Bill Kellenberger of Pensacola, who rose to the rank of colonel during his 23 years in the Army, was a competitor. Which meant, naturally, that he didn’t like losing. But if he ever had a tough exterior that came from the combination of those things, he hid it well.
The impression Mr. Kellenberger made over the last 35 years in Pensacola was something that hit home after he succumbed to a nearly year-long battle with pancreatic cancer on Monday at 80 years old.
He was a gentleman. He was selfless and humble. He cared about his community. And he was instrumental in starting Pensacola’s annual, free Racquet Round-Up summer youth clinic and founded the men’s senior Under the Hill (Yet Over 50) League.
After military retirement in 1982, Mr. Kellenberger moved his family to Florida to get away from snow. In return, the area got a new friend, where coldness was never an issue.
Over the last 35-plus years, his dedication to his country became as synonymous with with him as a humble and giving spirit, especially when it came to the youth in Northwest Florida.
And besides his family and friends, the sport of tennis was the love of his life.
Passing on turning pro to make a more stable life for his family, he got the chance in the second part of his life to be one of Pensacola’s greatest tennis ambassadors. He never lost his competitive edge by picking up a racquet, and he always got the most joy out of mentoring others.
After Mr. Kellenberger’s passing, many friends, including his closest tennis buddies shared their thoughts on social media — his son, William Jr., pointed to a Facebook post by Jennie Barrow, owner of Get-A-Grip Pro Shop at the Roger Scott Tennis Center, as one that especially hit home with the family.
“I couldn’t help but love him. His big blue eyes, his jovial ways, his knowledge and utter love of the game, his group of ragtag men – all of these attributes – just begged you to adore him,” Barrow wrote. “He was a fierce competitor and you never minded him beating you. He was loyal, humble and true.”
It was a sentiment echoed by the family.
“He was quite the man,” William Jr. said. “He’s a selfless person, he listens to other people’s problems, and he does not point out anything about himself. He always lifts other people up. He’s always been a hugger — he’ll hug a man, he’ll hug a woman, he’ll hug a total stranger.”
Recently, Mr. Kellenberger experienced something with his family that was incredibly profound.
“My Dad accepted Christ last week,” said William Jr., choking back tears. “We never knew if he was going to accept Jesus or not, and he accepted last week with a priest who was a Marine. So my Dad had that military bond with him. It’s just amazing.”
Family came first in Mr. Kellenberger’s life, but not far behind was his love of tennis — he was also an avid fisherman and golfer.
His friends shared memories of the countless hours spent on the courts of the former Pensacola Racquet Club and Roger Scott Tennis Center.
“I learned so much about playing the game of tennis and also handling people from Bill,” long-time friend Scott Harrison said. “I learned a lot about how to deal with tough situations from him. He was a really caring guy and he was about giving back to the community.”
Mike Clapsadl also was close to Mr. Kellenberger on the court and on the water.
“He was just a tremendous human being,” Clapsadl said. “He was willing to help anybody, anytime or anyplace. And he was a very good tennis player. At one time I believe he was ranked No. 3 in the state in 55-over, and he and his partner (the late Joe Pinson) were No. 1 in the state in that age bracket. He never met a stranger.”
Former Under-the-Hill League director Joe Lovoy remembers the fun times fondly.
“He loved to play tennis, and he did it well, he loved to golf and he did that well — and he never bragged — and he was a great fisherman,” said Lovoy, who visited with Mr. Kellenberger the night before he died. “He was a modest person, and he always seemed to have a good time.”
Cancer couldn’t stop Mr. Kellenberger from celebrating his 80th birthday at Roger Scott on May 5th, and he was his jovial self a few weeks later when he received a surprise of a lifetime. Court 23 at Scott will forever be known as “The Kellenberger Court” after the city presented him with a plaque that now hangs outside his clay court and has his motto — “hit through the ball” — inscribed on it.
“It’s been an amazing night,” Mr. KelIenberger said at the time. “I was in complete shock when they had the sign for Court 23 … this is better than a million bucks. The love of these people and the social activity this has given us the last 30 years has just been wonderful.”
Monday afternoon, Roger Scott’s Bruce Caton met some of the usual playing group on clay to toast their dear friend and tennis mate before playing the game he so loved.
Rather than have a memorial service, Mr. Kellenberger wanted to keep things simple and asked that his ashes be tossed out to sea.
A more formal tribute will be in the works soon, and will definitely involve tennis.
We’ll always keep “The Kellenberger Court” gate open for you, Mr. Bill.