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Reilly, Jr., Richard J.

(1935 - 2020)
Honor Award Induction: 1974
Hall of Fame Induction: 1996
Richard Reilly was a major force in developing the game through his innovations in courts construction and his unwavering support for the game over many years. His improvements to court engineering included the pioneering of the aluminum deck. Reilly’s contributions helped make the game what it is today and was a factor in expanding the reaches of the game across the U.S., as well as to Canada, France, Poland, Bulgaria, and Japan.

Since the start of the game in 1928, the design and construction of the courts have continually evolved. But, beginning in the early 1960s, the game was really growing and the time was ripe for innovation in building platform tennis courts. Besides making for better play, better courts also acted as catalysts for the game to grow. Into this environment stepped Dick Reilly who, as much as anyone else, triggered the boom in platform tennis.

Dick hailed from Scarsdale NY, where he was a high school athlete and outstanding football player. He graduated from Scarsdale High School in 1953 and then went to Dartmouth (pre-med), and taught at two different high schools, before his love of woodworking got him into house building. Though he enjoyed building homes, Reilly wanted to work for himself and wasn’t sure that home construction was the best way to do so. At that moment in his life, he played on a bad platform tennis court. A perfectionist, dedicated to the premise that if it was worth doing it at all it was worth doing well, Dick wouldn’t countenance a bad house, and certainly not a bad platform tennis court. Loose deck joints bothered him, as did bad wires because, when they lost tension and became soft, they could ruin the fun of the game.

Reilly set about to change all of this, but it took time and perseverance. He built only one court his first year and then seven in the second year. With the completion of a fifth court that second year, Dick nearly made a huge mistake. He introduced his wife, who was nursing a four-week old, to the game in which he wanted to make a livelihood. He took her out into ten degree weather to play with a rock-hard ball and clunky paddles on a court that he had just sold at his cost. Both his marriage and career survived, and it was all up hill from there.

Brimming with ideas about how to improve the playability of the court, each successive court Reilly built was different. He felt that safety hazards were inhibiting the growth of the game and that players should have access to courts with constant playing characteristics. He eliminated butt joints on the playing surface and random length lumber. All floorboards came together under the net, which meant using 30-foot lumber for the first time. Then he developed a new tension system for screens so they could be tightened from the up-rights. And, instead of the traditional concrete block foundations, he made foundations of sonotubes.

Because platform tennis is played in months when trees are bereft of leaves, he painted the superstructure brown to make the court less conspicuous. He developed the hinged snow boards that are standard today, and did away with the four upper corner cross pieces that often got in the way of high bounce wire shots. Other developments included a new post system and collar so the posts could be removed and the court used for other sports, and the addition of walnut chips and, later on, aluminum oxide to the deck paint, for which the tennis shoe manufacturers of the country thanked him.

A discussion of Reilly’s innovations wouldn’t be complete without a discussion of the use of aluminum. As a purist, he hated the idea of it, but saw it as providing the longevity that wood did not have, and knew that aluminum also had the capability for conducting heat. No one came to him about this metal, he went to them. The mill, however, wasn’t interested. He then went to the men who designed the Head Company’s aluminum tennis racquet and, together, they worked on the forms, dyes, specs, and extrusions that would be used. His work on this project was typical: a total effort, exhibiting the type of thoroughness that colored his whole attitude towards whatever job was at hand. He was right, too. All courts today are now aluminum.

Dick Reilly’s research and pioneering improvements in design moved the science of platform tennis court building forward dramatically, and he set the bar for quality.

Although Dick knew little of photography, he knew the game deserved better representation on film. So, he began to film the sport, collecting thousands of feet of film over time.

As important as his contribution to court construction had been, he made equally important social contributions. He donated a platform tennis court to the New York School for the Deaf. He developed a maintenance program for his courts in the summer that provided summer-time work for college attendees to repair and recondition courts. All of the participants in this program had to be working to cover at least one half of their college tuition, room and board, must have demonstrated leadership in school, and had to be articulate. Moreover, they had to have the same kind of desire as the boss to do the job well. There were rules of behavior on and off the job and they didn’t get paid until the customer accepted their work. Finishing it wasn’t enough.

He also had a dream for a school for gifted drop-outs and one charitable foundation offered him a job. He took it and spent a year working in the south-east for the poor. He started a weekend football league in his town that had 300 4th to 8th grade students as regulars, and then went on to be a head high school football coach

Many years after being out of college, Reilly went back to the books working toward a MBA and a degree in Public Health. He retired to Montana, where he started a paddle teaching camp.

Sources: Hall of Fame Induction comments as printed in Off The Wire, Vol. 6 No. 3, Spring 1975; Watertown Daily Times, May 4, 1971; personal communication with Richard J. Reilly.