A UNC grad and longtime tennis coach at Saint Mary’s School in Raleigh, Jones used her talents to inspire generations of athletes.
by A.J. Carr
It’s an old, weathered $2 tennis racquet, yet it’s perhaps the most treasured memento amid Mary Lou Jones’ vast collection of plaques and trophies. The racquet was the 16th birthday present from her mother, a gift that started Jones toward a lifetime love for a “lifetime” sport.
It’s with this rustic racquet that she practiced hitting off the wall at Sanford’s recreation courts, where she often sat on the hood of a car and watched the men play. One day, the guys needed a substitute and asked Jones to join them. Playing barefooted, she won her match and was invited to become a permanent member of a male league team.
Until then, Jones had spent many youthful days developing into a high school basketball star and toiling long hours on the family farm, picking cotton for a penny a pound.
With a strong work ethic, farm-girl grit and God-given athletic ability, Jones burgeoned into a tennis champion, winning more than 200 tournaments. She had a big game, and won singles, doubles and mixed doubles matches and earned a No. 1 doubles ranking in the South.
She attended college at Pfeiffer University, played tennis for one year at Stetson University and finished at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a bachelor’s degree in physical education and a master’s in education.
At Carolina, she contacted Don Skakle, the venerable UNC men’s tennis coach, and asked him to give her lessons. Jones would skip lunch and use her meal money to pay for the instruction. Her hunger was to excel.
On the court, Jones vexed opponents with solid ground strokes and aggressive net play, and reveled in pounding winners.
“I would smash it and say, Good Bye!” says Jones, now age 90.
Jones had an insatiable passion for the sport and indefatigable drive. At a tournament in Rocky Mount, she played 131 singles, doubles and mixed doubles games in one day, making up for rained-out matches.
While competing as a player, her interest in teaching emerged in an unusual, but defining moment. After overwhelming an inferior player, Jones called her opponent to the net and said: I really want to help you with your tennis.
“That was when I decided I wanted to teach,” says Jones, who despite being a fierce competitor has a compassionate spirit.
“She is such an unselfish person,” says Mary Jo Parks, who as a young girl in Sanford took tennis lessons from Jones. “She was always trying to make other people have a happy life.”
After graduating from UNC in 1955, Jones coached tennis and basketball for six years at Charlotte Myers Park High, winning a city championship in the latter sport.
In 1961, she went to Saint Mary’s College (now Saint Mary’s School) in Raleigh, where her neon name grew even brighter over 37 years as an iconic coach, much-admired faculty member and Dean of Students. She also started the tennis program and produced powerhouse high school and junior college teams. After eight straight perfect seasons, Jones, along with philanthropist Alice Eure, raised money to add two more courts to the four on campus.
While at Saint Mary’s School, Jones was chosen by the City of Raleigh as an ambassador to Israel, where she spent one summer living with a local family and working in the fields. “It changed my life,” says Jones. She shared her experience at churches and various clubs after returning to Raleigh.
Back to Saint Mary’s and tennis: Jones’ teams compiled a combined 330-95 record and her high school girls recorded 12 undefeated seasons, which included numerous championships. The school didn’t give athletic scholarships, but Jones ran a summer tennis camp for 24 years, and many of the girls who attended returned to play for her at Saint Mary’s.
They beat teams from the big schools — UNC, North Carolina State University, Wake Forest University and East Carolina University — sometimes in dominating fashion.
As player and coach, Jones, who is in the North Carolina Tennis Hall of Fame and Saint Mary’s Hall of Fame, simply had that winning touch.
“She demanded a lot, was hands-on,” says Margaret McGlohon, a former Saint Mary’s player. “She gave it her all and probably got more out of us than we imagined.
She had a steady, calming presence. Her words and actions could motivate. She inspired the best to be better and taught beginners the fundamentals. She clicked with everybody. She is a special person — coach, mentor and friend.”
Anna Neal Blanchard, a contributor to the 1976 unbeaten team who later played JV tennis at Duke University, describes Jones as a good “technician” and much more. “She was a maverick, ahead of her time, very innovative,” Blanchard says, noting that Jones was the first coach to use video as a method of analyzing players.
Jones also required her team to read Psycho-Cybernetics and encouraged her P.E. students to attend matches. She set up a training table in the cafeteria and enforced a strict “No Smoking, No Drinking” rule. She established a curfew and had campus security check on the players.
“She was feisty,” Blanchard says. “We were scared of her, but scared in a good way. We loved her.”
Later in her career, Jones added golf to her agenda, teaching her friend and fabled pro Peggy Kirk Bell at Pine Needles Resort in Southern Pines. One of her pupils wrote this thank you note: “You are a great teacher and those touched by your warm spirit know it.”
Jones, ever the teacher, would offer golf instruction most anywhere. Once she gave her surgeon a lesson while she was a patient in the hospital.
In retirement, Jones stayed on the go — at the tennis court, at the golf course, riding her tractor and bush-hogging on her farm, worshiping at church, serving in the community and driving her 1955 “Carolina Blue” Ford truck.
“People would yell, Stop! Stop! when I rode through town,” she says. “I thought I had a flat tire, but they wanted to see the truck!”
In recent times, her pace has been slowed by health issues. “I’m in the battle of my life now,” she says. The good news is that she’s a fighter and person of strong faith.
Throughout life, Jones has earned awards and accolades galore. The list includes two Halls of Fame, recognition as Distinguished Women of North Carolina, Outstanding Women in Agriculture, Who’s Who of American Women, North Carolina Tennis Pro of the Year and, in 2022, she was awarded the Order of the Long Leaf Pine.
But Jones did more than win championships and collect trophies. She taught thousands of athletes to hone their skills, along with many other life lessons.
“I think all the success has been about God giving her the talents, work ethic and drive to accomplish great things,” says Mary Virginia Swain, who played on Jones’ championship teams. “That gave her a platform to become a teacher — to serve, touch and shape the lives of others.”
Swain’s comments amplify what Jones calls her “motto,” a phrase that’s posted on a sign above the door to the den in her Sanford home: “True success is in the lives you’ve changed, not what you obtain.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of WALTER magazine.