A traumatizing family event intensified Joe and Cindy Walz's love for tennis.
In the spring of 1999, the Walz's youngest son, Carl, was a sophomore tennis player at Aitkin High School. Shortly after winning the subsection singles championship he was killed in a car accident.
Since then the Walzes have dedicated a significant segment of their lives to promoting the game. It has been their way of keeping Carl's passion for the sport and his memory alive.
"He was passionate about tennis," Cindy Walz said. "Now we're 'whole' passionate."
Joe Walz, an emergency room doctor, added that until Carl's death, "We were interested (in tennis), but not passionate. Now we're all passionate."
Joe and Cindy Walz and their family of Aitkin have been honored by the United States Tennis Association Northern Section as its 2007 family of the year.
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The Walz's passion and contributions to the sport have been recognized by the United States Tennis Association Northern Section, which recently named them their family of the year.
Their involvement in Aitkin tennis began in the 1990s when their oldest son, Andy, Carl and daughter Emily began playing in tournaments. But, until 1998, Aitkin had only a girls' varsity tennis team.
"Carl decided he was going to play for a tennis team so we either had to move or get something started," Joe said. "We weren't really interested in moving."
The Walzes rolled up their sleeves and went to work, helping get a varsity boys' team going by the spring of 1998.
Who: The Walz family of Aitkin has been named the United States Tennis Association Northern Section Family of the Year
What: USTA Northern Section consists of Minnesota, North and South Dakota and Northwestern Wisconsin.
When: USTA Northern Awards Banquet Nov. 17 at the Ramada/Grand Rios Hotel in Brooklyn Park. Tickets are $30. Contact Becky Cantellano at firstname.lastname@example.org, call (952) 358-3291 or visit www.regonline.com/143389.
"The school board said we would have to run intramural tennis for a couple years to prove there was interest so we did," Cindy said. "Both Carl and Andy wanted a boys' team.
"We're grateful to (Brainerd varsity coach) Bruce Thompson, who agreed to scrimmage us a few times when we were a fledgling team, and (Brainerd junior high coach) Jan Costello," Joe said. "They provided us an opportunity to compete against somebody other than ourselves. That's what got the ball rolling."
Andy was a senior, and Carl a freshman on the Gobblers' first varsity boys' team.
"Andy had been running track," Joe said. "The (track) coach let him still compete in hurdles and in tennis so he actually lettered in two sports in the same season. It only happens in a small town. Andy had an interest (in tennis) but it was not his passion.
"Truthfully, Andy was the one that got the boys' program off the ground because he was kind of the cool kid. Carl was kind of the squirt in ninth grade, wet behind the ears, but because Andy was participating he was like, 'Oh well, it must be OK if he's doing it.' There were some talented upperclassmen that came out probably because of being friends with Andy."
Emily was a five-year letterwinner for the Gobbler girls' team. She attends the University of Minnesota, is an instructor at the Tennis and Life Camp at Gustavus Adolphus College and plays in summer USTA events.
Of the many things the Walzes have done for Aitkin tennis is to dedicate a hitting wall in Carl's memory. "Tennis begins with love, in memory of Carl Walz," is printed on the wall.
"We have only five courts so there are always kids waiting and they can warm up against the wall," Joe said. "Actually, you can practice pretty well against a wall."
The Walzes helped form a tennis booster group and the Aitkin Community Tennis Association, which participates in USTA workshops, promotes the sport and organizes activities.
They also started a scholarship in Carl's memory, enabling area youths to attend summer camps. The Tennis and Life Camp gives one camper an annual scholarship in Carl's name.
If that isn't enough, Cindy is head coach of the Aitkin girls' team and an assistant for the boys' team, whose head coach is Joe, who is a volunteer assistant with the girls' team.
The Walzes also organize youth and adult tennis events in the summer and put on the Carl Walz Memorial Tennis Tournament.
Joe also finds time to play in USTA events. He didn't play until moving in 1987 to Aitkin, where a neighbor introduced him to the game.
"I credit my tennis development to a Brainerd instructor, Bruce Boland," Joe said. "He used to run a community education class in November. Cindy and I would come over, take that class, then do our Christmas shopping. That's when we turned from streetball players into players who actually know a little bit about the game."
Joe is also Aitkin's "racket man," stringing rackets for players in the community.
"I advise people and help them acquire rackets and equipment because we don't have a racket shop in town," he said. "We do some business through the mail. UPS is in our driveway about twice a week."
MIKE BIALKA may be reached at email@example.com and at 855-5861.
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