In 1968, Arthur Ashe was U.S. Open tennis champion, and Jake Agna, South Burlington’s internationally famous tennis instructor, played tennis against Ashe that year.
Agna, who won a camp tournament and just 14 years old at the time, was supremely confident of victory.
He lost, of course.
Today, coping with loss is one of the key lessons Agna teaches his tennis charges. Among other things, he also hopes that they learn to play fair and to be polite. Learning how to play tennis is an extra bonus.
Agna’s focus on fundamental values was instilled in him early. Now 64, he was born in Cincinnati but spent most of his childhood in rural Yellow Springs, Ohio, home of Antioch College. Both of his parents were progressive physicians there, and he honed his tennis skills on Antioch’s courts under his father’s watchful eyes.
It was the time when students were first experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs, and Agna’s father Jim helped young people who were having difficult psychedelic experiences. His father also assisted female students who sought information about birth control and the newly developed birth control pills. His family — Agna was the fourth of five children — also spent two years in Haiti where Agna’s father served as medical director of the Albert Schweitzer Hospital.
“It was a real eye opener,” Agna said.
Although Agna’s mother Mary passed away about three years ago at 90, his father turned 92 last year. “He’s still going strong,” Agna said. “The only problem is that he’s hard-of-hearing but is too stubborn to admit that he needs a hearing aid.”
Agna and his wife Patty Tobias, a massage therapist, moved to Vermont in 1983. “We felt that Vermont would be a good place to raise a family,” he said. They have lived in South Burlington for eight years and have two daughters, Eve, 35, and Mae, 32. “My two grandkids just moved to town, so I try to spend as much time as possible with them,” Agna said.
After moving to Vermont and teaching tennis here, it was just a matter of time before Agna followed in his father’s humanitarian footsteps. In 2000, he founded “Kids on the Ball,” a non-profit tennis and mentoring program that assists under-served, at-risk youth. Agna said that the program is “about relationships and respect.” We’re teaching life lessons disguised as tennis,” he explained.
Agna’s program now serves 1,200 children in the Burlington area and many more in Springfield, Mass., New Orleans, and Havana, Cuba. In South Burlington, Agna works with the South Burlington School District’s “School’s Out!” program to bring tennis to South Burlington’s three elementary schools.
In utilizing tennis to change children’s lives, Agna underscores Arthur Ashe’s views about what is important in life: “True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost… Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.”
SOURCE: Bill Wargo, Correspondent