Frank Stovall celebrates his 100th birthday with some singles tennis

Frank Stovall celebrates his 100th birthday with some singles tennis with his tennis partner Jane Moss. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Frank Stovall celebrates his 100th birthday with some singles tennis with his tennis partner Jane Moss. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

On the court with youngsters, Stovall still swings.

On Thursday, Frank Stovall woke up, rode his exercise bike, did some stretching, hopped in his Acura and drove over to the Roxboro Valley club to play a few games of singles.

His longtime tennis partner, Jane Waterman Moss, was setting out a tray of cupcakes and hanging a big banner when Frank arrived.

The treats and banner were for Stovall’s 100th birthday, but Frank postponed taking a bite. He was eager to swing a racquet.

Dressed in shorts, a Scrabble-themed T-shirt, and New Balance shoes, Frank joined Jane and her husband, David, on the sunny court and hit short, warm-up rallies. Frank’s son, Phil, looked on from the benches.

“If it’s dry and above freezing, he’ll play,” said Phil, 68, a commercial realtor.

It was a gorgeous day, trending toward 75 degrees, and Frank raised his hands to the sky and declared, not for the first time, “I must be the luckiest guy in the world.”

Then David stepped to the sidelines, and the game began. Jane served first, double-faulting. “Since you’re a beginner, I’ll give you two more,” Frank joked. At 53, Jane is not a beginner. On the other hand, Frank has been playing for 90 years, so he has the edge in experience.

Frank Stovall couldn't find his tennis glove one day, so he put on a gardening glove. It worked just fine, so he kept using it. Here, he meets with Jane Waterman Moss to play some tennis on his 100th birthday. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Frank Stovall couldn't find his tennis glove one day, so he put on a gardening glove. It worked just fine, so he kept using it. Here, he meets with Jane Waterman Moss to play some tennis on his 100th birthday. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“Come on, hit it hard Jane!” he coaxed. “You’re trying to ease up on me!”

At 30-love, Frank returned a hard serve, and Jane approached the net, lofting a soft return toward Frank at chest level. He volleyed it into the net. Despite his bravado, Frank lost the first game.

But that’s just the way he wants it. Asked what he likes about tennis, he answered, “Competition. I love to play with people who can beat me.”

For many years, that was nobody — or at least nobody in his age group. When he was 90, playing against 85-year-olds, he was number one in the state.

His most cherished memory is losing to San Francisco amateur champion Tom Brown in 1987, in the same year that Brown would win the USTA Grand Slam in the 65-and-over singles category. Out of the match, Frank won two games off of Brown, but those games were bliss.

When he started playing against Jane, he was 88, and she was 39. “Oh my God, he had me in tears,” she said. “I was a fairly handy player, but I could never beat him.”

Today, many shots go past him, but Frank still loves to play, so it’s no big surprise that he spent his 100th birthday doing just that. As his girlfriend, Agnes Benson, says, “Frank knows what he wants, and he knows how to get it.”

Frank Stovall was born Feb. 25, 1921, when Candler Field was still an abandoned racetrack. He grew up on Gordon Street in Southwest Atlanta and took the trolley to Tech High, then later studied chemical engineering at Georgia Tech.

He served in two wars and registered two patents during a career in manufacturing research at Lockheed. He still lives in the house he built off Wieuca Road in 1948, where he, his love Marjorie Hailey Stovall and their four children settled. He last water-skied at age 95.

“I’ve been getting birthday calls from all over the world,” said Frank during a break from the game, his eyes twinkling. Those calls included well wishes from another tennis partner, who called from India during a trip abroad.

Later Frank would read a proclamation from the city of Atlanta declaring Feb. 25 “Frank Stovall Day.”

Jane suggested that the secret to Frank’s continued vigor isn’t just exercise, diet and good genes, but his outgoing nature. “Social interaction is the number one indicator of longevity,” she said, and Frank’s interactions keep him busy. “First of all, it’s hard to get into his calendar.”

Also, there is his tenacity. Frank has written a hilarious short volume about his courtship of Margie, demonstrating that with persistence and skill, he outlasted about a half-dozen other suitors.

They were married 67 years. After Margie died in 2011, he knew she couldn’t be replaced, but also knew he couldn’t remain alone. He continued walking to Chic-fil-A on Roswell Road for lunch, and there, over coffee, a friend suggested a blind date.

When he called Agnes Benson, she agreed to meet, but with a caveat. “I very carefully explained I would be happy to have dinner with him, but I was not interested in a relationship,” she said.

After his wife of 67 years died, Frank Stovall met Agnes Benson on a blind date. "She's my salvation," he said. (FAMILY PHOTOGRAPHY provided by Frank Stovall)
After his wife of 67 years died, Frank Stovall met Agnes Benson on a blind date. "She's my salvation," he said. (FAMILY PHOTOGRAPHY provided by Frank Stovall)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Frank persisted. Agnes softened. She’s not much of a tennis player, but they both love Scrabble. (He ordered a T-shirt with their interlocking names spelled out in Scrabble tiles.)

Marriage is not in the cards. Agnes won’t live at his large house, crowded with 100 years of memorabilia, and he won’t leave it. “He can’t give up his home,” she said. “He wants to go out of his home feet first.”

In a compromise, Frank also rents a small studio apartment at the Mt. Vernon Towers assisted living facility, where Agnes has her own apartment, and Frank spends several nights a week there.

During his birthday week, Frank would be fêted at a Mount Vernon Towers party, a dinner party with Agnes’ family, a party at Phil’s house, another party at younger brother Dr. Ray Stovall’s house in Lawrenceville and showered with love from his friends at the Chick-fil-A.

And it’s a good bet that at any of these events, Frank could be heard giving voice to a discovery that continues to surprise and delight him: “I must be the luckiest guy in the world!”

In Other News