When my daughters were younger, I often took them to Hughes Park in Topeka, just a few blocks east of Gage Blvd. on 8th St. We’d play on the swings and dig in the sand. We always had a great time.
Besides all the fun the park provided us, it also helped educate my daughters. Hughes Park has been designed for children with special needs. Learning to play alongside those challenged in different ways helped make the park a beautiful place for all. Whenever we’d go, though, I couldn’t help but think about the park when it was known as Hughes Courts.
At Hughes Courts, I met some of my best friends in life, began shooting my first solo sports events for the Capital-Journal, had some totally mischievous fun and fell in love for the first time. Not bad, for a non-tennis player.
Tennis has always been a popular sport in Topeka and remains so today. Long before the various tennis booms hit the country, the courts at Hughes were constantly in use and hosted some of the better tournaments in the Midwest.
Green courts filled almost the entire block bounded by 7th and 8th Sts. north and south and Orleans and Parkview Sts. east and west. Homes bordered the courts except for some old Menninger’s property to the north. There were minimal stands. For matches, you brought lawn chairs and sat along the curbs. Outside of high school play, tournaments began with a Memorial Day weekend event, ran through a busy summer that was highlighted by the Jayhawk Open and culminated with Labor Day weekend play.
By the time I met my friends the Myers brothers, Tim and Mike, and my best friend Mark Nordstrom, their tennis skills had been developed by hours on the Hughes courts that were just blocks away from their homes. To take up tennis would have been folly. I never could have matched their skills. Watching them play was fine with me. Through them, I grew to know Randy McGrath, John Waltz, Tim Clark, Kevin Hedberg, Fred Esch, Steve Pigg, Joel Hoffman, Corey Wilson and so many more good friends.
When I took up photography, my friends naturally became the subjects of my earliest efforts for the Capital-Journal. In the summer of 1969, covering the Jayhawk Open was my first solo sports assignment. That tournament over the years became one of my favorite events. I got my tail reamed by a volatile Kansas City player for the first time. I trashed a camera for the first time when I carelessly let it slip out of sweaty hands. My friends allowed me to experiment with remote cameras in the nets and hanging from fences.
Once after a long day of coverage, I was packing my gear while sitting on the running board of my Volkswagen. It had been a hot and tiring day. A car stopped beside me. The window rolled down and the stranger inside said to me, “My daughter is playing out on court three right now. Why don’t you run out there and get some pictures for me.” Before I could respond, the window rolled up and the car pulled away.
The paper’s writer, Dan Lauck, came over. I related how a jerk had told me to go out and photograph his daughter. Lauck informed me the driver just happened to be the new executive editor of the paper, John Stauffer. His daughter is now the wife of Sen. Sam Brownback. I quickly dug out a camera and made some pictures thankful I hadn’t had time to respond to his curt request as I might have.
During my high school years, I’d come by the courts and hang with my friends on the patio of the ancient locker room and concession stand. Bottles of pop were never colder than those from the iced tanks in that stand that opened by hanging huge hinged windows covers up to the ceiling. Often fierce wiffle ball games would break out in the grass field just to the east of the white building.
At night, the darkness along Parkview made the quiet street a popular teen parking area. In the spring of my junior year of high school Randy McGrath, Tim Clark and I found ourselves sneaking down the street in our best stealth mode to a parked car. After peering into the darkness of the vehicle to no avail, we jumped up screaming and banging on the car. Running as fast as we could, we beat it to the safety of McGrath’s car with the sound of the girl’s screams and the guy’s cussing ringing in our ears. Cruel? Yes. Hilarious? Absolutely.
Many, many years later when my wife asked about the incident at a wedding party, Lawrence judge Randy McGrath carefully recused himself from discussing the incident with a smile on his face.
Of all the people I met at Hughes Courts, no one made me smile more than Kim Newell. As we sat and talked over the three days of the 1974 Labor Day Tournament, I fell completely and totally in love for the first time in my life. Amazingly, she shared the feeling. Our romance didn’t last all that long, but it was a delight while it did. It is true that you never forget your first love. I’ve never forgotten Kim, and thankfully, we remained friends.
I last ran into Kim in the late 90’s. She showed me the vast number of photographs she had taken of her husband and family on their farm near Wamego. She told me she learned to love photography while taking pictures of me at some events we attended together. That was wonderfully kind.
I’m late getting this posted. This was meant for Labor Day. That final tennis tournament always marked the end of summer, as I knew it. Its end meant school. After high school, the beginning of the really busy seasons of work arrived just as it does today.
Summer is a time of warmth and brightness, two things I cherish so much. I feel the same about my memories of the long-gone Hughes Courts. That one city block brought much to my life thanks to the warmth and brightness of so many wonderful friends that grew up there. Guess you could call that another love because I’ll never forget.