A few weeks ago, my dad retired from UPS. When everyone asks what he’ll be doing with all his free time, he laughs and says,”What free time?”
Thursday morning in a small office at Eldon Roark Tennis Center in Whitehaven, three of us crammed in making copies, punching holes, filling binders, and creating handouts. My dad, known by most as “Coach Kent”, in front of his computer making last minute changes for the training and meeting that afternoon. His phone ringing nonstop, finally he slams the phone on the desk and states he just can’t take anymore calls. I quickly take over as secretary. “Kent Smith’s phone,” I answer, as a myriad of calls asking about application fees, staff positions, start dates, equipment, and open slots come in. This is the madness before the magic begins on Monday.
This Monday, my dad along with a staff of about 40 coaches, will begin another summer of tennis camp throughout the city. For our family, it’s been a hallmark, a spiritual journey, a marking of each passing summer.
About 15 years ago, my dad tells me he is going to be working at a tennis camp and asks me if I’d like to help. At the time, I wasn’t sure how he was gonna run a tennis camp, and although I was a good junior tennis player, what did we know about a tennis camp? But there we were on a tennis court in North Memphis. At that time, there was no curriculum, no fancy training, no huge staff. It was me, my dad and a handful of kids. Each summer, the camp progressed and increased with size. We went from one site to a few more to finally every public tennis court in Memphis and even makeshift courts on community center basketball courts.
This summer the camp will run at 7 sites, hundreds of kids will pass through, dozens of staff members will be employed. And to each of them, my dad is simply “Coach Kent”.
The name echoes in my ears as 3 or 4 teenagers simultaneously call for his attention. They come rushing in his office sometimes for a legitimate question, sometimes just to steal fruit snacks from his closet. Some will just come and sit, as he says, “bugging him”. Over the years countless teenagers have gotten their first paychecks through this camp. My dad serving as more than just a boss, sometimes a mentor, sometimes a father figure.
His style is unique. At any given moment, he could erupt, with either laughter or barking out orders. But no one is alarmed, because at the end of the day we all know he is full of love for anyone that calls him dad or even “Coach Kent”.
My sisters and I know that from mid-may to the beginning of August, our dad is on loan to the camp. We know at any moment he will give us the whole rundown of his to-do lists. We can either get out of the way or get onboard. We’ve chosen the latter. I have been involved with this camp since the beginning. Some summers as an official staff member. Some summers from afar as I was out of town or even out of the country. Some summers I “volunteered” when I’d sneak in on my lunch break from another job just in time for a water balloon fight or pizza party. And some summers I’d crawl back to my father needing the job because my big fancy plans didn’t work out and I “had” to work at a “lowly tennis camp.” But whatever the case, this camp has been apart of me for more than half my life. Some of the staff are more family than friends.
As we stood before the staff ready to launch this new season of camp, my heart swelled with pride. I watched my dad lead the two day training. As most of the staff were veterans, we joked and laughed throughout the two days. My dad laughing among us. And although, I will only be here for three weeks, I’m grateful I get to be part of this camp again. I’m excited for the hot days, the complaining kids, but also the joy of a kid mastering a new stroke, the thrill of a cold water balloon on a hot day, the wonder of blowing bubbles with little kids, and the camaraderie of being with my friends.
To loan my dad out for the summer is a great joy. For him, it is one of his greatest joys. The kids and coaches will undoubtedly decorate the courts and try to surprise him for his birthday, which falls during the camp every year. Their plans will be thwarted, because somehow he always knows. He will drive from site to site, jumping out on the court and joining the campers in whatever game they're playing. He will take picture after picture of magic moments from the camp, and bug all of us 50 times for any picture we have taken. He will challenge any of the coaches and campers to a match even if they are 5 or 18. He will laugh a lot. He will work hard. And when the camp concludes at the final jamboree in July, I’m sure he will look back at another job well done as “Coach Kent.”
I learned “almost” everything I know from him about teaching tennis and running camps. This past year, I’ve ran several mini camps in Kenya. From the shores of Lake Victoria to the slum of Kibera, I became “Coach Kristen.” And I can only hope that I'll have half as much impact as he has had on hundreds of young lives every summer.
#Shamelessplug: You can find out more information about the camp and sign up here. The camp runs from June 6-July 22 at 7 sites throughout Memphis.