Life stories: Mary Lloyd Barbera boosted NC tennis for decades

If Mary Lloyd Barbera learned that a new acquaintance had never played tennis before, that person would likely soon find himself or herself up on a court. No racquet, no problem—Barbera would lend one of her own and stand on the other side of the net feeding balls, talking the novice through the basics of a forehand, and likely serving up encouragement to join a beginners tennis league.

“She believed everybody ought to try tennis once,” said Kelly Gaines, longtime friend and executive director of the United States Tennis Association North Carolina. “We could be anywhere, in any place, not even on the job, and she would strike up a conversation with somebody and just ask them if you played tennis.” If the answer was no, the person was strongly encouraged to give it a try.

Barbera, 49, died unexpectedly this spring at her home in High Point. She was in the middle of her 4.5 spring season (USTA ratings range from 1.0, beginner, to 7.0, a world-class player), playing matches, drilling with her husband, Bobby, and of course, handing out beginner foam balls to children she thought might like to learn the game. That meant all of them.

Barbera made it her life’s work to promote tennis throughout the state. As a longtime USTA NC employee, she encouraged players old and young, seasoned and novice, and did so armed with one of the brightest smiles friends and family say they’d ever seen.

Barbera learned tennis as a child growing up in Henderson and only put the sport on hold once. As a top-ranked junior in the southern region, her she underwent back surgery for scoliosis during her sophomore year in high school. Her brothers say the first thing she did when she was out of the full body cast, months later, was to play tennis.

“After she could get up and walk, she served underhand and still won almost all of her matches. It was pretty incredible. She was tough,” said her older brother, Fred Hodges III of Rocky Mount.

Barbera went on to become a top player at both Peace College and NCSU. After earning a degree in business recreation, she worked at the Lewis Community Recreation Center in Greensboro for eight years before joining the staff at the USTA NC.

It was a perfect fit. She spent the majority of her career there as director of marketing. When she wasn’t manning the USTA tent at local tournaments, she was volunteering to captain teams for which she was too highly rated to play, simply eager to get others involved in the leagues.

Seeing Barbera work as a professional tennis ambassador made her younger brother, Jon Hodges of Wilson, appreciate the similar role she played for him. She taught him mental toughness while modeling sportsmanship.

“As a brother I sort of followed her around as a fan. I’d carry her bag, I’d carry her trophies,” some of which were as big as he was, Jon Hodges said.

Gaines and Barbera were not only colleagues as adults, they had been competitors on the North Carolina junior tennis circuit. Gaines marveled not only at Barbera’s heavy forehand, but her ability to balance her competitive intensity on court with a warm, inclusive and supportive demeanor off court.

“Her spirit was incredibly positive. She always had a smile on her face,” Gaines said. “She made everybody feel really good.”

Her talents extended beyond tennis. Her husband of nearly 20 years, Bobby Barbera, said there was not a song his wife did not know the lyrics to.

“Wherever she went, she was the chairman of fun,” he said.

It was this fun attitude towards life that made Barbera such a strong asset when it came to promoting tennis. Cindy Farmer, a Fox News morning anchor in High Point, was once told she had poor hand-eye coordination and for years assumed that meant tennis was not for her. But Barbera convinced her to at least give it a try.

“She was like, you can do this,” Farmer said.

Barbera made it fun, and spent hours teaching the beginner on her own time, lending her racquets and balls. It didn’t take long for Farmer to catch the tennis bug. Both tennis and Barbera became major parts of her life.

"She was the peacemaker, the party maker, the plan maker. She was the positive in every single day, there was no doubt,” Farmer said.

Appropriately, Barbera was the initial recipient of the USTA Southern Marilyn Sherman Spirit Award in 2008, an award given to a staff member who demonstrates exemplary spirit in promoting tennis throughout the southern region.

“The best way to honor Mary Lloyd is to encourage new people to play league tennis,” Farmer said

Mary Lloyd Hodges Barbera

Born June 11, 1965, in Henderson.

FAMILY: Marries Bobby Barbera April 15, 1995.

EDUCATION: Attends Peace College for two years, then NCSU where she earns a degree in business recreation.

CAREER: Works at the Lewis Community Recreation Center in Greensboro for eight years before joining the staff of the USTA NC in 1999. She holds many roles over the years but largely serves at director of marketing, promoting tennis throughout the state.

Dies April 22, in High Point.