Members of the Bay Oaks tennis program recently received trophies and recognition for their long-time commitment to the sport and aiding in its growth on Fort Myers Beach.
On Wednesday, April 8, the tennis group was acknowledged for their dedication in an appreciation award ceremony at the Bay Oaks courts behind the recreation center. The ceremony was also part of a post-celebration for the 16th annual Anthony's on the Gulf doubles tennis tournament.
Those recognized included Ray Hierholzer and John Turturro who first started organizing tennis matches on the Beach more than 40 years ago at a private court behind Chapel by the Sea. The group moved to the Church of the Ascension then to Pink Shell before settling at Bay Oaks.
"We used to play in that little red house behind Chapel by the Sea," said Turturro, who stopped playing last year and is now on dialysis. "Everyone loved to play. We were tennis aficionados."
"Boy, have we gone a long way," said Hierholzer. "It's been a wonderful ride."
The interest level and number of players have grown immensely.
"There is a whole lot of history here," said Vicki Little, Lee County Parks and Recreation's senior supervisor for Bay Oaks. "This group of folks has been getting together almost daily during the season months. They meet here and organize their own tennis groups. It's a very social event."
Little described how Bay Oaks, Lee County and Anthony's on the Gulf teamed up.
"Sixteen years ago, we started a tennis tournament based upon the request from all these people that play here everyday," she said. "Anthony's on the Gulf owners Alfredo Russo and Tony Scialdone used to play in it and they were generous enough to sponsor the event, supply the trophies and the food."
Little then spoke on behalf of Bay Oaks supervisor Paul Yacobelli, who was home with the flu.
"Paul is the creator of the tennis tournament 16 years ago," she said. "He wants to give you his dearest thoughts."
Beach Elementary School teacher Pam Flowers found her experience to be life-altering.
"You guys saved my life after my little ones left the nest," she said. "If it hadn't been for all of you, I wouldn't know what I would have done. You were so patient with me when I first started playing. "
Next year, Little - who works for the county - will move on with the Town of Fort Myers Beach's expected acquisition of the Bay Oaks facilities from Lee County.
"Lee County has been here since our doors opened in 1986," she said. "We have a lot of history and friends here. It looks like the town will be taking over the community center and park. This should be a very positive move. Unfortunately, Lee County does not run facilities inside incorporated areas."
And, even with senior program specialist Aaron Geary moving to a sports complex off of Six-Mile Cypress, Little said there shouldn't be many changes to the tennis program in the expected transition between town and county October 1.
"There's a real heart here in the community of Fort Myers Beach," she told the group. "I didn't realize how intense it was until I left five years ago and returned. This program is one of a kind. There is no doubt in my mind that you guys can keep it going."