Giant racquet honors community tennis supporter

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Dave Nelson touches up the letters on the racquet at the Rich Thompson Memorial Terrace on April 18. (Ben Kibbey/The Western News)

A memorial to late Libby resident and community tennis supporter Rich Thompson has been erected between the tennis courts he helped build.

“Rich was a very big man with a very big heart who was a real asset to our community,” said Dave Nelson of U Serve Libby, Inc., a nonprofit that supports community tennis in Libby and on whose board Thompson served. “We felt it was appropriate to have a memorial to him at the courts.”

The memorial to Thompson, who died in 2016 of cancer, is an oversized tennis racquet that was built over the winter and recently finished with a paint job that had to wait for spring weather.

Thompson “was a big helper to keep tennis and golf going” during times when those activities were dropped from local schools, Nelson explained. Thompson often loaned his vans to shuttle athletes to and from sporting events and sometimes drove the students himself, Nelson said.

Thompson built tennis courts for a living, and when it came time to build six for Libby in 2008, “he not only built them at a reduced cost, but loaned money (to U Serve Libby) as well,” Nelson said, a loan the nonprofit was able to repay through fundraising about the time of Thompson’s death.

The City of Libby contributed $206,800 in in-kind commitments to construction of the courts, and leases the 1.52-acre site near City Hall to the nonprofit. The courts are used by local schools and are open to the public.

Befitting a man known for his community service, the building of Thompson’s memorial was a community effort. Nelson said staff at the Central Alternative School came up with the concept of the large tennis racquet, and teacher and artist Todd Berget took ownership of the project. Nelson helped Berget design the racquet, and Montana Machine formed its frame and ordered screen mesh for its strings.

“The Alternative School paid for the strings, and others in the community — Granite Concrete and Junior Johnson — have helped cover the expense of the other materials as well as the paint,” Nelson said.

Berget cut out the letters that spell “Rich Thompson Memorial Terrace,” and his father Charlie donated the well-casing pipe for the racquet handle. Montana Machine and the younger Berget built the racquet at no charge.

Nelson and his wife Kathy painted the racquet on April 18 as a final step in the racquet’s construction.

About the time of his death, Thompson had been working on resurfacing the courts. Nelson said he managed to complete the lower three courts but not the upper three.

Thompson, sensing he wouldn’t be able to finish the task, donated materials to his friend and occasional colleague Loren Koch of Bozeman and asked if he could complete the work.

“I said ‘you betcha,’” Koch said Wednesday, adding that he will come to Libby likely in August or September.

It’ll be an opportunity to remember his friend, whom Koch said he met through his father and business partner.

“Rich was an easy going guy for the most part, (filled with) great humor,” Koch said. “I always think of him, especially when I’m working.”

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