Grudge Match

Feuding Miami Beach tennis instructors Richard Johnston and Howard Kaufman need to find a new racket, before there's another arrest

Kaufman refused to plea-bargain to the charges. The city settled the case on December 10 rather than proceed to trial, which would have drawn more unwanted media attention. City officials agreed to drop the charges in exchange for Kaufman's waiving any right to sue the city.

A review of all city documents relating to the squabble reveals a file of approximately 150 pages of memorandums and correspondence that show the true extent of Kaufman's transgressions at the tennis courts and the city's inability to budge him. At the heart of the conflict is a classic grudge match between Kaufman and Johnston, two tennis instructors with very different personalities, fighting for the attention of the kids. Like Kaufman, Johnston professes an intense interest in children. "I can tell you this much," Johnston said in one of his few comments for this story. "I love the kids. I love them with a passion, and have helped a zillion of them."

Both purport to be the best role model/tennis instructor for young people. Kaufman cites the accomplishments of his students, most notably Encina and Randy Raskin, who won state honors and earned tennis scholarships to Miami-Dade Community College and Auburn University. Johnston counters that he, unlike Kaufman, has actually played tennis professionally (on the satellite circuit) and is certified to teach.

Both criticize the other as an incompetent teacher and a menace to youngsters. Johnston is insensitive and selfish with kids, Kaufman rails. Kaufman fosters disrespect and encourages kids to flout the rules and regulations of the park, argues Johnston.

Now many call the pair petty, vindictive, and unsportsmanlike. Their feud has deteriorated into taunts, heckles, tits for tats, plots, trickery, and shouting matches, all of which have factionalized the park and disturbed the peace.

One of Johnston's few youthful supporters, fifteen-year-old Leo Figueira, claims some of Kaufman's "hoodlums" have threatened to beat him up if he didn't drop Johnston as a coach and join Kaufman. Figueira says Kaufman "bribes" poor kids with money, candy, tennis shoes, and racquets. "He's jealous because he's not the tennis pro here -- he wants power. I think it's quite disgusting," Figueira says. "Richard stands for principle. He's the manager who enforces the rules, and Howard tells the kids, 'Fuck him, don't listen to him.'"

For years Johnston had been asking his bosses to terminate Kaufman's volunteer status and to prohibit him from teaching kids at the park. Kaufman has called and written city officials dozens of times to complain about Johnston's management style.

"Mr. Kaufman's difficult relationship with the Parks and Recreation Department has become legendary," former City Manager Roger Carlton wrote to Mayor Gelber. "The bottom line of this situation is that Mr. Kaufman's forceful personality, in conjunction with his dedication to helping youth and his inability to adjust from being a business executive to a volunteer, continuously strains relationships. [But] I do not question his good heart and motivations at all."

From his twelfth-floor office suite on Lincoln Road, Kaufman has a view north over the convention center, west to the bay, and east to the ocean. His office is paper-messy and cluttered with boxes and computer parts. On the walls are framed photographs of his daughters, pictures of him posing at charitable events (including one with Jerry Lewis), and a couple of him on a tennis court with youth teams.

He has a proprietary air and a cocky manner; he's likely to kick a Wilson tennis shoe up on the desk and another on a chair. A floppy tennis hat, his signature, matches the color of his shock-white mustache. Trim, strong, and of medium height, Kaufman can be engaging and articulate one minute, blustery the next. He talks like a tough from the streets of Philadelphia, where he was beaten up by a gang of boys in his youth because of his Jewish faith. He's still a scrapper.

For many years in Miami Beach, Kaufman has been accustomed to getting his way. In the Seventies he took a stand against sex education being taught to his daughter's sixth-grade class and successfully had her removed from the class -- the only parent to do so. In the Eighties he helped spearhead the successful anti-casino effort, debating in public against legalized gambling. He was also an advocate for controversial developments like the Rebecca Towers senior citizens' home and the then-new convention center. Cultivating few allies and making many enemies, he was nevertheless influential. Not only was he a civic hellion, Kaufman also worked with many charitable organizations, including presiding over the South Florida Red Cross fundraising drive in the Sixties for the burgeoning state of Israel.

Kaufman's involvement in tennis began in December 1985, after a serious disagreement with the management of Miami Beach's Bayshore Golf Course. After failing in his annual effort, as president of the golf association, to stop green fees from being raised, he vowed never to play golf there again -- which he had been doing every day for twenty years -- until new management took over. The next day at about 4:00 p.m. Kaufman drove from his mid-Miami Beach home to North Shore Park. He saw two thirteen-year-old boys playing tennis and, ever gregarious, introduced himself and gave them pointers. His own proficiency was at the novice level, but no matter -- "Forget about it," he likes to say. He knew the game and understood children. An agreement he struck with then-assistant city manager Ron Rumbaugh allowed him free use of courts to teach children whose families could not afford professional lessons. Also, under the terms of the written agreement, students would be referred to Kaufman by "city tennis personnel," he would be allowed use of lights for one hour, and the agreement could be terminated at any time.

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