Grudge Match

For the past ten years Howard Kaufman has devoted his extra time and money to kids in Miami Beach. He taught tennis to children whose parents couldn't afford private lessons, teenagers who hung out at North Shore Park after school, and recent immigrants moving into the neighborhood near 73rd Street and Harding Avenue. Some of these children developed into tennis champions; for example, Tammy Encina, who took her first tennis stroke under Kaufman's guidance, won a USTA national clay court championship at age fourteen.

Kaufman began giving free lessons in 1986 as a volunteer for the City of Miami Beach. A semiretired financial consultant and father of three daughters, the 71-year-old Kaufman says his work with youngsters provided a public service that was lacking in the area, and he was just doing his part to better the community. "I've never done anything as rewarding as working with these kids," he bellows. "I tell you, I don't like adults; I don't. I love kids and I want to continue to help them."

But Kaufman's long-standing volunteer project was halted on August 12, 1996, when he was arrested at the North Shore Park Tennis Center for theft because he refused to pay the hourly court fee of $2.67. He was also charged with trespassing for refusing to leave the court; he continued to teach one of his students and used dozens of tennis balls from his own basket. Richard Johnston, the tennis pro and manager of the park, told police that Kaufman had been warned repeatedly to pay for court time and to use no more than three tennis balls. Kaufman countered that he had a contract with the city to use the courts for free while teaching kids. "Go ahead and arrest me," Kaufman told police officer Mike Hernandez, "so I can have this documented and get Johnston fired."

The arrest was the climax of six years of often bitter acrimony between Kaufman and Johnston. Kaufman's supporters -- most of the juniors who regularly play at the courts and some of the old-timers -- believe Kaufman's arrest was simply a vendetta by Johnston, a 32-year-old who charges $34 an hour for private lessons and eyes Kaufman as competition. Since Johnston began at the park in 1990, players say he's been envious of Kaufman's success and popularity with the kids. These same supporters say Johnston's a humorless man, indifferent about kids unless they're paying for lessons and contributing to his paycheck.

Kaufman, on the other hand, is generous because he truly cares, according to sixteen-year-old Dustin James. "I used to hang around with kids who did drugs, but I don't now because of Howard. He's been like a dad," James attests. "Richard's trying to match up with Howard, but he can't. Howard's the man. Richard's a kiss-ass."

A gossip column appearing in the the Miami Herald August 19 reflected the sense of outrage over the arrest. "An abomination of justice," declared Jack Bennett; "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be playing tennis," stated Tammy Encina; "He shouldn't have been arrested. He deserved a pat on the back," weighed in Mayor Seymour Gelber, a friend of Kaufman.

Six months after the arrest the controversy lingers, with the same people quoted in the Herald still proclaiming injustice. "Here is a man who gave 110 percent of himself towards the life development of economically deprived children," offers Bennett, who's been going to the park since the Fifties. He says the neighborhood has gone from affluent to looking like "the South Bronx with palm trees."

"Howard asked nothing in return," Bennett adds, "and for this admirable effort he was subjected to arrest, ridicule, and the stress of several court appearances, courtesy of a couple of envious, narrow-minded, selfish individuals representing the City of Miami Beach."

The city officials he's referring to are Johnston and Kevin Smith, director of recreation, culture, and parks. Johnston has remained relatively mum about his ordeal with Kaufman. "Due to the fact that it's an administrative issue, I like to follow the chain of command," he explains. Smith says he told Johnston to keep quiet, and has been reticent himself. He puts on a hard, defensive stare. Smith concedes that it didn't look good to arrest a volunteer of Kaufman's age for something apparently so petty, though he approved of calling the police.

The whole situation with Kaufman has proved to be an embarrassing conundrum as well as bad public relations for Smith's department. Now, after years of soft-pedaling the Kaufman problem, Smith rather suddenly claims he was forced to have him arrested and then, "looking for an amicable solution," to drop the charges. For four years, Smith has responded tentatively to the imbroglio, fearing a backlash against him and his department for apparently bullying a nice old man who is trying to help kids.

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Ray Martinez