Henry Harris retires after serving 28 years as City of Natchez Tennis Director

Published 6:58 pm Tuesday, June 30, 2020

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NATCHEZ — Henry “Hawk” Harris has served as the City of Natchez Tennis Director for 28 years.

After thoughtful consideration, however, Harris announced several months ago that he is retiring. His last day on the job was Tuesday.

“I felt like it was time to let someone else come in and try their luck at it,” Harris said. “I turned 70 last week. I figured it was time for me to try and do some of the things that I like doing along with tennis. Before I played any sports, I was fishing. My grandmother and mother fished as well.”

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Growing up, Harris attended North Natchez High School, where he played football, baseball, ran track and tennis. Harris said he dreamed of playing professional football but realized he was too small to play.

Harris attended Copiah-Lincoln Community College and then graduated from Alcorn State University.

In 1974, Harris returned to Natchez to work as a policeman.

Harris said he remembers one day on shift as a police officer watching Jeannie Peabody doing drills with kids on the tennis courts and helping them learn.

“I was trying to learn to teach and I did not know what I was doing,” Harris said. “Peabody inspired me to learn how to teach and improve kids’ lives.”

Harris became involved with National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) when his friend Art Porter wanted to help underprivileged students learn how to play tennis. In 1975, Harris began an NJTL chapter in Natchez.

Tony Byrne, who was the mayor of Natchez when Harris was a police officer, said Harris was a good police officer but he knew Harris’ heart was in recreation, specifically tennis.

“J.T. Robinson, the chief of police, came to me and told me that Hawk was at the tennis courts helping someone,” Byrne said. “We transferred him over to the recreation department. It was one of the best things we have done because Henry has done a tremendous job in helping with tennis in Natchez and the surrounding areas.”

From 1975 to 1999, Harris was the tennis coach for the North Natchez Rams. During his 24 years as the tennis coach, the Rams won four division championships, four state championships and two Big 8 Conference championships.

Then in 1984, Harris earned his Untied States Professional Tennis Registry (USPTR) and United States Professional Tennis Association (USPTA) certifications. At the urging of Hall of Famer Willie Shepard, Harris and Cleon McKnight, along with several others, began attending officials’ school so that coach Shepard would have someone to officiate his matches at Jackson State University.

In 1990, S.B. Buck became friends with Harris when they played in a doubles tournament together in Vicksburg. From then, Harris and Buck traveled the country playing in doubles tournaments.

“I will remember Harris’ demeanor and his attitude,” Buck said. “He is the same 24 hours a day. He is calm and I like that about him.”

In 1997, Dale Evans met Harris at Battlefield Park Tennis Center in Jackson. Evans said Harris became his coach away from his home in California.

Evans added Harris also helped him beyond coaching in tennis.

“Harris gave me my first job in the tennis industry teaching tennis at summer camps and also helped me get to play tennis at Jackson State,” Evans said. “One of the best things in having somebody like Harris mentor you is to help guide you through the level of professionalism needed to endure adversity in tennis as a sport and as a career.”

In 2003, Harris helped Lisa Anderson in obtaining a certification to officiate tennis matches at Jackson.

“I have been officiating for 17 years with the help of Harris,” Anderson said. “He had so much confidence in me running a tennis tournament. If you show interest in tennis, then he’s going to be right there to push you to be your best in whatever aspect you are trying to do.”

Venecca Green met Harris when he stopped in Jackson at the Battlefield Park Tennis Center. Green said the first interaction with Harris was one of uncertainty.

In 2018, Harris was inducted into the Mississippi Tennis Hall of Fame. Green said Buck and her were at the Hall of Fame induction banquet.

“The banquet was packed,” Green said. “This was a testament to Henry because so many people came to honor him.”

Throughout his career of teaching tennis, Harris said he has coached more than 3,000 kids. Through the NJTL program, 300 kids received scholarships to play tennis in college.

“I’m not abandoning teaching kids because teaching has been good to me and I want to continue it,” Harris said. “If I have kids that want to learn, then definitely I will teach them.

“My favorite memory is working with children and seeing them when they could not do anything to learning how to play tennis. I’m proud of them becoming businessmen and businesswomen from teaching them how to play tennis.”