Peabody to be honored at tennis tourney

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 5, 2004

NATCHEZ &045; The list of honors grows for Jeanie Peabody, tennis champion and a champion at promoting the sport. Today, the AmSouth Cancer Tennis Tournament will recognize founders of the 25-year-old event, and Peabody will be among the honored. Those who know her will not be surprised.

For decades, Peabody has played and taught tennis, an advocate for young and old, able and disabled. For her dedication to tennis education, she has received accolades and citations too numerous to list, and she has been named to the International Tennis Hall of Fame as well as the Mississippi Tennis Hall of Fame.

What can one more award mean to her? Everything, she said.

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&uot;Every award is wonderful,&uot; Peabody said, thumbing through a scrapbook and reminiscing about her tennis experiences. &uot;It’s so special when someone says thank you, and that’s what an award is. Any award I’ve ever gotten I’ve appreciated.&uot;

The Cancer Tennis Tournament, which raises money for the American Cancer Society, was an idea conceived by Bazile Lanneau Jr., Peabody said. &uot;He was chairman of the local cancer chapter and needed a fund raiser. He came to me and asked if I would help organize a tennis tournament.&uot;

The tournament was a success, with members of the Natchez Tennis Association and other players taking part that first year, Peabody said.

The first year’s success led to a continuing of an annual tennis tournament, with many thousands of dollars raised for cancer causes. New volunteers began to take on many of the responsibilities after the first 10 years, Peabody said.

Still, in Natchez and in national tennis circles, Jeanie Peabody and tennis simply go together. And her support and zeal for the sport continue to make a difference.

Peabody did not begin playing the game until she was an adult with children. In fact, she learned the game and learned to teach as a professional because some of her friends suggested their children should learn to play.

She taught and organized tennis teams at Trinity Episcopal Day School, all the while honing her own skills and playing in tournaments, as well. And then a tragedy gave Peabody a new focus, as her goddaughter, Laura Pritchartt, became physically disabled by injuries in an automobile accident.

&uot;She was in the hospital, still on all kinds of machines, and I just said to her, ‘do you want to play tennis again?’ And she said yes,&uot; Peabody said. &uot;I went to the USTA tennis teachers conference. Brad Parks was there to give a demonstration on teaching wheelchair tennis.&uot;

That began Peabody’s quest to reach out to anyone who wanted to play the game and to help them be able to do it. Parks came to Natchez to help start a wheelchair tennis program. The first wheelchair tournament was in the mid 1980s.

From there, Peabody sought out schools, Special Olympics events and other groups comprised of people with special needs. She recalled her first group outside the Natchez wheelchair tennis class.

&uot;It was in Shreveport. I was not prepared for what happened,&uot; she said, describing a large number of youngsters arriving for the class and representing many levels of disability. &uot;I said, what have I gotten myself into. And then I said, O.K., Peabody; you got yourself into this; now get yourself out.&uot;

She was up to the challenge, and she continued to face challenges wherever she went &045; throughout the United States. One group included children who were deaf. &uot;I couldn’t communicate with them, and it was so frustrating I went to LSU to the School for the Deaf and learned to sign.&uot;

Peabody never forgets who inspired her to become the professional wheelchair tennis instructor, one admired and honored as a pioneer in the field. &uot;It was Laura who did that for me. It’s strange how things work, how God works through each of us. And each person we touch touches that many more.&uot;

Her many intense years of working with the disabled have given her real joy, Peabody said. &uot;They are extraordinary people, and I have made many friends. It’s so exciting to be able to have an opportunity like that, to help them gain self-esteem, to get them out and get them active, participating in sports like everyone else.&uot;

Efforts in recent years have focused on the collegiate level of wheelchair tennis, and she is pleased that both national professional tennis organizations now have a certification process for teachers to teach other professionals wheelchair tennis.

&uot;This has just happened in the last year, and I’m very proud of that,&uot; she said. However, she never has been one to rest on past successes. Her plate remains full. She continues to have fun and to be challenged. &uot;Each time I finish something, there is another thing to start.&uot;

How tennis came to dominate her life is a mystery but a good outcome. Reared on an Illinois farm, where she learned to do all the usual chores, she spent time around a hospital, where her father was administrator. Her mother was ill for many years. &uot;I had a wonderful upbringing, and I was very independent,&uot; she said.

Married to Andrew Peabody, she moved to Natchez with him in 1954, the same year their first child, Mike, was born.

Recently, Jeanie Peabody was named to a joint recreation council set up by Adams County, the City of Natchez and the Natchez-Adams Public School System. She has high hopes that the committee, now dormant and awaiting funding for recreation planning, will be successful. &uot;I love this community. I hope we can do something good for the children.&uot;