Harry Conlon Profile
by Rob Dinerman

August 5, 2004 -Harry Conlon attempted a defence of his national title despite having been posted to Thule, Greenland all year.

The youngest player ever to win the U. S. Nationals and the first to do so while an active member of the armed services of the United States, Harry B.
Conlon took up the game in 1946 at age 13 and learned the game from his father, Harry A. Conlon, who was the squash professional at the former University Club (now called Allentown Athletix) in Buffalo, where the junior Conlon was born.

During the next several years, he would go over to the University Club almost every day after school to practice by himself, receive coaching from his father if he was not too busy or practice with club players such as Henry Jocoy, Jinx Johnson, Bob Rich or Bill Johnson, among others, who might come in during the afternoons without a scheduled partner.

From a truly inauspicious beginning in the autumn of '47 as a participant on the YMCA team in the newly formed C class Buffalo league, the slender but cat-quick teenager swiftly perfected all the front-court shots and developed rifle-like shots off the back wall. After losing the '50 city singles final to local legend Monty Pooley, Conlon won that event the following year, but his squash prospects appeared to be effectively doomed, or at least severely constrained, when a few months later he joined the United States Air Force following his high school graduation and was assigned to Scott Field, Illinois, with duties in cryptography.

However, by chance his base commander was a club-level squash enthusiast from nearby St. Louis, and when the latter realized the talent level of his young charge he encouraged him to play regularly both on the base and in St. Louis. This fortuitous circumstance enabled Conlon to participate in a number of tournaments in the area during the 1951-52 season, including the Western Championship, the biggest event in the region, where he lost in the final round to the reigning two-time National Champion Ed Hahn.

It would be a Pyrrhic victory for the latter, however, as by the time the two next met, in the semis of the Nationals in New Haven a few weeks later, Conlon had made the necessary adjustments to pull away in the last half of his 15-13 9-15 15-9 15-10 ticket to the final. There he faced Haverford College star Diehl Mateer in a classic confrontation of styles and backgrounds. Mateer struck a dashing figure with his fundamentally sound strokes off both flanks, the product of his squash upbringing at the Merion Cricket Club in suburban Philadelphia, then as now the mecca of American squash, where he learned the game from their two great pros, William White and Brendan McCrory, and former national champions like Hunter Lott and Charlie Brinton. His classic game also featured constant volleying, percentage shot-making and the powerful forehand that would eventually bring him three U. S. National titles and two North American Opens in a USSRA Hall Of Fame career.

Conlon, by contrast, largely eschewed the volley, preferring to play many balls off the back wall, where his exceptional late wrist action enabled him to whip the ball past his bigger but less agile opponent, often wrong-footing him and keeping him off balance both with this stroking style and with his penchant for attempting daring shots even from difficult positions when he thought the benefit was worth the risk. Merion by that juncture had produced more than a half-dozen National Champions, while Buffalo was considered a backwater squash city, but it was the Buffalonian Conlon who eventually prevailed, surmounting two difficult mid-match lost overtime games in the process and drawing relentlessly away in the mid-portion of the decisive fifth game of the exciting, back-and-forth 15-12 14-15 15-11 16-18 15-8 victory that ensconced him, at age 19 and only four short years removed from his debut as a Buffalo C player, as the youngest person ever to win this championship, a distinction he still holds today.

The following year Conlon made a memorable attempted defense of this title, despite being stationed virtually throughout the intervening 12 months in Thule, Greenland, where there are no squash courts, despite not playing in a single competitive event during that time (while all his competitors were honing their games in the dozen tourneys comprising the amateur circuit) and despite taking only a couple of weeks' leave just before the '53 Nationals to prepare for it. Inspired by the occasion and by the supportive presence that weekend of his hometown fans (the Nationals was held in Buffalo that year), Conlon barely edged out another future USSRA Hall Of Famer, Henri Salaun, who would get his revenge in another exciting five-game match in the Nationals five years later and who along with his great rival Mateer would win seven of the next eight Nationals during the period from 1954-61.

But his thrilling five-game win in the quarters over Salaun and the long hiatus that had preceded this tournament would exact a price the following day from Conlon, who then lost for the only time in his career to Cal MacCracken, who then dropped the ensuing final to Ernie Howard, a Canadian against whom Conlon went undefeated throughout his career. During the decade that followed, with only a brief interlude of civilian life, Conlon was ranked in the top eight almost every year, despite being stationed for four years in Japan, where he played tennis almost exclusively, winning in fact the Pacific Air Force championships in that sport in both singles and doubles, as well as all military Japan championships that were held during his time there.

His duties also took him at various times to North Africa, Guam, Alaska, Seattle, Mississippi, California, Colorado (where he won the state singles and doubles titles), and Washington D. C., the most squash-friendly of his stations, where he served three separate tours, during which he was able to win the Woodruff-Nee and Saucon Valley invitational tournaments while reaching the finals of the prestigious Harry Cowles, Gold Racquet and Atlantic Coast Invitationals. During the latter stages of Conlon's 26-year career in the Air Force, he was stationed at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, where his duties primarily revolved around the Cadet Athletic Department. He eventually became the Non-Commissioned Officer in charge of all the cadet athletic fields, field house and gymnasium and assisted (completely understandably) with the Cadet Club squash program.

After serving his country for more than a quarter-century, Conlon retired in 1977, settled in Colorado and spent 20 years working for a telephone company before retiring for good in 1997. Now in his early 70's, he was elected to the Buffalo Squash Racquets Association Hall Of Fame in 2002 (joining such inducted luminaries as '73 Nationals runner-up Bob Hetherington and '79 North American Open finalist Gordy Anderson), though he was unable to attend the induction ceremony in person. His good lifelong friend and contemporary Ed Jocoy, himself well placed for a number of years in the USSRA amateur and age-group rankings and the son of one of Conlon's first practice partners more than a half-century ago, accepted the plaque on Conlon's behalf and paid tribute to the accomplishments of one of the most unique figures in the history of squash in this country.

This first appeared on squashtalk.com

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