Tennis, Flying, and Family: a True Love Story
Someone once said that if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. Someone else said that you are a product of your environment. If you surround yourself with successful, positive, accomplished people you have a good chance of turning out well yourself. This is my story. A story of a young teenage boy discovering the joys of an incredible life of happiness which took flight with a simple love for the game of tennis. A story which owes the game a lifetime of gratitude and a story shaped by men but mostly great women that were there every step of the way.
I always loved sports and most of my youth was spent playing team sports like soccer and baseball. I grew up ultra competitive and, quite frankly, I was a little out of control at times. Fortunately, I had great parents that always believed in me anyway and they kept encouraging me to do my very best. In the mid 80’s, I discovered tennis. This sport was all about me! While that was the love lure early on, I had no idea what this new found love would blossom into over time.
My parents didn’t really know anything about tennis but my Aunts, Linda and Sandy, were players. I managed to get my hands on a Pro Kennex Bronze Ace and Aunt Sandy took me to a few tournaments one summer. I was a good athlete, but my tennis skills were just beginning to develop. While I didn’t deal very well with losing, I absolutely fell in love with the game. The support of my parents and aunts early on laid a foundation for my future success and everyone who I would meet through the game in the years to come. I was hooked on playing tennis.
Ah, 1987! The best year of my life! I was so fortunate to meet the most influential mentor of my life when I met Delaine Mast during my junior year of high school tennis. She taught me so much about tennis and even more about how to conduct myself, for a successful rewarding life. Delaine invested her time and energy on me, showing me it was always possible to give back to the sport and to others. I worked for her at the Lancaster Rec NJTL Program and helped bring the game to children that might not have ever picked up a racquet if it wasn’t for her. She convinced me to get certified as an tennis instructor and continue to develop my skill set, all before I really knew much of anything about the sport.
I learned so much from Delaine, perhaps more about life than tennis. She taught me to do what I love and what I have a passion for and that the money would take care of itself. She taught me selflessness at a time in my life when I needed to learn selflessness. She never asked anything from her investment in me except to give back when the opportunity presented itself to be charitable by investing in others. She in many ways, helped me find out who I was and who I wanted to be going forward. She understood my love for playing the game while continually showing me all the other places the game could take me as well. And take me it did!
Later in 1987, I would meet the most important person in my life, my future wife, Tonya. Tonya and I are still happily married with seven wonderful children living in Woodstock, GA. Apparently, Tonya had run around the tennis courts to see me play before I noticed her that fall during soccer season. So, my wife initially saw me on the tennis court. You could say I was falling in love on and off the court, as the people that surrounded me were helping to shape my life for years to come.
Not knowing what I wanted to do with myself after high school, I received a small tennis scholarship to go play, at what’s now Charleston Southern University in North Charleston, SC and study Business Administration. While there, I met Paul Slater our top player, that seemed to know everything about airplanes. We would watch the aircraft fly overhead into and out of Charleston AFB during practices. Paul, an Aussie, got hired off the street by Qantas Airlines and called my dorm room one day in flight half way between Sydney and Tokyo. That was it for me, I want to fly airplanes! I call my Mom and tell her what I want to do with my life. She informs me that I have an aunt, I do not know, that happens to be a pilot. My mother and her sister were separated at birth. Aunt Barb, suggests I go to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, FL. Sounds great, but it’s expensive. This was where Rudy Knabe entered into my life. This amazing man was forming a tennis team at ERAU. After beating his current top player, “Coach” offered me a scholarship and wanted me to play his top position! I went on to play the number one spot at ERAU for three straight years. Coach also put me in contact with the head tennis pro at Pelican Bay Country Club, Jim Loy, where I was able to teach tennis when I wasn’t playing on the ERAU team, going to class or learning to fly airplanes.
Jim, became my next tennis, life mentor. Jim had total class and grace yet was a simple but effective communicator. He tells me, “Jeff, you’re athletic but you’re not going to beat these foreign kids from the baseline”. So, he teaches me how to serve and volley and convinces me to stick with it which allows me to reach the top 30 in the NAIA in 1993. Jim was like a father to me and treated Tonya and I so very well. He even fed our poor rear ends by letting us take leftovers from the Friday night mixed doubles events we worked for the members.
Tennis was paying for much of my college and helping pay the bills while going to school. But the true hero at this time was Tonya. She could’ve gone to school on a cross country scholarship but instead she married me a month after her senior year in high school and worked any job she could to pay for our rent and food while I racked up debt learning to fly. The tennis paid for much of the tuition, but the flying costs were separate and costly. Tonya was so driven and worked so hard for our future success.
I graduated from ERAU in 1993 with all my pilot certificates and ratings in hand. Pilot jobs were in short order in the early 90’s. I came home and flight instructed and worked a couple of different jobs but could not seem to break in to the airline business. However, I did manage to keep teaching tennis on and off during these times.
In 1995, I join the US Army in an effort to get into flight school while serving our country. I spent much of my time based at Fort Hood, Texas. While the dream of flying didn’t work out, I did meet some fantastic people through my ability and love for the game of tennis. Playing on the All-Army Tennis Team in 1996, I managed to go 4 for 4 at Fort Eustis and help the Army win the inter-service championships. Tennis was like a beacon of hope for me. A light in a time of poverty, despair and failure in other areas of my life. The All Army Team had a long, rich history which included the likes of Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith. General Zanini wrote me a nice recommendation letter to get Fort Rucker to waive my color deficiency and let me into flight school but the answer was no. I separated from active service early in 1997 and served my remaining commitment in the inactive reserves. This led to Tonya and I, as well as our three children moving back to Lancaster.
Finally, after nearly giving up in 1997, “Coach” Knabe calls me. He says, “Jeff the industry is going to open up soon, you come down here and help me coach the tennis team and I can get you in as a flight instructor”. I politely declined, citing my three children and my failed attempt to fly in the service, along with the fact that I’ve had already been away from my children too long. I was working for a food broker in a cubicle and playing on the local softball team. Settled in I was, life was good or was it? Tonya, who worked so hard to put me through school, said, “Jeff, you’re going down to Daytona”. This is your dream we are chasing and we have worked so hard to make it happen. So I went down for two semesters. As a flight instructor I was building flight hours and as an assistant tennis coach I was doing what I loved again. It should be noted that it was the tennis that reconnected me to pursuing my ultimate dream.
After a year, I came back to live with my children and Tonya at my in laws in Lancaster with no guarantee of an airline job on the horizon. I was pouring concrete for my father-in-law’s driveway when I get a call from Atlantic Southeast Airlines (ASA). They want to hire me but there’s a catch. I must pay for and I must successfully complete their training in order to get the job. So, they want thousands of dollars from a guy with no job to get a low playing job and I have no cash in the bank? Ah, but I have a $10,000 credit card! In a total leap of faith, I put the money on the card and accepted the offer. I made it through training and have flown airplanes commercially for a living ever since!
For the next two years I commuted weekly from Lancaster, PA to Macon, GA to work for ASA. When I couldn’t be home but wasn’t flying, I made great new friends playing tennis down at Tatnall Square near Mercer University. I even volunteered time to go teach tennis at a few schools with my new friend and eventual roommate Henry Hall. Carl Hodge ran the facility and much of the tennis in the area. He always found me a fun practice match or a way to stay busy which went a long way to keeping my mind off being away from home.
While working in Georgia, January 26, 1999 I got a call that Tonya was going into labor with our fourth child, Jackson. I raced home by flying to Philly then hopping a flight in the back of a Dash 8 from Philly to Harrisburg. I was literally flying over Lancaster near the St. Joseph Hospital as Jackson entered our lives. The only birth of our seven that I missed, but what a way to miss a birth! Landing in Harrisburg, I got the news, it’s a boy!
In 2000, Tonya, her parents and 4 of our children moved to Atlanta. We love Atlanta, mainly because its the tennis capital of the world. I played years of ALTA tennis here in Atlanta while the kids were small and then one day some people from my community convinced me to set up a tennis program. In 2007, with the help of Jason Fleeman and Carla Czaja, I started the Woodstock Tennis Academy here in Deer Run. I ran the program for seven years Monday through Thursday while flying at the airline on the weekends. So, once again I was flying or on the tennis court seven days a week. The program allowed me to have an academy for my seven children to play and to learn the game. The older three have all played collegiately and I expect the younger four will play in college as well, if they wish. At the height of the academy I had up to 70 children participating in the program. Currently, Woodstock High School tennis teams are full of children that began in my academy. My airline merged with another airline in 2012 and in 2014 I had to give up the tennis program. I still teach tennis for folks in the neighborhood on occasion but never charge anymore. The airline job is doing well to pay the bills and I could never give back enough to the game that has opened so many doors for me.
Judy Levering once reminded me about luck being when preparation meets opportunity. I’ve been very lucky and blessed during this fantastic love affair with tennis and my career as a pilot. How lucky am I to have Tonya? How lucky am I to have crossed paths with Delaine? And how lucky am I to have come in contact with so many great people along the way? Tennis is the common denominator.
Tennis was the vehicle or springboard to opening so many doors and creating so many opportunities in my life. I met my wife, my mentors, many friends, additional family members and discovered the career of my dreams through tennis. I learned the game and continued to deepen my love for the game by learning to teach and give back to the sport that has been so good to me. Tennis ultimately brought me back to my dreams of being a pilot. The sport has allowed me years of time on court with my children and helped my children to afford college. In many ways, my life has revolved around tennis.
Yes, I owe a lifelong debt of gratitude to the game of tennis! The investment others have made in me has paid off as I have experienced the American Dream. While I’ve worked very hard, I never feel as if I’m working because I love what I do. I try to pay it forward every chance I get as a way to honor all those that made an investment in my life and believed in me. I hope I can invest in others to help make their dreams a reality. If that investment comes through the sport of tennis or helping an aspiring aviator find their way, I’m game!