Here in Arkansas, where it everybody's either blood kin or a kissin' cousin, or at least went to the same school or comes from the same little town, there's no use trying to pretend we're something we're not. Small states, like small towns, are like that. There's no hiding on a small stage. Everybody's distinctive.
George H. Dunklin of Pine Bluff, Ark., who lived 89 full years, was more than a distinctive individual; he was a distinctive and, I fear, disappearing type: the gentleman.
Southerners have been debating about whether there's still a South probably from the first moment the South came to be recognized as a distinctive place. And for just as long, we've been wondering if we've seen the last of that vanishing breed, the gentleman. It's a kind of preoccupation in these latitudes, mourning the past even while it's still the present.
Walker Percy titled one of his novels The Last Gentleman, surely knowing how the phrase would resonate in this postmodern, post-gentleman world. George Dunklin could have been his model if Mr. Percy's gentleman had been less censorious, and more … a gentleman.
Mr. Dunklin led a life rich in accomplishment. His contributions to his state and community were many in business and banking, in economic development and philanthropy, and in sport. Especially one sport.
Naturally his game would be tennis not the hot-shot, souped-up, McEnroe-ized facsimile of it played in these showy times, but the gentleman's game. George Dunklin's tennis could have been Bill Tilden's. It was played, of course, in tennis whites. In shirts that still had collars. (Something happened to tennis and the world when the game went garish. Something not very good.) Whatever surface he was playing on at the time, it might as well have been grass.
There was something ineffably of a lost world in George Dunklin's grace at the game. He was never satisfied with his serve, but his backhand was a wonder. To say he was an aggressive player would be too harsh. What he was, was tenacious. The man might be beaten on rare occasions, but he never gave up. What he had, always, was style.
It is simply impossible to picture George Dunklin arguing a line call, let alone throwing his racket across the court in a hissy fit. One might as well try to imagine him declining to lead a good cause in his town or state, especially if he could stay outside the limelight while doing it.
The man collected tennis records and honors aplenty as many as good taste would allow. With his natural talent for the game, the trophies and titles were unavoidable. He was this state's men's champion a record nine times, and played in both the U.S. and French Open.
Somewhere along the line he won the Southwest, Mississippi Valley, Louisiana State and Tennessee Opens. As late as 1968, he made it to the semi-finals of the USTA National Seniors Tournament.
It says something it says a lot that, with all his victories on the court, it wasn't whether he won or lost that stays with those who got to watch him out there, whether in a tournament or on his family court, but how he played the game.
Mr. Dunklin was a gentleman on and off the courts. One felt assured just knowing he was around. His death would come after a long struggle, which he waged with his usual understated gallantry, taking thought only for others, especially Mrs. Dunklin, the lovely, ever courteous Lib. She would survive George by 10 days. They'd been married since 1949.
The news of George Dunklin's death brought a pang and a familiar question: Are there any gentlemen left?
Of course there are, and will be, because of the very admiration the George Dunklins inspire. Who wouldn't want to emulate such a man, such a gentleman? And that may have been his greatest contribution. His is a legacy of grace that will keep his always distinctive but never showy style alive. Which is one more reason his state, his town, his family and friends can be grateful for a life well played.