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Influential Savin Hill teacher to be remembered

Posted by boston.com  October 10, 2013 10:01 AM

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A Dorchester community organizer is seeking to donate a memorial plaqque to a Savin Hill public tennis court to commemorate a woman who helped teach the sport to kids from the 1940s to the 1970s.

Heidi Moesinger, 28, is petitioning the Boston Parks and Recreation Department to mount the plaque at the Sean P. Sullivan Tennis Courts on Grampian Way in memory of Betty Johnson.

As of now, Moesinger’s project has the support of the Historical Society, the Tenacity youth program, state representative and mayoral candidate Marty Walsh, and City Councilor Frank Baker.

Before the Boston Parks Commission can approve her plan, however, Moesinger must still collect 100 signatures of support from nearby residents, as well as gain approval from the Columbia Savin Hill Civic Association.

Moesinger has now won the support of key figures in the community, but only after a prolonged discussion over whether Johnson alone was worthy of such an honor.

Moesinger’s original plan last spring was to dedicate the new tennis court backboard solely to Johnson, who began freely volunteering her time at Savin Hill Park in the 1940s.

This idea lead to initial resistance from the Dorchester Historical Society, which has been looking for more information on Johnson, but say records are scarce. President Earl Taylor said he believes Johnson taught children how to play tennis, but because she was a volunteer her services went undocumented.

“We can’t just give a sign to everyone,” Taylor said.

The Historical Society originally suggested the sign feature information on George Wright, a well- known major league slugger who once lived in Savin Hill. Though Wright played baseball, his two sons were both professional tennis champions. Beals and Irving Wright stayed briefly in their father’s home, but they spent much of their time competing in tennis matches around the globe. In 1910 they even played at Wimbledon.

However the Historical Society has since given its support to Moesinger to go forward with a memorial honoring Johnson exclusively.

“The Wright family is so popular, I think they should create a sign just for that family,” Moesinger said. “Betty Johnson was just a neighbor. The Wright family members are like celebrities.”

Johnson was instrumental in getting the city to put up the original wooden backboard for her students. This wooden backboard eventually burned down, but was replaced last spring by the Boston Parks and Recreations Department.

Around Savin Hill, Johnson is still readily remembered. “A lot of people here took lessons with her, and she put a lot of her time and energy into teaching tennis to so many people for basically free,” Moesinger said.

One of the children who benefitted was Savin Hill native Mary Ellen J. O'Sullivan, 55, a teacher for Boston Public Schools. “She had lots of kids involved in the program,” O’Sullivan recalled. “They had to pay twenty-five cents so she could buy the tennis balls.

“Betty took it upon herself to teach the younger kids coming up the game of tennis,” she added. “She was a very petite woman, with a bun. She always wore her white tennis outfits. She was very professional.”

O’Sullivan noted that when Johnson taught the sport, female tennis players weren’t as abundant as they are today. “When she was growing up and when she began her tennis career women weren't accepted on the national stage of tennis.”

Moesinger’s grandmother, Dolores Miller, now 90, remembers moving across the street from Johnson on Evandale Terrace in 1959.

“She was a true community person that did what needed to be done, and a great neighbor,” Miller said. “When she would start the lessons she would bring the brooms, and everybody had to sweep up. She taught them how to keep the courts clean.”

By the 1970s the city of Boston hired a new tennis teacher and Johnson resigned. She continued to live on Evandale Terrace, where she would often sit on her porch and converse with neighbors until her death in the 1990s.

Bill Hickey, 56, of Savin Hill, regularly practices his swing on the new backboard. “She did a great thing for the kids,” he said. “She should have a memorial. It’s fitting.”

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.

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