A tribute to my first bridge teacher

By Karen Walker

Courtesy of Karen’s Bridge Library: kwbridge.com

A tribute to my first bridge teacher

By Karen Walker

Bridge and its players lost one of their most ardent fans — and I lost the woman who taught me this great game — when Cathy Smith, 64, of Wood River IL died in February, 1997. 

Cathy was an ACBL member for over 30 years, but had few opportunities to play competitively. She and her husband, Ken, took up duplicate bridge in Waukegan IL in the early 1960’s and each won about 50 masterpoints. During the last several years of her life, though, Cathy had become an invalid and was unable to get out to play.

Even when she was homebound, Cathy never let her disability distance her from the game she loved. She read bridge magazines cover-to-cover and kept up with new conventions. And although she could only enjoy kitchen-table bridge, she played it with such talent and passion that I knew she would have been a formidable tournament player.

Cathy was my aunt, and the person responsible for my involvement in bridge today. When she taught me to play on a Thanksgiving afternoon in 1964, she gave me a gift that would last a lifetime, and she fostered it for more than three decades.

When I won my first masterpoint, she made me feel like I was on my way to becoming the next Dorothy Hayden. Over the years, no bridge accomplishment of mine — no matter how small — went by without a card or a call from her. I was her link to the game she loved so much, and she wanted to hear every detail about the tournaments I had been to and the people who played in them.

Bridge is a gift not easily given — nor accepted — but Cathy never stopped looking for willing learners. She tried to teach every friend, neighbor and family member who showed even a mild interest. Not all of her lessons “took” (especially with her three reluctant sons), but when they did (as with me), both the teacher and the student got a big payoff. The novice got the benefit of a skilled, patient mentor — and Cathy had another potential fourth.

Cathy had a lung transplant in June, 1996, and was just beginning to enjoy a full recovery when she was hospitalized again five months later. During the few months when she was back to full strength, she was excited about her new life and the chance to play more bridge.

Even though Cathy won’t be joining us at the bridge table, we can all be inspired by her passion for the game and her joy in sharing it. Without her enthusiastic introduction to the game, I might never have tried bridge at all. Without her years of encouragement, I might have given up after those first few 35% scores at the local club. And if I had, I know that today my life, my friends and my mind would all be the duller for it.

Few of us have the opportunity to influence a life the way Cathy did mine, but we can all find small ways to pass along what the game has given to us. We can teach a family member to play, make a club date with a novice, invite a new pair to drive to a tournament with us. Instead of rushing out the door after a club game, we can take a minute to check the scores and congratulate the novices who did well. These are small gestures, but they may be all it takes to help a newcomer persevere and discover a pastime that will enrich his life.

Everyone needs a cheerleader in life, and this special woman was surely mine. She showed me that the rewards of teaching and supporting newcomers are worth the work, and she inspired me to pass along her gift. My website ( kwbridge.com ) is one small way I’m trying to share her legacy, and it’s dedicated to Cathy and all the “potential fourths” she would have loved to have welcomed to this wonderful game.