Chapter XVII • Tennis Anyone?
Sweet Success • The Albert Sweet Story
Chapter XVII • Tennis Anyone?
There was the doctor, the attorney, the landscaper, and the frustrated opera singer. Together with Al, they were ‘the tennis buddies’. Every Saturday, these guys would congregate over at Al’s Malibu home which has a beautiful tennis court. Once there, they would talk about old times, current events, and occasionally “play” tennis. A few years back, a group photo was taken of the gang. At the time of the photo, the oldest was in his mid 80’s. Al was the youngest.
We never played real tennis. We played ‘schmooz’ tennis because we couldn’t play singles anymore. These were my tennis buddies and each one had a great story.
I met Burt Sperber after we had both gotten out of the service. It would have been around 1955. He had served in Korea during the time I was in Germany. We both lived in Northridge, California and were members of the same synagogue – Temple Ramat Zion.
Because of my background in air conditioning and construction, they asked if I would serve on the building committee. Burt was also on the committee. We needed to build a temple since we were meeting in a trailer at the time. Burt and I both had relationships with our banks, so we were able to secure the mortgage. And together we built the temple.
Burt, a decorated war veteran, founded ValleyCrest Landscaping along with his father back in 1949. Sixty years later, the company had grown to over 9,000 employees with operations in more than 150 locations nationwide. Throughout the years, their list of clients would grow to include such prestigious names as Disney, Sea World, the U.S. Olympics, the Getty Museum, and numerous hotels in Las Vegas, such as the Bellagio, Caesar’s Palace, and Wynn.
A few years before he died, Burt sold his company for over a billion dollars. He passed away in September of 2011 while in the hospital following surgery. He was just an incredible guy. His daughter was also very special. Sadly, Wendie Jo pre-deceased Burt after losing her battle with breast cancer. But before she died, she and her mother founded an organization called weSPARK. Anybody that came to them with cancer was given care, and a place to live, etc. Those were the Sperbers.
Another tennis buddy, Maynard Davis, was an attorney who was a distant cousin of my ex-wife, Diane. In order to get through law school, he clerked at the courthouse during the day and went to school at night. By doing so, he was able to meet and get to know a lot of judges, which proved to be helpful later in his career. He was my oldest friend.
Les Rich was my doctor for many years who sold his practice and took a position as the Chief of Staff at the Tarzana Medical Center. Born and raised in Massachusetts, he was a great, great doctor who was very intelligent.
The final tennis buddy was Bernie Shapiro who made a big difference in my life. He always wanted to be an opera singer. The two of us would sing songs together and drive the other tennis buddies crazy. My favorite religious song was Panis Angelicos. I still remember the Latin words. It was a prayer to God, thanking him for bread – the panis. Bernie and I together would sing that song along with some of the old military songs, such as Stout Hearted Men.
Bernie was connected with a synagogue called Aish HaTorah. After two years of trying, Bernie finally got me to attend and I got sucked in. That was sixteen years ago, and I’ve been studying the Torah with Rabbi Cohen from Ireland every Wednesday at 5pm ever since. A couple of times a month, my son Ron is able to join me. It’s the best time of my life.
Another good friend of mine who didn’t play tennis with us was Paul Gutman. He was a Superior Court judge from the Van Nuys area. I was introduced to him six or seven years ago at an art museum gathering where we ended up sitting opposite each other. My ex-wife Janey and his wife were close friends. We started talking and soon realized we were both from New York, from The Bronx. One thing led to another and it turned out we were born on the same day… in the same year… and at the same hospital! We were blown away. We also had a lot of common interests and the same sense of humor.
For some reason I started talking to Paul about my grandson Andrew. Paul stated that kids these days don’t know much about our court system. So he offered to give Andrew a behind the scenes tour of the courthouse and allow him to watch some court proceedings. Afterwards, whenever we’d speak, he would always ask how his friend Andrew was doing. About himself, Paul would say that he was a human being first and a judge second. And he proved it.
We were supposed to go on a cruise together – Paul and his wife, and Janey and me. He was having some back problems and decided to go in for some minor surgery beforehand so that he could enjoy the cruise more. He wound up catching a Staph infection in the hospital and died.
To be in his presence was to sit at the feet of a wonderful mentor. That was Paul Gutman. He and I, along with the tennis buddies, shared some truly great memories together. The others have now all passed away, and I’m the only one left. But the memories we’ve shared will live forever.