USA Table Tennis

J. Rufford Harrison (the “J” stands for “John”) was born in England in the merry month of May, 1930, and named “Rufford,” so the story goes, after a ruined abbey where boyfriends liked to take their girlfriends.

When, however, Rufford himself came of age, he was less interested in “verderous glooms and winding mossy ways” than in adhesive resins--which is what, as a Ph. D. in chemistry at King’s College, London University, he specialized in. He also found time to play table tennis there and was League Secretary.

In 1953, Harrison came to the U.S., settled in Niagara Falls, met his first wife June, a kindergarten teacher there, and by the mid-’50’s, continuing his work with DuPont, had resettled in Delaware.

Since Rufford had been an Umpire for the English Table Tennis Association, he had a keener interest than most in officiating and soon became--what the USTTA had been lax in having--a Referee/Umpire’s Chair.

At the 1955 Rochester U.S. Open, Harrison umpired a match of four-time World Champion Richard Bergmann, a naturalized Briton (who’d eventually lose in the final to Dick Miles). He was a bit taken aback when Bergmann, refusing to play with any of the balls offered, sent Rufford off to fetch more. Understandably, then, on hearing of Bergmann’s “ridiculous performance” in taking forever to choose a ball at the 1956 World’s, Rufford exclaimed, “He should have been disqualified long before he began to cast ridicule upon the game.” Of course Bergmann’s not-so-hidden agenda was to try to discredit the perfectly good make of ball in use in order that players might buy his own.

Ah well, at least Bergmann always thought of himself as a professional--and dressed the part, which is more than Rufford could usually say about U.S. players, whose deportment he also often found suspect.

The Sponge Controversy was slowly coming to the fore, and Harrison’s 1956 position was clear: “I don’t think sponge will ruin the game.” But naturally, with his background as “Chief Referee” (for example, at the 1957 South Bend National’s), and also as Rules Chair, he became a member of the USTTA’s Racket Standardization Committee--a body that after some discussion would decide, as a one-year experiment, to ban sponge play in the U.S. for the coming 1958-59 season.

In 1958, Harrison ran unopposed for the USTTA Presidency. During his tenure, the ITTF member countries agreed to permit sandwich rubber and to exclude thick, mattress-type sponge rubber, so no further U.S. ban on sponge play was necessary.

In 1959 Harrison attended his first World Championships, in Dortmund, Germany, and, as our Delegate to the International Table Tennis Federation’s U.N.-like Biennial General Meeting, could see from his own tally that, when alphabetically it came time for the U.S. to vote for or against the next, 1961 World Championships to be played in “Red China,” Peking had already secured the vote. So, thought Rufford, though the U.S. government wouldn’t allow a U.S. Team to participate, I, after all, am surely a citizen of the world, hence why not vote “For,” for somewhere down the line it might bring us some goodwill.

And why not some “Cold War” goodwill too? With Leonid Makarov, his USSR ITTF-delegate counterpart at Dortmund, Rufford arranged a Cultural Exchange Program, and in 1960 U.S. Juniors under the Captaincy of Walter Keim went to Russia and Russian Juniors came to the U.S.

Harrison ran for the Association Presidency again in 1960--this time against USTTA Publicity man George Koehnke. “The development of this Association (USTTA) to the point where table tennis can compete against larger sports for the public’s affections is going to take time,” Rufford said, “But we are slowly getting there.” Wishful thinking, you, from your present-day perspective, would doubtless say. But what else can a man who wants to be President do but think positively.

Harrison won this election 183-146. Seems like a small turnout, does it? Considering that through much of the ‘50’s former President Otto Ek and his officers were hard-pressed to keep the Association viable, it’s no surprise that, at the end of Harrison’s four years as President, the USTTA had less than 2,000 members. But by 1962 Rufford had replaced the mimeographed Association Newsletter with a return to the larger format of the traditional magazine Table Tennis Topics, and had upped the net worth of the Association from $4,000 to $12,000. Also, he had put pressure on the ITTF to do away with their Time Limit rule (“Time’s up! 7 over 6 is the winner”) and instead apply the USTTA Expedite rule (“Time! You’ve played 15 minutes. So, for the rest of this game and, if we have our way, for the rest of this match, the serve alternates and the server has to win the point before the receiver returns the ball 13 times”).

During his Presidency Rufford and June became the parents of a daughter, McCrae, and a son, Bryce. Rufford also found time to play locally and be of local service. He won a number of  Delaware Closed titles, and for a time was President of the local Newark, Delaware Y Club.

Four years as President was enough, Harrison said, and so in 1962 he was succeeded by Norman Kilpatrick who won a close election over Koehnke. However, Rufford continued in political office, besting Chris Faye, 169-131, for USTTA Recording Secretary, a position he’d retain, unopposed, through two more elections. In addition, he became Chair of two Committees very dear to his heart--the Equipment Committee and the International Committee (thus he sat, as an ex officio member, on the Selection Committee as well). He also began a “Sidelines” column for Topicsthat would cover “gripes, comments, and talking points in general” (early subjects were How to Stick to a Tournament Schedule, How to Make a Draw, and How to Get Newspaper Publicity).

In 1963 Harrison organized the itinerary for the U.S. Team and its entourage to the Prague World’s, where he noted the superiority of the Chinese, and urged a social mixing between people of various countries. A little mixing with wife June on this trip too couldn’t have hurt, for in aTopics article the previous October, in urging a baby-sitting club at tournaments, she’d described herself as a “Table Tennis Widow.”

In 1965 Rufford was the U.S. Team Captain to the Ljubljana World’s, and unabashedly criticized his players for their lack of team spirit. He thought this World’s was the best he’d attended so far--though an article years later showed his frustration over the run-around the Yugoslavs were giving him when he tried to purchase a film of play there for the USTTA. During these mid-’60’s years, Rufford’s by-line began to grace the “International News” section of Topics.

In 1966 Harrison was an observer at the German Junior Open in Frankfurt. His German he would describe as “passable,” his French “poor.”

In 1967 in Stockholm he continued what for the rest of the milennium would become an uninterrupted sojourn to the biennial World Championships. (“Quite frankly,” he would report, the U.S. has “no chance whatsoever on a world scale until we take our sport more seriously.” A “young eager team” is what we need, he said--and in another 10-15 years we’d have one.)

The instructional book Table Tennis (77 pages, $1), by J. Rufford Harrison and racquet-minded sportswoman Margaret Varner came out in 1967. (Surprisingly, at the time Varner first visited Rufford’s  Newark, Delaware Club in the company of famed tennis player Margaret Osborne Du Pont, she’d never played table tennis in her life.)  I particularly took note of Chapter 5, the section on Temperament: “Finally, display no bursts of temper. The player who slaps his thigh--or the table--with his racket, the man who throws his racket when he loses, the one who curses when he misses a shot--these are players who are destined to keep losing.” How often have I thought that myself!

In 1968, Rufford was back running for USTTA President against Graham Steenhoven, or thought he was until “personal circumstances unrelated to the USTTA” prevented him from running. It would seem, in addition to his regular job with DuPont, that, considering all the work he was doing in almost every imaginable capacity for the Association that there couldn’t possibly be any circumstances in his life that weren’t related to the USTTA.

But though he was out of office for the first time in 10 years, he wasn’t out of helpful things to say, and so continued writing his “International News” and other articles for Topics (for instance, on Geza Gazdag’s late ‘60’s New York City Vanderbilt Invitationals featuring some of the world’s top players, and the 1968 arrival of ‘50’s World Champion Ichiro Ogimura in the U.S. to offer coaching clinics).

By the 1969 Munich World’s, Harrison had become a member of the ITTF Advisory Committee, and was very involved in Federation Rules and Equipment Committee work that, especially when he was named Equipment Committee Chair, would consume him for three decades. So at Munich he not only drank beer, he attended fistfuls of Meetings.

At the ‘71 Nagoya World’s, as play was coming to a climax, Harrison, as our International Chair, was suddenly thrust into the spotlight. Sung Chung, his Chinese counterpart, approached him rather than President Steenhoven--perhaps because back in ‘59 Rufford had supported the ‘61 World’s at Peking?--and asked if the U.S. Team would like to come to China in the next few days, for a week or so, all expenses paid! Thus was born “Ping-Pong Diplomacy.” And of course the reciprocal visit of the Chinese to the U.S. in 1972--which Rufford was very much an organizational part of.

As always, Rufford continued penning articles for Topics--doing, for instance, a long write-up of the 1971 Canadian National Exhibition tournament he attended in Toronto that fall, and writing (with USTTA Executive Vice-President Jack Carr) advice on “How To Give An Exhibition”).

In 1972, Rufford ran for USTTA Vice-President, and lost to the popular ‘71 U.S. World Team Captain Jack Howard. Though Harrison’s view on sending U.S. Teams abroad differed radically from Carr’s (Rufford was “For,” Jack “Against”), Rufford supported Jack in the election for the Presidency against me, and when I won, Rufford submitted his resignation as International Chair and I accepted it, replacing him with 1973 World Team Captain Bob Kaminsky.

But when, in addition to my teaching job, I ran unopposed for a second term even as I continued to edit the official magazine Topics, my own wife began to feel a Widow and I felt I had to resign. Consequently, in Nov. of 1974, Charlie Disney succeeded me as USTTA President, and Rufford was appointed Executive Vice-President--an office he would hold until 1980. During this time he was reinstated as International Chairman (and Captained some of our U.S. Teams in the annual U.S. vs. Canada matches in Toronto).             From 1977-81 Harrison took on the demanding role of ITTF Vice-President for North America, and so beginning with the ‘77-78 season gave up his USTTA International Chair to Gus Kennedy, for many years the Executive Vice-President of the Association.

From 1980-86, Harrison would serve six years as Recording Secretary until finally, on losing that position to Sue Butler (something of a Ping-Pong Diplomat herself), he would retire from seeking further office to concentrate on his ITTF obligations. A high point during this tenure occurred in Jan., 1984 when Rufford and his wife Marty accepted an invitation from President Reagan to attend a White House dinner in honor of China’s Premier Zhao Ziyang.

For many years now I’ve seen up close the meaningful contribution Rufford makes at ITTF Meetings, and I know how hard he’s worked at being the ITTF Equipment Chair, and how quickly he keeps everyone up-to-date on what’s happened at the particular Committee Meetings he’s chaired. He’s always prided himself--and with good reason--on his efficiency--and I might add, to make him more human, how impatiently critical he can be of someone in a position of responsibility who’s just lazy or slovenly in thought or deed. Repeatedly in his Campaign Statements for USTTA office, his recurrrent argument was, Let me be the experienced watchdog for those who newly enter into office, for they might need to be alerted, barked at.

Sometimes, though, he just gently twitted. I know for a fact that the Editor of Topics chuckled over this Harrison opening (Rufford had been U.S. Team Manager to international matches in South Korea and Taiwan): “I took the July/August [1980] issue with me to Korea, intending to read myself to sleep as many nights as necessary to finish it.” Actually, you might say Rufford wouldn’t be without a Topics--for as, year after year, one goes through the pages of our official magazine, he/she sees articles of every conceivable kind, on every facet of the game, by Rufford, and marvels--at least I do, and this despite my Rrruufff! Rrruufff! considerable differences with him over the years--at how much this man of Science obviously enjoys writing and communicating.

Never mind that he can be a bit Ph. D. pedantic at times--“Aposiopesis” is not your everyday word. Read, for example, his encomium of Ron Shirley’s 1974 Oklahoma City U.S. Open. Or take a sojourn with him in Spain where, at a junior tournament, he saw for the first time an umpire hold up a (blue) warning card. Or enjoy the evening he spent in Tokyo with his dinner companion, Kimiyo Matsuzaki, 1959 and 1963 World Women’s Singles Champion. Or note the ITTF politics involved in admitting (have to use just the right name, you know) “Chinese Taipei” to the Federation’s one big happy family. Or--a playful change of pace, this--his foxy account of a day he and Marty spent as guests at the 1981 marriage of Katy and Neal Fox, USTTA Ranking Chair. Or read how the ‘92 World Doubles Cup in Las Vegas went (“best-run event I have ever attended in the USA”). And you might think, Why wasn’t Harrison an English or a History major? But then to know Rufford is to know how curious he is, how inquiring a mind he has for both Science and Art.

Go ahead, ask him a question, any question--this, for instance: Do ping-pong balls have something other than air in them? And he’ll answer: “Camphor is mixed with nitrocellulose to make celluloid, in which it prevents brittleness. It happens to be volatile, however, and a concentration of camphor builds up in the air inside the ball. That’s why you can smell a crack.”

He learned all that in a chem lab or at a ball factory in Pusan?

So much of Rufford’s life--especially in his long-time role as ITTF Equipment Chair preoccupied with the Sport’s ever-changing technology--has been spent attending Federation Meetings in every part of the globe. He must be the most traveled official in the history of U.S. officialdom, one who’s never averse to sight-seeing pleasures (Oh, there’s a Council meeting in South Africa? How about a safari trip first?), but who thrives on table tennis work to be done and is disappointed if there isn’t enough of it: “The main item of note about the ITTF Council meeting [Hangzhou, China, May, 1982] is its essential freedom from rancour, politics and other unpleasant influences. The reason for this did not occur to me until I attempted to summarize our accomplishments: there weren’t many of note.”

But as time passes, controversial changes, hopefully for the better, are made. And even in his later years--retired from DuPont, now 70 but still slim and fit, he spends some of his free time singing with his local New Hampshire choir and working in local government--Rufford has been very much at the forefront of recent ITTF changes. Most notably with regard to the having-gotten-out-of-hand proliferation of rubbers, the banning of toxic glues, the necessity of dope testing, and the replacement of the 38 mm ball with the 40 mm one.

Everyone in the know would agree that Harrison’s contribution to the Sport is unique. He served on the USTTA Executive Committee (now called the USATT Board of Directors) through one 10-year stretch, then another 12-year stretch--that’s 22 years in E.C. office! And with the ITTF, up through the most recent World Championships in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, he’s served even longer--40 years! Such dedication is almost unparalleled, and makes Rufford worthy not only of the ITTF’s Order of Merit but our own coveted honor--induction into the USATT Hall of Fame.