Denoon was Firm Man with ‘Heart of Gold’

By John Packett, RTA Contributing Writer

Denoon was Firm Man with ‘Heart of Gold’

When James J. “Jim” Denoon first started playing tennis in the 1950s, it was a different era.

There were no fist pumps or celebrations after a big point. You didn’t throw your racquet in disgust following a tough loss. You didn’t talk back to the chair umpire when he made a close call in your opponent’s favor.

It was a gentlemen’s game in every sense of the word and everybody played by the same rules.

That’s mostly the way Denoon played the game and he expected everyone to abide by those “old school” rules whenever he was the lead official for a local junior or high school tournament, or the referee at a city or regional event.

“He was firm,” said Richard Peyton, a long-time friend and the tennis coach at St. Christopher’s and St. Catherine’s.

Peyton recalled an incident when Denoon served as referee when the Prep League tournament was held at St. Christopher’s.

“He threw a guy out of the tournament one year,” said Peyton. “The guys had lost his [singles] match. He threw his racquet into the bag, which was sitting by the fence. It hit on the head of the racquet and whlrl-a-birdied right into the crowd.

“He got up and said to the kid, ‘You are out of thls tournament.’ The kid said, ‘Well, I have already lost my singles.’ And Jim said, ‘You are defaulted from the doubles and out of the tournament. I want you off the property.’ That’s how he got his reputation.

“There was dead silence. But as soon as the guy left, everybody gave Spoon a standing ovation.”

But there was another side to “Spoon,” as he was known to his best friends and childhood buddies. Denoon, who was diagnosed with stage 4, lung cancer, passed away on June 30, one month before he would have celebrated his 71st birthday.

“He was a very humanitarian, very generous person,” said Peyton. “He had such a good heart. There was no reason not to like him. Everybody had so much respect for him. He had such a tremendous work ethic.

“And he encouraged everyone to be the best they could be in everything they did.”

A protégé of the late Sam Woods, Denoon moved to Richmond from Manhattan in 1954 and learned the game at Byrd Park while enjoying other outdoor sports such as baseball, football and basketball. But it was tennis that really captivated him.

It was a “chance encounter” with Woods in 1959 that changed Denoon’s life, as the story goes.

“He didn’t make the cut for the baseball team at Byrd Park,” said his wife, Delanie Denoon. “And he was kind of bummed out and was coming back through Byrd Park, and Sam Woods was there and invited him to come on the court.

“{Woods] had some tennis racquets hanging around and he kind of took [Denoon] under his wing and got him interested in tennis and, you know, the rest is history. That’s the story I was told.”

As he did with anything he tackled, Denoon worked hard at tennis. He was a member of the Thomas Jefferson High School’s powerhouse teams, then became the first player to be given a full scholarship at the University of South Carolina, where he helped the Gamecocks win the ACC championship in 1968.

“Tennis is what got him through college and allowed him to afford a degree,” said his wife.

After a brief flirtation with law school, Denoon became a teaching pro and was director of tennis for country clubs in South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia. The longest and final stop was at the Country Club of Petersburg, where he worked from 1990-2005.

During his tenure at the Petersburg club, Denoon started the very successful BB&T Invitational, which attracted some formidable men’s fields Among the players that showed up were T.J. Middleton and Bret Garnett, both of whom were highly ranked in doubles on the pro tour.

Middleton, in fact, reached the mixed doubles final in 1994, before coming up short.

“He loved that tournament,” his wife recalled. “He had been wanting to get tournaments together for years but he was at country clubs where the members just said we don’t want to have to sacrifice the court time for a tournament.”

CCP gave Denoon four days in the summer and he had some highly regarded senior tournaments.

“He was super organized,” said Charlie Owens, a frequent participant in the tournament and formerly ranked in the top 40 in the world during his pro career. “He was honest with the draws. Didn’t slip anybody into a good spot for any reason. He played by the rules.

“You always had great camaraderie with 99 percent of the players. He always had great entertainment at his house in Richmond. He had a party for everyone, with great food, great beverages. Everything was top notch. He was a great host.”

“That was my job,” laughed his wife of the parties. “One year, he had an open tournament, instead of just the seniors, and we ended up with 80 people here. And, you know, we don’t have a very big house. We had some fun over the years but 80 people was a bit much.

“When a tour bus from Petersburg pulled up and offloaded, we knew we were in trouble.”

When Denoon became unable to play tennis anymore because of two hip replacements and a one knee replacement, he took up cycling, riding some 7,500 miles per year as a member of the Richmond Area Bicycling Association.

“He didn’t do anything half way,” said Irvin Cantor, who knew Denoon for more than 30 years. “Everything he did, he did at 100 percent. Just like with tennis, he was always trying to get people to ride. He was a great mentor to a lot of people. He actually led a lot of the bike rides.

“He had a heart of gold. He’d do anything for anybody. All you had to do was be nice to him and he’d do anything for you.”

Cantor spent a lot of time with Denoon in his final days after the fatal diagnosis of cancer.

“He really cared about people,” said Cantor. “One of the last things he said to me and this is when he knows he’s going to die. I was sitting at the bed with him and he said, ‘Please tell your boys good-bye for me.’ Here he is thinking about my children when he’s dying. I thought that was amazing.”

For years, Denoon was the lead official for the Prep League tournament, League of Independent Schools, Woodberry Forest Invitational, Virginia Independent Schools Boys State tournament and the Virginia High School League Girls team and individual tourneys.

“Jim was the best,” said Peyton. “I would say he almost has that book of rules and regulations memorized. He would go above and beyond what a USTA official would do. He would announce the players, put them on the right courts.

“After the Prep League tournaments were over, he would be out there in charge of the awards ceremony. The first thing he would always do is thank the parents for being such good disciplinarians. Congratulate the parents and players for such good behavior.”

During his younger days, Denoon may have gotten a little carried away with some antics on the court himself, his wife said, but he wanted to make sure that the kids these days realized that wasn’t the way to conduct yourself at all.

“He was a great lover of tennis,” said his wife, “He absolutely loved the game. He promoted it any way he could, whether it was as a tennis pro or as an official on the court. It was his life’s work. ”