Charles Ufford, 1931-2018    
by Rob Dinerman

Photo by Dean Bauer, Harvard Class of 1967

August 29th, 2018 --- During the winter of 1966, USSRA President William “Treddy” Ketcham decided to donate an award called the “President’s Cup” to go each year “to that person who has made a substantial contribution to the game of Squash Racquets.” He convened a small ad hoc Committee and instructed each member to list five potential recipients of the inaugural award in order of preference. When the Committee members handed in their ballots a few minutes later for tabulation, Ketcham noted that each of them had listed only one name – Charlie Ufford. This apocryphal-sounding story (which I skeptically checked out with several Committee members, all of whom confirmed its historical accuracy) is immensely revealing, for it is doubtful that any individual more fully personified the qualities of sportsmanship, achievement, service and integrity than Ufford, who died on August 17th at age 87.

     A two-time Intercollegiate Individual champion during the early 1950’s, when he played a major role in Harvard’s victory in the USSRA National Five-Man Team Championships in 1951 and led the Crimson to multiple Ivy League and national college team crowns as well, Ufford would go on to win virtually every important event on the amateur schedule --- including the Harry Cowles, Gold Racquets, Apawamis and Atlantic Coast Invitationals --- while also capturing six New York State and five Met A titles. In addition to the 1966 President’s Cup, he received the Eddie Standing Sportsmanship Award in 1964 and the Edwin Bigelow Trophy “for excellence in play” a staggering four times during the decade of the 1960’s, while serving as President of the New York regional squash association from 1965-67 and on the USSRA Discipline and Rules Committees and as a Trustee on the Endowment Fund of the USSRA, which made Ufford an Honorary Life Member during the mid-1980’s in recognition of his multi-front years of service and achievement.

      Although he played No. 1 in both his junior and senior years as a prep-school student at Deerfield Academy, Ufford’s game really developed under the tutelage of Harvard’s legendary coach Jack Barnaby, who reconstructed what had been a flawed forehand and taught his receptive pupil how best to take advantage of the powerful wrist with which he had been gifted. Ufford became a master at “holding his shots” by drawing his racquet back early and then keeping it there long enough to disrupt his opponent’s flow and disturb his balance, mental as well as physical, due to the number of options Ufford had at his disposal as a result of the subtle adjustments that his wrist was capable of making even very late in his swing. This trait, combined with his uncanny knack for varying his shot selection, caused him to “wrong-foot” opponents and demoralize them by sending them in the wrong direction. Paradoxically for someone who was 6’5 (possibly 6’6) and powerfully built, Ufford’s game was predicated on subtlety, deception and finesse rather than power. He captained Harvard teams in both tennis (twice) and soccer, where he earned first-team all-American honors as a fullback, and these athletic exploits, combined with a strong academic record, earned Ufford a one-year fellowship at Cambridge University, where he became the first American ever to earn the much-honored Cambridge Blue in squash.

      After then completing a two-year military commitment and spending three years at Harvard Law School, Ufford moved to New York and began both a successful business career (ultimately as a partner at the Skadden Arps law firm specializing in wills, deeds and trusts) and a decade-long stretch during which he and Steve Vehslage engaged in a prolonged rivalry atop the New York competitive pack. Ufford reached the final of the U. S. Nationals in 1963, where he lost to Ben Heckscher, and was a major contender even as late as 1970, when at age 38 he knocked off Penn all-American Elliot Berry, Harvard No. 1 Larry Terrell (who would win the Intercollegiates just a few weeks later) and 1968 U. S. National champion Colin Adair to advance all the way to the semis! He got to at least the quarterfinals of the U. S. Nationals 14 times, a record total by a sizable margin. Two years after his extraordinary performance at the 1970 Nationals, having attained his 40th birthday, Ufford played in and won the U. S. National 40’s title, though his memory of that accomplishment was tarnished somewhat by the absence of Henri Salaun, one of Ufford’s main rivals, who had been declared ineligible just before the tournament began. Ufford himself lobbied strongly for Salaun’s reinstatement, which was eventually granted, and which made Ufford’s triumph over Salaun in 1974 in a riveting four-game National 40’s final satisfying in a way that his ’72 win could not approach. These two stylish protagonists would frequently meet in U.S. National age-group finals for most of the next decade, often drawing larger crowds than even the Open matches.

    Encounters with Ufford were all-at-once educational, inspirational and humbling, with an emphasis on the latter.  Although he was an engaging conversationalist with a keen degree of insight, a ready laugh and a marvelous sense of humor, it is nevertheless chastening to be in the presence of such courtly dignity; one leaves determined to at least make an effort to act more in accordance with Ufford’s ideals in the future. In a squash world largely populated by “takers,” Ufford was a “giver” of the highest order, fully willing to play with and impart his squash wisdom to lesser players, especially youngsters, if he sensed that they were eager to learn and improve, and someone who gave his time and energy to building the game and fostering its growth. When asked once about Mark Talbott during the 1980’s time frame when Talbott was dominating the WPSA pro tour, Ufford’s strongest praise was aimed less at Talbott’s exceptional record than at the excellent example of sportsmanship and clean play that Talbott was setting for the rest of the squash world to emulate. This seemed a most appropriate association, for throughout his lengthy squash career, indeed throughout his life, Charlie Ufford by his actions, his enthusiasm and his palpable generosity of spirit was the definition of a role model and the pre-eminent personification of everything that is best about the game of squash.