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Ping-Pong Pat

Updated: May 1

By Jennifer Webb

“Hey Calm!” She shouted across the room as the young man and his friend made their way down the hallway. He didn’t hear her, so she raised her voice again. This time, he turned, recognizing the voice and searching for her.

When he saw her, sitting on the couch in the far corner of the lobby, his face lit up, and he came to her in bounding leaps, not quite running.

“There you are!” he told her. “I was hoping to see you today!” he said with a grin stretching from one ear to the other. His friend, Coulee, behind him, wore a matching grin.

“Sit down here on the couch and take a picture with me,” she told him.

Unquestioning, both young men sat down and Calm put his arm around her with friendly affection, sporting a thumbs-up on the other side of her shoulder.

After a brief exchange, he told her with obvious enthusiasm, “I’m going to go play ping-pong!”

“Ok, I’ll be there in a minute,” she replied.

It may sound like an unusual scene with an 84-year-old lady, who comes twice a week to Keller Hall to play ping-pong with the college kids, but then again, Pat Rice is no ordinary 84-year-old lady.

You might think she’d be out of place in such a setting, but to the Harding students, she’s a steadfast adult figure whom they all love.

As the college students pass the ping-pong room, she calls to them saying, “Hey! You want to play some ping-pong?” Its followed by, “What’s your name? Where are you from?” It gives many of the students from out of state an instant feeling of belonging. It doesn’t matter how good you are; she welcomes all skill levels. She’s a patient teacher, but also a worthy opponent and a good sport in wins, as well as losses.

She, David Goff, Sherrill Bennet, Milo Hadwin, and a few other senior friends frequent the ping-pong room on Monday and Thursday afternoons. The young men who reside in the hall have come to think of her as “one of them,” even persuading her to pose with them in the 2019 yearbook picture for the residence hall.

She loves God, ping-pong, swimming, and young people. It’s a good way for her to stay young and connect all four. Mrs. Rice is the former director of Harding’s Student Health Services and a former nurse. She and her friends have won seven medals at the Senior Olympics in Hot Springs, five of which were gold. But as much fun as she has with ping-pong, she will be the first to tell you that the real treasure is the relationships she forms with the students.

Certain students stand out to her, such as Rysper, who asked her for a swimming lesson.

“Have you ever been swimming before?” Mrs. Rice asked her.

“Only once, and I just stayed on the steps,” Rysper replied clinging tight to the handrail of the pool.

Pat knew she had her work cut out for her. Rysper was terrified of the water! They started with blowing bubbles in the water, gradually getting Rysper more comfortable, until she could put her whole face in. By the end of the 90-minute lesson, Rysper could shove off and swim herself about five feet.

“Well,” Pat thought to herself, “I guess that’s more than she could do before.”

But Rysper was beside herself with excitement and glee.

“I have wanted to be baptized for two years now,” she confided with shining eyes, “but I couldn’t because I was so scared of the water. Now I can!”

Pat was there the following Sunday to watch, humbled at how God had used her in this young lady’s story without her realizing it at the time.

There was another student named Easton, who tried to beat her at ping- pong for six years. She made him work for it. When he finally did, she had a shirt custom made for him that said, “Keller Dorm Ping-Pong. Easton defeats Mrs. Rice” including the winning score and date.

Aiichiro (from Japan) spent twelve Christmases and several summers with her and her husband, Guilford. He was shy at first and barely talked, but Mrs. Rice is a very hard person to be quiet around! She made him talk, and when he went back to school after the first Christmas break, she told him, “Tell them you got candy, games, clothes.”

“. . . and vocabulary,” he quickly added. “That was most important!”

Her husband, Guilford, also taught him how to drive a car so he could get his driver’s license. Aiichiro went on to get a doctorate in biochemistry and is now a research scientist in Boston.

These are just a few of the many students who she remembers fondly. She knows each of their names, where they are from, their majors, and ping-pong game by ping-pong game builds relationships with them. She’s an adult they know is in their corner to encourage them, guide them, and support them.

They keep her young, challenge her to stay in good shape physically, keep her mind active and her heart full. As much as she cares about their friendship, they care about hers as well.


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