We Americans love our recreational sports and none has undergone as many surges in popularity over the years as tennis. One particular surge occurred in the ‘60s and ‘70s, thanks to the media’s discovery of the hard-hitting glamour guys, the outspoken “bad” boys, and the teenaged women’s champions. The TV programmers couldn’t get enough of the likes of Chris Evert, Tracy Austin, Jimmy Connors, Arthur Ashe, Andre Agassi, John McEnroe, and Pete Sampras.
The popularity was helped along in 1974 when an aging men’s former champion (55-year-old Bobby Riggs) challenged the much younger current women’s champion (29-year-old Billy Jean King) to a televised match in the Houston Astrodome. Riggs, who had long since lost his championship form, kept in the spotlight by challenging top-seeded women players to gimmicky matches. A carnival atmosphere surrounded the King-Riggs match when Monday Night Football announcers (Frank Gifford, Dandy Don Meredith, and Howard Cosell) were called on to do a play-by-play of the televised match. Billy Jean struck a blow for Women’s Lib when her power shots defeated Riggs’ lobs and drop shots.
The following morning, tennis courts around the country were filled to capacity and a flurry of new court construction began. (Part of the 9-hole Roxford Golf Course off the I-5 was bulldozed to make way for a complex of courts, which in turn were bulldozed for commercial profit a few years later.)
Tennis was in full swing in the SCV long before the media giants began promoting it across the rest of the country. There were no commercial clubs or tennis complexes, but the Hart High and Placerita Canyon Junior High courts were crowded every weekend with players belonging to the Newhall Tennis Club. (The club, which had started in 1947 with about 20 players, boasted a membership of 435 in the ‘80s.) Friendly doubles matches, singles “ladder” challenges, and monthly tournaments kept the courts full from morning to night.
Weekday play was less crowded, but thanks to an informal partnership with the school district, the club members could use the courts when the students weren’t playing. It was a little give and take, sweetened by the fact that the club dues and volunteer labor helped finance improvements like net replacements and court resurfacing.
A leading proponent of the volunteer workdays, even though his stint as club president had ended years earlier, was Newhall resident Gene Doty.
Everyone’s first impression of Gene was an out-stretched hand and a smile so big that it spilled over into his voice. He exuded enthusiasm in everything he did, whether it involved being co-chair of the annual two-day barbecue for Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, working on a Kiwanis event, or supporting the local high school tennis programs.
In 1984, the Doty charm and rapport were saluted when Lockheed officials hosted a gala retirement dinner for their co-worker of 43 years. When Gene was asked what he would do with his time now that he was leaving the 9-to-5 grind behind, he quipped, “I’ve actually found it difficult to find time to go to work!”
Those who knew him well weren’t surprised at the statement. He had been actively involved in his community and his hobbies since he took his first steps out the front door of the Newhall house he grew up in on San Fernando Road (now Main Street) in the early 1920s. Those steps led from his house to the Ford Agency, which his dad, Jess W. Doty, had established before World War I. The agency was still in the same spot in the early ‘80s, but the Doty home had been replaced by an auto parts store.
When Gene was a youngster, the SCV was a sparsely populated area of 200 people. The main drag on San Fernando Road boasted a five-and-dime store, a feed store, a little restaurant, and a post office. The Newhall Drug Store was a favorite “haunt” for the kids who played marbles and “coin lag” near its doors.
Being such a small town, there were few recreational facilities available to Gene and his friends. They organized late afternoon sandlot baseball games after stampeding out the doors of the Newhall Elementary School as soon as the last bell rang.
One of Gene’s fondest memories was the 1932 community work project (sponsored by the Kiwanis Club) that resulted in Newhall’s first tennis court. The court was built of decomposed granite on land donated by the Presbyterian Church. When the court was demolished to make room for the church parking lot, a community project was organized to build two courts at Newhall Elementary. It was on those courts that Gene’s avid interest in tennis was born.
There was no local high school in our valley when Gene reached his teens, so he and some fellow students from “remote Bouquet Canyon” were bused to San Fernando High School. Gene worked at his father’s car agency when he wasn’t studying or leading cheers for his high school teams. In his senior year, his interests switched to airplanes and he exchanged his cheerleading megaphone for the class president’s gavel. He didn’t forget cheerleading altogether; there was a Bouquet Canyon lass named Maxine Morris who would later become his wife.
While working at a Shell Service Station in his senior year, Gene took college prep courses in engineering, leading to an aircraft plumber position at Douglas Aircraft in El Segundo. In 1941, Gene was hired at Lockheed’s experimental department, working on the early mock-up stages of the Constellation. He was quickly moved to supervisorial duties in the department, then to a production manager in precision assembly parts.
“I never did get that degree in engineering,” reflected Gene at his retirement. “I was too actively involved in making money.” He was also actively involved in raising four children (Dennis, Genene, Denise, and John), and leadership roles in the Newhall Tennis Club, Kiwanis, American Legion, and the Knights of Columbus.
While the area was going through its first growth spurt in the ‘60s, Gene went to work in Lockheed’s famous Skunk Works, The advanced development department gained notoriety as a small group of workers who could turn out new experimental projects with lightning speed using tools they made themselves, while side-stepping paper work, red tape, and bureaucratic quagmires.
His retirement from Lockheed and the Skunk Works meant more time with the family, a few travel excursions, more hours of community service and, of course, more tennis. When he wasn’t competing in weekly matches on the courts and running a racquet stringing business out of the den in his Newhall home, Gene found time for organizing the Newhall Tennis Club’s court improvement projects. And, if that wasn’t enough, he could often be seen at the Hart High courts, early in the morning or late in the afternoon, electric clippers in hand, trimming back the vines growing on the fences surrounding the courts.
Gene Doty – a true hometown hero and a special memory in this January salute to Auld Lang Syne.