Dale Hertzberg has been playing table tennis since he was a kid, when he constructed a table out of plywood and laid it in his backyard.
He recalls children from throughout the neighborhood gathering to play. Later, he recaptured this same sense of community through the game – this time in the Army. He again made the most of what he had on-hand. He remembers using cheap, sandpaper paddles he says no one plays with anymore.
Hertzberg even has a scar on his head from the time when he chased the ball as it ran under his bed. Like this mark, the game has stayed with him -- at age 85, he practices about twice a week with other members of the Independence Table Tennis Club.
“I didn’t play for 40 years while I was working, and I picked it up again on a cruise. Then, I came here,” Hertzberg said.
Like Hertzberg, many of the club’s members have stories of leaving the sport and, ultimately, returning. Ron Nero, who has been in the group for three years, learned how to play in his basement as a child. After a long stretch of not playing, he joined the club -- and had to re-learn almost completely.
“I was introduced to this style here, which is totally different from the basement,” Nero said with a laugh.
Indeed, the Truman Memorial Building’s gymnasium often becomes a site for fierce matches and smart-mouthed quips.
“I like to play doubles because you can trash talk,” Hertzberg shared. “It’s a lot more fun when you can make fun of the other players.”
Laney McDonald, who first brought Nero to the club, is also one of the driving forces behind this competitive mindset. He began playing at age 13 in Chicago parks, and still beats younger club members at age 79.
“I like playing, and I like winning,” McDonald stated simply. “This is fun up here, but it’s always more fun when you can win.”
McDonald doesn’t like to win without a fight, however. That’s why he acted as a mentor to Nero, teaching him little tricks. Now, McDonald says Nero “gives [him] a nice game.”
These kind of relationships can be seen throughout the club. During one match, the youngest member borrows a battle from John Bugh, who went to a national table tennis championship in 1977 long before becoming part of the club. They discuss how the paddle has carbon at its center, and talk about the ways table tennis has changed.
Going forward, McDonald sees this kind of connection and role-modeling as a goal for the club. He says he would love to help teach lessons or clubs, just like he helped teach Nero.
For now, though, McDonald is merely focused on the next opportunity to play -- he and Nero chat together as they wipe down their paddles, scheduling a rematch for the following week.