Hannah Howell didn’t even know how to play tennis four years ago; now she’s president of the Conway Area Tennis Association.
She credits her in-laws, Tenny and Ida Howell, for teaching her the game.
“They’ve played all their lives,” she said. The couple moved to Conway from Fort Smith to be close to their two grandchildren, Brody, 7, and Emery, who turned 6 on April 13.
Howell, who is a pharmacist, and her husband, Dr. Jay Howell, an orthopedic surgeon, met when he was in medical school and she was in pharmacy school at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock.
“I always loved chemistry, and I knew I wanted to do some sort of medical profession,” she said.
Howell said her grandfather was a physician, and her aunt was a pharmacist, both in Wynne.
“I didn’t want to be a physician; I’m not a blood sort of person,” Howell said, laughing.
She and her husband lived in Pennsylvania for five years during his residency — where she taught at a pharmacy school in Erie — and a year in Birmingham,
Alabama, for his hand fellowship. They moved to Conway seven years ago when he joined the Conway Orthopaedic & Sports Medicine Center.
When they had children, she decided to stop working as a full-time pharmacist, but she fills in at MedCare Pharmacy in Conway.
Howell had time to learn tennis, and her in-laws were eager to teach her. Howell said she’d load up the kids, pack snacks and drinks, and meet her in-laws at the tennis courts in Laurel Park.
“One would play tennis with me for 30 minutes; then they’d switch,” she said. “One would play at the park with the kids; one would play tennis with me.”
Howell, 38, also enrolled in a tennis-apprentice program with Kelli Holmes, the women’s tennis coach at Hendrix College, who is also a member of the Conway Area Tennis Association.
“I practiced and practiced and got better,” Howell said. She decided to enter a tournament in Little Rock, where she didn’t know a soul.
“I drove down by myself and played in this tournament. I didn’t know the cool tennis lingo. I felt like everyone knew each other,” she said.
But she won her division.
“I kind of met a few people at that tournament and jumped right in,” she said. “That’s what I tell people; just sign up. I just signed up one day and said, ‘I’m just going to do it.’”
The dearth of tennis courts in Conway and poor condition of the ones the city had didn’t go unnoticed by her in-laws.
They were in luck. Howell joined the tennis association about the time it started lobbying for new courts. A grand opening was held last week for a $2.6 million, eight-court Conway Tennis Complex in Laurel Park. It is south of the Conway High School campus.
Howell said she didn’t have anything to do with the new courts, but she did help breathe new life into the tennis association.
Marilynn Nabholz, chairwoman of the facility project, said Howell was the right woman to lead the association.
“Hannah stepped up to lead our organization at a critical time,” Nabholz said. “She has a calm, steady, methodical way of leading a group and is always quick to ask what she can do to help, then follow through.”
Howell said Nabholz and others worked hard to make the complex a reality.
The complex has eight outdoor courts, a backboard, three buildings — two viewing/meeting buildings and a pro shop, which has a lobby, office and storage room, as well as bathrooms and showers. Conway High School’s tennis team will use the facility.
People who want to play on the Conway Tennis Complex courts have to enter through the pro shop, which will be locked overnight.
“You can’t just step onto a court; you have to go through the pro shop,” which will be open until about 9:30 at night, then closed. “It has a backboard, so you can just hit by yourself, which is nice.”
The original goal of the tennis association was a two-story, indoor facility. The project was scaled back after concerns about it taking up too much green space in the park, as well as the cost.
Howell said she is not disappointed at all with the final results.
“I am just thrilled; I think it’s wonderful. It’s a state-of-the-art facility,” Howell said. It’s a far cry from what the city had, she said.
“You couldn’t reserve any courts; you couldn’t have a league because you couldn’t guarantee a court,” she said, despite courts at Hendrix and the University of Central Arkansas.
“We formed Conway teams, but we played in Little Rock,” she said. Instead of 35 minutes to Burns Park, it’s seven minutes from her house to the new tennis complex.
She said her friends like to play tennis, hang out and talk afterward, and that will be easier and more fun in Conway.
She’s gearing up for the first tournament at the new complex, too.
The Conway Regional Tennis Classic is scheduled for Friday, Saturday and April 29.
“There’s a lot of excitement in Little Rock and North Little Rock about it, actually the whole tennis community in central Arkansas. It’s the first in the Arkansas Cup series; you can accumulate points. For people who do play tennis, that’s a draw,” she said. “And some who don’t play tennis will be excited because they never play tournaments here.”
She said nearby restaurants and shops will benefit from the tournaments that the complex will bring.
“I think there are going to be more people wanting to play than there are courts,” she said.
“It’s a way to stay healthy, and a lot of people are interested in their kids playing, which will feed into the high school.”
When Howell grew up in Wynne, there was a small high school tennis team, although she played basketball and softball and ran track.
Her children already play tennis.
“The kids and I play in the driveway,” she said, and they have attended tennis clinics.
Howell said she talked her husband into playing, too.
“I begged him and begged him, ‘Come on, start playing with me,’” she said. He finally played in a tournament and got hooked, she said.
“He plays more than me, and he’s better than me, but that’s just the way it is,” she said, laughing. They’ll often take a weekend and travel to play in a tournament and enjoy the sights.
The new complex is a beginning for Conway, and she believes the demand will mean more new courts will come.
She’ll pass on the title of association president next year.
Tennis will continue to be part of her life.
As the community helper, Howell started teaching tennis last week (April 16) in a four-week pilot program at Woodrow Cummins Elementary School in Conway.
She and the school both received a $1,000 grant from the United States Tennis Association’s Net Generation Initiative. The money will be used to pay for rackets and tennis balls.
Tennis will be part of a physical-education unit, and she will give lessons to children after school on a taped-off area outside.
Howell said she received the equipment, including 20 rackets, earlier this month. The school also received equipment.
“It’s amazing,” she said.
Howell may be late to the game, but she’s making up for lost time and loving it.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or email@example.com.