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The
Walls are your Friends: A Profile of Norman Bramhall, the First Coach of Women

By James Zug.
December 12, 2000. © 2000 Funded by Squashtalk.com. Do not reproduce
online without permission.
Illustrations: Norman Bramall- top: Cynwyd Champions, bottom photo.
(Thanks to Carol Thesieres for identifying the women in the Cynwyd
team photo)



It is hard to believe
today,
, with the U.S. junior girls’ team reaching fifth in the
world, that the distaff side of squash in America was once ignored. Women
took up squash in substantial numbers after the First World War, as the sport
got itself organized, but they mostly stayed on the doubles court which was
deemed more delicate and less taxing.

ELIO SEARS
The first men’s championship was held in 1907, but it wasn’t until 1928 that
there was a ladies national singles tournament. Miss Eleo Sears, naturally,
won the first title. Eleonora Randolph Sears was considered one of the greatest
athletes of the twentieth century. She was a Boston blue blood who won the
U.S. national tennis doubles four times and the mixed doubles twice (her uncle,
Dick Sears, won the first seven national men’s singles), was the first woman
to fly an airplane over water, was, in 1909, the first woman to ride astride
a horse in a major polo match and in her fifties walked in eight and a half
hours the forty-two miles from Fontainbleau to the Ritz Bar in Paris. May
I have a cosmopolitan, please?

Most women were not Eleo Sears and needed a
little bit of coaching to excel at the fast and furious game
of squash. But there was no one to do the job. All teaching professionals
were men, and they concentrated on their livelihood, male players. All except
for Norm Bramall-who coached the most U.S. national champions in history.

Born in Philadelphia to a father who sold cotton
and fuel oil, Norman Barge (that’s a tough-looking middle name) Bramall was
raised on the tennis court. In 1920 he led West Philadelphia High to a league
championship with a renowned chopstroke forehand. Skipping higher education,
Bramall ran a sporting goods business and started coaching the Quaker boys
at Haverford College (he was varsity tennis coach there for forty-one years,
compiling a 307-157 record, thirty-two winning seasons, and winning eight
league championships).
He also joined in
1922 the Cynwyd Club in Bala Cynwyd, just over the line from Philadelphia
and soon started running their tennis program. His most famous pupil was Vic
Seixas, who won at Wimbledon and Forest Hills.

CYNWYD CLUB BEGINNINGS
In 1939 Bramall got some squash courts installed at the club and began instructing
pupils in the game. Somehow he revealed the right mixture of sensitivity and
discipline that made women comfortable and driven, and he started putting
out a string of national champions. He learned the trick from Cecile Bowes,
married to a man named LaRoche, but called by all Babe. She was the only player
to challenge Anne Page, the first dominant American woman, and four times,
in 1938, 1940, 1941 and 1948 she was able to defeat Page and take the nationals.

SEVEN CHAMPIONS
Babe was already winning championships before Bramall appeared but he saw
how she and her unofficial coach, Frank Zook, a Cynwyd Club member, interacted.
Bramall’s first true creation was Jane Austin who won the nationals in 1951;
then came Lois Dilks in 1954; Margaret Varner in 1960, 1961, 1962 and 1963;
Ann Wetzel in 1964; Joyce Davenport in 1965 and 1969; Carol Thesieres in 1971;
and Barbara Maltby in 1980 and 1981.

Not counting Babe, that is seven different champions
and a title in five different decades. (You can also add Betty Meade who filled
out the Sixties championships with titles in 1966, 1967 and 1968; Meade was
a Cynwyd Club member but didn’t train regularly with Bramall.)

Consider this: a third of the women inducted
into the U.S. Squash Hall of Fame in its 2000 inaugural class
were taught by Bramall. Cornering the market on hardware, Bramall pupils continued
beyond the national women’s singles. A Bramall product was a part of the national
women’s doubles championship duo twenty-two times and the same number of times
for the national mixed doubles. Joyce Davenport has won the 35s women’s singles
six times, the 40s three times, the 45s twice and the national doubles nine
times and national mixed doubles six times, as well as run for years

Cynwyd Club team
photo: (front left to right): Doris Foster, Joyce Davenport, Jane Stauffer,
Ann Wetzel, Nancy Huntsburger, Tiny Stevenson (back left to right): Edith
Beatty, Blanche Day, Betty Meade, Maragret Varner, Fran Bottger, Margaret
DuPont, and Mr. Bramhall

the Berwyn Squash & Nautilus Club. Ann Wetzel
won four national doubles with four different partners and then coached the
University of Pennsylvania women’s squash team for decades, where she taught
such famous players like Alicia McConnell and Karen Kelso.

GAIL RAMSAY
Gail Ramsay, the greatest Bramall protégé never to win a national singles,
won the intercollegiates a record four times (no other woman or man has
ever done that), took three doubles titles and seven mixed titles, six
with her brother Bill, and for years coached at the Park Avenue Racquet
& Fitness Club and now coaches at Princeton. Bramall also coached the
U.S. to a 3-2 victory over England in the 1959 Wolfe-Noel Cup.

Records and his knack for teaching great teachers
aside, what was Bramall like? He was five feet seven, small in stature but
not in presence. He kept faith with traditions—he quit Haverford in 1968
when his players appeared with long hair and beards—but he felt women had
as much right to swing a squash racquet as men.

He had an intuitive sense of how to motivate
and placate and encourage women. Five of his seven national titleholders hit,
or missed, their first squash ball with Bramall on the court.

“The motto I remember most from Norm was ‘The
walls are your friends,'” says Carol Thesieres, who started playing squash
in the early 1960s. “I met Norm in college at an intercollegiate tournament.
He came up to me and said, ‘If you ever move to Philadelphia, please come
to the Cynwyd Club. I’d like to teach you squash.’ I had never played before,
except hitting once for fun on a double court. Norm was very instrumental
in my growth. He was so unselfish with his time. He’d go around introducing
us to the male members of the club, helping us get matches. We were good friends.
I always took my children over to his home around Christmas.”

“Norm was quite old when he started training
me,” says Barbara Maltby, a Hall of Famer who revolutionized women’s squash
with her dedication to strength and fitness. “Yet he was incredibly supportive.
He was very positive and very straightforward. ‘Make the walls your friend,’
he would always say. He was never pushy. He could watch people and see who
had the inner determination necessary to win. You can’t give that to somebody,
but you can teach them the game.”

In 1967 Bramall co-wrote, along with Margaret
Varner, another Hall of Famer, Squash Racquets (Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown,
Co.). It was a part of a physical education activities series, over thirty
books on everything from archery to wrestling. Chapter Four, “Progress Can
Be Speeded Up,” was a firecracker in the gloomy nightsky of the usual squash
guidebooks. Bramall recommended hours of practice alone in the court. This
was his secret to grooming so many national champions. One of his mottos was
taken from George Munger, the old football coach at Penn: “Tell ’em once,
make ’em practice it a thousand times.”

“He never raised his voice,” says Varner. “He
always made you feel good and happy and he made winning fun. But, boy, did
he ever make you practice alone in the court, hours hitting the same stroke.
I was thirty years old when I started and twice a week I took lessons at the
Cynwyd Club with Norm and they were hard, lonely work, but they made me a
champion.”

JANE STAUFFER
Of all his “squash queens,” as they were sometimes dubbed, Jane Austin Stauffer
was his most special. She was his first national champion and a close friend.
“I was taking tennis lessons from him and around 1945 he said, ‘Let’s go into
a squash court and see how you hit a squash ball.’ Norm was very inspiring.
Everything he said was encouraging. You had to work, work hard—a lot of
drills, perfecting shots—but he loved helping us. It was unusual, especially
in that era. All the girls would say this.” In 1951 Stauffer beat future Hall
of Famer Betty Howe Constable in the finals, 15-12 in the fifth. It was a
huge upset. Constable had beaten Stauffer in the finals the year before and
was thought to be invincible.

“It was very exciting for me but I think Norm
was even more thrilled. It was his dream to coach a woman to a national championship.

In 1984 Bramall officially retired from coaching,
but he still came by the club most afternoons and gave a few lessons. In March
1990 his wife Mildred died. Three weeks later, on Easter Sunday, Norm Bramall
died at his home at the age of eighty-nine. “You taught us how to accept winning
and losing with equal grace,” Stauffer eulogized at his graveside funeral.
“You always said, “If you lose, I expect you to shake hands. I expect you
to congratulate your opponent. It’s her day. But for you, I see another day
coming.'”

[ Read Profile of Allison
Danzig, also by James Zug]


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