Jean Kempner: 27 years of ASU tennis fandom and counting.
Kempner may be ASU's biggest fan
ASU’s most admirable fan is not a student.
He’s not an alumnus nor a member of the 942 Crew or any other organization put together to promote attending school sporting events.
No, the school’s most loyal fan comes in the form of a kind, well-respected 84-year-old man who is a regular fixture within the intimate audience of the ASU tennis team.
This man’s name is Jean Kempner.
Kempner has been regularly attending ASU tennis matches for what has now been 27 years.
He commutes all the way from Prescott to the Whiteman Tennis Center in Tempe to watch the team play its matches.
Most, if not all of the regular fans in attendance at the matches are familiar with Kempner. In fact, all of the players are very fond of him as well and acknowledge his unwavering support for them.
“Jean’s been great,” senior Leighann Sahagun said. “He’s come out to every match that I can remember since I was a freshman. He’s always supporting and just wants us to do our best and sees all of the positive that we should see in ourselves.”
There’s no questioning Kempner’s commitment to supporting this group. But one must immediately wonder what could possibly motivate him to consistently make a two-hour drive to watch tennis for so many years?
The answer stems from Kempner’s respect for head coach Sheila McInerney coupled with his immense love for the game of tennis, despite not growing up religiously playing the sport.
Kempner originally hails from Chicago and has been living in Prescott for two years.
He went to school in Lake Forest, Illinois, before serving one year of active duty and six in reserve with the army during the Korean War. However, he was never shipped out nor saw combat. As a result, he doesn’t necessarily call himself a veteran out of respect for those who were in the middle of the battle.
He considers himself to have been, and still is, a very patriotic American, explaining that he cries when he hears the national anthem, but joked he still can’t sing the words.
Kempner’s affinity for the sport of tennis fully developed after his stint of service and isn’t derived from a lifelong connection to the game. In fact, he says he started late, taking the game up for the first time when he was 20 years old.
“I wasn’t trained from when I was 6 years old,” he joked. “I started when I was 20, but I watched the game along the way. I played once, and I loved it. The teacher put me out there with a racket in my hand and said, ‘I’m gonna hit the ball to you.’ He hit the first 20, and I didn’t miss, and I thought, ‘This is my type of game.’”
While Kempner didn’t ascend to the professional realm of tennis, he isn’t ashamed of that fact by any means. He views the game as an enjoyable pastime and would prefer to appreciate it as such.
“If you have a good outlook toward the game, and if you’re not taking it too seriously and have fun, it’s good enough to be an average player. I have a lot of memories from my tennis years. I cherish every one of them.”
Kempner shares his love of tennis with his wife of 17 years, Molly Clark.
He describes her as a former tennis champion whom he reveres as being a natural player and fast learner who is very passionate about the game.
“We have that in common, our love of tennis,” Kempner said. “To have been married to Molly, who loves tennis too, has been nice. We love the same movies, we love the same food, we love dogs — we have all of these things going for us.”
The two can often be found sitting together in the bleachers overlooking the lower-numbered courts during the singles half of matches. Kempner explained that they used to watch professional matches frequently, but said they enjoy the college level much more.
“It’s more entertaining because you get to know the players, you get to know the players’ parents, the coaches from other schools; in the pros you don’t get that anymore,” he said. “It’s the intimacy of the game. My wife and I both feel the same way about that. It’s more fun.”
The connection Kempner says he often shares with players and other regular members of the team’s audience is beginning to change, admittedly, as he gets older and a new wave of parents and gallery members begin to grace the stands.
“We have a generation gap, because one generation is a change of the guard,” he said. “A lot of things have changed. Just like tennis — it spins in and spins out.”
Part of the reason Kempner still continues to make the long trip to come see the ASU tennis team play is his connection with McInerney, who he first saw play in the pros. He admired her passion for the game.
“When she came here, I had a lot of time on my hands, so I would come and watch the girls play,” he said. “Coach (McInerney) has recognized that, and I don’t push them because they have their job to do. I knew tennis, and I think Sheila recognized that I’m not coming for the girls, or trying to get myself noticed.
“I have the highest respect in the world for her,” he continued. “I think she’s the best coach I’ve ever met in college — and I’ve met a lot of them. She’s just so rounded, just by her mantra: school first, success, and represent your school socially, when you’re out, in a good light.”
Kempner was impressed by McInerney’s character.
“I’ve never heard her say anything bad about anybody, and that’s pretty good when you’re a head coach,” he said. “She has great character. If you work with Sheila or she’s your head coach, she’s your friend the rest of your life. She keeps it going because she cares about them. She just loves it. She’s so respected.”
This reverent and appreciative tone is reciprocated not only between Kempner and McInerney, but the players, as well.
“He always comes out here to support us,” senior Joanna Smith said. “He’s very positive, and everybody knows who he is. He’s just a really nice guy that supports ASU tennis, and we love having him out here.”
“Jean Kempner is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet,” McInerney said. “He’s been a fan for (nearly) 30 years through thick and thin. I think he’s been a real credit to our program both as a booster and as a fan and supporter.”
What I, as well as many others who have had the opportunity to talk with Jean, have come to love about him, is his down-to-earth nature and presence.
He’s a jokester and is very easy-going, but he’s also very knowledgeable of tennis from a fundamental standpoint, yet is humble and personable.
He possesses a practical approach to life that one can only hope to model at one point during their lifetime, and embodies the qualities of a man who truly embraces life.
“He’s got a lot of wisdom to him; a lot of advice with him,” McInerney said. “Not necessarily tennis advice, but sort of watching the kids and getting a feel for them. I think the world of him. He’s a great human being.”
While on-court efforts may not be what Kempner is first remembered for, his legacy is preserved by the countless number of lives he’s touched and interacted with over the years.
His positivity and spirit is unique in today’s world, and his grasp of what matters in life is what makes him such a joy to be around.
“If you’ve had a great life, you love it,” he said. “I’ve had a great life. Molly has a great life, and we have a great dog.”
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @kaelenjones on Twitter.