Allie Ritzenberg was born on November 11, 1918, the day marking the end of what at the time was called “the Great War.” His 100th birthday was celebrated on Armistice Day this year in his home nestled atop a bluff in the Maryland suburbs of Washington with breathtaking views of the Potomac River. He has lived there for decades but for the past several years has lived alone, following the death of his wife, Peggy, who died in her mid nineties. Until last year he was still driving, playing tennis, collecting tennis memorabilia, and preparing his own gourmet, vegetarian meals.
His house was jam-packed with family, friends and admirers that included his four middle-aged children and spouses and numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren along with many of Washington’s elite, whom Allie had gotten to know during his 60 plus years as the tennis coach of Saint Alban’s School and tennis pro at the Saint Alban’s Tennis Club. The Washington Post commentator, David Ignatius, was there as was Don Graham, the former owner and publisher of the Post, and probably a whole lot of other famous people I did not recognize.
I was a member of the club and played there once or twice a week, often during the middle of the day when most of the courts were free and Allie was looking for someone to chat with. That led to a friendship and later a request to help him with writing his memoir, which he had been working on for a number of years. I agreed with some trepidation but surprisingly found the experience to be relatively stress free with no pushback from him whatsoever. I think he was desperate, having given up on two or three previous helpers.
My pay for helping him pull his story together was one free lesson for every chapter completed. This was probably the best business deal of my erstwhile writing career.
The book, Capital Tennis, was published by the Francis Press in 2004. It is a good read: a kid from a working class, Jewish family somehow ends up in the halls of Washington’s elite, WASP society. One of the themes that runs through the book is the nagging question of whether he was ever truly accepted by that society as an equal member. (I believe the answer would be a resounding yes.) Another is how far he would have gone competitively if the U.S. Open and other championship tournaments had been open to professionals when he was playing his best tennis. (My guess is that he would have gone a long way.)
But Allie also describes in his book how he was just as committed to helping Washington’s inner city kids as he was to giving lessons to Washington’s best and brightest. He started an organization that reached out to these kids and did more than anyone to introduce them to the game he loves.
Allie is an icon in Washington. He was playing tennis with Robert McNamara when he got the word about the Cuban Missile Crisis and with George McGovern when he learned about his running mate’s previous mental problems. He was Jackie Kennedy’s personal tennis coach. During the Kennedy and Johnson years, any serious tennis player in those Democratic administrations would have belonged to the Saint Alban’s Tennis Club. Most would have taken lessons from Allie. The wait list to get in was measured in years. As long as he was running the club, that trend continued. He has been ranked number one in the “over 80” category for many of the last twenty years and was playing competitively in tournaments around the world well into his nineties.
This birthday celebration, however, was different from his 99thwhen Allie was in true form, holding forth about the state of the country and the world, always with a twinkle in his eye and often a devilish grin. This year he was solemnly seated in a wheel chair connected up to an oxygen tube. His son said that about four months ago he started a decline and now has 24/7 nursing assistance. He made a brief appearance and shook hands but retired well before the event was over. Though there was still a sparkle in his eyes, he was not his old self. Somehow I think we all had assumed that Allie was immortal, that once he turned 100 he would be ranked number one in the over age 100 category forever and that one day, if he did die, it would be from a heart attack on the court after thrashing a much younger opponent 6-0. But, alas, that is not to be. One can only hope that the checking out process for Allie will not involve suffering or be too prolonged. And isn’t that what we all hope for—to be able to live a rich and full life and to keep on going strong for as long as we can, squeezing the last few drops out of the lemon?
If only we all could be so fortunate.