Finding the words befitting of a local legend

Under the daily grind at my new Kirkland Reporter digs, I wouldn’t normally have time to go back and write a column for the Mercer Island Reporter. But when I heard that Joyce Hedlund had died, I would have begged to write a column. During eight years as the sports editor on Mercer Island, I learned to write fast. Now, the words just seem to flow. I don’t over think. I don’t have to ponder how to make a transition work. It just comes to me. But after being granted space to talk about Joyce, I had millions of words and phrases bombarding my brain. I couldn’t choose. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t start. I couldn’t grasp how to express what so many people on Mercer Island were feeling. My friend and coworker on Mercer Island, Chad Coleman, just told me to speak from the heart, and I would find it.

One of the reasons I wanted to find the right words is because Joyce always had the right words for me. I think she always knew just what to say to everyone. The standing room-only celebration of her life proved that on Saturday. She had a way of making you feel like you were her best friend, even if you only saw her every other week for a half hour. With most coaches, our postgame interview would start with me asking a question about the team. With Joyce, she would tell me “that can wait”, and took the first question. “How is your family?” “How is work?” “Do you want a bagel or a juice box?”

I heard a lot of stories about Joyce feeding her tennis players on Saturday, and they weren’t the only ones. Every time, I would have to explain, “I am working. I can’t accept food.” But many times, her caring nature took me aback. She was the first person to send me a gift when my son was born. She always sent me an e-birthday card, even this year after I had left Mercer Island and hadn’t seen her in three months. But that was Joyce. I do have to say, when we got to the interview, she was a challenge. She was brutally honest. I stopped asking her “is that on the record?” after my second year. I never knew what words would come out of Joyce’s mouth. It was the first time in my career that I had to ask my editor, Jane Meyer at the time, “Do we print profanity in quotes?”

That fiery personality, combined with my passion for journalism, once ignited. I ran an action picture for the tennis story. I had to run it because tennis was the cover story for trouncing Newport and taking another league title. I thought Joyce would be happy. But she had wanted a group shot. We argued for at least an hour to the only resolution of Joyce finally asking, “How is your family?” But she believed in the team, coaching a sport where individual accolades rule. And she took the tradition built by her predecessor, Geoff Mills, built and brought it to the next level. I think many took the championships for granted. The girls tennis team is the winningest program in state history. And contrary to what most might think, it is not just a matter of great talent. Joyce lost many great Islander players to private schools – many of whom her players would face at state. To get to those titles, Joyce taught a lesson plan of work ethic. Every time I wrote a sports preview, I would ask Joyce, “Who is your No. 1 player?” She would respond, “I don’t know; we haven’t finished the challenge matches.” This conversation repeated itself even when Mercer Island had the returning state champion. And every year she would have to battle parents and players over whether they would play singles, which they thought was best for them, or play doubles, which Joyce knew was best for them and the team. But there was another topic that came up at the end of nearly every season. Joyce would tell me that she wasn’t coming back. Her body was too sore. Taking care of the 160-200 kids who made up both the boys and girls programs each year was too much. I don’t know how she did it. But every fall, she came back. Every fall, she started the journey of turning children into adults. And every fall she found the right words for her players and me — and most of the time they were printable.

On Facebook, the group “Thanks to Joyce Hedlund” allows anyone to share their memories.