By Bill Dabney
A major gift to the University of Mississippi from attorney Bill Hester of New Orleans, Louisiana, is helping give the Ole Miss tennis teams a competitive edge. Hester, who started playing tennis at 6 years old and lettered at Ole Miss from 1967 through 1969, recently made a gift of $100,000 to the Forward Together campaign for Ole Miss Athletics. The gift will help offset construction costs associated with the new $11 million indoor tennis facility.
An earlier $300,000 gift from Louis and Lucia Brandt of Houston, Texas, helped jump-start construction on the 52,000-square-foot, two-story building. Located southeast of the Olivia and Archie Manning Athletic Performance Center on Manning Way, the facility features six indoor tennis courts for practice and competition, grandstand bleacher seating for 300 spectators, fan amenities and a spacious lobby.
“The new indoor facility will help the coaches get better recruits and take this program to a whole different level, which everyone is looking forward to,” said Rebel tennis player Zvonimir Babić, a senior from Zagreb, Croatia.
Hall of Fame UM men’s head tennis coach Billy Chadwick and longtime friend of Hester agrees: “The sport has grown … The SEC is recognized as the premiere tennis league in the nation. This new building will put us now in a position where we are competitive with the top teams in the nation from the facilities standpoint. It’s an absolutely fantastic facility.”
Hester grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, where he won the state high school championship two years in a row. After high school, he enrolled at Ole Miss (also his mother Rosa’s and sister Katie’s alma mater), where he played freshman and varsity tennis for four years — the last two in the No. 1 position — and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1969. He then served in the U.S. Army for almost three years before returning to Ole Miss for law school, receiving his juris doctorate degree in 1974. After law school, he joined The Kullman Firm in New Orleans, where he has practiced labor and employment law for more than 40 years.
Hester continues to play tennis regularly and competes annually in southern and national tournaments. In fact, he and his late father, International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee W.E. “Slew” Hester, are four-time USTA National Finalists in father-son doubles.
“One of my most favorite tennis stories involves (Ole Miss Alumna) Eleanor Shaw and the Hesters,” Chadwick recalls. “Slew used to play mixed doubles with Eleanor and won a Southern mixed doubles championship. I will say it was 35 years later when Bill played with Eleanor and again won a Southern mixed championship title, making Eleanor the only player to win a Southern mixed doubles title with both a father and son. The name Hester is synonymous with Mississippi tennis.”
Hester said the sport has changed significantly since his college days. “Our coach, John Cain, was an All-American running back at Alabama, and at Ole Miss, he was primarily a football coach. The so-called “minor sports” of tennis, golf, track and field were all coached by a football coach. That was their sideline,” he said. “Now, these sports have moved into the major category with full-time coaches and full-time assistant coaches, which was unheard of when I was in school.
“It’s much more competitive,” he continued. “In any given year, you’ll have five or six SEC teams in the top 15 of Division I schools. But when I was in college, I think USC won the championship every year that I was eligible to play, but that’s not the case now.
“In the four years that I played, we flew on an airplane one time: to the SEC tournament in Gainesville at the University of Florida. Now the team flies to tournaments and competitions all over the country. It’s totally different; it’s a big deal now.”
Additionally, when Hester played for Ole Miss, tennis was not a scholarship sport; now it’s not only a scholarship sport but the competition is all year. Hence, one reason for the new facility. “By getting the new indoor, we can practice regardless of the weather conditions,” Babić said. “Help from supporters of the Ole Miss Tennis program, like Bill Hester, has a tremendous impact on our tennis and actually our lives. The whole team is very grateful for the donations, and we hope to cheer our donors with some big wins.”
Chadwick said Hester simply has a giving spirit. “I’m so glad he’s getting this recognition because it’s really well-deserved — not only for the fact that he gave us a nice gift, but through the years he has been one of those forces that just elevates the program and the entire university.
“I’ll never forget our matches against LSU, Bill and his wife, Lorraine, were always in the stands,” Chadwick continued. “It was great to see a smiling face in Baton Rouge and it meant so much to the team. They were, and continue to be, fantastic supporters and outstanding ambassadors for the university.”