When he competes in tennis tournaments, Lester Cowell has always preferred to play doubles.
But he’s running into difficulty with that nowadays.
“I can’t find a doubles partner my age,” said Cowell, 85. “Most people when they start playing tennis they begin by playing singles then go to doubles when they start to get older. I’m exactly the opposite. I’ve always enjoyed playing doubles more. Now I’m going to singles because I can’t find a doubles partner.”
Tennis has been a constant in Cowell’s life for more than 50 years. He was working for Sun Finance in Cookeville in the 1960s and made several trips to Warren County to try to collect overdue payments.
“That was real interesting work,” said Cowell. “There were some times I went to the door and I know I was talking to the person I was looking for, but they told me they were someone else. Polaroid cameras were popular at the time and I suggested taking a picture of the people when they borrowed money with a Polaroid and putting it in their file. But I was told that would be an invasion of privacy.”
Cowell started work at First National Bank in 1969, a career that lasted 31 years until his retirement in 2000.
“I’m not from here so I considered myself very lucky to get a job at the bank,” said Cowell. “They didn’t know my parents or my grandparents.”
Cowell drove to New Jersey in 2005 to participate in a grass-court tournament because he’d never played on grass before.
“If you remember the earthquake that hit back then, I was on the court playing tennis at the time,” said Cowell. “Someone asked me if I felt it. I said the way I was getting beat on the court that day sure felt like an earthquake.”
After the tournament, he drove 842 miles straight back the next day, only stopping for restroom breaks.
Cowell said he started playing tennis because he was awful at golf. He remembers playing golf during a business outing and it taking him five strokes to get out of a sand trap.
Lester said he enjoyed playing tennis with his children and his son, Jed, really took an interest in the sport.
“Jed would take a nap on the bench by the tennis court just waiting for someone to show up so he could play,” said Lester. “He eventually went to Memphis State and ended up on the racquetball team and won a national championship.”
Lester played football at UT-Martin and remembers hitting tennis balls over the fence when he first picked up the sport. “The first thing I thought is this isn’t something for me.”
He’s done a little of everything over the years. He threw shotput and javelin in the Tennessee Senior Games and won a silver medal in shotput.
“I had been practicing with the shotput at home and I was really throwing it pretty well,” said Cowell. “I got to looking at the distance of the guy who won it the year before and I saw how far I was throwing it and I thought I really had a good chance to win. When I got there and started warming up they looked at my shotput and asked what I was doing. They said that thing is way too light. You use a shotput that’s heavier than that.”
Even with the heavier shotput, Lester still captured second place.
Lester has been a staunch volunteer over the years. He says his wife Suzy tells him he needs to learn how to say no.
He’s served as an alderman on McMinnville’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen. He's been a volunteer with the city’s Public Safety Unit.
He's been on the CHEER Mental Health board for 50 years and earned the organization’s Bell Ringer Award in 1999. He’s volunteered with the Food Bank since 1982.
His string of accomplishments includes receiving the Exchange Club’s Book of Golden Deeds in 2009 and the Breakfast Rotary Club’s Service Above Self Award.
Through it all, there’s always been tennis and Cowell says he loves the sport in part because of all the characters he’s met.
He remembers getting hauled out of his Knoxville motel room by police because a suspected drug dealer was believed to have a hostage in the room behind him. It was a largely sleepless night and Lester had a tennis match at 8 a.m. the next day.
“I don’t think I need to say how I played in that match,” Cowell said.
He has no plans to hang up his racket and wants to keep playing as long as he can. He estimates he’s won around 50 gold, silver and bronze medals in tournaments over the years and can’t begin to count how many tournaments in which he’s participated.
“I’ve thought of making a quilt from all the T-shirts I’ve received from the tournaments I’ve played in,” said Cowell. “I think that would be pretty neat.”