By Chris Dummermuth
At the formative age of 10, Gayle Klein and
her brother, Steve, were urged by their mother, Vivian, to get
involved in a Brookings summer park and recreation program…ANY
program. They both chose to try tennis, so off they
went to the local hardware store to gear up. They each
purchased a racquet for $3.00.
That maiden summer, Gayle succeeded in
getting the ball back over the net, but it was all over the
place. Fortunately, SD Tennis Hall of Famer, Lefty Johnson, was
in control on the other side. He willingly retrieved her shots
and returned them to her so she could hit (or spray) again.
Because none of her friends were playing tennis, Gayle hung up
her racquet following that first summer.
After four years of zero court action,
fate intervened. Without asking permission, brother Steve
borrowed Gayle’s idle racquet and proceeded to return it in two
pieces. Even though the racquet had been sitting unused for
four years, Gayle invoked the sisterly duty of making him feel
guilty, and it worked! Steve went to the Sporting Goods store
this time and bought a really nice racquet to replace the $3.00
two-piece. Ironically, Gayle was now feeling guilty, so she
started to play tennis again.
As a 14 year old, Gayle returned to Lefty
Johnson, but this time, SHE had to run down every
ball and hit it back to HIM! His large hands
could hold an endless supply of tennis balls, and the brutally
long exchanges prompted Gayle to ask whether a 14 year old could
have a heart attack.
Gayle’s park play morphed into team play
for Brookings High School. While a Bobcat, she was coached by
Joan Griffin, a 2002 inductee into the South Dakota Tennis Hall
of Fame. Gayle went on to play as a South Dakota State
Jackrabbit with coaches Gerry Crabbs, Don Rogers, and Mike
Piatkowski. When Gayle’s eligibility ended, SDSU hired her to
coach the women’s team for one semester.
During the summer months, Gayle gave
tennis lessons in Brookings, then in Aberdeen, and finally at
Camp Birchtrail in northern Wisconsin. Paul Richardson, a
former fellow instructor in Aberdeen, said that Gayle was the
refined, reasonable member of their teaching crew.
After brief school-teaching assignments in
Todd County and Vermillion, Gayle was pursued by Mitchell High
School Principal Bob Brooks to teach geography and coach tennis.
She made the move in ’84 and coached both the girls and boys
tennis teams for the next 27 years. Gayle was probably the first
woman in South Dakota to coach a varsity boys team.
Conditions were challenging! Assistant
coaches for tennis weren’t even a thought at the time. It was
not uncommon for Gayle to be working with 48 boys on four
courts. During the winter months, the “indoor court” was the
National Guard Armory. She would tape the floor, string up a
net, and they would literally hit next to tanks and cannons.
Gayle served four years as the tennis
representative on the SDHSAA Advisory Board. It was during that
time that the change was made to include the five and six
singles flights in the state tournament. She was honored as the
South Dakota Tennis Coach of the Year for the ’94-’95 season,
National Federation Coach of the Year for South Dakota in 2000,
and Mitchell Coach of the Year for the 2000-’01, and 2010-’11
seasons. But her greatest pride, by far, is her players!
Many Kernels went on to play college
tennis, and some have even joined the coaching ranks in
California, Colorado, South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa. Gayle’s
teams won four ESD Conference championship titles, and seven
teams earned a top five finish in the state tournament. Two
players, Tyler Osterloo and Karmyn Hettinger Marchand, were
honored with the Spirit of Max Award. Her 2011 team received the
Sportsmanship Award at the boys state tennis tournament.
During the ’94-’95 season, the Kernels
boasted both the boys and girls flight one singles champions,
Andy Young and Melanie Puetz. Andy fondly recalls his years
with “Miss Klein” (he still calls her that today), “She was
very committed. Miss Klein put in long hours at the courts, and
really became part of the family. We wanted her to feel
successful! She planted the seeds, and the program continues to
be successful because she cared about us developing into good
citizens as much as good tennis players.”
Melanie agreed and added to those
sentiments, “Coach Klein was a huge part of my life from my
first year playing varsity as a 7th grader to winning
my state championship my senior year. She had a great laugh and
was a lot of fun to be around, yet we knew when she meant
business. She pushed us with conditioning at a time when it
wasn’t really deemed important in high school sports. I also
had the honor to have her as a geography teacher, and she was
fantastic in the classroom! I’ve always admired and respected
the decades worth of dedication she gave her students and
athletes. She stressed success in academics first!!
Gayle retired from teaching and coaching
in 2011, but still is an avid follower of Mitchell and
Jackrabbit activities! Knee replacement has steered her toward
golf these days, but recently she has returned to the Hitchcock
Park courts for some pickleball.