The headline from the long-ago newspaper article was correct.
“Napolitano to be rewarded for a lifetime of excellence.”
Another headline about Paul Napolitano should be written now.
This one will say: “Many have been rewarded by Napolitano’s lifetime of excellence.”
“He was definitely a tennis legend,” said Marc Vecchiolla, referring to Napolitano, who passed away at age 97 earlier this week. “It’s sad that he’s no longer with us. He was just a fantastic guy that I’m fortunate to have come across in my lifetime.”
Napolitano, a lifelong area resident, excelled in tennis, which is part of his connection to Vecchiolla, whose name has also become synonymous with the sport in Mercer County.
The headline mentioned above accompanied a 1996 item written by Ann LoPrinzi, the longtime tennis columnist for The Times of Trenton.
“If it required athletic ability, Paul Napolitano excelled in it,” she wrote. “Tennis was his chosen sport, however, and he competed, coached and taught the game for most of his 72 years.”
LoPrinzi’s column that Sunday in 1996 was devoted to Napolitano and heralded his induction into the Mercer County Tennis Hall of Fame. Napolitano was part of the second induction class and was one of the first nine people to be enshrined.
Napolitano was a two-sport standout at Trenton Central High School who went on to play tennis and basketball on athletic scholarships at Spring Hill College in Alabama.
He had a passion for sports that lasted many, many years. On a long list of non-tennis highlights, the avid golfer scored a hole-in-one at age 77.
The tennis highlights, however, were even more powerful and included playing singles and doubles on the New England Tennis Circuit. Napolitano played against Bobby Riggs and with him in doubles.
“The first time I came across Mr. Napolitano was when he was teaching lessons at Hamilton Indoor Tennis Center,” Vecchiolla said, noting that there was a seat that was “Reserved for Paul Napolitano, the Dean of Tennis.”
Napolitano was also the tennis pro and instructor at the Trenton Country Club, the Hopewell Valley Tennis and Swim Club, and he coached tennis and taught at Spring Hill College. At a 50th homecoming at his alma mater in Mobile he had a chance to catch up with one of the guys he coached. Legendary coach Nick Bolletierri thanked Napolitano for his first exposure to tennis. The respect was mutual. “Nick always was a hard worker,” Napolitano said. Bolletierri, Class of 1953, was inducted into the Badgers’ Athletic Hall of Fame in 1994 while Napolitano, Class of 1948, entered the HOF in 1976.
Napolitano, meanwhile, was self-taught yet rose through the ranks to be considered one of the finest tennis players to come out of Mercer County. He won everything from the City Midget boys crown in 1932 to the Junior boys title in 1940 and ’41, as well as being a successful high school and college athlete. He was the Trenton City champion in 1942, ’46, ’47, ’50, ’51 and ’52, and was doubles champion in ’46.
On top of all of that success, he is remembered as an excellent family man, a Navy veteran, and an all-around good guy.
“He had such humility, was such a nice human being, he was very thoughtful,” Vecchiolla said. “He was a great role model for all of us. His legend was just an example for all of us of just the way he conducted himself day in and day out.
“He was a gentle soul that you knew was a competitor.”
With Mary, his wife of 66 years, Napolitano shared an athletic and talented family, many of whom have been active and successful in sports and other venues.
He also touched countless lives as the Guidance Department Coordinator with the Lenape High School District in Medford for 31 years until his retirement in 1990.
Arrangements for the man who achieved a lifetime of excellence are under the direction of Simplicity Funeral and Cremation Services at Glackin Chapel, 136 Morrison Ave., Hightstown.