Grudge Match

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

The first sign of discontent with Kaufman came one month before Johnston joined as manager. In May 1990, 51 adults and children petitioned the city for Kaufman's ouster as coach. Even his stalwart friend Jack Bennett signed the petition. The tennis players charged that Kaufman was an unqualified and uncredentialed instructor, discriminated against kids of lesser ability, didn't teach proper discipline or etiquette, and never attended the team's matches.

The petition ended with a plea to "make Howard Kaufman pay a membership fee and for lights if he wants to use the courts, like every other person in North Shore Park." The recreation director at the time, William Irvine, acted immediately and canceled the agreement with Kaufman. But in the first of several refusals to relinquish his coaching role without a fight, Kaufman wrote Irvine and charged that the petition's accusations were outright lies. He called it a fabricated product of one disgruntled parent. Kaufman told Irvine that he did not know the petitioners and questioned whether they were "legitimate residents," since no addresses were given. Irvine apparently relented because Kaufman continued to teach, although no letter has ever been filed reinstating his volunteer status with the city.

Johnston's arrival as tennis manager was greeted optimistically by Irvine, who told Kaufman in a letter, "I am sure that you'll agree that his energy and enthusiasm with regard to tennis can only enhance existing programs. I trust you will cooperate with Mr. Johnston in providing these programs to all interested youths."

By the summer of 1994, four years into their relationship, Kaufman and Johnston had long abandoned any pretense of civility. "Mr. Kaufman constantly barges into the office without asking and usually makes a couple of calls," Johnston wrote to Smith. "He went ballistic at my very first sentence, which entailed that he ask city personnel to use the phone. He then went berserk once again after I told him it was the courteous thing to do."

Johnston typed a letter to Kaufman a week later, reminding him that his volunteer privileges had been terminated in 1990. "We cordially invite you to play tennis at North Shore, but we request that you purchase a tennis membership or pay hourly fees," Johnston wrote. But the letter was vetoed by city officials. The unidentified author of a note attached to the letter explained, "Kevin [Smith] reluctant to do so -- Howard Kaufman would stir great amount of commotion (recreation department against kids) -- can understand (Kevin's) point of view. But future problems will occur."

Meanwhile, Kaufman dashed off two letters on letterhead stationery from his Lincoln Road office. One to Smith denounced the "deteriorating atmosphere" at the park and cited as examples the lack of a restroom key, the abolishment of the twenty-year-old sign-up board, and no access to the office telephone for his students. "I believe, after our extensive conversations, that you do not appreciate the delicacy of handling children. Yes, delicacy," Kaufman scolds Smith. In the second letter, to Mayor Gelber, Kaufman first listed his students' accomplishments in tournaments and in school before criticizing Smith. Gelber wrote Kaufman thanking him for his support of the youth tennis program but sidestepped the criticism of Smith as "more on process than philosophy..., housekeeping items that can be worked out."

While Kaufman was being consoled by the mayor, Johnston's woes continued. On July 15, 1994, he filed this beseechment with his bosses: "To put it mildly, I have been stressed significantly. Howard Kaufman constantly berates, beleaguers, and defames my character. For example, while I was giving a FREE lesson to two kids, he sat on the bench and bad-mouthed me. He has had a direct impact on my ability to make a decent income. Kaufman continues to go on the courts without signing in or paying. I foresee continued problems with Howard Kaufman."

The tennis instructors continued to exchange a series of volleys toward the end of 1994 and beginning of 1995:

*Johnston had posted notices that the park would close early on Veteran's Day, at 6:00 p.m., but when it did, Kaufman created a "big scene and threatened to go to the city commission" about the park closing," Johnston stated in a memo. "He worked the sidelines and tried to get the public as agitated as he was." Kaufman wrote to Carlton: "The happenings at our tennis facility defy understanding. Police are routinely called to discipline little boys who haven't done anything that a capable employee or park manager couldn't have handled.... With our city inundated with new children from all over the world, from every economic background, what we need is imagination and creativity. The attitude of your recreation department is deplorable. I am trying to find some spark, some feeling in my city for some kids."

*Around Christmas, Johnston considered suing Kaufman for defamation and slander: "I am sick and tired of Howard Kaufman shooting off his mouth."

*Kaufman railed against shoddy court maintenance and a new policy that said kids couldn't play under the lights at night because they should be home.

*Johnston accused Kaufman of teaching an "affluent child (her father drives a Lexus)" contrary to "City of Miami Beach guidelines," and sabotaging his work by "going on and on for a couple hours to many patrons about how I should not be here." (Kaufman admits that some of his students are from rather well-to-do families. "Why should kids be denied?" he argues. "We should make them feel welcome.")

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