No matter what our age or station in life, everyone needs a hero. Someone to look up to. Someone who inspires us. Someone whose qualities we wish to emulate. Seventy-five-year-old Hattie Somerville is such a person for me.
I met Hattie, along with her husband, John, about 10 years ago in Kauai. John and Hattie organized informal tennis events and paired up vacationers with residents for hours of social but competitive play at the Poipu Kai Tennis Club. Hattie also taught clinics that I faithfully attended, and she occasionally filled in if we were missing a fourth player.
Over time, I learned that Hattie was a native of Hawaii. Born in a sugar mill dispensary in Paia, Maui, she was the daughter of Prescott Metcalf and Harriet Collins and was named after the famous entertainer Hilo Hattie, a family friend. Hattie recalls that her father, a real estate businessman, also wrote and performed music.
In the ’40s, Hawaii was the destination resort for many rich, famous and beautiful people. Arriving on the well-appointed Matson ocean liners the Lurline and Matsonia were stars such as Hedy Lamarr, Betty Grable, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart as well as famously wealthy families, like the Vanderbilts. Guests typically stayed at the beautiful Royal Hawaiian or Moana Hotel in Honolulu.
Life was not entirely idyllic. Along with Sandra, her younger sister, Hattie watched the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor while sitting on the roof of her home on the outskirts of Honolulu. Unfamiliar with airplanes or the sights and sounds of bombs, Hattie thought she was watching fireworks. Her mother quickly brought the two girls into the house for safety before leaving to work as a Red Cross volunteer amidst the carnage wreaked by the bombing.
Hattie learned the game of tennis as a child. Her parents, along with the parents of the other children in the neighborhood shared one court. To reserve the court for themselves, the parents tried to persuade the children that tennis was an adult game and that the children should spent their time swimming, playing cards and drinking orange soda. But the parental attempt to make tennis off-limits made the game even more appealing.
The children figured out that once cocktail hour began, the court was theirs. They organized themselves into two teams of seven and played until the sun went down. Once Hattie started playing, she never stopped. By the time she was in high school, she was playing competitively.
Hattie and five of her classmates attended Briarcliffe College in Westchester County, New York, because her parents and her friends’ parents thought that the East Coast was the only place one could obtain a worthwhile education. Airline travel was new, and the arduous trip to begin her freshman year took 17 hours to complete.
Hattie returned to Hawaii after college and began working as a receptionist for a home insurance company. As a young, single woman, she was invited to be the date of the visiting Jordanian King Hussein. The party was hosted by then Governor Bill Quinn, a friend of Hattie’s family. While riding to the event in the limousine, King Hussein showed Hattie photographs of his world in Jordan, including his favorite horses. When they arrived and the limousine door opened, the pictures went flying. When the governor good-naturedly greeted the king and Hattie, he found the two of them crawling around on the floor of the limousine. They quickly explained that they were gathering photographs.
A few years later, at age 28, Hattie, needing a fourth for tennis, approached a player on a nearby court. The player, John Somerville, would later become her husband. Together they would have four children—daughters Hannah and Betsy and twin boys Henry and Jim. While raising their family, Hattie and John would spend their careers on various islands as tennis club managers and instructors.
After a lifetime of competing in over 500 tournaments, Hattie has dozens of trophies, and she continues to compete. Because of the demanding competition, Hattie considers the bronze ball (third place) she won in the women’s national hard-court competition (age category 65) in Newport Beach, California the toughest award to win. Her personal favorites are winning three gold balls (first place) in 2001, 2003 and 2006 in the national mother-daughter grass-court competitions played at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island.
This fall, Hattie will compete in the Olympic Games for seniors held at Stanford University in both singles and doubles’ tennis. The event will draw 15,000 competitors and over 35,000 spectators.
Hattie’s ongoing training and preparation for competitive play consists of swimming (one hour) and tennis (one to two hours) each day combined with weight training and running on alternate days. Hattie continues to attend tennis clinics to improve her game.
What inspires me about Hattie is her constancy. After six decades, she’s still learning, growing and competing in the demanding sport of tennis. She’s witnessed enormous changes—from the first airplanes to jet aircraft, from a few radio stations to dozens of television channels, from phonographs to iPods and from typewriters to e-mails and computers. Yet one element remains from her childhood to the present: her love of staying fit and playing tennis.
Hattie recently celebrated her 75th birthday with a heart-healthy Valentine’s party. Dressed in pink or red, a few dozen of her friends, including me streamed to the courts at 8:30 a.m. on Friday, February 13, for an informal tennis round robin, followed by a potluck lunch. After playing all morning, we gathered in a circle and held hands. Standing together, we heard a blessing in Hawaiian before enjoying our meal, complete with Valentine’s Day chocolate cookies, candies and cakes. We each left with a red rose pen and a memory of the special day.
Hattie has one of the most beautiful tennis styles I’ve ever witnessed. She floats like a butterfly on the court and moves like a dancer, transforming her opponent into her dance partner. According to Hattie, “Part of the challenge of the game is to make sure your opponent has a good time. Hitting the ball back and forth is like a good conversation,” she says. “It’s the exchange that is most satisfying.”
Her disciplined fitness program, calm spirits, graceful tennis game and enthusiasm for learning and growing make Hattie my hero. I want to be like her when I grow up.
Dubbed “An Apostle for Fitness” by the Wall Street Journal, Carole Carson is the author of From Fat to Fit: Turn Yourself into a Weapon of Mass Reduction, which chronicles her own 62-pound weight loss and the inspirational Nevada County Meltdown. Visit www.fromfat2fit.com for more information.