With help from St. Paul’s alumni, Portland Community Squash has become a model for integrating the game of squash into the fabric of community.
BY MATT DE LA PEÑA ’04
A typical week for Alexandra Maurer ’84 is likely to include a serve and volley. Maurer, a notable conceptual artist, acupuncturist, and fourth-generation resident of Maine, is one of many people with ties to St. Paul’s School (graduate or otherwise) counted among the members of Portland Community Squash, a local community center and squash facility nestled in the Oakdale neighborhood of Portland, Maine.
With its high, ornate ceilings and windows, one could just as easily imagine the building’s denizens kneeling in prayer as standing in the service box, ready to put a small rubber ball into play.
To be sure, PCS (as it’s colloquially known) looks, at first glance, much more like its former incarnation as a converted synagogue than a community center. And in some respects, Maurer says, it still conveys an ethereal mystique, albeit with a welcoming mantra that for 10 years has challenged conventional notions of the game of squash and introduced new players of all backgrounds to the sport.
“When I learned to play squash, it was private colleges, private clubs, university clubs,” says Maurer, who notes that the PCS model is rapidly being recognized as one of the premier standards for community development in the United States, with at least 12 non-affiliated community squash centers establishing roots in cities like San Diego, Atlanta, and Houston.
For its part, PCS currently serves 200 students, ranging from third to 12th grade, and more than 200 adult members. Within PCS’s robust student population, 67% are students of color and 63% are identified as low income; more than 60% are setting out to be among the first in their families to go to college. With membership offered on a sliding scale, from free to full pay, the program is operated by 140 volunteers and 12 full-time staff members. At any given practice, two full-time coaches are present to run drills, aided by adult and student volunteers. Young players travel to monthly tournaments around New England, many outfitted with sneakers, racquets, eyewear, and balls that are made available at no cost.
“At PCS, we have meals, potlucks, barbecues,” Maurer continues. “We have a real multicultural, multigenerational facility. The pivotal backbone is that it’s about access, equity, and integration.”
That “pivotal backbone” is particularly relevant for SPS graduates. The sport first came to life in the United Kingdom as a pastime for prison inmates who one day decided to fashion old rubber balls into whack-able ovals, pinging one after the next against the skyward stone walls. The game eventually made its way mainstream and inspired a group of intrepid students at the Harrow School, a British all-male boarding academy founded in 1572, to tweak the rules and refine it in their image.
In 1882, less than 30 years after the establishment of St. Paul’s School, squash arrived on the campus of Millville thanks to Jay Conover, a known Paulie and sports enthusiast who attended Columbia University with Hyde Clark, an avid squash player and graduate of Harrow. Conover eventually lobbied St. Paul’s to build two outdoor squash courts that would serve as the foundation of the School’s long association with the game and, through the years, encourage students like Maurer to take up their racquets and carry on the SPS legacy.
That legacy eventually made its way to Portland, thanks in part to the SPS graduates who have found a home in Maine and, more precisely, at Portland Community Squash. In addition to Maurer, the PCS members with SPS ties include George Cooley ’14, who serves as a volunteer, and Nathan Rosenzweig ’24, who coaches in the summer. Henry Parkhurst ’16 and Whit Ford ’75 are also PCS members, and there is a scholarship named in honor of current SPS squash coach Chris Smith.
A competitive squash player, Rosenzweig was ranked No. 1 at every junior level in Hong Kong before moving to Maryland a year ago. He ended last season ranked fifth in the U-17 division in the U.S. Rosenzweig discovered PCS on visits to Brunswick, Maine, to see his grandmother. At first, he was just looking for a place to practice his own game, but soon became involved in teaching squash to others whenever he had a chance. Last summer, the SPS Fifth Former coached players ages 12 and under during a two-week camp at PCS. It was then that he discovered the joy in sharing the game and getting to know more of his fellow squash lovers.
“It’s not just coaching squash, it’s raising kids to be good human beings. It’s not being out for yourself. It’s a community effort.”