Donald Van Blake Tennis Courts in Plainfield, NJDonald Van Blake Tennis Courts in Plainfield, NJ

During my senior year, my high school tennis coach and I were talking about our season and his legacy. I joked that because of our hot start that year (1997) that he might end up with Coach of the Year honors. Well, my two-time State Coach of the Year coach indicated that he didn’t care about all of that stuff.”

He always called me Ronnie and continued, You know what I want? If they’d name these courts after me. That’s the kind of thing, aah you could die.”

I always kept it in my head. I told my parents, too. Back in those days, I figured I’d come back someday and be mayor and make sure it happened myself.

While I was still on active duty in the Air Force, my mother reminded me a few years later of the conversation I relayed to her with coach.

At the time, she was working for the school district and would see him from time to time. For whatever reason, at this point in time she hadn’t seen him and heard he was sick. She reminded me of what I said and suggested I write to someone in town to see if they’d be able to act on renaming the courts after Mr. Van Blake.

Well, the first letter I wrote was to the Mayor’s office. The courts are owned by the School District, so they replied and told me they forwarded my letter (on Mayoral letterhead) and said they’d see whether or not the School Board would act on it. Nothing happened.

A few months later, my mother (who I sent a copy of my letter to) told me I should write again. So this time, I wrote a letter to the School Board and then specifically emailed — this was 2000, so a pretty radical move still — my request to the Superintendent’s office. The superintendent at the time, Larry Leverett, replied to my request and said this is something within our jurisdiction to do,” in an email and that was the last I heard of it until my mother called one day with Coach on the phone.

Ronnie, we did it. They’re gonna rename the courts.”

Of all of the stuff I’ve done since, few things make me prouder than putting this on the radar of decisionmakers who’d have probably done it anyway. I’m not sure if they’d have done it while he was still actively coaching, though. That part to me was important, that he got to coach for a few years on the courts (that were renovated shortly after they renamed them) that bore his name.

Coach did so much for thousands of kids in my city for a long time and there were no accolades for what he did. He bought a mini-van so he could shuttle kids to and from practice. Even on the varsity tennis team, he’d bring peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to road matches. Why did he do it? The time between lunch and the match was a few hours and he found that guys would end up hungry a lot. It wasn’t a poverty thing, for most of us, it was simply a 1) hungry teenagers thing and 2) people really found it super endearing that someone would do that for us because when you get to that age you feel like stuff like that can be kind of only for kids” or something.

I have so many moments — so do my parents — about Coach and the impact he had on me as a person. People talk about me being eclectic sometimes and all I can say is, Coach was one of many people in my life growing up who were diverse in their interests. He was in a barbershop quartet, he played tennis obviously and was the dean of our city in terms of knowing the history and the characters who had come and gone.

Every year, he’d show up to the high school’s Career Day, dressed as a general contractor and would talk to the kids about the times he spent as a painter and doing other things. I never understood it, because I only knew him as my tennis coach or that he had been a shop teacher before he retired or that he served in the Army.

Being far from home, I’ve talked a lot about the experiences that made me who I am. While much of my family — from my parents, uncles to grandparents — were an indelible positive on my life, encouraging me. It was was leaving the bubble of my own world that opened me up to unimagined possibilities that I could have not have fathomed. Reading a lot as a child, you realize there is a huge world out there, but it’s often difficult to see it from the 2nd floor of your house. You have to experience it to really understand it.

Coach was one of the people who left me feeling like there wasn’t a governor on how fast or far I could go, if I wanted to work at it.

June 20, 2022