Through a friend I heard about a man who teaches tennis lessons to kids and asks for nothing in return, except good grades and a lot of other things that don’t seem to have much to do with tennis. He’s on the court most mornings with dozens of kids, teaching them tennis, with a little math, civics and history mixed in.
Curious, I showed up at Bell Canyon Park early one morning and there he was, sitting in a chair watching over his students on a court that was salted with tennis balls. Rayfel Bachiller (as in bachelor), a thick-set man who teaches about 30 kids four mornings a week from 7-9, put the kids through drills while peppering them with questions.
“Who was the second president of the United States?”
“What is a hypotenuse?”
“What are the three branches of government?”
He also grills them in etiquette, and when I show up he insists they practice making introductions. One of them stepped forward and gave me a firm handshake, looked me in the eye and introduced himself. Judith Martin couldn’t do it better.
Bachiller will teach all comers as long as they meet certain requirements: They must not pay him, for one thing. They must have A’s and B’s in school. They must be punctual – practice starts at 7 a.m., not 7:01 – or they get to run laps. They must have good manners and sportsmanship. They must exert effort. They must be willing to learn anything he throws at them, whether it’s topspin or American history or memory teasers — long, lengthy passages he requires them to recite to develop memory.
For all of this, kids rise all summer long at 6:30 a.m.
“He never gets mad,” says Diane, one of the students.
“He takes us to breakfast,” says Sammy, “and if we try to pay we are off the team.”
“He remembers what each player needs to work on, even with all the kids he works with,” says Hannah.
I visited with Bachiller at his home later in the day and as soon as I stepped into his home, I knew that none of the above begins to scratch the surface of his story. There are 20 guitars hanging on the walls and a grand piano and drum set in the corner. There are military swords and artwork and a Marine insignia on the front porch.
The CliffsNotes of his life: raised in a slum; a retired colonel with 32 years in the Marine Corps; assignments in the White House and Olympic security; a self-taught musician, artist and tennis player; a tennis coach at Corner Canyon High; and a semi-private coach.
So many people helped him along the way during his 66 years to enable him leave a gang-infested neighborhood in Washington, D.C., and rise in the world that he wanted to help others. He teaches guitar lessons, woodworking, framing and matting, and of course tennis, and refuses all offers of pay for any of it. He and his wife, Lisa, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel, have their pensions and that’s enough, he says. He also does charity work in the community, largely for veterans’ causes, and sings in a church choir.
He began teaching tennis in Utah a few years ago when a neighbor complained that his granddaughter was not enjoying her tennis lessons with a professional instructor. Bachiller watched a lesson and was convinced he could do better — and he’d do it for nothing. He started working with the girl at a local park and soon passers-by noticed and asked for lessons. It grew from there. Bachiller convinced reps at the Wilson sporting company to provide supplies, and he opened the doors for his tennis “school.”
“Tennis is just a vehicle to get the kids to do something in life, rather than sit around and do nothing,” he explains. “We get them out of bed early — that shows commitment.”
His conversations with the kids covers it all. He discusses their aspirations and urges them to create a plan to make them happen. He talks about the importance of making good choices. He talks about the importance of respect and simple manners and the wisdom of listening. He teaches them techniques for remembering the names of people they have just met, service to others and “everything they will encounter in life.”
He is often offered money for his work, but he always refuses. As he explains it, “I tell the parents, ‘My contract is not with you, it’s with the child.’ I teach the kids to make choices. The parent makes the choice to trust them to me.”
Bachiller grew up in what he calls the slums of Washington, D.C., one of two children born to Filipino immigrants. His father earned his citizenship by joining the U.S. Navy as a teenager and wound up serving 27 years, eventually becoming a White House chef for presidents Truman and Eisenhower. His mother survived the brutal Japanese occupation during World War II. The Bachillers had little money when they settled in Washington, and life was rough for young Ray. He was beaten by local gangs for resisting their invitations to join their ranks. He recalls that he never had his own bed; he slept on a cot under the kitchen table. He taught himself English out of comic books.
Bachiller was a Navy ROTC student at the University of South Carolina and joined the Marines upon graduation. He earned a reputation for his work ethic and was given command assignments with as many as 11,000 men under his authority at one time: “They plugged me in wherever they wanted a minority,” he says.
He was assigned as an aide to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His roommate was Colin Powell, who was then an aide to the secretary of defense. He also served as a White House social aide: “I was a potted plant decoration for social occasions — a minority Marine,” he says wryly. His career took him to 146 countries.
He tried to retire in 2000, but he was convinced to accept another assignment, this time as the No. 2 military representative in heading up security efforts for the Salt Lake City Olympics. He retired from the Marines after the Olympics, but he accepted assignments as a senior security consultant for the Olympic Games in Athens and Torino.
He also received a personal phone call from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asking him to serve as a senior adviser to the minister of defense in the Iraqi government: “I had known her when she was a national security adviser and she remembered me,” he says.
While he was in Iraq, he contracted severe respiratory illnesses from Iraqi sandstorms. He returned to his home in Utah while his wife was serving overseas.
“I’m a good Catholic, but the local (LDS Church) ward took care of me,” he says. “I have a very healthy respect and love for the LDS Church, as well as my Catholic Church.”
He began teaching free tennis lessons in his adopted home in 2004 and has been doing so ever since. He originally began playing tennis when he was stationed in Washington early in his military career. He was told he needed to take up a sport to move in military circles, and he chose tennis.
“I taught myself to play out of a book,” he says. “I’ve never had a tennis lesson.”
He tried out for the Marine Corps tennis team six weeks later and beat the No. 4 player. He played on the team for eight years. He has taught tennis lessons for most of the past 40 years, including the group lessons in Utah for a decade.
The group lessons end when school starts, so the kids can play for school teams and he can coach his high school team, but he continues to monitor their grades. If any of his students have academic trouble, he arranges for them to meet with a tutor – usually a former tennis student.
Just don’t make the mistake of trying to pay him for his efforts. There is only one payment he welcomes: “I accept the appreciation of parents and students,” he says.
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org