Ashe Comes Home for Exhibit, Birthday Celebration
By John Packett, RTA Contributing Writer
Arthur Ashe would no doubt have had mixed feelings about the 70th birthday celebration held in his honor Wednesday evening at the Science Museum of Virginia.
The former Wimbledon champion and No. 1 tennis player in the world would have been embarrassed that everyone was making such a big fuss about him at the gala affair, attended by around 250 of his family and friends.
On the other hand, he would have enjoyed seeing the opening of the Arthur Ashe Learning Center Inspirational Tour exhibit, which will be on display to the public at no charge at the Science Museum from Thursday through July 24.
The exhibit features videos, murals, timelines, memorabilia and interactive challenges that chronicle Ashe’s athletic life and all of the other many activities that consumed him until he died far too young at 49 of AIDS-related pneumonia in New York.
“I think he would be both humbled and thrilled by this,” said Tom Chewning, who co-hosted the event with his wife, Nancy. Despite the difference in the color of their skin, Chewning and Ashe became close friends on and off the court as teen-agers.
“I think he’d be surprised that so many people showed up,” continued Chewning. “I think he’d be happy that they were from everywhere. White and black. Some young people, as well as people from his generation.
“I just think he’d be honored and gratified that what he stood for and what he believed in … that there was more emphasis on that than winning the U.S. Open and Wimbledon.”
Ashe grew up on Richmond’s North Side in the days of segregation, and despite not being allowed to play at popular places like Byrd Park or against other white players his age, he became one of the best in the world at his sport.
Known for his big serve and cat-like quickness on the court, Ashe won the first U.S. Open in 1968, added the Australian Open two years later and shocked the tennis world by upsetting Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon final.
He attained the No. 1 ranking in the world at 32 and later served as the U.S. Davis Cup captain after being a member of the squad for a number of years early in his career. Ashe is the only African-American player to win those three Grand Slam tournaments.
But Ashe’s life was so much more than tennis. He was involved in non-violent protests against bigotry, including the eradication of apartheid in South Africa, founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS and wrote a three-volume book about the history of black athletes in America.
But the topic that he never stopped promoting, particularly in the black community, was getting a good education. And that was the impetus for the Arthur Ashe Learning Center Inspirational Tour to begin in his hometown.
“There is no more fitting way or place to premiere this new, interactive, educational experience,” said Ashe’s widow, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, who co-hosted the event and served as the evening’s emcee.
“We want everyone who visits the exhibit to be more inspired, as Arthur was, towards a life of living up to your full potential, a life of well-rounded achievement, joy, passion, and most of all, hope.”
Upon entering the exhibit room, the first thing visitors should do is watch and listen to the dome introduction video for about seven minutes. It tells you about Ashe from his early years, through his tennis career and wraps up with his many causes.
There are motion paintings of Ashe that “talk” to you about things like service, citizenship and advocacy. There’s also an interactive tennis game and a healthy living challenge, plus a tree of service that details Ashe’s contributions to society and where you can add your own leaf to leave your mark.
Two of Ashe’s best friends on the pro tour, Stan Smith and Charlie Pasarell, were on hand to help Moutoussamy-Ashe present the Heart of Arthur award to Ashe’s brother, Johnnie, for taking his brother’s Vietnam stint so he wouldn’t have to spend time in the war-torn country.
Johnnie Ashe had already served one tour of duty in Vietnam as a Marine, and he went back for another one to keep his brother, who was a Second Lieutenant in the Army, from going overseas. Ashe won the U.S. Open during that time frame.
Johnnie Ashe was presented with his brother’s Army discharge papers and a Rolex watch engraved with “Heart of Arthur.”
Both Smith and Pasarell had some kind words to say about their former friend and foe.
“He had high standards and high expectations of himself,” said Smith. “He was continually trying to improve himself. Always had his nose in a newspaper. He was also a very giving person. We had a really great relationship.
“He would be thrilled with the part where the kids learn about health. The area about reaching out and helping other people. He’d probably be a little embarrassed with the whole show but certainly he’d like to see the areas devoted to the younger generation because tennis was important but education was more important.”
Added Pasarell, “Obviously, he was a great tennis player, but Arthur was so much more. To him, it was about honor, about doing things the Martin Luther King way. He really cared more about others than himself.
“In fact, I used to get angry at Arthur because I would get in a conversation with Arthur and I wanted to find out how he was doing. But that was about a three-second conversation. Somehow, he would turn things around and it was about what I was doing.
“He was more interested in learning how other people were doing that he didn’t want to talk about himself. The other thing was that it didn’t matter what he did, what he felt, what he sacrificed, he would always say, ‘No big deal.’ But he was a big deal.”
The exhibit will move to the New York Hall of Science Aug. 24-Sept. 9 to coincide with the U.S. Open. Eventually, Moutoussamy-Ashe would like for it to find a permanent home. Richmond is a possibility but other cities have told her they would like to have it.
Perhaps the biggest focus of the exhibit is to allow young people to learn about Ashe and his legacy.
“I think this exhibit is really oriented tremendously to children and young people,” said Chewning. “It really describes the dynamics of Arthur Ashe’s life and tells the story of his struggle and overcoming. The story of fairness, inclusiveness and concern for other people.
“How he dedicated his life to be of service. What a great example he set for all of us.”