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  Charlie’s role in ping-pong diplomacy

In 1971, Charlie Disney was a stockbroker with Dain Kalman Quail in Minneapolis. A champion player himself, he was also proprietor of a thriving table-tennis business.

Disney was part of the American table-tennis contingent at an international tournament in Nagoya, Japan, in early April 1971. A team from communist China was also present at the tournament. An American player named Glenn Cowan struck up a friendship with a top Chinese player leading to a decision by Chinese government officials, including Chairman Mao Zedong, to invite the American team to tour China.

It was to Charlie Disney, then a player and American team official, that the invitation from the Chinese government was first delivered. He promptly relayed that message to Graham Steenhoven, president of the U.S. Table Tennis Association, and the rest is history.

Alas, Charlie himself did not accompany the team to China. He was on vacation from Dain Kalman and thought he was obliged to return on time to the United States. Dain Kalman’s chairman, Wheelock Whitney, later said that Charlie could have extended his vacation if he wished.

Charlie did later himself become president of the U.S. Table Tennis Association as have several players groomed through his Minneapolis table-tennis organization. He also organized a major table-tennis exhibition in Minneapolis involving Chinese players.

In 2000, landlord Bill McGaughey married a Chinese woman. He and Charlie discussed the possibility of Charlie accompanying Bill to Beijing in June where he could meet some of Bill’s wife’s friends. Charlie renewed his U.S. passport. Those plans fell through when Bill left from Boston instead of Minneapolis and Charlie feared becoming stranded at the airport in a strange land.

In short, Charlie Disney never made it to China although he had a small but significant role in that historic event known as ping-pong diplomacy.

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