In 1959, Tom Chewning was a 15-year-old playing in a tennis tournament in Wheeling, W.Va., when he first met 16-year old Arthur Ashe.
"I didn't know he existed at the time because we had never met in segregated Richmond," Chewning says. "He knew about me because the Times-Dispatch covered white tennis, not black."
Chewning liked Ashe right away, he says, because he was full of intellectual curiosity about the world. When they returned to Richmond, they asked their parents if they could play tennis secretly. They agreed, and Ashe's father, who worked for the city's department of parks and recreation, opened a court in North Richmond at Brook Field, standing guard while they practiced.
Chewning went on to become chief financial officer at Dominion Respouces before retiring four years ago. He stayed friends with Ashe until the tennis star's death at age 49, after he contracted AIDS during heart bypass surgery.
Chewning and his wife, Nancy, will serve as co-hosts of a 70th birthday celebration for Ashe at the Science Museum of Virginia, where they'll help unveil an interactive exhibit about the late tennis great.
"I still miss having Arthur around. He was one of the world's great people," Chewning says. "The things he stood for, the gracefulness he showed. The great role model he was. The way he gave back to the world, he was such an unusual gift. You just don't want those memories to fade — particularly today."
Also serving as host is Ashe's widow, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, a well-known photographer whose work is included in the Inspirational Tour exhibit, sponsored by the nonprofit Arthur Ashe Learning Center.
The exhibit helps visitors understand who Ashe was as a person, Moutoussamy-Ashe says. It appeals to all ages, she says, offering touch-screen timelines with historical context and video. One interactive section attempts to pinpoint what passions might engage visitors to become civil servants.
"I'm thrilled we can premiere in the home where he was born and later buried beside his mother" in Woodlawn Cemetery, she says. "Her graveside was the first place Arthur took me in 1976 when I visited Richmond."
The installation moves to the New York Hall of Science in late August just in time for the U.S. Open. Tickets are available at smv.org.
"Though Richmond didn't count him in until he won the U.S. Open in 1968," Chewning says, "he was gracious. He came back many times to a city that wouldn't accept him and embraced it. This was a great Richmonder."