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On the 25th anniversary of Arthur Ashe’s death, reflections on what he would make of today’s society

February 6, 2018

Tuesday marks a quarter of a century since Arthur Ashe Jr. died at the far too young age of 49. His passing has left a void in an increasingly loud and confrontational world that could use a gentle soul such as Ashe to calm the angry seas.

While he was reluctant to get involved in civil rights issues when he was younger, Ashe became more interested in solving problems such as apartheid in South Africa and allowing refugees from Haiti to enter this country as he grew older.

After being diagnosed with AIDS in 1988 — the result of a tainted blood transfusion during heart surgery a few years earlier — Ashe was a leader in research about the disease and founded the Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS.

In his own quiet way, Ashe knew how to reason with people and help ease tensions.

Even though he won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open during his illustrious tennis career, Ashe was known just as much, if not more, for his humanitarian efforts on behalf of the disadvantaged in this country as well as other parts of the world.

Had he not contracted the AIDS virus, there’s no telling what he might have been able to accomplish over the past 25 years.

“He wasn’t looking for power, he was looking for influence. He was not looking to control people’s minds, he was looking to enlarge and expand their minds on the issues.”

Tom Chewning met Ashe in 1959 at a junior tournament in West Virginia. They remained good friends until Ashe’s death and Chewning said there would have been no limit to the possibilities of Ashe’s good deeds.

“I think he might well have been a diplomat,” said Chewning, a retired chief financial officer at Dominion Resources.

“He enjoyed world recognition. He was good-looking. He presented himself well. He was one of those people who fit in everywhere. I think he would have done something important, perhaps (serving as) the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

“I don’t think he wanted to be a business mogul. He certainly had enough financial acumen to take care of himself and his family, but I think he wanted to do something to serve the world.”

Although he once contemplated running for a Congressional seat when he was living in New York City in the mid-1970s, Ashe might have been better suited to solving the issues he was most interested in without political interference.

But his attorney and long-time agent, Donald Dell, believes Ashe may have run for the Senate one day

“Arthur always wanted very much to be in politics,” said Dell. “He was a great friend of David Dinkins, the black major of New York City. I always think, looking back, that Arthur was kind of the forerunner to Barack Obama.

“He was very well-educated. Very intellectual. Very thoughtful, quiet speaker. I think he wanted to get into politics, and I think he would have chosen to run only in New York. He didn’t want to run in Virginia for many obvious reasons.”

Chewning wasn’t sure if the mild-mannered Ashe really was prepared to get involved in the rough-and-tumble world of politics.

“I think there would have been people asking him to do that, but I don’t think he would have done it unless he felt that was the best way to achieve help for the issues he was most concerned with,” said Chewning.

“He wasn’t looking for power, he was looking for influence. He was not looking to control people’s minds, he was looking to enlarge and expand their minds on the issues. So he was an influencer and he lived by example.”

“He wanted everyone to be prepared to be the best they could and get the most out of life before they died.”

While Ashe considered himself an independent politically, he usually supported the Democratic Party. But, as he pointed out in his memoir, “Days of Grace,” he voted for President George H.W. Bush in 1988.

When Obama was elected president in 2008, that could have opened the door for Ashe to be appointed to some position in the new administration, perhaps U.S. ambassador to the United Nations or something similar, said Dell.

“He actually gave a speech on Dec. 1, 1992, in front of the whole (UN) assembly, about eight weeks before he died,” said Dell. “A phenomenally, passionate, wonderful speech about education and how the world was getting smaller and closer together.

“He wanted everyone to be prepared to be the best they could and get the most out of life before they died.”

Beyond politics, Ashe’s greatest love was his efforts to try and make children and teenagers understand the value of a good education. Ashe had graduated with a degree in business administration from UCLA in 1966 before he embarked on his pro tennis career.

“I think, Arthur, besides his tennis, wants to be known primarily for trying to get everybody to focus on getting an education, and going as far as they can with a formal education, because that is so important,” said Lou Einwick, tournament director of the highly successful indoor tennis event in Richmond for 19 years.

The Arthur Ashe statue on Monument Avenue is not only a testament to how much his life meant to the city of Richmond, but also how much he wanted education to be emphasized with the sculpture by Richmond artist Paul DiPasquale.

In the book “Richmond: One of America’s Best Tennis Towns,” DiPasquale said Ashe called him little more than two weeks before he died with advice on the statue.

“One of the things he told me was he didn’t want to be the center of the podium,” said DiPasquale. “This is a monument, he said, that he wanted to be about children and about knowledge as the source of all our powers as human beings.”

DiPasquale’s sculpture of Ashe, which is at the intersection of Monument Avenue and Roseneath Road and erected in 1996, features the player in a warmup suit with his shoes unlaced, holding a racket in one hand and books in the other, with four children staring up at him.

The hand holding the books is higher, which is meant to signify that education is more essential to one’s life than learning how to be a great tennis player.

“You might not know this, but Arthur was on the board of directors for Aetna (insurance company),” said Dell, “And all they wanted him to do was fly around the country and give six or eight talks to large groups of mostly student athletes.

“And I heard him several times. He would give them numbers, where he would show the percentage of (college players) who got into the NFL, who got into the NBA. He would also talk to them about don’t dream just about making the NBA, because he knew what the percentages were.”

Perhaps a job as the Secretary of Education would have been in Ashe’s future.

“When Arthur died, America lost a great potential leader and helper in the biggest problem we have today, which is race relations.”

The Arthur Ashe Learning Center was founded in 2009 in New York by Arthur’s widow, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, and promotes his legacy to educate and motivate individuals, with an emphasis on inspiring youth through a wide variety of technology and interactive elements.

Ashe was criticized by many in the black community for not being more involved in the civil rights movement after he became world renowned for his exploits on the court, and it’s possible he would have done more had he lived.

“I was once in a meeting with him at Andrew Young’s house in Atlanta in 1968,” said Dell. “There were 35 or 40 black leaders in the room. Arthur had just won the U.S. Open and was a big name then. Jesse Jackson yelled out, ‘Brother Ashe, you have to be much more outspoken, shout and yell, and be a stronger, hell-raising leader.’

“I remember Arthur turned to him and said, ‘Listen, Jesse, I’m not you. I don’t do it with my mouth. I do it with my racket. And that’s the way I want it to be.’ And everybody cheered. It was the damnedest thing, the reaction of all the people in the room.”

Ashe could have helped ease some of today’s racial tensions, Dell believes.

“Let me put it to you as simply and succinctly as I can. When Arthur died, America lost a great potential leader and helper in the biggest problem we have today, which is race relations,” said Dell, former U.S. Davis Cup player and captain of two winning teams.

There would likely have been many areas in which Ashe could have contributed had he still been around and looking forward to celebrating his 75th birthday on July 10, 2018.

“I think his whole life is a statement on how to handle things and persevere,” said Einwick, perhaps summing up Ashe’s greatest legacy, in which his peaceful personality might have helped resolve some of the world’s most troubling problems.