Fort Wayne tennis inspiration Don Offerle has passed

Long-time Fort Wayne tennis teaching pro Don Offerle passed away Tuesday afternoon. (By Blake Sebring of News-Sentinel.com)

Long-time Fort Wayne tennis teaching pro Don Offerle passed away Tuesday afternoon. (By Blake Sebring of News-Sentinel.com)

Fort Wayne’s “everyman” tennis pro Don Offerle passed away Monday at age 55. After surviving and recovering from a horrific bicycling accident in 2015 that put him into a coma with a brain injury, this time he could not beat pancreatic or liver cancer.

Offerle was a Bishop Dwenger student who wanted to stay closer to a girl over the summer, so he applied to be a lifeguard Pine Valley Country Club where she hung out. There was no opening, but the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department had one and hired him. The department needed somebody to vacuum the pool at 7 a.m., so he said he’d do it. Then the department needed somebody to run the recreation tennis leagues at Swinney Park, so he did that, too.

He became known as the guy who would volunteer for everything and get the job done well. He’d work from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. and sometimes invite friends to play tennis until midnight. He wasn’t any good, usually getting smoked, but he always had fun. Desperate to improve, he asked for advice from teaching pro Tim Sullivan, who suggested books by Vic Braden.

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Then someone came by asking for a lesson, and Offerle figured he’d try, using the principles from the books. The player was impressed and suggested Offerle to others.

After graduating from Bishop Dwenger in 1981, Offerle read a story in IPFW’s The Communicator about the new tennis team looking for players. Sullivan happened to be the coach. Despite all his passion, Offerle still wasn’t very good, serving most often as an extra. In fact, he never played until one night when the opponent showed up with an extra player. When Offerle asked for advice, Sullivan simply said, “Don’t get hurt.”

Offerle worked hard and eventually improved enough to play No. 2 singles for IPFW. Then he coached at Fort Wayne Country Club for a year before becoming the coach at Harding High School for seven years and then at New Haven High School for four more. Like himself as a player, he’d take hopeless situations and help players improve more than they dreamed and somehow win a few matches as a team. He could convince anyone to give the game a try.

While keeping up the private lessons, Offerle became the original pro at Autumn Ridge Golf Club and then at Cherry Hill Golf Club. He didn’t use traditional instruction, but he was successful. His love of the sport was more than infectious: It was addictive. He could make people believe they could improve and they would. There may have been others who loved tennis as much as Offerle, but no one loved it more.

After the bicycle accident where he landed on his head, Offerle was a patient at medical facilities for almost three months. Friends kept praying, even gathering on the Autumn Ridge courts where a “Pray for Donny O” sign was arranged on the fence. Denise Brower started a Facebook page, “Donny O, he’s my pro… fan and prayer club,” which attracted more than 400 members. He turned that experience into an opportunity to ask others to consider wearing helmets while riding.

How do people ever know how blessed they are until they come up against something serious and everybody they know steps up?

“It’s only because of those prayers that I’m still here,” Offerle said in January 2016. “Prayer definitely works. I was a very good believer before all this happened. I even talked about God and even got yelled at once for bringing up Christ during a lesson. My faith after this accident has totally increased. The Lord was my savior before, and now he’s my best friend.”

Calling will be Monday, December 18, fro 2-4 p.m. and 5:30-7:30 at Fairhaven Funeral Home. Funeral Services will be held Tuesday, Dec. 19 at The Chapel at 10 a.m.

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