Anita Claeboe, 90; reached tennis milestone late in life

Mrs. Claeboe was the top US female in the 90-to-94 age bracket in 2012.
Mrs. Claeboe was the top US female in the 90-to-94 age bracket in 2012.

Three days before she died, Anita Dawson Claeboe learned that the United States Tennis Association had named her the top female tennis player in the 90-to-94 age bracket in 2012 for clay court singles play.

After being diagnosed with cancer in late 2011, she competed in two 90-and-over USTA tournaments in May 2012: the National Women’s Clay Court Championship at the Los Angeles Tennis Club and the National Senior Women’s Hard Court Championship at the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club.

Mrs. Claeboe returned home with a first-place gold tennis ball for her singles victory in Los Angeles and three second-place silver tennis balls for her single and doubles performances in La Jolla and for her doubles performance in Los Angeles.


Upon learning of the 2012 rankings, she “had a huge smile on her face,” recalled her son, Norman Keyes Jr. of Devon, Pa. “She was satisfied with it.”

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Mrs. Claeboe, who formerly taught physical education and math in Sharon, died of breast cancer March 21 in McGraw Center for Caring in Jacksonville, Fla. She was 90 and formerly lived for much of her life in Dover, Westwood, and Sharon.

She was not completely surprised by the news of her USTA ranking. Her daughter Una Davis of La Jolla, Calif., a successful tennis player for the Boston Lobsters in the 1970s, was a ball girl for the May 2012 tournaments. She let Mrs. Claeboe know the ranking might be coming.

A lifelong tennis player, Mrs. Claeboe had remained agile late in life, moving and running in ways many could not manage at that age, her son said.

“She had always been exceptionally focused on fitness throughout her life,” he said, “but more than that, the mental attitude of, ‘We can do it,’ was a constant inspiration and motivation for her.”


She was born Anita Ball Dawson in Cologne, Germany, in 1922. Her parents were stationed at the US Consulate, where her father worked.

Mrs. Claeboe was 3 when her family returned to Jacksonville, where she spent much of her childhood on the family’s plantation. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Tufts University in 1943.

That same year, she married Norman A. Keyes. They lived in New Orleans and Chestnut Hill before moving to Sharon in 1946.

There, Mrs. Claeboe began teaching physical education and eighth-grade math in the public schools. Her son said teaching was a perfect profession for his mother, who was creative, goal-driven, and hungry for knowledge.

Beginning in 1955, Mrs. Claeboe took a six-year break from teaching before joining Sharon Public Schools.


In the 1960s, Mrs. Claeboe also began organizing annual gymnastics shows for middle-school girls and boys in Sharon.

Her son noted that in an era before aerobics and music typically were combined, the exhibitions provided a perfect chance for his mother to showcase her skills as she choreographed the children’s gymnastics routines and coordinated the show itself.

“With those gymnastics shows, she was really able to think outside of the box,” he said.

Her first marriage ended in divorce, and in 1969 she married Alfred M. Claeboe, with whom she lived in Westwood and Dover. Mrs. Claeboe retired from teaching in 1976.

Always an avid tennis player, she had been a member of the Longwood Cricket Club in Brookline and the Wellesley Country Club before she moved to Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., in 1992. Mr. Claeboe died in January 2002.

In Florida, Mrs. Claeboe was an active member of several clubs, including the Trivial Pursuit High Rollers. Her son said that during those contests, his mother always managed to come up with answers to the most obscure questions.

“And more often than not,” he said, “she was right.”

A service has been held for Mrs. Claeboe, who in addition to her son and daughter leaves two other daughters, Beverley Keyes of Needham and Anne Dorian King of Maui, Hawaii; two brothers, Carl Dawson and Robert Dawson, both of Jacksonville; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

At the time Mrs. Claeboe was diagnosed with breast cancer in fall 2011 she decided she wanted to compete in tennis tournaments, and she set her sights on the 90-plus tournaments on the West Coast.

“As people get older, they think the world is really just for younger people,” her son said. “And I think my mother’s story underscores the reality that as long as we’re alive, there are goals to set and milestones to reach.”

Lauren Dezenski can be reached at