Farewell, The Ambassador
Clearly the title should be Farewell, Mr. Ambassador, but nobody ever called Temple Grassi “Mr. Ambassador.”
Had they done so he would have been one among many, but “The Ambassador” made him unique.
The inadvertent word choice grew over time to reflect reality. Temple Grassi was a most unusual fellow but now he is gone, and we are less.
Too few people aspire to be unusual and I’m not sure Temple did either. He just was. It seemed that he let it happen rather than trying to make it happen.
Large numbers of people go long periods of time without emailing Washington Post reporters to decry the absence of court tennis coverage in the sports pages.
Not Temple. Almost any story on sports misbehavior, cheating, double dealing by officials or any form of exploiting a sport for personal gain would elicit an email directing the reporter to come to Prince’s Court to witness a sport in which these things never happen. The reporters never came. Indeed, they rarely answered. Temple soldiered on.
Technically, Temple was a teacher but his second career following retirement was sportsman, an exemplar of the finest traditions of that craft.
He taught 10- to 12-year-old boys, first at Allan Stevenson School in New York and later at Landon near Washington.
Grown-ups were often surprised when he would ask if anyone needed to go to the bathroom before the start of the journey. You learn to do that when you teach fifth grade.
He taught generations of boys about the Civil War by taking them to Gettysburg and making them reenact Pickett’s Charge. I suspect many more lessons were learned running up the hill then would have been remembered from a recitation of regiments and tactics.
In math, he would skip whole chapters deeming them unnecessary. The one on counting systems to the base six rather than the base 10 comes particularly to mind, but he did teach fractions and decimals… as needed.
Though Temple might have skipped the odd chapter in the fifth-grade math workbook, he was clearly an accomplished mathematician otherwise his backgammon addiction would have cost him dearly.
Far more important than arcane aspects of math, he taught boys to stand up, shake hands, look him in the eye and say their names — both first and last — without mumbling.
Temple was the teacher of choice if you cared about what kind of person your son might grow up to be. Unfortunately, over his career, that objective declined in importance to parents who came to prefer the prestige of college stickers on the back of the family SUV. So, Temple retired and became a sportsman, and this led to his becoming The Ambassador.
Neither of us remembers when or where we met, but we both thought it was in the early to mid-1980s at the start of the Quixotic mission to build a court tennis court in Washington.
There will be no recounting of that story because those who want to know it already do and those who don’t know it really don’t need to. Besides, it extends over the better part of four decades. True, this omission puts me in the same category as the Washington Post reporters who ignored his emails and I know Temple will be disappointed in my not telling you every detail, but I do think you are the better for it.
Our time playing together in Washington extended from September 1997, when we had to hit just a few balls even though the paint on the lines was still wet, through late May or early June 2021, when we played with Robert Liberace, the artist who is painting the portrait that will hang in the Grassi room at the new Prince’s Court at Westwood Country Club.
Our travels took us to England, Scotland, France, and Australia and to the other courts in the United States, all as chronicled in Around the World in 50 Courts, soon to be a major motion picture.
Temple was always the navigator. Some things were absolutes and driving on the wrong side of the road was one of them. He would never do it and this became a factor on our trips to England, some of which took place before the perfection of the GPS let alone a GPS on your phone.
The solution at the time was MapQuest, which provided turn by turn written directions. The downside was that everything had to be planned in detail before leaving the United States because who takes a printer to England?
I would create a notebook divided by day, and the detailed routing would be printed out, three-hole punched and put in the correct order.
As navigator, it fell to Temple to tell me what to do next as I tried to avoid head on collisions by being on the wrong side of the road.
The somewhat prehistoric system, it had a fatal flaw. Concentrating on the pages made Temple carsick.
As is well known, one of England’s great contributions to civilization is the roundabout. MapQuest views this as four commands: turn right; turn left; continue past some number of turnings; turn right again. Each had its own separate line on a set of MapQuest directions.
Because of the car sickness, Temple would have to close the notebook after each direction, and we would circle the roundabout several times as we scrambled to reopen it to the correct page.
On one occasion, in Reading, we became so lost that we had to spread a proper map out on the hood of the car. It is entirely possible that everything since 1999 has been an out of body experience and that Temple and I are still standing by the side of the road trying to figure out how to get out of Reading.
For years, Temple refused to play golf. He thought he would become addicted. Eventually he relented and he did become addicted. The game gave him many opportunities to use one of his favorite expressions: “mistakes were made.” This was said most often when recording the scores though, in recent years, there seemed to be a decline in the importance of that nefarious practice.
Temple also refused to be involved with Facebook or any other social media. Again, he feared addiction. Probably wisely. Can you imagine anyone who would have been better at it?
Even in person, he knew everyone’s first and last names, where they went to school and college to say nothing of the team nicknames and mascots of their alma maters. Can you imagine unleashing that force on Facebook? Like the phrase, “I coulda been a contendah,” Temple might have become an influencer. Stand aside Kardashians.
How do you mark a life?
Temple had one marriage to Ellie, a truly lovely woman. Perhaps long-suffering at times but one who used the words “that incredible spirit” in an email and telling friends he was leaving the hospital to come home to hospice.
He has three daughters, who might have resisted his “how to behave” lessons as children, but who now remind us how important it is to turn out to be a good grown-ups.
He has several lovely grandchildren who knew exactly how to stick his favorite Prince’s Court tattoos to his arm as they stood by his bedside on his final day.
Temple would be disappointed if I did not end with one of his favorite poems: Vitae Lampada, by Sir Henry Newboldt, which I could not possibly read without breaking up.
(“They Pass On The Torch of Life”)
There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night —
Ten to make and the match to win —
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his Captain’s hand on his shoulder smote —
‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’
The sand of the desert is sodden red, —
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; —
The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’
This is the word that year by year,
While in her place the School is set,
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind —
‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’
For Temple, it could never have been about the ribboned coat. What was important was how you behaved in the square that broke.
The last words I said to Temple when I left his bedside were, “please get Freddy Prince, Robin Martin and Chick Cudlip together to get started on the next new court.
He might. It would be in keeping for one who has done more for a small game than nearly anyone else.
Play up! Play up! And play the game.
Nobody knew the meaning of those words better than “The (one and only) Ambassador,” Temple Grassi.
Godspeed, my friend.