Thursday, April 18, 2024

Lendward Simpson Jr., 75

Lendward Simpson Jr. (Coble Funeral & Cremation Service at Greenlawn Memorial Park)

WILMINGTON — Lendward “Lenny” Simpson, a native Wilmingtonian whose love of tennis led him from Williston High School to boarding school and college, to the US Open and Wimbledon, and back home as the founder of One Love Tennis, a program for at-risk boys and girls, died on February 8, 2024 after a long illness. He was 75.

Introduced as a young boy to tennis by the legendary Wilmington physician and civil rights activist Hubert Eaton and his protegee, future Wimbledon champion Althea Gibson, Lenny partnered with Arthur Ashe on the junior circuit until 1964, when at 15 he became the youngest male ever to compete at the US Open. Upon his attendance at The Hill School (PA) and Cheshire Academy (CT), he won the US Prep School Singles Championship in 1967, double-teamed with future movie director Oliver Stone, and earned a scholarship to East Tennessee State University, where he captained the tennis team for four years.

After representing Detroit in the fledgling World Team Tennis in 1973 and qualifying for Wimbledon, Lenny embarked on a career which defined the rest of his life: He became a teaching professional; co-owned a tennis facility in Knoxville, Tennessee; and created programs to teach underserved boys and girls the game of tennis. His athleticism, his business acumen, and his charismatic rapport with young people – enriched by a deepening religious faith – melded into a “bigger-than-life” man who was eventually called back home in 2013 to create One Love Tennis.

With One Love, Lenny nurtured youngsters with love and toughened them with discipline, a balance he charismatically achieved with his leonine smile and his thunderous voice, both of which even small children devotedly understood. Similarly, he inspired countless service awards as well as philanthropic support from donors who became true partners in his enterprise. His vision for the program was clear: It provided kids not just the secrets of winning tennis but help with their studies, the promise of a college education to those who met his rigorous challenges, and even annual tours of the US Open and New York City. The vision also included restoration of Dr. Eaton’s home at 1406 Orange Street, then and now a magnet for local youngsters to practice their topspin lobs and safely “hang out” with their friends.

But his return home answered a call higher still: his desire to help at-risk boys and girls aspire to the same kinds of ideals and hopefulness that had inspired him, and to help his hometown meet the challenges of inner-city life that confront contemporary America. Today, that vision is so well-established that his program and legacy can be sustained by others in the future.

Lenny was predeceased by his parents, Lendward, Jr. and his beloved mother, Helen Moody Simpson.

He is survived by his wife JoAnn, who patiently and wisely supported his mission with One Love Tennis; his daughters, Celeste Simpson-Slay and Jennifer Simpson; his son-in-law Tamar Slay; his grandchildren Caitlyn Simpson, Bryce Slay, and Brayden Slay; his sister Helenda Simpson Rowell; and a host of family and friends.

They will celebrate his life with a service at Port City Community Church, 250 Vision Drive on February 24 at 11 a.m. and afterwards with a receiving line for friends.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to One Love Tennis.

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