Anne Groff never got to see the house that she and her husband, Jim, envisioned when they bought a plot of land on the Outer Banks in 1981. She passed away in 1995, following a bout with cancer after 36 years of marriage.
But her legacy lives on in the good works of her husband and his wife, and through a charitable event that has touched the lives of hundreds for more than a decade.
The 15th Annual Towne Bank/Southern Insurance Agency Charity Classic Tennis Tournament, slated for Friday-Sunday, Oct. 20-22, is the primary fundraiser for Dare Hospice, a part of the Dare County Department of Health and Human Services.
“I felt like it was time to give back,” says Jim Groff, who started the tournament in 2003, after relocating from the Washington D.C., area to the Outer Banks with his second wife and regular doubles partner, Betts.
The three-day tournament takes place at Duck Woods Country Club and the Westside Athletic Club. In case of inclement weather, matches will be held indoors at Pine Island Racquet and Fitness Center. The event is open to men’s and women’s doubles teams of all skill levels, from beginners and novices up to 4.0-level competitors.
In addition to the competition, the tournament also includes a professional exhibition, auction fundraisers, and the Outer Banks Tennis Association will honor several people within the local tennis community. The pro exhibition is scheduled for 6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 21, at Duck Woods Country Club, and the public is invited. Dinner and entertainment will be held at the club, and there will be both live and silent auctions.
“From a competitive standpoint, it’s such a fun group of people and it includes players of all levels and abilities,” says Sheila Davies, who won the 4.0 division last year with doubles partner, Tanya Manibo from Swansboro. “There’s such a good mix of local people and people from out of town, who either come in to play themselves or are invited in by somebody locally.”
Davies has a unique perspective on the tournament, as a late-blooming tennis buff and a public figure. She is director of Public Health for Dare County, under whose umbrella Dare Hospice falls, and as mayor of Kill Devil Hills, she appreciates the event’s status on the sporting calendar.
“As public health director, I know what special people they are who provide hospice care every day,” she says. “This tournament helps them do the amazing work they do, whether it’s directly with patients or being supportive in the grieving and coping process. Those funds help us provide those services.”
Credit for the tournament, she said, begins with Groff.
“He is a remarkable person,” Davies said. “He’s inspiring and his vision and his generosity are remarkable. This tournament would not be in existence without Jim. It’s hard to put into words what he’s done and the impact he’s had.”
The Groffs moved to the Outer Banks in 2002, building on the land that he and Anne bought in 1981. Moved by the care that Anne received in the late stages of her battle with cancer, Jim Groff approached longtime Dare County health official Ellie Ward and said that he thought he could raise money for local hospice care with a tennis tournament. He was taught the sport by his parents and has played since age seven. He played at Union College in Schenectady, New York, and continued in the U.S. Navy, where he eventually retired as a captain with the Seabees, the service branch’s construction arm.
Ward enthusiastically gave her blessing, and at age 70, he and Betts set out to create an event in their new home. He enlisted tennis buddies he had known for years, as well as people in the community. He knocked on doors, made phone calls and solicited support from local businesses and donors.
“I blame it on some of my Navy training,” Groff says. “I never considered not being able to do something if I wanted to. I was looking for a way to give back, and it was the best way I could think of.”
After modest beginnings, the tournament grew, and in 14 years has contributed more than $240,000 to Dare Hospice. The money has helped fund its volunteer program, hospice care, and provided support for individuals and families facing terminal illness and end-of-life situations.
“People give me a lot of credit, but we had so much support from so many people,” Groff says. “Community support, business support. It was a total community effort.”
Betts, he says, concentrated on the women’s side of the tournament field and the volunteer crew as the event grew. Coincidentally, she lost her first husband to a heart attack after 36 years of marriage, and was every bit as committed to the tournament as her new husband.
“I couldn’t have done it without her,” Jim Groff says. “That’s probably an understatement.”
Groff, now 85, stepped down as tournament director three years ago, and the event was picked up by the Outer Banks Tennis Association.
“It was time,” Groff says. “It needed new blood, new ideas, new thoughts.”
The OBTA now uses part of the proceeds to fund its peer mentor program that teaches academic and life lessons through tennis. It also has outreach programs for kids in more geographically isolated areas that don’t have easy access to courts and equipment. The OBTA was recently named Community Tennis Association of the Year for North Carolina, by the U.S. Tennis Association.
Among those who will be honored at the tournament are Anthony Vucinovic of Kitty Hawk and Mya Salch of Kill Devil Hills, named male and female youth players of the year. Vucinovic is ranked No. 1 in the state among boys 10-and-under. Salch was selected as the state’s 2016 Junior Female Tennis Player of the Year by the U.S. Tennis Association, and is an active volunteer in the OBTA’s mentor program.
The tournament will also honor past OBTA president Robert Wells, OBTA Volunteer of the Year Stacy Bell, and Mentors of the Year Sammi Lilliston and Max Stabley.
Davies pointed out that the tournament is also the OBTA’s signature fundraiser.
“They do a phenomenal job of introducing kids to tennis, and they also incorporate life skills and social skills as part of their program,” Davies says. “As somebody who came to tennis in my 40s, I know that it can be a lifelong activity and this tournament is part of that.”
All because Jim and Betts Groff decided to turn heartbreak and loss into a cause.