I had a problem. In 1980 I wanted to start a tennis magazine that would work with the USTA NorCal. But the group had partnered a while back with another magazine. It didn’t go well and the two landed up in a legal tussle. Then I ended up talking with the executive director, Peter Herb. It wasn’t great timing. But he listened.
Peter Herb always listened – to an unknown kid with a crazy idea for a tennis magazine, to a raging John McEnroe at the Cow Palace arena, to a rising junior or a volunteer with a beef. You wouldn’t be reading this remembrance were it not for his support – thanks, Pete.
Herb, who died on August 31 at the age of 79 due to complications from leukemia, a fall and a brain tumor, had a gift and a deep civility. He saw the value of all sides. He had the ability to brush aside slights and arrows. First hired in 1963, he started with one employee and soon became an inspired leader who eventually had a $3.3 million budget. He was knowing and fair and he shaped his USTA section.
In 2000, Inside Tennis’ Matt Cronin wrote, “After persevering through 20 different USTA NorCal presidents, 268 board meetings, 63 nasty letters, 19 political skirmishes and assorted coup attempts, tennis’ great survivor, Peter Herb, still stands with his job and his sense of humor in place.” Once I called Herb and asked, “Do you have a minute?” He then starting counting down, “59, 58, 57, 56….”
Then again, NorCal long counted on Herb. When former USTA NorCal President Liz Blum was asked what his legacy was, she said, “The entire section.” Back in the days of the giddy tennis boom and the era that followed, there were three key figures: Stanford coach Dick Gould, tournament promoter Barry MacKay and Herb.
Born and reared in Berkeley, Peter loved the Bay Area and the East Bay in particular. When he was inducted into the NorCal Hall of Fame, three friends from grade school were there. But he had a national reputation and became “The Dean of Executive Directors.” He was known for his uncanny problem-solving. If you had a knotty problem, Pete could untangle it.
Known for his conciliatory personality, Herb said, “I’m flexible and find it easy to see everyone’s position. I’ve dealt with a lot of constituencies and am able to see all sides. My wife [Glen] thinks it’s amazing how easily I can forget slights, that I can move on. I always see the glass as half-full.”
A quietly brilliant fellow, for years he kept the addresses of all the member organizations in his head and, on occasion, would shock an association member by telling him or her their telephone number – impressive.
For years there was an unwritten tradition at NorCal Hall of Fame inductions. So often, inductees would heap praise on Herb for helping them navigate tennis’ sometimes treacherous roads. It’s no accident that when Herb was NorCal’s leader, the group had an extraordinary impact on national tennis. The region boasted two USTA Presidents – Hunter Delatour and Bob Cookson – and had many members on the national board, huge successes in league and NTRP tennis, and a slew of incredible officials including Tom Barnes, Joan Vormbaum, Marv Goldberg and Peter Kasavage.
Herb was adept in all aspects of the administrative game. Few led a meeting with more clarity, and he was a superb tournament referee. There was serious talk of him becoming the tournament referee at the US Open or going out full-time on the men’s circuit.
The now retiring US Open tournament referee Brian Earley said, “Pete was one of the best schedulers in the game. I picked his brains. I’d call him about scheduling and rules interpretations. He was the guy. He not only understood the rules, he understood their applications. I’d always get his input whenever I could. He’d look downstream into the second and third rounds and figure what matchups could lead to scheduling problems. I almost brought him to the Open just to do scheduling. He was as good as anybody.
“And he could take a volatile situation and make it seem normal. He had a calming effect when he walked onto the court. He took conflict out of the air. There would be conflict, and he knew it. But he would put that aside and make it black and white. Players didn’t always buy it – some are never going to. But he could defuse just about any situation. He was a heck of a guy.”
Herb didn’t see himself as a visionary. Precision was his thing. Still, he was a man of strong intent and considerable will. He said, “No one believed me when I said I would retire from refereeing when I turned 50.” But he did. With just a hint of defiance, he said, “Once I retire I’ll never go to another USTA NorCal meeting.” Instead, he traveled the world and was known for his annual (don’t be jealous of the globetrotter) holiday report. On the eve of his retirement, he said, “I will be happy to move on.”
Peter Herb has moved on, but not before impacting thousands. “Just like everyone always said about my job – as soon it stopped being enjoyable I can and will walk out the door.” Herb is now out the door, and at heaven’s gate, which soon will become a far better organized and collegial place, now that the king of calm is on hand.