"First Lady" of North Carolina Tennis Passes Away

October 27, 2019 10:05 AM

by Robin Lindner

North Carolina tennis has lost an icon as Mildred F. Southern passed away on October 22, 2019 at the age of 98.

The stadium court at the Winston-Salem Open bears the name of Mildred and her late husband Harold, who passed away in 2011, thanks largely to their presence as cornerstones in the community.

“Mildred has been an inspiration to multiple generations,” says Winston-Salem Professional Tennis Board Chairman Don Flow. “Mildred was generous with her resources, her time, and she loved to share her life with others.”

Mildred began working with the Winston-Salem Parks and Recreation Department in the 1940s after graduating from Appalachian State University, and in the 1970s she created Young Folks Tennis, which would provide tennis to children in the community at no cost. 

“There was almost nothing she loved more than to watch a child light up after he or she had hit the ball over the net for the first time,” says Haddon Kirk, a longtime friend. 

“She believed any child, any person really, regardless of race, gender or class should play tennis, and what’s more is she created those opportunities for people to play,” reflects USTA North Carolina Executive Director Kelly Gaines.

More than 40 years later, the program is still going strong in the twin cities.

Alex Rucker who ascended to the heights of collegiate tennis and served as a president of USTA North Carolina and its charitable foundation is a product of Young Folks Tennis.

“Mildred asked us to serve, but it wasn’t a first serve or a second serve. It was to serve our community. If she asked you to work an event or buy a pancake breakfast ticket, you did it because you knew she was asking for the good of the community,” says Rucker.

Kirk laughs nostalgically, “No one could say no to Mildred. She could get people to do what needed to be done to get the results she wanted. She was a force.”

Through Young Folks Tennis, her volunteer role in the Parks and Recreation Department and her organization of countless amateur tennis tournaments in Winston-Salem, Mildred created a veritable army of volunteers.

“I don’t know that professional tennis like the tournament we have now would be as successful as it is without Mildred and the Southern family,” admits Winston-Salem Open Tournament Director Bill Oakes.

“For so many years, she pushed the growth of grass roots tennis, especially among the youth. She built the base. Those children grew up and had children who played and supported tennis, and now those are some of our best advocates.”

The Winston-Salem Open will continue to honor the Southern spirit through a special service award named for Mildred and another of her colleagues, Coach David Lash, who provided play opportunities for all races and genders during a tumultuous time in the south.

Flow credits the two with making a lasting impact in Winston-Salem, “Their love of people and love of tennis combined to help create transformational tennis programs which crossed racial boundaries and contributed to changing the character of our city.”

The Lash-Southern Awards are presented each year during the Winston-Salem Open.

Though Mildred was an accomplished player in her own right amassing countless accolades that include nine consecutive Winston-Salem city championships, more than 85 senior championships and several national titles, her friends and loved ones say it was her mission of promoting the sport as a whole that is her true legacy.

“She was a woman of great faith, and the only other thing she believed in spreading like that was tennis. She was a tennis evangelist,” remarks Kirk.

And she leaves behind countless disciples in Winston-Salem.

The Southern family will receive friends Sunday, October 27 from 4:00 pm to 6:00 pm at Salem Funeral Home on Reynolda Road. Funeral services will be held at 11:00 am on Monday, October 28 at First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem