The First-Person Project

Allen Dunbar ’69

Agawam, MA

Applied Technology Teacher, South Windsor High School, CT / Tennis Pro, Ludlow (MA) Tennis Club, Ludlow

Major: Industrial Arts Education

My dad was in the service; I was born in Greenville, South Carolina. We moved to New Hampshire, to Manchester, when I was four. When I was a junior in high school, I figured I would probably go to technical school, but then I made National Honor Society and people told me that I was smart and should go to college. I asked my drafting teacher where I should go to school, and he recommended Keene State. It was the only school that I applied to, and I was accepted. My family wasn’t rich, but we were comfortable. My dad had a good job. My focus really was just school. My parents wanted me to do well; they put a great deal of emphasis on education. My brother, Elmer, followed me to Keene State. He’s a physician who specializes in pain management.

I wanted to be a teacher. I loved my high school teachers; they were just awesome. I think there were maybe two or three black kids in my school at that time, and I was treated really well.

At Keene State, I took courses in all of the industrial arts – woodshop, automotive, graphics, drafting – we needed them all to graduate with an industrial arts education major. I remember we had an art course, which was interesting – drawing and understanding shapes. When I did get all my coursework done, I had two electives. I took two English courses, because that gave me enough English credits to be certified in English as well.

Before Keene State, I’d never played tennis. In my freshman year at college, I played a little basketball, and the coach, Mr. King, thought I’d make a good tennis player. I went out for tennis sophomore year, having never picked up a racket before. So he got me involved in a sport that’s been a big part of my life. All the technology education teachers, they were good. They were fair. That’s really all I wanted. There were, I think, only two black students at Keene State at that time, but there were eight other kids from Manchester West High School. Having friends here, people that I knew, was a big plus, and the other students treated me as an equal. What’s kind of tough is when you’re the only black kid in the class, and if you’re absent, they just look around and say, Oh, Dunbar’s not there. So I was under a microscope a bit. But managed to keep my head above water and get my class work done. I joined a fraternity, Kappa Delta Phi. The guys had motorcycles and stuff like that. I didn’t have a motorcycle, but it was fun to be able to experience a lot of this stuff, and they shared a lot of their experiences. It worked out really well.

I did my student teaching at Keene High School, then I went to the Keene State job office and they had two listings. I picked the job at West Springfield High School in Massachusetts, and I taught there for 35 and a half years.

I won’t say it was uncomfortable being a new teacher, but you know you’re the new kid on the block. When you walk in, other teachers can make or break you. I feel very fortunate that the other teachers liked me. In industrial arts – now they call it technical education – you get pretty much left alone; it’s like you’re in the basement. We were on the other side of the wing. But they liked me, I worked hard, and it was just pleasant. It was a good situation. It was fun going to work, and I really loved working with the kids. That was my favorite part – still is my favorite part, working with kids.

I’ve been involved in a lot of coaching and advising, too. When the tennis coach at West Springfield retired, I took over. They hadn’t won a match in six or seven years. My team went 3 and 15 that first year, 5 and 11 the second, and the third year, we were undefeated. Thirteen and 0. I advised the chess team. I worked with the Robotics team, too. You build a robot, and the robot competes. We had a chance to go to nationals a couple times; it was just a great experience.

I like teaching so much that a year after I retired from West Springfield High in 2005, I got bored and decided to come back to the classroom. Now I’m teaching at South Windsor High School in Connecticut. I missed teaching. The stuff that I teach – Creative Wood, Construction, Graphics, Photography, and Aviation – it’s creative work. It introduces kids to power tools, to cameras, to web programs, to computer languages. I’m planning to retire for the second time at the end of the 2017 school year.

Tennis has been a passion for me. I’ve been playing all along and coaching as well. Tennis is a sport for a lifetime. That’s our mantra from the US Tennis Association. As a member of the board, my goal is to help grow the game of tennis. But for me, tennis is a great equalizer. It doesn’t make any difference if you’re black or white; when you play tennis, and you’re on the court and you’re facing an opponent, the color of your skin really doesn’t come into effect. You’re able to cross so many boundaries just because of that. And if you’re a good tennis player, regardless of the color of your skin, people want to play with you. And you meet some of the nicest people.

I’ve played in American Tennis Association and US Tennis Association tournaments and was ranked as high as 2 in men’s seniors in New England and 4 in USTA mixed doubles. I coached high school tennis for 27 years. I’ve served as tennis pro at four clubs, including the Ludlow Tennis Club and the Jewish Community Center in Springfield. As a tennis pro I became involved in the USTA and was elected to the board of directors New England in 2001. As an active board member I continue to help grow the game of tennis. I was also selected to the national USTA committees for Adult Senior Competition and for Diversity and Inclusion. Locally, I run the Daily News tournament for the Springfield Republican, a week-long summer event for students 18 and under.

As a coach, my philosophy is, I really don’t care if they win or lose. Just that they put in their best effort and that they get better. There are some things you can do to help make a difference. All the South Windsor High coaches say, Well, what did you say to the kid? How come he was losing and now he’s winning? My philosophy would be, You try to make it as simple as possible. You could do eight or nine things – do this, do this, do this – but players are not going to remember all that. So you say, All right, if he comes to the net, lob. If you have a choice, hit the ball to his back hand. You know? So on the changeovers, it’d just be a little sentence like that. Just concentrate on doing this.

The loves of my life are my grandkids – one’s six and the other one’s two. I love having them near. Our daughter Egypt lives seven or eight minutes from our house, so we get to see them all the time. Last weekend I took my granddaughter, the six-year-old, to see UMass play football against Toledo down at Gillette stadium. She had a great time. It was a nice experience. As you get older, you start thinking about things, like, How would you like to be remembered, especially with family? Because with me that’s the most important part. Being a part of what my grandkids are doing and how they’re going to grow up, it’s just awesome. My wife, Valleria, and I also have a son, Ryan, and I have two kids, Tory and Tori, from my first marriage. Valleria works as a personal care assistant.

So, tennis is a great equalizer. Education is another one of those great equalizers. Once you get your education, people can’t take it away from you. To me that’s probably the most important thing that I got out of being at Keene State College. Regardless of the color of your skin, people just can’t take your education away from you. You’ve earned that.