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At 88, a Lover of the Game Still Holds Court at a Place Where 'You Never Get Old'

June 12, 1986|MARY BARBER

On his 88th birthday Walter Wesbrook performed as expected: He blew out candles, kissed ladies, smiled modestly, clobbered tennis opponents half his age and pondered his future.

Under the hot sun, Wesbrook and his "girl partner," as he calls 84-year-old Vi Walker, played an exhibition match of doubles that left their competitors frazzled and their admirers awed.

Then, about 60 guests ate cake and ice cream, sang "Happy Birthday," exchanged "Walter stories" and said goodby to an era, but not to Wesbrook.

The birthday party marked the end of Wesbrook's 63-year career on the tennis courts of the Huntington Sheraton hotel, where he played as a young man and where he taught generations of Pasadena and San Marino families.

Hotel owners have sold the acre that the courts have occupied since the days when tennis greats Helen Wills Moody, Bill Tilden and Don Budge played there. A tiny clubhouse replaced the bleachers where the rich and famous used to sit, and shrubbery now conceals the courts at the southernmost tip of the hotel property.

Several single-family homes will be built on the site, according to Mary Coffin, a partner of Halmarco Corp., a Pasadena development firm that bought the land.

The main building of the Huntington Hotel was closed last October when it was learned it might be unsafe during an earthquake, and sale of the property is now being negotiated.

The hotel's owners built another court closer to the main building several years ago and rented the more distant courts to Wesbrook, who charges players a small monthly fee. About 15 regulars call this little domain their "club."

Last weekend it looked as if it could have been the site of Shangri La, or maybe the Fountain of Youth.

Most of the birthday party guests wore tennis clothes, played vigorously and bragged about their ages--especially those who were upward of 70. Wesbrook's attire included his usual shorts, enormous smile and bronzed skin.

"Oh, we'll find another place," he said when asked about his future. "I can't give it up."

"You never get old here," said Bill Ingram, 70, who has played with Wesbrook during the 15 years that Ingram, an All-American at the Naval Academy in 1936, has lived in one of the cottages on the Huntington grounds.

"We love to play with Walter, but the trouble is he always beats us," said Arthur Vesco, 74, a "club" member since 1973.

"You can't ease up on Walter. He'll kill you," said Judge Robert Boochever, 69, of the U. S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Boochever said he discovered the courts and Wesbrook when he lived in Alaska and stayed at the Huntington on trips to Southern California. He and his wife, Connie, moved to Pasadena in November when the new federal courthouse opened and have become "club" regulars.

Paul Sampsell, 69, said he has heard Wesbrook recite poetry--some of it his own--for an hour "and never miss a word, never falter and never repeat himself."

Without glasses and in poor light, Sampsell said, Wesbrook can look up a number in the phone book and then remember it long after.

"He calls me 'kid' and that makes me feel great," Sampsell said.

"He's fabulous," said an exhausted Suzie Trotter, 50, after playing a set with Wesbrook and Walker. "I started playing here in 1960, and today it's exactly the same. Nothing has changed. What a workout!"

The party was given by Peggy Tuttle, Mimi Cushman and Joan Carson, all Wesbrook students. Members of the family included included Wesbrook's daughter and son-in-law, Marilyn and Gary Marsh, granddaughters Kimberly and Jennifer Marsh and Deborah Creamer and 10-month-old great-granddaughter Lindsay Creamer.

Guests speculated that Wesbrook may have won more different kinds of tournaments than anyone alive. Besides countless championships during his younger days, he has won every national doubles tournament for his age group since age 65, and he has been a world-class pole vaulter and gymnast both as a young man and in seniors competiton.

But the tiny clubhouse has been vandalized and stripped of its trophies and mementoes, so a lot of the visible evidence of his past has disappeared. And Wesbrook isn't much for talking about that, or his achievements.

It's the future that really interests him.

"I just love to play tennis, always have," he said with the ever-present grin. "I'll just keep playing. There's all sorts of possibilities."

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