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Missouri Valley

Alvin Penelton Legacy Lives Beyond Service Line

February 03, 2021

The late Alvin ‘Al’ Penelton picked up sewing because he felt his daughter Julia’s first Easter outfit was too expensive. 



He picked up tennis because - according to his wife, Johnnie -  he wished to remain active as he got older. Penelton was practical. Penelton was also a star at nearly whatever he did, excelling as a multi-sport athlete at Vashon High School in St. Louis.



But behind the scenes in the tennis world is where his light shined brightest. He was good at the game on the court, to be sure. He excelled at company tournaments at his job at Anheuser Busch. He performed well at local tournaments in the St. Louis area, as well.



As an official however, he was special. As a service line umpire, he is considered one of the finest ever to do it. 


His gifts as an official are the reason he is being inducted into the Black Tennis Hall of Fame in 2021. 



After being encouraged to become an official he took the leap in 1978 - just four years after he picked up a tennis racquet. It was clear almost immediately his attitude towards life would take him far in the profession. He nabbed his first pro tournament that same year - the WCT Classic at the Checkerdome. Just four years later, he worked his first of what would be 37 consecutive US Opens. 



In 1996, he was honored with the highest award given to USTA umpires - the John T. McGovern Award -  which is voted upon by fellow umpires. Once it is awarded, it cannot be awarded to the same umpire again. 

USTA Missouri Valley Chair of Officials Verne Weber said being an official -  especially on the pro circuit like Penelton did -  takes a special kind of focus. The kind of focus it takes to say, attend courses in sewing at St. Louis Community College to become proficient enough to make clothes for friends, family and himself. 



“Focus would be the thing that stood out about him the most,” Weber said. “Especially at the service line. You have to have absolute focus on what you are doing. He was very good. Being an umpire at that level is a tough job but he had tremendous focus.”



His focus was such that a fellow official commented in a story about Penelton, “...Before Cyclops, our secret weapon was Al…”



Those talents took Penelton around the world, including work in the 2004 Olympic Games in Sydney, as well as Wimbledon from 1997-2001. 



Vicki Elwood, a former colleague of Penelton’s, worked with Penelton on a project to make the only courts in East St. Louis playable again in 2017.



“Our last meeting was in 2017. I assisted him one-on-one with his online training requirements off court,” Elwood said.



Perhaps even more important than his work on the service line was his work in the community. He was instrumental to the improvements the courts in Lincoln Park. Penelton often played the game on those very courts in the beginning. The courts had become unplayable and a grant, as well as community leaders, worked to get the courts resurfaced and get lights added to the courts. The courts are the only playable ones in the city. 



But what made Penelton even more special? He did it all with kindness. Weber said he was simply pleasant to be around.



“I would see him at pro circuit events and at the US Open and we always chatted. He was such a nice guy,” Weber said.



You can read more about Penelton on the Black Tennis Hall of Fame website.


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