Keil, 91, was a leader on, away from the tennis court
‘Your career,” my lovely wife, Sherry, once observed, “is a long series of field trips.”
I couldn’t take issue.
In the past I’ve completed all from hunt rattlesnakes to rattle politicians. However the best part has always been those times when I’ve found myself in the presence of truly extraordinary people.
One of those bright lights came to mind last week when I received an email telling me that Ed Keil had died in Seattle at the ripe old age of 91.
Ed was the star of one my fondest field trip adventures that began one day in late-May 1995, when an item in the sports section caught my attention.
“Ed Keil is the top rated 75-year-old tennis player in the country.”
The brief went on to explain that the Spokane man had won the gold ball trophy “by winning his age division in the U.S. Tennis Association’s National Seniors Indoor Tournament” in Boise.
That got me thinking.
How good can the geezer really be?
See, I was in my early 40s at the time. That’s still young enough to be deluded into believing that anyone in his mid-70s was older than King Tut’s mummy.
I was still crammed with youthful vigor, wasn’t I?
Not only that, but I had been actively playing tennis 2-3 times a week for the last 10-plus years.
I don’t want to brag. But my doubles partner and I went 7-0 to win our division for the city tennis league.
True, we were playing at the mid-bozo level.
But come on.
The dude’s 75, for crying out loud.
So I called Ed and challenged him to a match. The retired Spokane Community College instructor was more than happy to oblige.
In one of those weird Spokane Vortex coincidences, I learned that his wife, Jean, who died last year, had been my second-grade teacher, one of the best teachers I ever had.
And so we met for battle at the Central Park Racquet Club on the prescribed June morning.
Ed looked lanky and fit for a guy his age. But out on the court, he told me to wait a second while he popped a nitro tablet.
“You need a heart pill?” I said in an “are you kidding me?” tone.
“Sometimes, I experience a little irregular rhythm,” he replied with a wink.
We unsheathed our rackets while Ed filled me in on his health problems: a stroke, a quadruple bypass, a major vein graft to one leg and angioplasty on the other.
“Guess I’m sort of a refugee from an intensive care unit,” he mused.
I started getting concerned. I’m a pretty aggressive guy, after all.
I sure didn’t want to kill one of our senior citizens and a war hero, to boot. Ed played first chair trumpet with his National Guard Division band. Then after Pearl Harbor, he joined the Air Corps, became a B-24 pilot and flew 50 missions over Europe, advancing to the rank of captain and flight commander and winning the Distinguished Flying Cross and a lot of other medals.
I can’t really say much about what transpired after the talking ceased.
We started playing, I know. But the oxygen deprivation from Ed running my flabby ass ragged probably accounts for why I have such sketchy memories of the event.
I do recall thinking more than once that a monumental miscalculation had been made.
Gen. Custer no doubt experienced a similar sense of remorse right before the end.
Ed had mastered every shot in the tennis manual.
Backhands. Forehands. Passing shots. Drop shots. Lobs. Cross-court winners.
His lefty serve was still plenty potent, too, and he could place the ball at will.
“I was creamed, waxed, plucked, depantsed, fricasseed, disemboweled …,” I wrote at the time. “Pick the verb. In under two hours, hacker Doug became another slice of humble pie on the Ed Keil Victim’s Buffet – 6-2, 6-0, 6-1, so long.”
Yet despite his acumen, Ed was anything but cocky.
“Great point,” he would holler on rare occasions when I managed to return a shot without falling.
Studies have shown that becoming a virtuoso in anything requires 10,000 hours of steady, disciplined practice.
Ed started logging the time at age 9, when his dad would pack a net in the trunk of the family car. That way they could bash the balls wherever they went.
Ed’s tennis strokes were poetry. They had the flawless, fluid easiness that comes with expertise.
He had entered the nationals in Boise as an unseeded player pitted against world-class aging professionals. He won five straight matches without dropping a single set. Then he placed second in doubles with partner Darrell Cusick of Wenatchee.
“It was a thrill of a lifetime to play on that level,” Ed told me with typical modesty. “Everything came together for me, like I could do no wrong.
“I think God was with me that weekend.”
I learned a lot about tennis from Ed that day in 1995. But mainly I learned that class is ageless.
Game, set and match, my friend.
God is with you still.