What young student, struggling with a homework assignment, has not wondered what earthly good it would do him, as an adult, to understand trigonometry or the declensions of Latin verbs? The benefit of pushups or an extra hour spent in the batting cage is easier to understand—a better batting average earns a spot in the starting lineup; more practice time helps the team; and, victories win trophies.
Because discipline and hard work are so demonstrably rewarded on the athletic field, many young athletes carry those habits over into their classroom efforts. And, for some, years later—when careers in business, law, or medicine are a major focus—sports remain a passion. They continue to seek athletic excellence, strive for improvement, and work hard to “make the team.”
Throughout the world, there are fellowships of these grown-up amateur athletes, and one of the oldest is The Olympic Club of San Francisco. While sports have always been the club’s primary focus, giving back to the community is a tradition that has endured since its earliest days.
In 1992, with the goal of formalizing its philanthropic outreach, The Olympic Club created The Winged “O” Foundation, a name derived from the Club’s well-known logo. And while the name was subsequently changed to The Olympic Club Foundation (OCF), the mission has remained the same: “To support programs that share the belief that participation in organized athletics enriches young lives and develops future community leaders.”
Now, in its 22nd year, OCF is a thriving grant organization supporting organized sports for thousands of under-served kids throughout the nine San Francisco Bay Area counties.
Giving “wings to youth” takes many forms, each with its own inspiring story, and the tale of a project involving San Francisco’s Peanut Louie Harper and UCLA coach John Wooden is emblematic.
The story begins with a chance encounter and some mutual friendships. Peanut Louie was an accomplished junior tennis player with 14 national junior titles, and she reached the finals at the Junior Wimbledon event in 1977—and was ultimately ranked 19th in the world—but her vision of ultimate success proved elusive. She retired from the professional game to start a graphic design business in San Francisco with her husband Tim Harper. Then, in 2001, a friend of theirs gave her a book that he had written in collaboration with famed UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. The definition of success that was presented in the book resonated with Peanut. John Wooden was not just a coach, he considered himself a teacher, and as such, he first developed his definition of success in 1934: “Success is the knowledge that you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.” This was a definition of success that Peanut could relate to, for her parents had stressed the same goal when she was a little girl learning how to hit a backhand at Golden Gate Park.
The idea of sharing Wooden’s ideas about success with youngsters, not just college athletes, prompted the graphic designer in Peanut to make a suggestion to her friend, Steve Jamison. The book could be re-formatted as an illustrated book for children. Steve liked the idea; Coach Wooden loved it, and so began a collaboration that, in itself, is a remarkable success.
Today, that book, Inch and Miles: The Journey to Success, is the core of an elementary school curriculum that teaches some essential life lessons. To help youngsters understand the building blocks necessary to build that effort, Peanut and her husband formed a non-profit enterprise called Harper for Kids. Their program encourages teachers to adopt Wooden’s metaphor of a pyramid and devote each separate month of the school year to a specific character trait as a building block.
The teachers are given ownership of the program, but the Harpers bring special visitors to the classrooms. Coach Peter Bartlett and players on the USF tennis team, and professional champions—such as Michael Chang, who won the French Open Tennis Championship at the age of 17 and is a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame—share their personal stories with the children. They speak about the times in their lives when the going got tough, when they needed a friend, or when they were scared about the future, and why the individual building blocks of Wooden’s pyramid are so important.
And then, of course, given Peanut’s love of the game, and the conviction that it is through actual athletic competition that Wooden’s pyramid can best be understood, it becomes obvious that balls, nets, and racquets, as well as the coach’s book and the player’s stories, are also needed.
And that is where the Olympic Club Foundation comes in. Over the last five years, the OCF has provided the financial support that has enabled Harper for Kids to introduce its program to 18 Bay Area schools. Posters and huge wall murals depicting the pyramid, along with OCF-funded equipment, have brought the game of tennis to ten of these schools. The Olympic Club connection has also attracted the support of the United States Tennis Association, resulting in the painting of “quick-start tennis court lines” at all of the Harper program schoolyards.
To say that the program has grown would be an understatement. Harper for Kids is now introducing 10,000 youngsters each year to Coach Wooden’s pyramid—and the lifelong pursuit of success.
In the words of Coach Wooden:
“Success isn’t having trophies or toys
It isn’t a medal or friends of your choice
Don’t worry what others might have, or might say.
When trying your best, success comes your way.”
As in the game of tennis, each of us gets a chance to serve.
Gerald Stratford graduated from the Town School for Boys and Robert Louis Stevenson in Pebble Beach, and he attended the University of Virginia before joining the U.S. Army Medical Corps. An avid sportsman, Gerald’s sports articles have appeared in several anthologies, and he has been a golf columnist for the Olympian Magazine for 20 years.