DANIEL BURGESS 1953-2020 Tribute To a True Top Dog
You think the wonderful people in your life are going to be around as long as you, especially those in your generation. Life moves fast, a season passes after you’ve said “let’s do lunch”, a birthday passes with a text message greeting, a pandemic hinders plans to make anticipated trips to visit friends and family. Then the goddess Fortuna snaps her fingers, click, a car crashes and a sister’s brain is smashed. Click, a plane crashes into a skyscraper and a husband is dead. Click, a friend goes to sleep, never to awaken.
Nineteen years after my husband was killed, a friend called me on the anniversary to catch up on our lives, as he has every year since we moved from the village of Freeport, New York to Vermont in 2009. It was 4:32 PM, the boys and I had just re-united in Dylan’s Brooklyn apartment from a long day that began with an 8 AM ceremony at the September 11th Memorial in Manhattan, and ending with a ferry ride across the East River to Brooklyn Bridge Park, where we parted for awhile. A pleasant day, that was unremarkable except for the chorus of messages which flood my phone and social media notifications like a long dirge, most to which I decline to respond until the 12th. We were tuned into the men’s Tennis US Open, playing out just fifteen miles up the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Zverev and Carreño Busta were bidding for their first chance at a Grand Slam in the men’s singles’ semi-finals when my phone chimed, displaying “Daniel Burgess”. I tapped the green circle arresting my screen, “Hi there,” I said.
“Hey beautiful, how are you? I’ve been thinking about you and the boys all day, where are you?”
“We’re all together, in Dylan’s apt. in Brooklyn, watching the Open.”
“Really, Oh my God, where in Brooklyn?”
“That’s right down the road from where I used to live when I was in college at Long Island University!”
“I went to Brooklyn College.”
“Ah, they were our rivals. Beat one brother never got to beat the other. How long will you be in town?”
“Just until tomorrow.”
We chatted for several minutes, catching up on the Cliff Notes of each other’s lives; work, family, health. “You have to come to Freeport next trip. I miss you guys, what are the boys up to?” I handed the phone to Davin and they chatted for several minutes before the phone was passed to Dylan. Dylan took his and Daniel Jr’s phone numbers as they discussed plans to arrange some hitting time. I hadn’t noticed until September 29th, that Daniel had sent me a text message: Fri, Sep 11, 9:32 PM – “It was so nice to hear your voice today, and the kids, all made my day more meaningful.”
We met Daniel Burgess in the summer of 1999, when a friend told my six-year (Davin) about the fun he was having playing tennis at Freeport Indoor Tennis, home of The Daniel Burgess Tennis Academy. When I called the tennis center, Dan invited Davin to join his friend for a complimentary lesson.
Dan approached us with a warm smile and mellow tone as though he were welcoming us into his hearth. The small lounge was buzzing with parents and grandparents chatting while their charges took lessons in the court one level below. Pros were on the courts giving lessons, working the desk, and jabbering with colleagues, parents and kids. Most days, Bob T., the pro shop owner, usually had a lively but very serious chess or backgammon game going on with a pro or a teen. High School teens hung out there for hours, long after their tennis sessions had ended, including his school-aged sons. Food seemed to always be floating around, especially pizza. Whenever Dan ordered food for himself, he always asked if anyone wanted anything. If he had an errand to run, he said to the kids hanging out in the lounge, “who’s coming with me to pick up Kenneth, pizza, racquets?” If a parent had a conflict or was running late he’d say, “I’ll pick him/her up, or, go do what you have to do, I’ll get them home. Daniel was often seen with every seat in a van or SUV filled with kids on their way to team tournaments, the U.S. Open Kids day in Flushing Queens, and to and from his summer camp at Northeast Park, which is across the street from his Freeport home. He also sponsored young pros from the Caribbean islands to play and work in his programs, helping to arrange lodging and transportation. In summers, Dan ran a low-cost summer Police Athletic League (PAL) tennis program on the two courts in Northeast Park, just steps from his Freeport home, transporting all kids who would not otherwise had been able to participate. My boys participated in the camp and Davin and I also volunteered as instructors, at times.
Freeport Indoor Tennis
Freeport Indoor Tennis was like a community center, with a flurry of activities for youth on weekends, weekdays after school hours, and school vacations. It also functioned as a hub for section USTA junior tournaments of all levels, adult leagues, and lessons. Most remarkably, it was a social polestar where people of all ages, races and religions gathered, a recess from their worries, where everyone was happy to be, and glad you came. A place of belonging, a place to play, on a level playing ground, to give 60+ minutes of everything you’ve got, so you could return to the world with positive energy. Sitting on the stools with parents, grandparents, and pros infront of the one-way window while viewing the action of our children in their lessons and matches, continuing the narratives of our ordinary lives like they were never meant to end, the pop of tennis balls in the background of domino tiles clicking on the table behind us, were the touch points of all who attended.
Daniel Burgess Tennis Academy
The Daniel Burgess Tennis Academy is where both of my boys, myself, and my niece (when visiting from Vermont), began and developed the game of our lifetimes. It became our family affair. It was not only a venue for lessons, but for fun Saturday afternoon games, ladder matches, USTA tournaments, school vacation camps, and summer team tennis, all of which the three kids participated in. I joined a day ladies league and had a blast at the afternoon drop-in-clinics twice per-week of ninety-minute fast-paced drills and entertaining Dan-tics. A dozen or more adults chasing balls, playing together, and encouraging each other to let loose and improve their skills. In June, Daniel was named Hometown Hero by the Long Island Herald where he was quoted saying: “Everyone loves baseball, soccer, football…but those team sports aren’t for everyone. Tennis is something anyone can try out and play. Get me the kids who do’t want to play the other sports. I’ll gladly take them.”
Dan provided personalized encouragement for my niece (Shina), who was highly conscientious of her inexperience and athleticism overall, to challenge her apprehension by engaging her in fun group drills. She had so much fun volleying, target shooting, and running “around the world” that she was unaware she was learning and gaining confidence in herself. A few years later, she joined USTA Summer Team Tennis for our local Vermont tennis club, as well as for the Essex High School Girls team. Shina currently resides in a Vermont tennis community, enjoying the fun and fitness of the sport with her fiancé and her new extended family and friends. Davin played many USTA singles tournaments in the Eastern Long Island, Metro, and New England sections. He rallied an undefeated season as second singles in his senior year in high school, bringing the team to state championship. He also played on a college tennis team. Dylan played third singles on the high school tennis team and took the Vermont State Doubles championship, with a partner, in his senior year.
Service Break Point
In 2009, the building owner passed on Dan’s purchase bid, selling the tennis facility to a sports entertainment company. This was a very sad time for the Freeport Indoor tennis community, akin to the closing of Cheers. Dan resorted to providing his services in other local established clubs, where most of his fans followed. During this transitory period, he also served on the board as president of the USPTA/Eastern Division, as President of the USTA Eastern Section Long Island Region, chair of the USTA Eastern Diversity and Inclusion Committee, he directed tennis programming for two local PALs, and served as an Ethics committee member of the Incorporated Village of Freeport. He also created the USTA Eastern Long Island newsletter, “On The Ball”. For a decade Dan worked to rally support from other municipalities in Nassau County to lease low-use courts and create his own tennis facility. This was his dream. A culmination of all that he strived for. A home, server’s advantage, for the foundation of the sound principles of fitness, teaching, and community service, which he spent a lifetime building and carried in his soul. He drew up a business plan, procured ten investors, myself included, and presented his proposals to take over the neglected courts of various town facilities to the Town of Hempstead. However, after years of negotiations and modified plans, the factions could not come to an agreement, the Daniel Burgess Tennis Academy would not have its own house, and was dissolved.
Learning Institue of Tennis, Life Skills & Sportsmanship
Dan was not about to give up the breakpoint. About two years ago, with limited funds, he approached me with enthusiasm, his idea of starting a non-profit tennis-based organization of life-skills development. The Learning Institute of Tennis, Life Skills & Sportsmanship (LITLSS), (of which I am a board member) launched in 2019 as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization devoted to providing tennis education, life skills mentoring and peer tutoring to children in communities surrounding Freeport. “We offer community-based educational enrichment opportunities for youth through a variety of programs designed to foster self-respect and positive leadership values. It’s not just about learning to play tennis, but about working on improving yourself and seeing some growth.” Despite the restrictions on programs due to the pandemic, LITLSS obtained grants to provide summer and fall outdoor programming on the courts and playground across the street from the Burgess home, renamed: Bishop Frank O. White Park. Children ages 4-16 enjoyed tennis, music, dance, writing and reading enrichment, and park cleanup (https://www.tennislifeskills.org/).
Soon after I was widowed in 2001, Daniel said, “you need to play tennis, hit a hundred-thousand balls, I’ll teach you.” It got me out of the house and my grief headspace when the kids were in school, expanded my world with new relationships, and gave me attainable goals…and some fun. Freeport Indoor Tennis became our second home. He picked up the boys, drove them to his academy, to Queens, to tournaments, gave them dinner, took them shopping for my birthdays, drove them home. An unexpected solid in our lives.
Daniel Burgess was a man with an extraordinary adoration for his sons, a fierce passion for the game of tennis, and a wholehearted fondness for people with a soft spot for kids. Tennis was his frame for teaching the fundamentals for gaining one’s individual advantage in life: serve, approach, rally, follow through, love. He served up the principles of sportsmanship, tolerance, goal setting, fortitude, courage, self-forgiveness, praise, and charity. He was all in, on the court and off. Which is exactly where he was, on a warm Sunday afternoon, with his adult sons, teaching kids, until he went to sleep, and his big heart burst.
Daniel, I’m heartsick over your sudden passing. My friend, big brother from another mother, unselfish mentor to my fatherless boys, does not encompass the complex of the wonderful man you were. Incomprehensible loss to the Eastern, Long Island division, USTA junior tennis world, and the families, children, and communities you served. How you saved us twenty years ago. I love you. Devoted family man, compassionate teacher, faithful soul-friend, indelible.
“I’m just doing what I love”Daniel Burgess