ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Julie Kilgore, 81, picked up the game as a child in Indonesia
What keeps people playing recreational tennis year after year? A fondness for the sport, surely. A love for the comradeship and the exercise, probably.
How about the joy of being alive?
On a shelf in Julie Kilgore’s Southeast Heights home is a small book, the type once used to keep addresses. Time has caused most of the pages to fall out. Loose slips of paper, often gathered elsewhere, now pack the inside. Names and phone numbers fill those slips. Many, written in pencil, have blurred over time. The names are of doubles companions that Julie has played with and against since the 1960s.
She picks up a piece of paper, squints to read me the names. After each she stops to comment. “She died . . . She has Alzheimer’s . . . I don’t know what happened to her . . . She can’t play anymore; knees . . . She moved away, I think . . . Died . . . Died of cancer . . . Gone . . . Died, died, died.”
Very few of the people Julie started out playing tennis with in Albuquerque are around these days. Sadly, Julie isn’t playing either. It’s not that she isn’t able, for she is. She just can’t. I’ll tell you about that in a moment. First, some background.
In 1939, as Julie van der Biesen, Julie lived in Indonesia, where her family had resided for three generations. At her elementary school in Jakarta, Julie picked up tennis. There were grass courts at school and a coach showed her how to hit the ball. “It was so much fun.” Two years later, the fun stopped. World War II had broken out and Japanese soldiers had descended on Indonesia. The Van der Biesens — Julie and two siblings — were placed in an internment camp. Her mother was sent elsewhere, her father ordered to Burma to help build a railroad.
“I was always sick there,” Julie recalls of the camp. Beriberi, from an improper diet, ravaged her. If that were not bad enough, one day a movie truck struck her. Julie wound up with gangrene on one leg. “You know how I survived? Maggots came into my bed. They got rid of the rotted flesh.”
When the war ended, Julie and her siblings went home. Her mother soon returned as well, looking terribly sad. What happened to you? Julie asked. The older woman declined to say. Only after she died did Julie learn her mother had been forced by the Japanese to be a prostitute. Her father had it no better. In Burma, a guard cracked him on the head with the butt of a rifle, leaving him blind.
Julie endured the war’s horrors in part because she thought about tennis. She remembered how much she liked to play and yearned to do it again. Following the war, Indonesia sent all Dutch colonists to Holland. There, Julie resumed her love for tennis, now on old concrete courts at her school. “Playing helped me recover.”
She studied in England and then went to work for Shell Oil, on the island of Curacao, where she stayed for 11 years. More tennis, now along the Caribbean Sea.
In 1962, during at trip to Albuquerque to visit her sister, Julie met a handsome physician, widower Don Kilgore. She fell in love and soon married. In those days Tennis Central in Albuquerque was Beverly Park, which stood at the corner of Louisiana and I-40. Julie took lessons there from Fran Hanks and Vivien Bull. She developed friends for doubles matches at Los Altos Park.
The Albuquerque Tennis Complex opened in 1972, just east of what is now Isotopes Park. Julie started playing there three to four mornings a week. She began to build her “book,” as she calls the paper scraps with all the names.
For more than 30 years Julie played at the Complex. The fun ended in 2004 when the city turned the land into a BMX track. “Broke my heart,” Julie says. She turned to the Jerry Cline Center, opened in 1985, to replace nearby razed Beverly Park.
Using her book, Julie played continually at Jerry Cline until last fall. Don Kilgore had been suffering kidney problems. He had gotten better, but then suddenly worse. For Julie, a new life began: She takes and picks up Don three times a week, four hours a day, for dialysis treatments. “When Don gets home,” she says, “he is a wet noodle. He can’t walk, he can’t do anything. Same for the weekend.”
I asked Fred Hultberg, a city sports supervisor, what Julie has meant to tennis. Fred thinks a plaque ought to be posted that salutes her for organizing thousands of doubles matches. “Julie has kept so many women playing tennis for so long.”
I asked Julie’s longtime tennis pal Dolores Canfield if she missed Julie. “Do I ever! But I admired her after what happened to her as a girl. She is so enthusiastic, keeping our group together, getting subs for players, just being there.”
Julie could hire someone to look after her husband, lift him, bathe him, do all the physical tasks required of his caregiver each day. She refuses.
“It wouldn’t be fair to my partners or opponents on the tennis court,” she says. Simply, she’d worry all the time about what was happening at home.
So where, I wondered, does she get the strength to do what she does?
“If I hadn’t played tennis,” Julie says, “I never would be able to do anything.”
Including living to age 81.