Lawton Alternative School's Coach Honored for Community Service
By Thomas K. Pendergast
Perhaps they'll eventually find DNA proof that some people are just born with a competitive streak. Until then, we have Brenda Joyce Richard for evidence of the fact.
A couple of month's ago at the SF Board of Supervisor's Black History Month celebration, Richard, the coach and athletic director at Lawton Alternative Middle School, was honored with an Outstanding Service to the Community award by District 4 Supervisor Carmen Chu.
For the record, it wasn't Richard's idea; she is just doing what she likes to do.
Richard has been at the little school at 30th Avenue and Lawton Street for five years, where she manages the boys and girls basketball; girls volleyball, boys baseball and boys and girls track teams. Next year, the plan is to add a soccer team for boys and girls.
A four-year championship reign by the girls volleyball team recently came to an end when their much larger archrival, A.P. Giannini, beat them in the finals.
This rivalry has been a classic David vs. Goliath match-up during the last few years, which the 200-student Lawton Alternative started by taking their first championship when they toppled A.P. Giannini, which has more than 1,200 students.
Coach Richard seems confident her girls will be taking that championship back next year.
She knows a few things about championship competition. Richard played in the U.S. Tennis Association until she was 50 years old and for five years, when she was in her 20s, she played on the same pro tennis circuit as the legendary Billie Jean King.
A certain moment from that time comes to her mind right away when she recalls those days.
"We were warming up at Forest Hills in New York. It was one of the major tournaments at Forest Hills at the time and I was warming up with Billie Jean King," she said. "I was at the net and she was just firing the ball and yelling 'Get this! Hit that!' I was ducking because she was hitting the ball. And then she said 'you're going to be alright.'
"That was when I first got on (the professional circuit) and it was my first time really getting to know who she was. 'You're going to be alright.' That's what she said."
This was more than just another compliment on Richard's game, of course.
"It was good to know because Billy Jean, as I know her now, won't mess around. She doesn't mess around and I like that in players and teachers and coaches."
Perhaps even less inclined to mess around was her coach at the time, Richard "Poncho" Gonzales, a top a tennis star of the '50s and early '60s. She recalls that he demanded total commitment and focus or he wouldn't even bother with her.
"Poncho was a very tough coach. He was very disciplined. You didn't mess around with him. If for one reason I came to practice, and I was not there a 120 percent, he would walk off the court and leave me there, crying. He was just that dedicated to say, 'don't waste time.'"
She didn't start out with tennis. She was an all-around athlete, excelling in several sports.
"I was a basketball player, volleyball, track. Track was my main thing until I started playing tennis during the summer," she said. "To me, that was more competitive than running track. It's like one-on-one, whereas track could be one-on-one but it's also a team effort."
And naturally, there was also the promise of cash.
"After playing tennis I decided there was more money in tennis than track. So, I started going to tennis and then I said: There's two things that I want to do when I grow up: one, be a professional tennis player; and two, become a physical education teacher."
Sometimes fate helps push dreams along into reality, like when a high school coach 'volunteered' her into her first serious tennis match when she was just a freshman.
"She decided that the two seniors on the team could not make it to the state championship in singles because there was one lady no one could beat at another school," said Richard. "So, she threw me to the wolves. I was a ninth grader, right?
"She took out the two seniors, put them together in doubles, and then they made it to the state finals. … They didn't have to play that girl because she was in singles. So she put me in singles and I'm saying: 'But I just started playing three months ago.'
"She said: 'Oh it's OK. You just play. What do you need?' I said 'OK coach, I need a can of balls and a key to the gym,' because I was going to get up early in the morning while everyone's asleep and just hit on the wall, seven, eight o'clock in the morning."
She ended up beating that competitor but the significance of her victory was lost on her.
"It didn't dawn on me because at that time ninth graders, you think you're just all this and you're cocky," she said. "But when I was a senior I thought about 'oh this might happen to me. How devastating to her to lose her senior year.' I thought about that. So I made sure it didn't happen to me. I made sure that I was the one to go to the state championship."
Aside from athletics, there was also pressure from her parents to get an education. She says this was because her mother made a promise to her grandfather long ago.
Back in the 1920s, when Richard's mother graduated from the eighth grade, she was supposed to go into town to go to a high school for black kids but they did not have a car, so she had to take the same bus that also took white kids to their school.
"The bus driver told my grandfather that he didn't mind taking my mom to high school with the white kids," she said.
But when they got to where the white kids were waiting, they saw members of the KKK were also there.
The bus driver turned to them and explained that he would love to take her to school but he didn't want to see her get hurt. So, they got off the bus and headed back home. Her mother told her that her grandparents were devastated, especially her grandfather.
"She said my grandfather cried like a baby when he went home because he wanted his kids to get an education. So, what he did was sit everyone down and said: 'Here's what I need you to do, make sure your kids get an education and don't live too far from a high school.'"
One of six children, Richard graduated from Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, in 1975 with a degree in physical education.
"College to me was for my parents," she said. "I wanted to make sure that I at least do that and make them proud because they worked so hard, two and three jobs, to send everyone to school and college and give them the things they needed."
Between her education and her professional career, she never did marry, a choice she says she does not regret.
"Nothing against marriage, but you need to focus," she said. "I didn't want anything to be taken away from me because my energy at that time was to my sport. I decided to do my sport first, and then marriage would come second or third or fourth, and it never did."
Yet, in one sense, she does have children: the students she coaches.
"To me, those are my kids. Those are my students but they're still my kids when they're here. It's my responsibility to make sure that they get whatever they need. Then I let 'em go back to their parents on Friday."
In the end, she says, she has no regrets.
"If I had to do it again, it would be the same route because in every chapter of your life there's always a turning page. Either you make it or you don't but it's still a turning page. If I had to do it again, I think it would be the same."