by John Flaherty
My parents joined the club in 1979 when I was 10 years. It wasn’t an easy transition for me as I had just gone through a painful two-summer initiation process at our former club and been accepted by the junior members there. When they informed me that we’d be leaving Lakeside Field Club, which had tennis and swimming facilities, located in North Salem, NY, for a country club, just across the state line in Ridgefield, CT, I was disappointed and reluctant to start over again. Ironically, three other families made a similar decision that year which immediately depleted the field club’s pool of junior athletes but added to stable of ones at Silver Spring Country Club, aka SSCC.
Aside from having competed in a swim meet at the club the prior year, it was a completely foreign entity to me. What I remember from that brief encounter in 1978 was being the target of ridicule by teenage girls before an Under-10 (year-old) swim team race for my diminutive stature and then winning by one full body length. Apparently, the derision provided incentive to swim my best. Competition had always been a powerful motivation tool for me whether in academic, athletic, or social circles. So arriving at a new club – a country club – provided a new challenge for me in terms of acceptance, but also in establishing myself as the best junior tennis player there.
Back in 1979, tennis was in its golden years with high participation rates and impressive television ratings for Grand Slams, especially Wimbledon. But what created unprecedented media attention and interest in the game was the historic 1980 Wimbledon Championships men’s singles final between John McEnroe and four consecutive year defending champion Bjorn Borg. Four hours and 48 minutes were needed to complete the match with Borg outlasting his younger rival in five deft shot making sets. The highlight of the contest was the fourth set tiebreaker that saw each competitor have multiple chances to win and lasted until McEnroe captured it at 18-16 points and forced a fifth and decisive set.
Silver Spring is an unassuming a club with sporting and social facilities set in a suburban, bucolic area of southern Connecticut. Although located in the most northern town in Fairfield county, known as the “gold coast county,” it was somewhat removed from the more established and prestigious clubs located in towns such as New Canaan, Darien and Greenwich. However, it did have some notable corporate executive figures as members in prior decades such as Jack Welch (CEO of General Electric), Steve McKessy (CEO of PricewaterhouseCoopers), and Michael White (CEO/Vice Chairman of PepsiCo International). But these individuals could not be concerned with tennis as golf was the primary sport at and revenue driver for the club. But on July 5, 1980 the aforementioned individuals and 100 plus other members who were having lunch at noon packed a petite grill room to watch this final.
To paint, in words, a better picture of the establishment, SSCC had only 180 member families compared to the 300 to 500 plus member-family clubs to the south in Fairfield and Westchester counties. And the club did not boast an impressive clubhouse as the dining and grill rooms at full capacity could seat 200 and 28 people, respectively, and that was if the “four” bar stools were occupied! The only television set available was a Zenith (Electronics) one mounted inconspicuously atop an antique armoire closet set against a wall that ran diagonally away from grill room visitors, which made viewing any live sporting event a challenge. In order to have a decent perspective one had to lay claim to one of the two middle tables, which sat four, out of the six in the room. Fortunately, I was seated in one of them that day and was constantly tapped for scoring questions and explanations as to why one player hit a particular shot.
It was then when I realized that tennis was on most people’s radar screen, at least at Silver Spring, and it provided the inspiration to continue playing tennis competitively. But it also awakened in me a sense of extended family as the environment was extremely collegial and jocular.
Whether it was interclub swim meets or golf or tennis matches, all families came together and supported each other. Any egos or personality conflicts, and there were some, got put aside for the common goal of performing well against our opponents. This bonding created lifelong friendships and was the primary reason why I decided to join the club as an adult member in 1998. At the time, it was surreal to be considered a peer of adult members, especially the ones whose children I grew up with at Silver Spring. Probably the toughest part, which still exists today, was addressing these individuals by their first name.
I was encouraged on many occasions to refrain from using the surname salutation and disabused from doing so during a tête-à-tête with another second-generation member (20 years my senior). I will always recall him saying to me in 1999 “John, how old are you?” to which I replied “31.” He paused and politely said “I think it’s time.” He was correct but with my parents being members too I was not in any position to take such liberties in their presence. So what does one do in such circumstances? Compromise.
I became conditioned to address members older than 50 years of age by their first name and use their surname when my parents could be seen or heard, or their presence “felt.” They were contemporary but appreciated traditional values not because of any patrician upbringing, but because they understood that it was a “privilege” and not a right to be a member.
In fact, my mother was the only member who required the tennis staff to use her surname at address. For those unfamiliar with country club protocol, the tennis profession is more informal than the golf one and is on a first name basis with the membership. It was the modus operandi four decades ago when my family first joined and is today.
One person who can attest to my mother’s penchant for such deportment is Ed Shanaphy to whom I am penning this article. Ed was an assistant pro at Silver Spring in the summers of 1997 and 1998. One July day I had visited the tennis shop to inquire if he was available to hit and to my absolute delight witnessed he and the head pro regaling about the club membership. Mind you that both had grown up in country club settings and now were experiencing it from the other side (i.e., as employees of the club). Within minutes I was doubled over in laughter from their impersonations from one member with “Locus Valley lockjaw” who spoke with her jaw clenched and only lower teeth exposed to another who had a gruff, masculine voice and the most unorthodox, but effective, game style. After the tears were wiped from my eyes and the disorder brought under control in unison they turned to me and with ubiquitous smiles stated that they address everyone at the club by their first name except “Mrs. Flaherty.” I smiled in agreement but realized that she was just another member at the club who constituted its fabric and gave it such a redeemable quality and positive reputation.
Silver Spring was not just a country club but a club in the country. Interestingly enough its “friendly” rival was not another club in Fairfield county, but one with almost a mirror image located in the adjacent town of South Salem, NY. Waccabuc Country Club (WCC) was established 18 years before Silver Spring, and the two clubs competed against each other regularly in what were known as a “friendlies.” It was during a 1980 tennis match where I met and played against Ed Shanaphy for the first time. They were great fun and continued for the next five years. Fortunately, these competitions have returned in recent years for adult members, and they bring back fond memories for me.
On one such occurrence at Waccabuc I ventured down the hallways of the clubhouse to read the past champions of both golf and tennis. I was delighted to see that Ed’s name was on the tennis champions board as a junior and adult member and noted that with the exception of the final year he won the title his surname included the suffix “Jr.” What made this ironic was that on the similar board at SSCC my surname also includes the suffix “Jr.” with the exception of the one year, which is 2020.
2020 was unprecedented for many and for me in a certain manner. After taking a business trip to Florida I was sequestered with family in the state when the pandemic broke out and did not return to Connecticut until the penultimate week of June. For the first time in my life I behaved like a snow bird, which is a term given to northern residents of the United States who “winter” in Florida. However, the true joy of living in the northeast are the summers. For 15 years as a junior member and 20 as an adult one I always enjoyed taking advantage of all Silver Spring had to offer in terms of recreational and social activities. These benefits were considerably limited last year as governments and businesses, which were unfamiliar with the novel coronavirus, implemented cautionary health and safety procedures to curtail and prevent infections.
The new outdoor season is promising as restrictions have been lifted in Connecticut and Silver Spring has returned to full and normal operations. Although I do not have a greater appreciation for being a member now – I never forgot that “It is a privilege and not a right” – I do realize what it was like to almost lose that privilege. SSCC is a unique place and something that I hold dear to my heart because it is more than just a venue for tennis, golf, and swimming, or to socialize with others. I have come to realize that I am just as much a part of Silver Spring’s DNA as it is part of mine. Essentially, we are family, and family ties are inseparable!
John Flaherty has been a marketing professional for 25 years, having led marketing efforts with established brands such as Rolex and S&P 500 company Gartner. He holds a B.A. from Old Dominion University, where he competed on the men’s Division I varsity tennis team for three years, and Masters of Science from Sacred Heart University, where he currently volunteers as an assistant coach for the men’s and women’s Division I varsity tennis teams. He received ATP points in doubles and singles while competing on tour for four years after college. His passion for the game has never relinquished as John has penned articles for Inside Tennis and TennisMatch Magazine, and served as an official racquet reviewer for Tennis Magazine. He is a regular contributor and associate at BeyondTheBaselines.com