The Courtship of Hillsboro
How tennis won the love of a little town in Southwestern New Mexico
HILLSBORO, N.M. – "Just horrible," Betsy Rauschenberger says, shaking her head. "Absolutely unplayable."
Really, really dilapidated," Anne Anders chimes in.
The two women are describing a dreary-gray, concrete tennis court that at one time existed in this tiny crosswords 80 miles north and west of Las Cruces.
How bad was the court? Its slab-like surface had more cracks than David Letterman, more weeds than Willie Nelson. The net was a loss. The court lay adjacent to what used to be Hillsboro High School and was as old as the hills that gave this crossroads its name. So old, some locals joked, that the Apache warrior Geronimo supposedly rallied here. (Average ground strokes aided by whooping cry upon impact).
Hillsboro High School closed its doors in 1942. The building, later restored, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993 and turned into the Hillsboro Community Center. It became a showpiece, a magnet for concerts and town-wide functions.
Meanwhile, the ancient tennis court remained next door, an abandoned eyesore.
Betsy Rauschenberger moved to Hillsboro in 1998. She and her husband, Rick, had been living in Las Cruces where Betsy taught physical education at Las Cruces High School.
Like a lot of newcomers, the couple settled in Hillsboro because they liked peace and quiet. "It was quaint," Betsy says. "The people were friendly and welcoming."
Not always was Hillsboro a tranquil spot with odd charm. More than a century ago, it was rip-snorting mining center on the edge of the Black Range. The saloons were rowdy, the whore house busy and fights with fists or guns not uncommon on the main street, now State Highway 152.
Today, Hillsboro attracts much gentler folk—artists, writers and retirees, many of whom have turned down Santa Fe and Taos for a smaller, funkier enclave. Counting those in the ranch developments south of Hillsboro, about 300 residents reside in the area.
"We have people come through and spend 10 minutes here and say ‘How can I live here?’" says Roger Gits, who writes shorts stories.
It’s not easy to live in the Hillsboro. The town has lost its only grocery store and gas station. The post office hangs on, but faces abbreviated hours.
Driven to do something
A native of Milwaukee, Wis., Betsy Rauschenberger, 66, wiry and energetic, played tennis as a high schooler. But not until she had lived in Las Cruces a while did she get back in the game. She shook the rust off by hitting with pro Sally Walton at Picacho Hills Country Club. In time she participated in USTA leagues and worked her way to a 4.0 rating.
When she and her husband relocated to Hillsboro, Betsy continued to play league tennis in Las Cruces. During those long drives to the city she often wished she could play in Hillsboro.
Some years back a few townspeople tried to gain money for a new tennis net. A donation box was placed in a public spot but it gained few contributions.
"No one in Hillsboro seemed to be interested in tennis," Anne Anders remembers.
No one except Betsy Rauschenberger.
Learning that there was some grant money that had been put aside for a new tennis court, Rauschenberger ran for the Hillsboro Community Center Board. Doing that, she thought, she might be able to make some progress.
The Community Center Board is Hillsboro’s town council. All changes in town must be approved by this body. When Rauschenberger mentioned another tennis court to the board, she was told no one uses the old court. No one uses it, Rauschenberg answered, because it is unusable. If it were replaced, Rauschenberger said, people might use it.
What people? came the answer.
Tenacious. That best describes Betsy Rauschenberger’s tennis game. Whether chasing down an opponent’s shot or rushing the net she resembles a woman racing into a burning building to pull someone out.
Such determination got her elected president HCC Board of Directors. In that post she found additional grant money from the State Legislature. Even so, the feeling among some board members seemed to be: Who needs a new tennis court?
As with many things in Hillsboro, change is hard to accept. For example, a building on the main street used to hold the S-Bar-X, a venerable drinking establishment. That same building was also once a barbershop.
Both of those businesses are long gone, but not forgotten. In their place is an eatery, the Barbershop Café, and the Motel S-Bar-X.
Down the road, another building used to be a general store. That place now just serves food but calls itself the General Store Café.
Old-timers in Hillsboro are protective of their little community and can get cranky when you least expect it. Beginning in 1968, Hillsboro annually held a successful apple festival. Visitors came from across the country for the Labor Day weekend event. In 2007, the community board voted to end the festival. Too many people, too few apple orchards.
Finally, a finish
Look, Betsy Rauschenberger told the Community Center Board, the site of the old tennis court won’t be changed. The new court would be put on top of the old one. The Community Center Board seemed agreeable to that. More grant money was raised and in 2005 the installation of a new court was finally given the OK. Work began by a contractor from Truth or Consequences.
"People started calling it ‘Betsy’s Court,’" says Anders.
"No, no," Rauschenberg says. "It’s always been Hillsboro’s court."
About this time Rauschenberger decided to return to education. She stayed in Hillsboro and took a teaching job in Hatch, N.M., 40 miles away. She worked there for two years.
When the tennis court finally was completed in 2007, Rauschenberger dropped by for a look. All that awful cracked gray concrete had been hauled away. A new, gritty green surface had been set down. She liked the extra room behind the baselines, the new net, the new net posts.
There were some things she didn’t like, but knowing how tough it was to get this far, she decided not to complain. At least loudly.
"I know Betsy worked very, very hard to get things going there," says Don Hemingway, president of the USTA’s Southern New Mexico District. "She’s a doer."
With more time on her hands now, Rauschenberger set up tennis lessons on Wednesday mornings for anyone who might be interested. Word soon spread and people came by—those retired and those still painting or writing or doing whatever filled their days.
Many had never played tennis at all. Others hadn’t swung a racket in decades.
Those who had never played, tended to drift away. The lessons have since stopped and a nucleus of eight stalwarts now shows up for doubles on Wednesdays and Sundays. All eight play in the annual Hillsboro Tennis Tournament, a round-robin affair that has been held four times. The eight have to play or there wouldn’t be a tournament.
On Sunday mornings, the tennis regulars laugh, sip coffee, argue, razz each other and laugh some more. Every few games someone rotates into the foursome on the court.
"When I came out here, I was in horrible shape," says Gits the writer. "I could barely bend over and pick up a racket."
"We thought he’d have a heart attack," says Nolan Winkler. An artist from California, Winkler hadn’t played tennis for 35 years before she moved to Hillsboro. She relearned the game from Rauschenberger and then joined the USTA.
"I don’t compete," she says. "I wanted the T-shirt and the bag."
Don Mawhinney, 70, played a good amount of tennis as young man back in New York. He retired to Hillsboro four years ago after working for years on Wall Street. "I wanted to avoid the snow and humidity," he says.
When he arrived at the Hillsboro court one recent Sunday morning, 40 minutes after other players, Mawhinney was carrying two tennis rackets and wearing a New Rochelle (N.Y.) Tennis Club jacket.
Gits immediately grumps, "I don’t think it should be a privilege to come late, as Don is doing, and jump right on to the court."
Mawhinney laughs as if he's heard that before. He says he could get better tennis competition in Las Cruces, but he is happy to play here. "I’ve seen the level of play here in last two years double and triple."
When Mawhinny gets on the court, it’s soon clear he’s a level above the others. "He’s like a ballet dancer on the court," marvels Winkler "We call him our Federer. Can’t call him our Roger."
"Oh, stop," says Roger Gits. "Listen, I may not move well but I know every single strength and weakness of those who play here. Trouble is I can’t do anything about it."
Joanna Schaefer came to Hillsboro three years ago from San Francisco. She paints pictures 17 miles south of the community. "It’s six miles of dirt and 11 miles of pavement." Even so she wouldn’t miss a Sunday morning of tennis.
"This is," she points to the spirited doubles game going on in front of her, "the most fun you can have in Hillsboro."
COUNTERPUNCHER is an online exclusive series written by Toby Smith, former Albuquerque Journal reporter, three-time USTA Southwest Media Excellence winner and past Section Marketing Committee member. Smith knows the landscape of tennis well, especially here in the Southwest, writing on tennis for more than 40 years.
To reach Toby, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or .
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