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Libby's tennis legend: Herb Neils dies at age 82

by Brad FuquaWestern News
| January 5, 2009 11:00 PM

A man of many passions, Herb Neils will be remembered in his own way by the people whose lives he touched in Libby.

While his grandfather, Julius, and his father, Walter, quickly lead to references associated with the lumber industry, Herb Neils’ legacy in Libby instead leads to a tennis court.

“If we didn’t have Herb, there wouldn’t be much tennis here,” said Barb Mee, a longtime friend of the family. “He was always willing to work with kids anytime. Anytime the high school kids were out on the court, he’d jump in and help out.”

Neils died at age 82 this past Friday at a hospice in Honolulu.

Neils devoted his life to the advancement of tennis in his northwestern Montana hometown. Through Neils’ Libby Racquet Club, tennis was available to mostly anybody who showed an interest.

“From time to time, he has charged fees to those tennis players who could afford the modest fees … but I’ve never seen him turn away anybody who was unable or even unwilling to pay the fees,” Alfred Journey of Libby wrote in a nomination letter for the U.S. Tennis Association’s Lifetime Service Award. “The truth is that tennis has been available to anybody in Libby who wanted to play for the 50 or so years that Herb has been the one and only tennis guru in our little community.”

Neils was known as a hard-working man. His wife of 30 years, Pat Neils, said he was equally passionate about tennis, big-game hunting and writing.

“He was a man of many talents, a very good athlete, loved to hunt and he was great with horses,” Pastor Dave Nelson said. “He was always a good tennis player for his age group, one of the best in the world. He won a lot of tournaments throughout his career.”

Born during a blizzard in Libby on Feb. 21, 1926, to Walter and Alma Neils, Herb enjoyed hunting, camping, fishing, ice skating and of course, tennis, while growing up at his childhood home on Louisiana Avenue. He first played tennis at age 5 on a homemade clay court.

Neils served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II and afterward played tennis at the University of Montana under coach Jules Karlin.

Following college, Neils went to work for J. Neils Lumber Co. He married Lois Vandertie in 1949 and they adopted two children, Christi and Tom.

In 1960, he acquired property on the north side of Libby and began plans to build a racquet and swim club. The club, built in the mid-’60s, featured a state competition-size indoor swimming pool and six tennis courts. He also purchased a bus and transported swim and tennis students to his facility and to neighboring communities for competitions.

Neils worked in partnership with Billie Jean King and Dennis Van Der Meer’s Tennis America Program and he trained at Lake Tahoe to become a certified teaching pro. For 10 years, students from across the country came to Libby to participate in summer tennis programs.

Tennis America dissolved in 1975 because of financial reasons and the lumber mill – which was under new ownership – was going out of business. The swimming pool closed because of the expense.

From 1975-95, Neils pushed economic hardship aside and ran a nationally sanctioned tennis tournament each year during the third weekend in July.

Good friend Dave Harman described the tournament in a nomination letter for the USTA award.

“The players could bring their families and camp out on the grounds. There was a great pig roast barbecue on Friday nights,” Harman said. “There was a big spaghetti feed on Saturday night. It became a tradition that if you lost in the early rounds, you were then freed up to fly fish on the nearby Kootenai River. The competition was not only about tennis but was who could catch the biggest trout. So, after a demand from the participants, Herb had a trophy for who caught the biggest fish.”

In 1978, he married his second wife, Pat.

He authored two books: “A Hunt for the Great Northern” (1995) and “The Greatest Trophy” (2008).

Over the years, he gave thousands of free tennis lessons and court time to local residents. He also gave tennis lessons in Hawaii, Taiwan, Samoa and other places. In addition, Neils stayed busy competing in several tournaments and won many of them.

“Herb’s commitment to teaching tennis in Libby resulted in the character development of some kids with behavior problems who learned a lot about responsibility and manners along with the game of tennis,” Pat Neils said. “Many of his students over the past 50 years went on to become excellent tennis players; some of them won athletic scholarships and were thereby able to attend college and pursue other careers of their choice.”

One example of Neils’ impact on local tennis youth could be found in Travis Johnson, who learned the game at age 12 in the 1980s. He went to play at York (Neb.) College and now works as a tennis pro in Little Rock, Ark.

In March 2008 in Las Vegas, the U.S. Tennis Association recognized him with a Lifetime of Service to Tennis Award. Just weeks later on May 19, he learned that he had a terminal brain tumor.

In the final months before his death, he worked on his dream of refurbishing his six tennis courts in Libby.

“He did what he wanted to do right up until six months ago,” Mee said. “That’s awesome, I hope I’m able to do that.”