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Wellesley mentor being inducted into USTA New England Hall of Fame

Five years after graduating from Yale, Newton native Larry Rice defeated tennis legend Bill Tilden in the semifinals of the 1924 Rhode Island Clay Court championships.

Rice recalled to friends that he was so exhilarated he couldn’t sleep that night, and had nothing left for the championship final.

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But for four-plus decades after moving to Wellesley in 1931, Rice had boundless energy, serving as a coach and mentor to more than a thousand young athletes.

He taught them to play hockey on Rockridge Pond, and to swing a tennis racket on the court he built at his home on Cypress Street and at Camp Taconnet, across the water from his summer place in the Belgrade Lakes region of Maine.

His teams were called the Wellesley Tigers, predecessors to Little League baseball and PeeWee hockey squads, and they more than held their own against teams from the area’s private schools.

‘Coaching boys to do their best was his life’s true calling.’

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“I first met Larry at the age of 10 when he was my tennis and hockey coach,” said Tom Warren, who remained close to Rice until his death at age 94 in 1992.

“He always looked for the best in people, and he made an immediate and lasting impression on me,’’ Warren said.

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“He was a significant role model and instilled invaluable teachings in my life.’’

Rice, a lifelong bachelor, has not been forgotten by his extended family.

On Saturday, he will be posthumously inducted to the US Tennis Association/New England Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I. Warren will accept on his behalf, and Westborough’s Peter Allen, who nominated Rice, will deliver opening remarks.

Allen is chairman of regional hall of fame’s selection committee, and is also a member.

Allen was the top-ranked 13-year-old singles and doubles player in New England when Rice took the Framingham youth under his wing in the 1950s.

Warren, who went on to play hockey and tennis at Belmont Hill School, started an annual scholarship at Wellesley High in Rice’s memory, an effort supported by more than 50 of Rice’s protégés.

A teacher at Rivers Country Day School and an accomplished architect who traveled around the world, Rice won the Massachusetts state singles title seven times, was runner-up five times, and was ranked as high as fourth nationally in 1922 playing out of Longwood Cricket Club in Chestnut Hill.

In 1978, Rice was one of the first recipients of the Wellesley Award, recognizing his years of dedicated service to youth in the town.

He continued to play competitive tennis well into his 80s, and never forgave one opponent for taking advantage of his creaky knees.

“Larry told me about that match,’’ said Warren, who coached Dover-Sherborn youth hockey for many years and now resides in Dublin, N.H. “He said, ‘That old goat drop-shotted me the whole time.’ ”

Allen, former coach of the Westborough High boys’ tennis team and a highly ranked 65-and-over doubles player, said Rice’s recognition is long overdue.

“If the hall had existed before 1990,’’ said Allen, “there is no doubt Larry would have been recognized and inducted during his lifetime.

“I was one of his ‘summer tennis boys’ in Maine,’’ added Allen. “Coaching boys to do their best was his life’s true calling. I still think of him whenever I hit the ‘roundhouse serve’ to the deuce side, which he taught me eagerly on his court.’’

Rice (Newton High, class of 1915) was a quiet and reserved individual. A member of three varsity teams at Yale that compiled a 19-1-1 record, he was also fiercely competitive.

“He taught us to never give up,” said Warren. “Once when I was captain at Belmont Hill, I was down one set, five games, and 40-love to a ranked Massachusetts player.

“I could hear Larry encouraging me, and four hours later I finally won.’’

Warren and former Princeton University All-American hockey captain Hank Bothfeld were Rice’s neighbors.

“Larry also coached us in baseball and football, and he was successful because he took a no-nonsense, common sense approach combined with a great sense of humor,’’ said Bothfeld, who played for the 1955 United States squad at the World Hockey Championships.

“My father, Henry, was very close to Larry. He introduced all of us to tennis and I fell in love with hockey because of him,’’ added the 83-year-old Bothfeld, who resides in Warner, N.H., and still takes his family on nostalgic trips to Belgrade Lakes.

He recalled playing on a pond, 15 players on a side, in a game set up by Rice.

“If you wanted to keep the puck, you’d better learn to stickhandle. He was the perfect coach,’’ said Bothfeld, who coached boys’ youth hockey and girls’ youth soccer in Wellesley.

Wellesley High boys’ tennis coach Brooks Goddard said Rice’s support was unconditional.

“He was available to anyone, and loved going to the Hunnewell Courts later in his life, setting up his chair and watching our team play,’’ said Goddard.

Rice symbolically watches over the Hunnewell Courts on Washington Street to this day. His name is engraved in stone adjacent to Court No.1.

The inscription reads: “A forever friend of Wellesley Tennis.’’

Marvin Pave can be reached at marvin.pave@rcn.com.

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