Howard Hess, known for bringing tennis to the Topsail area, is back at it with pickleball and the Belvedere Pickleball Center.
There are some people who love a sport so much that they want to play every chance they can get. Then there’s Howard Hess, a man who loves a sport so much that he’s dedicated the later part of his life to making sure others can play too. At 86 years old, Hess has spent the last two decades bringing first tennis and now pickleball to the Topsail area. His love for the game as well as for his community are always at the heart of everything he does.
Before retiring to Hampstead, Hess spent 25 years in New Jersey as a high school teacher. It was there where he first learned to play tennis, and he brought his passion for the sport with him when relocated to Pender County in 2000. Not content with sitting inside all day, Hess wanted to stay active by coaching high school tennis, but he learned that Topsail High School didn’t have a team, not to mention any tennis courts.
“That didn’t seem right, so I got the community behind me and we set to work building six tennis courts for the school,” Hess says. “Then I took seven girls from the middle school and for the next few years I worked with them and taught them to play tennis, and that’s what got tennis started here in Topsail.”
Hess and his new team quickly worked their way up to the top and earned a spot in the state finals in 2004, 2005 and 2006 consecutively. Hess also received Hampstead’s Citizen of the Year Award in 2004 for constructing the tennis courts and developing the Topsail High School team. Credited with building Topsail’s entire tennis program from the dirt up, he is considered a legend in local tennis circles today.
As Hess reached his 80s, he realized he couldn’t chase a tennis ball down the court as well as he used to, but that didn’t mean he wanted to put down his racket for good. He decided to give the sport of pickleball a try at the Wilmington YMCA and was hooked from the first swing.
“I think what I enjoy most about pickleball is that the action is similar to tennis, but I don’t have to run down a tennis ball,” Hess says. “I can get my exercise just by playing, and it’s still a challenge.”
Having the experience of building Topsail’s tennis program under his belt, Hess set out once again to see if he could find a way to make his newfound favorite sport more accessible to his community. Knowing there were a few dilapidated tennis courts located on the grounds of what was once the Belvedere Country Club, Hess reached out to the property’s new owner, Ironclad Brewery CEO Ted Coughlin.
“Ironclad purchased the country club in mid-2020 with the goal of turning it into what is now Ironclad Golf and Beer Garden,” Coughlin says. “That September, Howard approached us because he saw the tennis courts weren’t in good shape, and he was interested in reviving them and turning them into pickleball courts. He was willing to roll up his sleeves and get the job done, so we welcomed the opportunity. He did a great job renovating the courts and building them and a fanbase up from scratch, when just a few months prior there was no pickleball in Hampstead.”
Having already developed the skill of building and resurfacing tennis courts, Hess says he found it easy to refurbish the rundown, dormant courts into modern pickleball courts.
“I’d built my own tennis court back in New Jersey and then later built the Topsail courts, so I knew how to do it from experience,” Hess says. “The Belvedere courts were no longer functional because they were grown over with bushes and weeds. It was a piece of cake for me to clear them off and then turn them into something really pretty.”
It only took about a month for Hess to transform the two neglected tennis courts into six brightly colored and welcoming pickleball courts, three of which he coated with an extra rubberized surface for added cushion and support. Hess named the new facility Belvedere Pickleball Center and in October 2020 welcomed his first players to the net.
“I remember it was raining on the day I gave my first lessons, but we still had 17 people come out and they insisted on staying in the rain to learn pickleball,” he says.
Belvedere Pickleball Center now has almost 50 regular members, with many others visiting the facility while on vacation for a drop-in game or lesson. Regular groups play almost every morning and every afternoon, and members are given keys to the courts so they can come in at their own time and play during off hours. The center also hosts pickleball tournaments that draw in players from Wilmington, Jacksonville and other nearby communities. Although the age range of most of Hess’s members tends to skew older, he is one of the only pickleball instructors around to have also developed a program for children.
“Last year I had a school-aged program with about 24 elementary kids, and I also had another group of middle school students who became very good players,” Hess says. “I called around to find some other teams for my students to play against, but everyone told me that I’m the only one that’s teaching kids. So that team dissipated, but I’m planning to offer something for young kids again this year.”
When he’s not busy offering lessons and running the facility, Hess joins in on a game of pickleball anytime there’s a group needing another player. He believes what makes the sport so special is not only how fun the game is to play, but also how much the players enjoy spending time together.
“Pickleball is half exercise and half social,” Hess says. “People are looking for exercise, but rather than lift weights or ride on a bicycle, they’re playing pickleball because they can gather and talk and get a nice little workout. Our group is the warmest, most encouraging bunch of people you’d want to meet, and some of them have become quite skilled players now.”
Hess continues to work hard to share his love of pickleball throughout Hampstead and beyond, and his dedication to both the sport and his community hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“Howard’s life has been marked by selfless goodwill, and his new pickleball center gives him great joy for the simple reason of the community spirit it’s generating,” says neighbor and Belvedere Pickleball Center member Mike Winesette. “He’s the type of person you meet and immediately like — soft spoken, kind hearted, intelligent and generous. He’s also a darn good player, out there every day greeting one and all and always happy to fill out a foursome!”
Ted Coughlin agrees, saying he considers Hess to be both an icon and an asset in the Hampstead community. “I’m in my 50s, and I tell everyone I want to be like Howard when I’m in my 80s,” Coughlin says. “I really hope that when I’m his age, I have the energy and ability to contribute to the community like he continues to do. He’s really my idol.”
Photography by Kathy Gordon