Seri Endowed Tennis Scholarship a Tribute to Inspirational Coach
May 7, 2014
CHICAGO – Jim Seri has a very special place in the storied tradition of DePaul athletics.
After serving with distinction as the Blue Demon men’s tennis coach and a member of the university faculty and guiding the 1967 tennis team to a 22-3 record and fifth-place finish at the NCAA College Division Championship, Seri is being honored with an endowed scholarship in his name for men’s tennis.
It is the kickoff to the DePaul Athletics Department Scholarship Month program. For 31 days in May, Blue Demon athletic programs will engage in a scholarship awareness and funding initiative spearheaded by Athletics Development. The alumni team that generates the most scholarship gifts will receive first prize---50 percent of the Athletic Department’s on-line auction revenue.
“I feel very humbled and very thankful," said the 90-year-old Seri who lives in Prospect Heights. “I’m just overwhelmed, and I don’t know what to say. I want to thank everyone involved in offering up a scholarship in my name.
“I’m very proud of all those tennis players who were successful on the tennis court and successful in life. They’ve gone on to do so well in business, and I’m so happy for them. I’m thankful for the years I had with them and that I was the kind of person who could have an impact on them.
“When we all got together at the DePaul Athletic Hall of Fame induction in 2010, I was so happy to see all of those guys from the 1967 team. I remembered them from when they were in their 20s and now they were in their 60s. I remember guys reminiscing and telling the old stories that had brought us together.”
That Hall of Fame team consisting of Ray Bachmann, Ray Cahnman, Terry Garvey, George Hahn, Allen Kiel, Nathaniel King, Mel Searles and Steve Williams went 22-3 that season and finished fifth at the NCAA College Division Championship. The Blue Demons overcame the odds at the NCAA College Championship with a number of upsets in a field filled with renowned players from across the globe, including Davis Cup players and world-class competitors.
That was all put in motion a year earlier when Seri and his players piled into the Ford limousine provided to them by the coach’s good friend and billionaire auto magnate Jim Moran and headed South on a 10-day, spring break road trip playing matches in Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Florida.
Mississippi in 1966 was a battleground for Civil Rights and desegregation---not exactly the ideal destination for Searles, an African-American on DePaul's team.
“We were down South at a time when the Civil Rights movement was going on and de-segregation was a huge issue,” Seri said. “During warm-ups before our match at Mississippi, their coach comes up to me and says: ‘Who’s that black kid on the court?
“‘Our guys won’t play against a colored boy,’ he said. I told him Mel was our chauffeur. You can imagine how Mel’s teammates got fired up over the incident. We played the match and whipped them real good. They had a barbecue for us after the game. I noticed they dropped Mel’s hamburger on the charcoals before sticking it on a bun. I told Mel not to eat that one and gave him mine.
“Later that night, Mel came to me and asked if he could stay in my dorm room. Someone had burned a flag outside his room and thrown a rock through his window. It was a frightful experience.
"I woke everyone up at 4 a.m. and we got out of there. We didn’t have time to eat. Later on we stopped and I bought everyone hamburgers out of my own pocket.”
This was a rag-tag, motley crew coached by the resourceful Seri, a distinctive figure with a patch over his right eye. They talked about girls, tennis matches and played hearts while counting their blessings as most of them came from families that couldn’t afford to pay for college. Some were first-generation college students.
"That's DePaul's mission, and we were the living, breathing testaments to that ideal," Cahnman said. "Something connected at DePaul that allowed our team members to persevere through adversity and become highly successful."
Cahnman himself made the biggest turnaround, with Seri’s help.
“Ray Cahnman had been dismissed from the University of Illinois,” Seri said. “He was overwhelmed when I offered him a second chance with a tennis scholarship and an opportunity to earn a college degree. He completely turned his life around and is now a multi-millionaire.
“As good as these guys were as tennis players, they were even better as human beings. Back then, if anyone had a problem, they could always come to me and I would try to resolve it.”
They overcame all kinds of obstacles including practicing in an old, abandoned theatre and taping down lines on the creaky, wooden floor. In the offseason, they trained at a handball court.
Kiel nicknamed this team "The Lost Boys" since most of the players were local kids from poor families searching for their lot in life. The scholarships Seri divided up among the team members were their saving grace.
"I was one of those kids saved by the scholarship," said Kiel, a successful commercial banker.
"My parents were poor," said Searles who grew up in the Douglas Park area and went on to flourish in the field of institutional sales. "I had no chance to get to college without a scholarship."
"We were all city kids who didn't come from much money," Cahnman said. "I was scraping the bottom, and when coach Seri gave me that scholarship, it turned my life around. What I learned from playing tennis and going to school at DePaul allowed me to make it in life."
DePaul Athletics Director Jean Lenti Ponsetto has a special connection to Seri.
“I took some of his classes, and he is one of my all-time favorite teachers at DePaul,” Ponsetto said with a smile. “He is among the three people I learned the most from. I remember getting an A in his Coaching & Teaching Methods class.
“Jim is one of those iconic people at DePaul and doesn’t always get a lot of credit for the great job he did coaching men’s tennis and golf. Long before it became fashionable, Jim had an open-door policy and always took advantage of a teachable moment. He was so intent on making you understand the importance of being able to impact a young person’s life.
“It’s great at this time in his life that he gets to see how much people appreciated him. The men’s tennis alumni want to pay it forward in his honor. You hear the stories of Jim taking his tennis team on trips through the Deep South during the Civil Rights era, and the importance of standing up for what is the right thing to do.
“It shines a bright light on what a good human being, teacher and coach he was.”
Blue Demon tennis coach Matt Brothers just completed a successful season that saw his team finish second at the BIG EAST Championship.
“This scholarship will help out tremendously,” Brothers said. “It’s huge for the program and will allow us to compete with a lot of the fully funded programs. It helps to level the playing field.
“The history of this tennis program is amazing, and you can see the support and interest is still there. Coach Seri played a huge part in that cultivating and developing the program through relationships. That’s what it is all about.
“I’m big on tradition and history, and I love hearing the stories coach Seri has told over the years. Watching how Seri and his former players reminisce about their experiences at DePaul---it’s very entertaining and sincere.
“The wins and losses will come and go. What will always be there are the relationships with your student-athletes. He made such a lasting impression with a lot of his tennis players. You can see the impact he had on their lives by the way they want to give back and provide the same opportunity for others.”
Seri’s latest contribution to the Blue Demon tennis program was accompanied by a rush of flashbacks and memories.
“You spend a lot of time together when you’re traveling 300 miles and more on road trips,” Seri said. “We spent many hours in that limo, and I enjoyed every minute I was with those guys."