2012 Hall of Fame Inductee:
CONTRIBUTOR GEORGE “GUS” KENNEDY
By Tim Boggan, USATT Historian
George “Gus” Kennedy first comes into the pages of the USTTA magazine in a photo from the Nov., 1970 Tamasu Butterfly Table Tennis Report. What, you may well ask, was a picture of Gus and those other Minnesotans—Chris Faye, Alan Goldstein, Charlie Disney, and Doug Maday—doing in that Japanese magazine? Well, they’d seen the 1969 World Men’s Singles Champion Shigeo Itoh on the Johnny Carson show, and they couldn’t resist coming to see him in person at Geza Gazdag’s New York City Invitational Tournament in May of 1969—and I guess the Japanese were quite struck by that. I certainly am.
In another photo, Kennedy can be seen with his immediate family: wife Jean, son Roger, and daughter Colleen (known familiarly as “Muffin”). At the ’71 Nagoya, Japan World’s, accompanied by Jean and the kids, Gus had taken on the role of peripatetic U.S. Team Manager, and had been of great help to our China-bound “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” group.
In Minneapolis, both before and after the Nagoya World’s, the Magoo’s Table Tennis Club was flourishing. I’d been a guest there and was given a sight-seeing tour of the neighborhood. “The most interesting part of town,” Disney had said…as we drove past the karate club, a thriving pool hall, an adult book shop, and a water-bed store before reaching the red-painted façade of Magoo’s. This turned out to be a nightclub of sorts that offered a dance-hall two nights a week and a t.t. floor-show the rest of the time. Later, however, the nightclub, or the table tennis, wasn’t welcome, and a new t.t. venue had to be found.
The new club was situated in a building atop two successful business-minded floors, on a spacious third-floor that hadn’t been used for 23 years. It was renamed Disney’s, for Alan “Doc” Goldstein was now championing Charlie’s leadership as a table tennis “Empire Builder” and “Promoter Extraordinaire.” Acolyte Alan explained that everyone must work for the club, including himself who, he confessed, had to be reeducated. “I’m the #1 player in the state,” he said, “but I was slow in painting a small room as my contribution. After a few warnings from Charlie I suddenly found that no one in the club would play with me, so I painted the room in a hurry.” A photo of electrical engineer Gus shows him doing his bit, fixing lights in the rafters—courting suicide his wife Jean said.
In 1972, Charlie ran his groundbreaking $8,000 Minnesota Classic (“the nicest tournament I’d ever been to” I’d said at the time). It was sponsored by Minneapolis’s Dayton Department Store. In the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s, Jean had worked at Dayton’s as an assistant buyer. Pretty and shapely, she was named “Miss Dayton” of 1960, and rode the store’s float in that year’s Aquatennial Parade.
In 1974, Disney became the new USTTA President and when Fred Danner resigned as Corresponding Secretary, Charlie appointed Gus in his stead. Someone said that during Charlie’s two years of office Gus and Jean did 99 and 44/100’s percent of the work. Certainly when rather at the last-minute at my request Charlie and his helpers took on the thankless job of running the 1974 U.S. Open Team Championships, and were sharply criticized for what some thought were the event’s shortcomings, Jean was adamantly vocal in defending the Minnesotans’ efforts. Gus, I might add, said he played in these Open Team Championships for 25 straight years, often at a 1900-2000 level.
Also in 1974, Kennedy was named Manager of the U.S. Team to the 1975 Calcutta, India World’s. But a new job loomed, and he had to devote all his energies to that—couldn’t go to Calcutta (though he was responsible for getting the Team’s Levi dress outfit) and couldn’t continue his Corresponding Secretary’s job he’d been elected to over Cyril Lederman. However, in 1977 at Birmingham, England, as Assistant Team Manager he was able to see the U.S. Men, supported by an enthusiastic entourage, finally make it to First Division play.
1977 was a start-off year for Gus. President Schiff appointed him the USTTA’s International Chair, a position he would enhance with monthly columns for 17 years until 1994—though I remember once he had to miss three issues in a row because of his regular job as an engineer. “I was on a large ship off the coast of Italy,” he said, “helping supervise a construction project.”
In 1978, Gus ran for USTTA Vice-President—and got 65 votes. So why in the photo I show is he smiling? Next best was D-J Lee who got 15 votes. Yep, in all, only 99 ballots for National officers were received in this election—an historical oddity. Because of restrictive Association by-laws, Nominating Chairman Barry Margolius determined that for the two chief positions of President and Executive Vice-President there were at the moment only three possible legal candidates in the whole country.
As International Chairman, Gus’s travels would take him, here, there, and everywhere—from Cuba, to India, to China. But no place was as strange to him as when in 1979 he led the USA Team and its entourage to the Pyongyang, North Korea World’s. That trip offered us an ominous Ping-Pong friendship. When we arrived at our ITTF designated hotel, we were asked to pay extra room-charges for the heat, the lighting, the sink and shower water. Then, when our and every other team played matches against the North Koreans, we’d all be repeatedly cheated by blindly partisan players and umpires. China did not take kindly to this lack of hospitality, so no way were they going to be generous—as may be seen in that moment of celebration when, after a highly combative match, the Chinese player, revealing at the end a hand that held three unreturnable serves, scored a win over the #1 North Korean.
After leaving Pyongyang, we visited China, and here occurred an opportunity to move Table Tennis towards the Olympics. At a meeting, arranged by Fred Danner and attended by Sung Chung, Secretary General of the All China Sports Federation, USTTA President Sol Schiff, and Vice President Kennedy, “Sung Chung stated that the Government of China was now willing for the first time to participate in the Olympics next to Taiwan.” Later, in 1985, Gus and I, as USTTA officials, would be hosting China TTA and future ITTF President Xu Yinsheng at our U.S. Open.
Another watershed year for Gus was 1980. Why? Because he was elected Executive Vice-President—and it’d be a position he’d hold for an amazing 15 consecutive years. In other words, for an unprecedented and almost certainly forever-unmatchable stretch of 18 out of 21 years, Gus, who of course has been inducted into the Minnesota Hall of Fame, will be a member of the USTTA E.C. He’ll also be the U.S. Delegate to many a World Championships, will be the Technical Director for the 1983 Pan Am Games in Caracas, and for three years will be the ITTF Council Member representing all of North America.
“My fondest memories,” he says, “are based on walking amongst the people, dealing with hundreds of helpers, volunteers, officials, and players….The Championships have meaning for me not in my seeing the actual matches, but in my attempts to quickly learn the actual order-structure or hierarchy in charge and to learn how and to whom questions should be asked.” Must have been a hard job in Pyongyang, huh?
While holding office all those years, Gus casts innumerable votes, makes productive suggestions, and repeatedly does acts of kindness for foreign visitors. The comfort he gives the unknowledgeable, the confused new arrivals from foreign countries, whether he meets them in the States or abroad, is legendary. Strangers have heard of him, seek him out, literally stand in line to greet and be greeted by him.
Such warm thoughts prompt me, in closing, to resurrect some lines from a letter Gus wrote me 37 years ago. He’d just read my homage-poem to the late Max Marinko, the world-class European who later became the eight-time Champion of Canada. Gus is struck when in my poem I had to confess on meeting Marinko I didn’t know who he was. Gus remembered seeing Max on court, and said, “He’d grimace and make impressions that showed he was putting his all into his play as I’m sure he put it into everything he did.” The Max in my poem, when I professed my ignorance of him, said in indignant astonishment, as he did in real life, “You do not know who I am? You have never heard of me!” Gus imagines how vividly I recalled those strong words. He ends his letter, “The most important events of life are the relationships we have with others and our memories of them when they are gone.”
Well, Gus, you at least of so many we’ve honored are not gone. And so tonight we proudly welcome you into our Hall. Ladies and Gentlemen, George “Gus” Kennedy.