By Henry John Steiner
Historian of Sleepy Hollow
Jim Laird was a friend of mine, and over the years we spent a lot of time together. Much of that time was spent playing tennis and platform tennis. For a long time Jim organized a regular, Sunday morning pickup match at the old—now defunct—Tarrytown platform tennis courts, on the Hudson River waterfront. They were old wooden courts in bad shape. During their last decade of existence, little was done to keep them in operating condition. I guess there was virtually no Tarrytown constituency left to squawk about keeping them in shape. (Apparently, if you turn your back on something long enough, the constituencies fade away.) Our own group of men players were interlopers there—we were pretty much all from Sleepy Hollow. So, we had no standing to complain about the condition of the courts—or even to be on them! But we never got hassled for our clamorous, early-morning, Sunday platform tennis bouts.
Jim was the ring leader. He was persistent about lining up players for those pickup matches, just as he was dogged about so many of his pursuits—the renaming of the Village of Sleepy Hollow for instance—but I’ll get to that later. It was a mistake to mention a cherished idea to him in passing, because he would continually remind you of it in subsequent discussions, “holding your feet to the fire.”
So, anyway, on Sunday mornings you were supposed to be there ready to play at 7:00 am sharp. And woe to the player who failed to answer the alarm! Jim would hunt you down. “Where’s Ed?” he would say, “he’s supposed to be here.” Jim had everyone’s cell number and landline number. If he got no response on the cell, he would go the landline, and many was the morning that the phone was answered by a groggy and bewildered wife or significant-other. Jim had the habit of not introducing himself when making calls. He seemed to think such niceties a waste of time, besides, wasn’t it obvious who it was? The only thing he would utter on such occasions were the three doleful words…“Where is he?” He seemed unperturbed by the response he usually got, which was the slamming of the receiver on the cradle or a shouted expletive. Jim was just doing his “job.” Usually the offending player would arrive sheepishly within a few minutes away.
Jim came from Ohio, of Scottish descent, and he could be as careful with money as a Highland bard, or as generous as a kid on payday. In his younger years he served in the U. S. Army, a noncom in the tank corp. When I met him in Sleepy Hollow, he was a dedicated, amateur athlete. Jim was approaching the end of a long and active enjoyment of sport—racquet sports, golf, fishing, and cycling. In years gone by he had bicycled across the United States and run in the New York and Boston Marathons.
Jim’s career was in graphic design, and he had run a successful agency in New York after receiving degrees at Kent State and Syracuse University. In many ways, his talents left distinctive marks on our community. He designed a lineup of attractive publications in the early days of the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center and some very professional and aesthetically pleasing brochures for the newly renamed (in 1996) Village of Sleepy Hollow. Back in the days when I was completing my first local history book, it was Jim who so generously offered to help me with the cover design.
Jim Laird contributed monetarily and professionally to reconnect Sleepy Hollow with its famous name. He also pitched in with a lot of time and sweat. This was during the 1996 referendum campaign. Hundreds of lovely brochures designed by Jim were delivered to village voters and played a significant role in once more returning a famous name to a famous place that had, in many respects, forgotten its own fame. As one of the leaders in the renaming effort, I truly valued his contributions and enthusiasm. I know that Chris Skelly, my friend and co-leader on the effort, felt the same way. On the evening of December 10th, 1996, Jim joined us at the Old Dutch Church to “ring-in” the new village name with the church’s three-century-old bell.
After the time of the renaming, Jim put his talents to work for the village by designing attractive signs, prominently positioned at the north and south approaches to the village. They are still there today. About twenty years ago he got very involved with me and the village recreation department on a program that began trout stockings on the lower Pocantico River. At that time there was also a catch-and-release section of the river created with the cooperation of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Jim produced the signage for this project too. Speaking of fishing, I remember the old flat bottom rowboat he used to keep behind his house in Philipse Manor and how, in the old days, he used to launch it on Fremont Pond for bass fishing or just rowing around.
As Jim got older he seemed to spend more of his time playing golf and less of it playing racket sports. On occasion I would go along with him and be very impressed with his easy, fluid swing and his love of the game. Sometimes Henry Atterbury would accompany him and the three of us would have good laughs as we played our round together. Henry Atterbury was the recreation director of Sleepy Hollow at the time of the renaming and when the trout program began. Eventually he became the recreation director of Ossining for many years. The three of us would sometimes meet for lunch at Hugh Casey’s Tarry Inn on Beekman Avenue in Sleepy Hollow—today known as J. P. Doyle’s Restaurant. Hugh Casey was a “founding father” of our community’s Saint Patrick’s Day celebration.
Saint Patrick’s Day was often a good reason for convening at Jim’s house. He, his wife Irene, and daughters Lisa and Kate would host a lively gathering characterized by warmth and good cheer. He loved his children and was proud of their accomplishments. Patrick and Sonya Munroe (two friends very active in the village renaming) were often on hand to lead the hosts and their guests with music and song. Next to the house stood an ancient, magnificent, Black Walnut tree of which Jim was very fond and proud. He once had it examined by the Westchester County arborist who claimed it to be (I think) 350 years old—the oldest in the county. It was impressive, but, as I recall, it had at one time an enormous limb that hung like the Sword of Damocles an inch or two above Jim’s roof.
But in the days when we were playing racket sports, that was when I saw Jim the most. A few years after Tarrytown demolished their old platform tennis courts, Jim started lobbying the Sleepy Hollow mayor and board to put up two new courts of our own, at DeVries Field. Jim approached me and asked me to join him in co-captaining the village’s men’s team, which competed for years in the Westchester County Men’s Platform Tennis League. (He and I had previously co-captained Sleepy Hollow’s USTA men’s team.)
Our teams had a great time practicing and competing. They were composed of many of the “usual suspects,” and Jim managed to disturb many of the usual wives on Sunday mornings. He designed our very own warmup jackets, which are to this day (roughly fifteen years later) the sharpest-looking ones in the Westchester league! At the time of this writing the village has just completed a beautiful renovation of our courts, making them look like new. There is one odd addition though—a few extra lines drawn on the courts for pickleball play. I guess I’m an old-timer, but I was never a purist, so if that’s what the public wants today, by all means they should have it. Indeed, platform tennis was once new—about 100 years ago, in Scarsdale… I wonder what Jim would say?
I was surprised to learn, after I had known Jim for years, that he had a pacemaker in his chest. One day the unit went off in the middle of a doubles match as I looked on. It was like someone had swept his feet out from under him, and Jim fell hard on the court. He didn’t seem unduly concerned about it and explained that basically the unit had done what it was intended to do. In later years he played more golf, and I would see him less often on the courts. He let us know that he was having increasing trouble with his heart condition. He had by-pass surgery and unexpected complications that frustrated him and limited his activity. While my wife and I were on a trip to a remote part of Puerto Rico, away from computer and phone communications, Jim passed away on January 26, 2011. By the time I returned to New York, it appeared that he had been laid to rest. Jim was also survived by Becky and David, children from a previous marriage.
Jim Laird was a good man and a good friend. Sometimes I wish I could give him a call and listen to his thoughts on any number of subjects. I remember those sunlit mornings on the tennis court and the fellowship that Jim played such an important role in creating. I’m grateful to have known him, and for the many reminders of Jim that I see everyday as I drive around our community.
[Copyright © 2019 Henry John Steiner]