History Of The Harry Cowles Invitational

by Rob Dinerman
September 25, 2001 -From the moment of its inception in 1947, when the country was still in the post-World War II flush of victory and optimism, to its dignified curtain call in '96, following a highly praiseworthy run that lasted a full half-century, the Harry Cowles Invitational was one of the major highlights of every squash season and an impressive landmark of Harvard squash.

Founded by three-straight-time U.S. National Champion Germain G. Glidden (who as a college senior in '36 won both the last of his pair of consecutive Intercollegiate tourneys and the first of his trio of consecutive National titles), the Cowles eventually seized the crucial last-weekend-of-January slot on the calendar and became the last major competitive test before the season-culminating Canadian and U. S. Nationals, often in fact serving as a precursor and a barometer for how those national titles would evolve.

In fact, there were 15 occasions-Charles Brinton in '47, Stanley Pearson Jr. in '48, Henri Salaun in '55, '57 and '58, Diehl Mateer in '56, Anil Nayar in '70, Victor Niederhoffer in '72, '73 and '75, Peter Briggs in '76, Tom Page in '77, Michael Desaulniers in '80, John Nimick in '82 and Kenton Jernigan in '85---in which the Cowles Champion proceeded to hoist the U. S. Nationals trophy several weeks later. In addition, the winners of the first 14 editions of the Cowles titlists won the Nationals at some point in their careers, as did 16 of the 29 overall Cowles champions, and it wasn't until '90 (in its 44th rendition) that the Cowles was won by someone who didn't win either the Intercollegiates or the U. S. or Canadian Nationals.

Glidden's main motivation in persuading the host Harvard Club of New York to go forward with his proposal was to honor his revered college coach, Harry Lee Cowles, whose successor as Crimson head coach, the legendary Jack Barnaby, flatly described as "the greatest teacher the game has ever known." Though generally averse to employing the three-wall stratagem, which he felt was an unsound shot that backfired too often and therefore should only be used as an occasional surprise, Cowles had the flexibility to revise his thinking in this regard vis-à-vis his protégé Glidden, whose phenomenal quickness and ability to anticipate made the three-wall in his case a lethal weapon whose upside well exceeded the risk involved.

Both a grateful Glidden and an admiring Barnaby (who played in the early 1930's for Cowles, then spent the four seasons from 1932-36 as his assistant)were determined to convey their appreciation in any way they could to their extraordinary mentor and role model. When the aging Cowles---who headed Harvard's program from 1923-36, during which skein Harvard men won a total of 11 national championships, while the team never lost a formal intercollegiate match---had to be hospitalized for the last years of his life, Barnaby took it upon himself to make sure that his former coach got the best medical care and visited him frequently right to the end, while essentially writing Cowles coaching book for him and personally ensuring that future generations knew of Harry's expertise and accomplishments.

And when the Harvard Club Board of Directors resolved to have an invitational tournament to emulate established events like the Gold Racquets at the Rockaway Hunting Club in Long Island and the William White Invitational at the Merion Cricket Club in suburban Philadelphia, there was never any question who would be honored in its naming. While there may be room for debate as to which of the six or seven annual pre-Nationals invitationals was the favorite or the most prestigious(with each having a distinctive flavor and court conditions favoring various squash traits), there is no such question regarding which in its extended prime was the grandest.

 Virtually from the start --- when the inaugural edition was so well received that the Committee felt obliged to create a second-echelon companion event, initially called the Harvard Club Invitational, subsequently renamed the John Jacobs Invitational to honor the club's long-time (from 1919-65, a span of 46 years!) head pro upon his retirement --- the club demonstrated its commitment to making its flagship event into a memorable celebration of squash in general and Harvard squash in particular.

There was always a bagpipes-playing band at the sumptuous Saturday evening black-tie dinner, whose festivities for decades culminated in a high-stakes calcutta on the outcome of Sunday's semi-final and final rounds. Expensive cigars were distributed and the tournament chairman and other dignitaries delivered speeches. For years Coach Barnaby gave a clinic on the evening right before the tournament began to hype the upcoming weekend's event to the club's members, who acquired a well-deserved reputation for supporting the tourney, both financially and by their substantial presence throughout the weekend, which usually ended with everyone still present Sunday afternoon convening at the club's elegant Mahogany Room, located several floors below the sixth-floor squash area, shortly after the Cowles final, at which point the permanent Cowles Champions Bowl would be filled with champagne and passed around the room until everyone, beginning with the just-crowned winner, had taken a sip.

The tournament's far-flung popularity was demonstrated by the degree to
which even several rival clubs enthusiastically responded when some exigency arose and their assistance was called upon. On one occasion in the mid-50's, an onslaught of unseasonably warm and humid temperatures caused the weather-sensitive Harvard Club gallery courts to "sweat" to a degree that posed a danger to the players. When the Tournament Committee was therefore forced to ask the Athletic Committee of the Princeton Club one block south for permission to use some of their courts, their Chairman, Bob Lilien, immediately made them available and play was able to proceed. Similarly, when the Yale Club courts two blocks east of the Harvard Club were needed to accommodate what had become an overcrowded field, Treddy Ketcham and his Eli comrades swiftly provided them.

Both Lilien and Ketcham were later named to the Tournament Committee as a gesture of gratitude for their responsiveness, and both served in that capacity for many years. In fact, both the Princeton and Yale Clubs, no doubt inspired by the association of some of their leading lights with the Cowles weekend, eventually created invitational tournaments of their own. The Yale Club Invitational had an impressive 20-year run from 1977-96, even creating a second-flight event emulating the Jacobs tourney; the Princeton Club Invitational made a brief but gaudy appearance in the late 1980's and early 1990's; and the Eastern State Veterans age-group event, hosted by the Yale Club, is still going strong after more than 30 years, intentionally occurring on the same end-of January date as the Cowles to enable its substantial player group to spend their between-match down time watching the Cowles and Jacobs competitions, thus creating a kind of neighborhood squash festival.

The 44th Street corridor between Vanderbilt and Sixth Avenues was invariably
filled with squash traffic in both directions and an ongoing exchange of information, results and progress reports from both teeming venues. It is a tribute both to their chronological longevity and to ongoing passion for the event their loyalty to Mr. Cowles had galvanized them to create that both Glidden(who died at age 85 in '99, three years after the last edition of the event he had founded) and Barnaby (now just a few weeks short of his 92nd birthday as of this late-September '91 writing)remained actively involved throughout the tournament's 50-year span.

Germain, even in the early 1990's, by which time he was hobbled, stooped over and forced to rely heavily on his cane to move around, could be seen gingerly but determinedly ascending and descending the flight of stairs to the gallery of the two exhibition courts, intently following the action, especially when Crimson undergraduates were competing, and offerring pithy comments and sound post-match advice; one often got the sense, even at that late date and with his aforementioned physical limitations, that he would have liked nothing better than to grab a racquet, don some sneakers and jump right into the action. He often made a speech at the Saturday night dinners, during which homage was always paid to his role in founding the tournament, and he invariably hosted the post-finals Mahogany Room festivities.

If anything, and in keeping with his gregarious personality, Coach Barnaby
was an even more ubiquitous and loquacious presence, whether holding court in the social area just outside the courts, regaling his listeners with an endless supply of copiously detailed remembrances and reminiscences of past Harvard or Cowles protagonists and performances, dominating his opponents on the chess tables located fairly close to courtside or renewing friendships and acquaintances with Harvard Club denizens or alumni of his coaching tenure. Particularly fascinating were the interactions of this latter group with the legend who had coached and counseled them, often to outstanding individual and team achievements, during their formative years as undergraduates at one of the nation's foremost universities .

Although many of these alumni had subsequently experienced extraordinary
professional and financial success and received confirmation in any number of ways of the formidable standing they had attained, when they approached their aging former mentor and "caught him up" on what they were up to, their still-powerful desire for his approval was quite visibly written on all their faces; such was Barnaby's continuing influence on charges who might have graduated decades ago, that it seemed that only by receiving his certifying stamp of approval and admiration(which was almost always generously bestowed at the proper moment)that they could truly find the authentication they had been seeking. The whole exchange conjured up memories of the famous sports scene a few years ago when eight-time National League batting champion Tony Gywnn responded to a question about hitting posed to him by another New England icon, Ted Williams, his eyes clearly betraying a wish for Williams's approval and an anxiety about whether or not his response had been sufficient and "correct." Perhaps the preferable Barnaby analogy would be not with the mercurial Williams but rather with the professorial UCLA basketball coaching legend John Wooden, with whom Barnaby's career and life parallels are striking to the point of being almost eerie: both coached at famous programs for more than a quarter-century; both are still alive today and in their early 90's more than a quarter-century after their retirements, while remaining an active presence in the games they loved and greatly influenced all the while; both retired almost simultaneously(Wooden in '75, Barnaby in '76)and with college championships unexpectedly presented to them by over-achieving teams in their farewell seasons after having long streaks of consecutive championship seasons terminated in their penultimate seasons(UCLA having been dethroned by North Carolina State in '74, while Harvard suffered a similar fate at Princeton's hands in '75, defeats that were both avenged the following season); and, most importantly, both were revered as father figures by their proteges, many of whom claim unequivocally that these men were by far the most influential figures in their entire college experience and sometimes in their entire life experience.

As a tribute to Jack's enduring greatness, when the Cowles Committee created a third event for the weekend, for players age 35 and over, it named that competition in his honor, and a number of Crimson alumni, upon winning the Jack Barnaby Invitational, have called it the greatest honor of their careers because of their enduring reverence for the man it commemorates. Accompanying Glidden and Barnaby in the Big Three of perennial protagonists in the Cowles weekend was venerable head pro Milt Russ, who succeeded Jacobs in this position, gave valuable lessons to the progeny of the club's membership during their high-school years(with a number of his products going on to play valuable roles on Harvard's varsity squads), applied his well-honed trouble-shooting skills to resolve any in-tournament scheduling, refereeing or other administrative difficulties that arose and cheerfully and in a myriad of ways helped guide the weekend to a successful conclusion.

While the head pros of some of the other invitationals seemed to be reluctantly forcing themselves through the tournament weekend as though gamely doing a detested chore, Russ clearly had a passion for the Cowles weekend and an emotional stake in its reputation. His charm and enthusiasm were a reliable hallmark of the tournament, and it seemed almost fitting that, though stricken in '95 with a form of bone cancer that was so lethal and fast-advancing that he was expected to die weeks before the fiftieth and final Cowles tournament in late January '96, Russ simply willed his ravaged body through that painful final period, managing in fact to address the Saturday evening throng from his Teaneck, NJ home via speakerphone.

Though there was understandably some awkwardness attached to his broadcast conversation with several of the attendees, Mr. Russ seemed grateful to have been able to play a role in the weekend and certainly everyone present was glad to have been able to hear the voice of their old friend(who succumbed just a few days later)one final time. Russ, incidentally, joined the Harvard Club staff as Jacobs's assistant in 1963 and spent the last 33 years of his life there, becoming head pro in 1965. This means that over the 77-YEAR PERIOD from 1919 to 1996 the Club had exactly TWO head squash professionals. Talk about stability and continuity in a squash program!

And what great and memorable matches the Big Three oversaw! The sheer boundless athleticism in '77 of the star-crossed Tom Page, then a 20-year-old Princeton sophomore with unlimited potential which he unleashed against his doughty but out-classed older brother Palmer in one of only two Cowles Title finals (preceded 11 years earlier by Sam and Ralph Howe)featuring siblings, exuding from every pore a "forever young" quality that seemingly made him immune to the sad demise that awaited him just last spring, when he collapsed and died on a New York sidewalk at the grievously premature age of only 44; the great rivalry that extended throughout the 1950's on both the Nationals and the Cowles fronts between Henri Salaun and Diehl Mateer, who between them won every one of the 11 Cowles played from 1950-60, with the latter's second son Gilbert adding titles in '78 and '84 to his father's quintet and making the Mateers the only family with two generations of Cowles champions; Gil's younger Penn teammate Ned Edwards, over whom he had previously held a psychological edge, triumphantly breaking down that barrier in their close '79 final and thereby taking an emphatic step in launching what would become a superstar WPSA career; David Boyum ambushing HIS junior and college nemesis Kenton Jernigan in the first-ever all-Harvard-undergraduate Cowles final in '83, a defeat Kenton would
avenge a few weeks later in the Nationals in San Francisco, where Kenton would rocket to the first of his three consecutive National championships; the twinkle-eyed Canadian Gordy Anderson posing the sole interruption to Victor Niederhoffer's reign over the event from 1972-75 by upsetting Victor in the '74 final, another outcome due to be reversed several weeks later in the Nationals final; Harvard's domination of the final seven Cowles tourneys from 1990-96, with Head Coach Bill Doyle doing the honors in '93 and the Ezra brothers, Adrian and Dan, subsequently joining the Howes three decades earlier as the only brothers to win the Cowles---these are just a few of the many significant and scintillating highlights that flashed across the over-loaded Cowles historical ledger.

When at the tail-end of my preparation for this essay I asked Treddy Ketcham for a brief meeting in order to flesh out some of my research, he graciously insisted on accommodating my request by arranging a luncheon at the Racquet & Tennis Club in midtown Manhattan and by asking another Cowles legend, Charles Ufford, to attend.. As always, I greatly looked forward to meeting these two gentlemen-Ketcham a World War II hero(and recipient of the Navy Cross for heroism at Iwo Jima), donor and recipient of numerous awards, longtime tournament chairman of the Gold Racquets, Ufford a Cowles and Jacobs Champion, three-sport star (soccer, tennis and squash) at Harvard, first American ever to earn the Cambridge Blue in squash, both men Cowles tournament chairmen, retired after long and distinguished careers as lawyers, former national age-group champions, among the very few to be named Honorary Life Members of the USSRA and two of the most widely beloved figures in the history of squash in this country.

They did their best to answer the array of historical questions I posed to them in a conversation that was frequently interrupted by the an array of club members and staff employees who came over to our table to visit and, it seemed to me, to pay homage to these two luminaries, who seemed genuinely pleased at the sight of everyone who stopped by to greet them.

I realized during the 80 minutes we spent that these exceptional men, as well as others whose enormous contributions to the history and magnitude of the Cowles I have attempted to chronicle in this article, were telling me all I needed to know about the glittering half century of the Harry Cowles Invitational, not so much by any information they conveyed to me(though they were generous that way as well) but just by being who they were, that in the way they conducted themselves and lived their lives they were paying the greatest possible tribute to the event with which they were so closely associated and that clearly meant so much to them. Jack Barnaby, Germain Glidden, John Jacobs, Milt Russ, Treddy Ketcham, Charles Ufford, Harry Cowles himself---as legacies go, an event could do a whole lot worse.

This first appeared on squashtalk.com

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