Topeka’s Hughes Park, at 8th and Orleans, today is the site of pickleball courts and playground equipment, but was once the center of Northeast Kansas tennis with a remarkable history of producing young men who were both successful tennis players and successes later in life.
Named after a colorful Topeka military figure, the courts were installed around 1937 and were the principal courts in Topeka until falling into disrepair around 1978 and the building of the Kossover Tennis Center in 1980.
Over those four decades the Hughes Courts environment nurtured dozens of young Topeka tennis players to successful tournament and collegiate tennis careers and beyond.
The Hughes era was pre-Title IX and girls did not have the opportunity to play at the high school or college levels until near the end of the period with players like Mary Stauffer (Brownback) and Sherri Norris playing some at Hughes but also at other courts across the city at the start of their successful careers.
The courts were a magnet for local youth to hang out for the summer and play tennis for hours on end. Many of them lived within just a few blocks of the courts, others came from across the city. Most of the high school stars from Topeka High, Highland Park and eventually Topeka West honed their skills at Hughes.
It was a home away from home where, between the several-times-per-day pick-up tennis matches, hours were spent playing Hearts or Spades, inventing tennis ball games, playing touch football, or just talking while eating ice cream bars and drinking Nehis and other soft drinks.
It was a growing experience for boys maturing into young men, with the competition of tennis teaching players how to win and how to lose and the camaraderie of establishing relationships that have lasted a lifetime. The experience produced success both on the tennis courts and in their careers.
The establishment and naming of the courts is a story in itself. Moving to Topeka in 1881 at the age of 21, Col. James White Frierson Hughes became Kansas’ 22nd adjutant general, mayor of Potwin, mayor and chief of police of Topeka, and member of the Topeka board of education.
He reached national prominence for his actions in 1893 when, as a 33-year-old commander of the Kansas National Guard, he was ordered by the Kansas governor, Lorenzo D. Lewelling, to evict the Kansas Legislature from their hall due to an ongoing political battle as to which party had the majority in the Kansas House of Representatives.
Refusing to obey this illegal order, Col. Hughes was court marshalled and dishonorably discharged, but was later called back by the next governor and made a brigadier general. Col. Hughes died in 1945 and the new courts at 8th and Orleans were named Hughes Courts in his honor by the board of education.
A stone memorial/drinking fountain was placed on 8th between Orleans and Parkview with a plaque honoring Col. Hughes and another honoring the National Youth Administration (a New Deal program for youth jobs and training) dated 1936-1937.
By the 1950s there were 12 clay courts at the location which were managed by the Topeka Tennis Club with a wooden clubhouse at the corner of 8th and Parkview.
Those who were there in the clay court days remember the May through September daily ritual of the court maintenance person first thing each morning spraying down the courts with water, rolling each court with a large ride-on roller to level and flatten the clay, then looping strings around the nail spikes located at the corners of the court lines, mixing lime and water into a slurry in a line marking device, and then rolling the white liquid through a brush along the string lines to line the courts for the day.
The ritual was repeated every day, seven days a week.
In the ‘60s, the courts were converted, over time, to the now-familiar hard surface Laykold asphalt courts seen everywhere.
Besides hosting tennis lessons and daily pickup tennis matches, the courts were host to five tournaments every year – the Memorial Day, the 4th of July, the city championships (through 1967), the Labor Day, and USTA-sanctioned Jayhawk (the longest continuously running USTA tournament in the Midwest).
The Jayhawk, which still runs annually at Kossover, has attracted the best players from all over the Missouri Valley tennis region (Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri, including East St. Louis, Ill.).
Big name players in the Jayhawk tournament at Hughes courts in the 50s included International Tennis Hall of Famers Butch Buchholz and 1963 Wimbledon winner Chuck McKinley.
Eventually repairing cracks and resurfacing of the courts became too costly and the Kossover Center was built. Over time, the Hughes tennis courts deteriorated and one by one were removed or converted to the current pickleball courts.
But for over 40 years Hughes hosted an unparalleled string of tennis stars for a small Midwestern tennis facility. From state high school champions to college lettermen and conference champions and even an ATP pro, the legacy of the Hughes Courts is memorialized in the hearts and trophy rooms of many local players.
The Hughes Tennis Courts were an incubator. Not only an incubator of outstanding tennis, but also of character and accomplishments in later life.
Just a few of the notable graduates of the Hughes Courts and their significant accomplishments, both in tennis and beyond, are profiled below:
— Bob Taggart (THS ’43) was a city champion and a Jayhawk finalist before becoming a realtor, Kansas State Representative and State Senator.
— The Mechem brothers. Dick Mechem (THS ’45) was one of the founders of the Topeka Tennis Club in the 1940s, was a high school state champion, two-time Jayhawk champion and two-time CIC champion at Washburn. He then played No. 1 for Stanford, coached for Kansas, was a national over-45 champion and is in the Missouri Valley Tennis Hall of Fame. Professionally he became a Doctor of Psychology. His brother, Kirke, played for KU, but his real fame came after serving in WW-II when he attended Stanford and then Harvard in music composition and became a world-renowned composer of orchestral, chamber and opera music.
— Gene "Jake" Powell (THS ’49) was a three-time CIC champion at Washburn, played on the Junior Davis Cup team as well as for the USAF and was seventh nationally in the USTA over 55 division. He is also in the Washburn Athletic Hall of Fame.
— Pete Woodward (THS ’58) was a high school state champion, city champion, KU letterman and is in the THS Hall of Fame.
— John Grantham (THS ’62) was a three-time state high school champion, city champion, Jayhawk champion and Big 8 singles and doubles champion at KU. He is a professional bridge player.
— The McGrath brothers – Barry (THS ’61), Rolly (THS ’64) and Randy (THS ’67) – were a dominant force for nearly a decade. Barry was a city champion, state Jaycee’s tourney champion and Big 8 doubles champion for KU. He became a lawyer, worked for Chevron in Oklahoma and became president of a Chevron subsidiary. Rolly was a Jayhawk champion, was ranked in the Missouri Valley, and played tennis for Iowa, but only on the freshman team because he played varsity basketball after that. He became an emergency room physician. Randy was second in the high school state championships and played No. 1 for Kansas State, placing second in the Big 8, was a city champion, won the Jayhawk twice, held a No. 1 Missouri Valley ranking, coached for KU and is in the Topeka Tennis Association Hall of Fame. He was a club pro, became a lawyer and then a judge in Lawrence.
— The Clark family, father Jim (THS ’44) and sons Dave (THS ’67), Tim (THS ’68) and Bruce (TWHS ’71), were Hughes regulars for years. Jim was a CIC champion for Emporia State, was team captain and was tournament director for numerous Hughes tournaments. Dave played for Washburn, winning the RMAC at No. 2 and became a banker. Tim was second in the state high school championships and played for Arkansas, setting a school record for number of wins and becoming team captain. He is a tennis pro in Southern California where he assisted Dennis Ralston in coaching Stan Smith and Roscoe Tanner. Bruce qualified for the USTA National Indoor Championships. He played college tennis for Arkansas and was team captain. He became a tennis pro, a chair umpire in tennis and is a lawyer in Kansas City.
— Kevin Hedberg (THS ’70) was third in the state high school championships, played for the University of South Florida, won the Jayhawk in 1975 and held a No. 1 ranking in Missouri Valley doubles. He became the tennis coach for Washburn Rural High School with multiple state titles and is in the Missouri Valley and TTA Halls of Fame.
— Eric Rosen (TWHS ’71) grew up playing at Hughes and for Topeka West. He went to Washburn but did not play tennis in college. He did, however, become a lawyer and a Kansas Supreme Court Justice.
— Joel Hoffman (THS ’77) was a state high school champion, ranked in the Top 20 in the USA in the 18-year-old division and played for Houston. He went on to play on the ATP pro tennis circuit for a number of years and eventually becoming an executive trainer and successful teaching pro at tennis clubs in Houston.
— Gene Echols (THS ’48), Washburn, two-time high school state champion.
— Danny Holcomb (THS ’52), Washburn, teaching pro.
— Winston Tilzey (THS ’54), KSU, high school STEM teacher.
— Tommy Davidson (HPHS ’56), Washburn, lawyer.
— John Byrd (THS ’60), KSU.
— Steve Poort (THS ’57), KSU.
— John Wohlfarth (THS ’57), Washburn.
— Alan Smith (THS ’61), KSU.
— John Lord (THS ’62), Washburn.
— Gale Howard (THS ’63), Washburn, was a tennis pro at Topeka Country Club.
— Richard Dickson (TWHS ’64), KSU, physician.
— Walter Hurd (THS ’64), Washburn, teaching pro in Phoenix.
— Ron Kipling (TWHS ’64).
— Dennis Patterson (THS ’64), KSU, Harley Davidson dealer.
— Craig Price (THS ’67), KSU, HS state doubles fourth , Stanford Ph.D. and defense industry engineer.
— Ken Boggs (TWHS ’68), Washburn, two-time RMAC champion and team champion.
— Tim Myers (THS ’68), Washburn.
— Mark Nordstrom (THS ’68), Washburn (Athletic HOF), RMAC champion at No. 1 and No. 2 doubles, Insurance VP and Chairman of the Topeka Tennis HOF.
— Steve Pigg (HPHS ’68), Washburn, Topeka lawyer.
— Fred Esch (Hayden ’69), KSU, Internationally known PhD biochemist.
— John Waltz (TWHS ’70 HOF), Washburn (Athletic HOF), HS state doubles fourth, RMAC champion at No. 3 singles and No. 2 doubles, tennis pro in Kansas City.
— Ron Dreyer (Hayden ’71), HS state 3A champion, KSU No. 2.
— Don Dreyer (Hayden ’71), KSU and Emporia State.
— Mick Lynch (THS ’71), KSU, HS state fourth and No. 1 for KSU, CPA.
— Greg Buller (TWHS ’72), KU, physician.
— Norm Pozez (TWHS ’72), Wash. Univ. of St. Louis, executive of Payless Shoes and mall developer.
— Bill Rayburn (THS ’72), Doane College.
— Paul Waltz (TWHS and Pennsylvania ’73), KU, Pennsylvania HS third in singles and doubles champion. HS coach of the year, tennis pro and coach at Penn.
— Corey Wilson (THS ’74), Washburn, coach of the year and Kansas HOF tennis coach at TWHS.
— Greg Lutz (Seaman ’75), Washburn, property management executive.
— Neil Foth (THS ’77), KU but did not play, high school state doubles champion and highest state winning percentage in doubles. A judge in Kansas City.
— John Runnels (THS ’77), KU, high school state doubles champion, highest state winning percentage in doubles and third in Big 8 at No. 3.
— Kurt Reid (TWHS ’77), Tulsa/Washburn/KSU, HS state second in 4A, second in Jayhawk, tire industry GM.