By Gary Gray
Tennis legend Pete Zannis positively influenced youngsters and adults, and his selfless character and sense of duty to others has inspired a drive to complete construction of a memorial at the Liberty Bell tennis complex that now bears his name.
“We’re doing this to honor his character,” said Mickey Jilton, who is heading a steering committee that hopes to complete the first phase of construction this summer. “His positive outlook always drew you in and lifted you up. He never said a negative word in his life. And he touched many lives, especially at Science Hill High School.”
The committee includes Jilton, Tom DeBord, Ed Gerace, Tony Seaton, Bob Taylor, Cal Wilson, Vicki Wilson, Val Lyle and Dr. Richard McGowan. All members had taken lessons from Zannis, who passed away in 2015.
The Pete Zannis Tennis Complex at Liberty Bell sits adjacent to Freedom Hall. The group has plans to build a four-column red brick structure at which three large double-hinged wrought iron gates will be installed. An adjoining red brick wall also will sport decorative wrought iron, and three benches will be situated below and against that wall. A bronze likeness of Zannis will be positioned on the middle bench – should the group raise enough money to do so.
The committee has options. A bust only would cost about $5,000; a waist-up figure, $7,500 and a full size figure, $35,000. The latter is their preferred choice. Construction of the “brick and mortar” layout will cost $50,000, and the group is going forward with the goal of raising at least $85,000 for the memorial. About $20,000 has been raised so far.
Jilton said the group, which began its quest in earnest in 2016, also plans to install a solar-powered spotlight that would shine on Zannis’ likeness, where people can stop by, have a seat and have their pictures made.
“I felt strongly about doing something physical – making a place where you can see his likeness, touch him and honor him,” he said. “I came to know him when he was the tennis pro at the Johnson City Country Club. He was such a motivator, and a unique person. Every time you talked with him, he gave you confidence.”
The memorial would fall under the Johnson City Parks and Recreation Department’s purview, meaning its advisory board must approve the plans, and the department would be responsible for maintaining the memorial.
“We’re paying for this through donations,”Jilton said. “The city is not paying for a thing. Parks and Recreation Director James Ellis has been extremely supportive of our program.”
Zannis garnered state championships for East Tennessee State University in singles and doubles in 1978, and was crowned Southern Hard Court Champion in 1980. He served as the head tennis professional at the Johnson City Country Club for more than 30 years, and developed one of the premier junior tennis programs in the Southern part of the United States.
He coached hundreds of state, regional and nationally ranked junior players, and each year his players moved on to play intercollegiate tennis at Austin Peay University, Milligan College, Tusculum College, Virginia Intermont, UNC-Asheville, UT-Chattanooga, High Point College and ETSU.
Zannis was inducted into the ETSU Hall of Fame in 1996 and was named Tennessee High School Coach of the Year (for all sports) in 2008. He had coached Science Hill’s girls’ and boys’ tennis teams since 2000. In that time, five singles championships were produced, three boys doubles state championships were won and three second-place team finishes for boys and girls were accumulated.
The simple fact is, Zannis’ extraordinary “bio” has hundreds of high marks and stretches far too long to compact in this limited space.
Jilton said he’s confident once word gets out, the support will be there to complete the project. Former Science Hill tennis player Matt Czuchry is now an actor, appearing in shows such as The Gilmore Girls, Friday Night Lights and The Good Wife. Czuchry has been in touch with Jilton telling him how much Zannis influenced him and expressing an interest in contributing.
“As big a reason as any for doing this is to honor his positive influence on children’s lives,” he said. “This really was the initial impact he had on others that has lasted and lasted.”
Tax deductible donations for the memorial are welcome. Make checks payable to the “Pete Zannis Project,” and send to Johnson City Parks and Recreation Foundation, P.O. Box 3661 Johnson City, TN, 37602.