ST. PETERSBURG — For decades, regulars at the St. Petersburg Tennis Center heard a human sound as identifiable as a fingerprint, floating from a court they couldn't see and didn't need to.
The sound — a visceral RRRrgh — meant only one thing, said Sam Vuille, a longtime teaching pro at the center and St. Petersburg Country Club: "Doc's here."
Dr. Paul Thompson — "Dr. T" to the legions of children he coached for free — was there a lot. The retired pathologist from Bayfront Medical Center had joined the club when he moved to St. Petersburg in 1959. He enjoyed its glory days in the 1960s, when players like Rod Laver, Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King played in tournaments there. When the neighborhood's crime rate increased and members left, he reached out to children, offering after-school lessons and donated racquets.
The grunting, he told the kids, helped him time his ground strokes. Other than fishing and his job, tennis was pretty much his life.
Paul Thompson was born in Indianapolis in 1927. He served in the military and graduated from Indiana University and its medical school. After completing his internship and residency in Columbus, Ohio, and Miami, he joined other pathologists at Mound Park Hospital.
Sometimes he took his two sons to work, where he conducted bacteriological studies and performed autopsies.
"While he's dictating into a recorder, he's taking enough time to describe it in kid terms," said Jeff Thompson, 55, his son. "Mostly it was routine. But sometimes he might say, 'Oh, this could be something!' It was really, really neat."
A marriage to Joan Hersman lasted about a dozen years. In the late 1960s he moved into a waterfront home on Big Bayou in Driftwood. He took neighbors out fishing and let kids use his dock when they water-skied. He wore shorts and drove a Toyota and often ate waffles for dinner. He never remarried but had friends who were women.
"I don't think he owned a suit," said neighbor Peter Pav, 74. "The only time he would go out to eat was when his girlfriends, of which he had several at a time, dragged him out."
Dr. Thompson competed in amateur tennis tournaments, and was a contender to win a city tournament several times. In the 35-and-older division, he was once ranked seventh in the state in singles and second in doubles.
He qualified for the St. Petersburg Masters Tournament, which drew top-ranked players to Bartlett Park, for nine straight years before winning a match.
It came on a default because his opponent skipped the tournament, but a win was a win.
"Some of the defeats I have suffered have been to some of the best," he said then.
As his knees gave him more trouble, Dr. Thompson taught more.
"He believed that anyone who walked in the door who wanted to — if you were a youth, you got free tennis lessons," said Liz Schroeder, a teaching pro at St. Petersburg Country Club who, like Vuille, got her start as a child hitting with Dr. T.
As more children stepped forward, Dr. Thompson recruited others to help teach. He served as president of the St. Petersburg Tennis Center, won its Linwood Lewallen Sportsmanship Trophy and was named an "Everyday Hero" by Bay News 9 in 2005.
He was also part of a successful and hard-fought effort to save the center, which has stood since 1929 on city-owned land, from going under financially.
A few years ago, Dr. Thompson came home from fishing by himself. He seemed disoriented, and reported that his boat had run aground and that he could not remember where he had been.
"He knew that was a sign of what was to come," said Pav.
Dr. Thompson died Jan. 17. He was 85. No funeral service was held, in accordance with instructions. He was cremated in his favorite shorts and a white sweatshirt bearing the St. Petersburg Tennis Center logo, and holding a tennis ball and his racquet.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.