cartoon-like illustrations. More drawings were found inside.

The title was: “From the Bottom of the Tennis Ladder.”

I couldn’t help but shake John’s hand, for I was genuinely happy for him. That he had talked about wanting to write a book, deep down I never expected that to actually happen.  The fact that it did happen—and so quickly—was absolutely remarkable. 

At home that night I browsed the book. Its 15 chapters ran 77 pages. The price was $7.95. The many made-up characters in the book were obviously modeled from John’s tennis days in New Mexico. Indeed, the book’s acknowledgements page listed 30 people, most of whom he had observed over the years on Albuquerque courts.  


Then came the reviews

A week or so later, John telephoned me at work This time he wanted to talk about how he might go about getting his book reviewed.  I told him to bring in a copy and I would give it to someone at the Journal, which I did.

“From the Bottom of the Tennis Ladder” was reviewed by Ed Johnson, then a sports writer who still works at the Journal. Ed gave the book a kind review and introduced John’s amusing characters, such as the Grumpy Grinder, the Hot Dog, the Hacker, the Super Slapper and so forth. All were types John wrote, that you had to get past in order to move up the tennis ladder, rung by rung.

After that review appeared, John asked me about getting a review in Albuquerque’s other newspaper, the Tribune. Though I didn’t know much of the inner-workings of the Trib, I suggested he talk to Dave Nordstrand, a talented Tribune columnist. John didn’t waste a moment. He hurried across the hall to the Tribune’s office where he personally thrust a copy of the book into Nordstrand’s hands. Nordstrand praised the book generously and said readers might want to buy copies as Christmas gifts.   

At the end of his review, Nordstrand revealed that John was already at work on a second book. It would be part of a three-volume set. The first volume would be called “How to Lose Your Way to Winning Tennis.”

Norm Zollinger, one of John’s tennis-playing buddies at Beverly Park, held a book-signing for John at Zollinger’s Little Professor bookstore at Fair Plaza Shopping Center. I heard from friends that a sizable crowd had lined up to buy an autographed copy.

My amusement at John’s successes didn’t stop there. In March 1983, John sent me a copy of a review published in Athletic Journal, a magazine aimed at athletic directors, coaches and trainers. 

The Athletic Journal reviewer wrote this:
“In delightful humorous style, and appropriately illustrated, the author offers a guidebook forAthletic_Journal_magazine players taking up tennis in their adulthood.” 

There seemed to be no end to John’s good fortune. My first book had received a single review, which among other things, pointed out two misspellings. However, I refused to take a walk down Jealousy Lane. Instead, I told John I was proud of his literary achievement. And I truly was.

As the mid-1980s loomed, I stopped playing tennis at the Academy courts or at Beverly Park. Both layouts were about to be bulldozed.

I no longer heard from John and our paths never seemed to cross anymore. I went on with my life, now playing USTA league tennis at the Albuquerque Tennis Complex. Those courts too have been plowed under.   


Moving on

In January 1985, I received a typed, single-spaced, three-page letter from John. I still have the letter. He had gone back to Montana, he explained, to Helena, where he had graduated from high school. Tom Bise had helped him move there. John was working on another book. It was to be titled “Minding Your Tennis,” and subtitled “A Disquisition for the Later Learning Adult.” His rough draft already ran 400 pages, he wrote.

In that letter, John told me that he had gotten into a war of words with his publisher.  His contract had included a second printing of “From the Bottom of the Tennis Ladder,” which the publisher refused to do. According to John, the publisher eventually gave in after realizing that the first printing had sold out.

On the second page of his letter to me, John dropped some disturbing news: “I have pretty well recovered from the divorce.”  I wondered if his long hours on tennis courts contributed to the parting. Settled in Helena, Montana, he was working toward a certificate in teaching adult education. 

John seemed OK, save perhaps for his failed marriage. Regrettably, that letter was the last time we would ever communicate.


Looking for John

Earlier this year I grew curious about my old friend. When I Googled John Crockett, I found a 1987 item that said he had reached the finals in men’s doubles at the Helena City Tennis Tournament. After that, not a word. Where was he? What had he been doing?  I began to wonder if he might not be living.

A friend told me about Legacy.com. There I located John’s obituary—in the Montana Standard newspaper.  He had died February 28, 2000, in a Helena hospital. The cause of death was not given. He was 71 years old.

The obituary said John had grown up in tiny Chinook, Montana. His parents had soon moved to Helena,
where he had graduated fromALC high school, in 1946. Two years after that he was appointed by U.S. Senator Mike Mansfield to the United States Naval Academy, where he left with a degree in chemical engineering.
I had always sensed John was bright, but I never realized how incredibly smart he was.  

After leaving the Navy, he worked in industrial sales starting in Kansas City and slowly moving his way up the ranks to finally settle in Albuquerque. He continued working in New Mexico until 1984.

According to the obituary, John spent 14 years teaching at the Adult Learning Center in Helena. “He loved helping adults achieve their goals,” the obit said. “He found it very rewarding.”

John’s death saddened me, and yet I felt strangely cheered. I was genuinely touched to learn that John had spent the last years of his life not focusing on improving his tennis game but on assisting other people, often seniors, to gain computer skills, to drive defensively, to make out a will.


Picking up the pieces

Though I had briefly talked with John’s wife Ann at that book party long ago, I never knew much about her. At the party she told me she was a Southerner by birth and was a teacher at an elementary school in Albuquerque.  

A perusal on the Internet indicated that Ann Crockett still lived in Albuquerque. I telephoned her. She sounded guarded over the phone when I said I wanted to talk about John.  She did offer that she had met John at the Caravan East, the club on Albuquerque’s Central Avenue.  It was singles night at the Caravan. The couple danced happily together to country music till past midnight.    

“You want to know what happened to John?” Ann suddenly asked me, her Louisiana accent still strong. “He fell in love with tennis and out of love with me.” She went on: “He kinda just went nuts about tennis. It was like he was having a change of life.”

When I asked her what she thought about John’s book, she said, “Well, he paid to have it published.” Which is true; the book was issued by a vanity press.

Ann Crockett did not know exactly what caused John’s death.  She thought perhaps a heart problem. “His diet was bad. All he ate was toast and grease.”

The couple’s two daughters, said Ann, now 86, were grown and married. John had a stepson in Kansas. When I contacted him, he had little to say about his father except this: “I didn’t know him very well back then.”

John’s daughter Gaylia called him a “wonderful father.”  He would take her and her sister on the tennis courts in Albuquerque. The two girls visited him in Montana during the summers.

John Cowan Crockett, also known as John William Crockett, was buried at Sunset Memorial Gardens in Helena,
with military honors.John_Crocketts_grave

Many of the people John played tennis with in Albuquerque have either moved away or passed away.  That includes Ramona Hudgins, who contributed the charming illustrations that accompany John’s book.  Norm Zollinger died in 2000. Bud Brixey, a Beverly Park tennis pal to many, now lives in Missouri and suffers from dementia. Tom Bise has fought multiple myeloma, a particularly virulent form of cancer, for the last 16 years.

I could find no record of that second book John was supposedly working on. Nor did I come upon his three-volume set. I was not surprised.   


'A book that will not die'

I recently discovered that Amazon was selling “From the Bottom of the Tennis Ladder.” Some of the copies were untouched, others were slightly used. All of them cost $35 each.  Alibris.com, a well-known high-end bookstore also was offering a copy—get ready to gulp—for the sum of $113.86.

Wherever John Crockett is now, he has to be laughing.                            


<​p>Toby Smith is a member of the board of directors of the Northern New Mexico Tennis Association. He can be reached at tobysmith68@gmail.com.