It isn’t surprising that Gary Schutrum, the girls tennis and basketball coach at East Aurora High School, is revered by the many students that he has taught.
Schutrum’s passion and love for tennis was instilled in him by his mother, Roberta Cullinan, who was one of the area’s finest women’s tennis players a few years ago.
“I really didn’t take a lot of lessons,” Schutrum said. “My mother was my basic teacher and we constantly worked on keeping the ball in play. Fortunately, my game improved, and I started playing local junior tournaments and did reasonably well.”
In high school he played on an extremely strong East Aurora team that won the league championship three times. He played second singles behind Paul Idzik, who went on to become a University of Notre Dame all-time great.
“I will never forget a match that I played against Jimmy Arias when he was 14 and I was 18,” Schutrum said. “Jimmy won, 6-1, 6-1, in a match that lasted well over two hours. I could keep the ball in play all day. However, Jimmy was just steadier and won most of the long rallies.”
At the age of 16 he started teaching tennis for the Town of Aurora recreation program during the summer. Even at that early stage of his teaching career it was evident that Schutrum was a natural. He encouraged everyone to play and his enthusiasm was infectious. He had more than 140 kids in the program and often had as many as 20 kids in a line waiting to hit the tennis ball. Lessons would run five days a week from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Tennis team practice would run three days a week from 2-4 p.m.
“Fortunately, the kids bought into the system that other coaches and I were trying to project, which was having fun while learning how to play better tennis,” Schutrum said. “We were only a recreation program. However, we exposed the kids to different programs when we joined an all-encompassing league that involved teams from Wanakah Country Club, Orchard Park Country Club, Buffalo Country Club, Eagle Ridge, and Hickory Hill, among others. Our kids loved the competition and delivered great playing performances and exhibited outstanding sportsmanship.”
For a small community it was incredible the impact that East Aurora tennis had in Western New York. From 1966-1999 The Memorial and Labor Day Open Tennis tournaments would have a full draw of 64 teams in both the Men’s and Mixed Open Doubles tournaments. Women’s Doubles teams had a full complement of 32 teams. Even the Buffalo Muny Championships didn’t have that many teams in any of their doubles draws during those years.
About ten years into the running of the tournament Schutrum joined the tournament committee and was a big part of its continued success. To play in the tournament a player had to be a resident of Elma or East Aurora. They could play with anyone they wanted to, regardless of what city or town they were from. Naturally, this led to some really outstanding teams. Play would take place on town courts, East Aurora High School, Iroquois High School, and the many private courts that were in the area. There were also consolation rounds. The event was a tremendous undertaking.
“The tournaments were the social events of the year for the East Aurora contingent,” Schutrum said. “Although we had many good players entered we also had players entered who played just for the fun and camaraderie of the tournament. The icing on the cake was that we would have upwards of 500 people watching the finals. I felt very fortunate to have been part of the tournament, both as a player, and as a committee member.”
With USTA leagues starting in the 1990s, the number of entries started to drop quickly and the tournaments were suspended until three years ago, when Schutrum took over as the tournament director and brought back the Memorial Day tournament.
“I had to bring back at least one of the tournaments,” Schutrum said. “I had grown up in this great tennis environment and was just honored that I could be part of bringing back at least part of this great tradition. Each year, the draws are getting larger and larger and we hope for continued growth.”
Schutrum’s reputation in coaching basketball and tennis in high school are also legendary. As coach of the East Aurora boys basketball teams over a fifteen-year period his teams won the two sectional championships twice and four league titles. He is presently coaching the girls basketball team. In tennis, he was the East Aurora coach for the men’s team for four years and they won the division every year. He has coached the girls tennis team the last four years and they have won the league championships the last three. During the four years of coaching each team John Belniak stood out as the top boys player. Taylor Cole and Alana Danieu, who won the girls sectionals singles title this year, were the top girls.
Mark Szafnicki is one of WNY’s leading singles and doubles players, and has been a long-time friend and doubles partner of Schutrum’s. He knows Gary’s tennis game as well as any player.
“Besides being one of the finest and most caring individuals you will ever meet Gary is the best doubles partner I have ever played with,” said Szafnicki. “He has an excellent twist serve and an uncanny net game due to his great hands and reflexes.”
In addition to winning tournaments with Szafnicki and being on five USTA teams this year that have played or will play in sectional championships, Schutrum has won age group Muny titles in the Open, 30, 40, and 50 age group. His partners have included Dave Mosgeller, Russ Reinagel, Derek Acker in Men’s Doubles and Mickey Farber in Open Mixed Doubles.
Schutrum has been the Executive Director of the Boys and Girls Club of East Aurora for the past 26 years. “We probably serve the most kids in a single unit in one day — up to 340 youngsters,” Schutrum said. “Working with my staff and kids is wonderful. Kids bring something new and exciting everyday. To know that my staff and I have helped them in any way, no matter how small, is the most wonderful feeling in the world.”