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Remembering Hattie

Through her love of tennis, constant kindness and unyielding willingness to lend a helping hand to the youth, Harriet “Hattie” Somerville is fondly remembered.

“She loved her friends, loved her tennis and loved her family,” Somerville’s husband John said Wednesday. “She loved people. She always had a nice smile on her face.”

Somerville died Aug. 6 at Wilcox Memorial Hospital in Lihue after suffering a head injury from a fall. She was 81.

“Really, it’s a huge loss for our family,” said Somerville’s daughter Betsy Purpura. “She was one great lady. That’s for sure. … She was a great mom and a great friend.”

Born on Feb. 1, 1934, in Paia, Maui, Somerville moved to Oahu and graduated from Punahou School where she was a two-sport athlete — among them was tennis.

After attending Briarcliff College in New York, she eventually returned to Hawaii where she continued playing tennis at a top level for decades. Somerville is also remembered as the matriarch of one of the most influential tennis families in the state.

“Every member of the family has been involved in some way with tennis. John played in college,” said United States Tennis Association Hawaii executive director Ron Romano. “He started, along with Hattie, all the kids in tennis. They had four kids. … The kids were always top players in the state as juniors and adult players.”

Among her many accomplishments on the tennis court, she and Purpura won three mother-daughter national championships, the most recent being the 2006 National Senior Mother and Daughter Grass Court Championship in Rhode Island.

“She was always a gracious competitor. She was always complimenting her opponent on a good shot, but at the same time she had incredible focus,” Purpura said. “That’s what won her a lot of matches.”

Somerville was inducted in the USTA Hawaii Pacific Tennis Hall of Fame in 2004.

“I can remember when she was inducted. It was a great event. Hattie was recognized with the player award. It was a packed house. Hattie had three minutes to accept the award,” Romano said. “She was so excited about talking about tennis in Hawaii, 48 minutes later she completed the acceptance speech. It was a moment well-deserved.”

Somerville eventually made Kauai her home. For the past 18 years, she was the tennis professional at the Poipu Kai Tennis Club.

“She used to be in the shop because she was stringing rackets. We talked at length. We probably talked more than she was stringing rackets,” said Rosemary Cooper, a tennis attendant at Poipu Kai and a colleague of Somerville. “She would tell me stories and we would laugh and joke — sometimes to the point where John would call and ask if she was done with that racket.”

“It will never be the same without Hattie, that’s for sure. A lot of people have said the same thing,” she added.

In addition to being remembered as an accomplished tennis player and a loving mother, Somerville was always willing to help local kids.

“She believed in Hawaii’s youth. She always had an eye for caring for children who didn’t have any place to go after school,” said Somerville’s daughter Hannah Sirois. “For decades, she taught children how to play tennis after school. Other than the gift of learning a sport, those children were able to develop life skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives.”

Sirois added she believes that is so because of Somerville’s own personal turmoil.

“She was living on Oahu when Pearl Harbor was bombed,” she said. “She, as a youngster, had to adapt to ferocious change. In my opinion, having a life-altering event at a young age can be very disruptive. She wanted to give back to children to soften rough edges.”

John, Purpura and Sirois each mentioned Somerville’s love of Hawaiian music.

“She loved everything about Hawaii — particularly our music and the way of caring for community,” Sirois said. “Hawaiian music has a way of bringing people together, particularly at the end of the day strumming the ukulele. Laughing and enjoying each other at the purest level. That was what she loved about music. Music to her was just universal.”

Somerville is survived by her husband John, daughters Sirois and Purura and sons Henry and Jim. A Celebration of Life will be held at 3 p.m. Sept. 13 at Poipu Kai Tennis Club.

The family has requested in lieu of flowers, kindly make a donation to Kahiau: A Tennis Foundation in memory of Somerville. Mail to: Kahiau: A Tennis Foundation, 392 Ward Ave. Suite 490, Honolulu, HI 96814. Make checks payable to Kahiau: A Tennis Foundation.

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