An architect's sudden death, the family he left behind, and the road trip that helped bring closure
If you’ve played much golf in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah or California, there’s a good chance you’ve played a golf course my husband designed or renovated. In all, John Harbottle is credited with 15 original layouts and more than 45 remodels. John and I met in college, at the University of Washington, and I remember when he told me he wanted to be a golf-course architect, my response was, “A golf course what?” It wasn’t something you heard people say they wanted to do. John chose architecture because he loved golf so much. He was raised in the game. His mother won the 1955 U.S. Women’s Amateur and competed against Alice Dye, the wife of famed golf-course architect Pete Dye. While in college, John wrote a letter to Pete, asking how to become a course architect, and Alice wrote back telling him to get a landscape-architecture degree and to call them when he was done. John was over the moon.
Being a golf-course architect presents special challenges to a marriage and a family. John’s career took him away from home up to 80 percent of the time. I don’t think he realized how much time he would spend on an airplane, and I was blissfully unaware how much time he would spend away from me. When I was in graduate school, John called me from all over the world—Denver, Hawaii, Japan. We began to accept the idea early on that this is what the job required. My father was in the Air Force and was away from home a lot, so the lifestyle wasn’t unfamiliar to me. I know John appreciated that I was dedicated to his success as much as he was.
As John built his business, we had two children, Johnny and Chelsea, who would become very active in sports. John always knew when they had a game, and he would try to schedule his trips so he could attend as many as possible. When he had to be away, I spent plenty of soccer games on the sidelines giving him play-by-play on the phone as he sat at an airport somewhere. Despite being away from home so much, John was quite a presence in our children’s lives, and they don’t remember him at all as an absent father.
All that changed on May 24, 2012. John was traveling on business in California when he died suddenly of cardiac arrest. He was 53 years old. His death was completely unexpected and devastating for our family. Our world stopped, and changed forever.
Johnny and Chelsea were 19 and 17. Most people don’t have the privilege of seeing how the world regards their father at that age, but our kids did. More than 1,000 people attended the funeral. It was overwhelming. In the ensuing months, people continued reaching out to tell us how sorry they were. We were thankful for them because we always loved to hear from friends of John’s. It helped us to stay connected to him. But I’m not sure we ever had closure.
A few years after John’s death, I was contemplating what to do with all the golf-course architectural blueprints from his business. I had taken care of so many personal matters after his death that I hadn’t had time to think of what to do with his golf-course plans. We were still living in Tacoma, Wash., and the superintendent at our home course had been kind enough to let me store them in the maintenance building.
In 2015, a friend of mine and I were heading to California to visit another mutual friend. I knew John had completed a good bit of work there. It occurred to me that when John was working on a golf-course renovation, he loved finding old plans that offered insight into the original design. To him, it was like finding gold, so I thought, I have all these plans, maybe the courses would like to have them for historical purposes.
I selected four projects that John had worked on near where I was visiting, and I took the blueprints with me. I wasn’t able to schedule visits in advance, so I just showed up unannounced. To my delight, the receptions were incredible. My friends, who had never had the pleasure of knowing John, were thrilled at seeing these beautiful golf courses and learning about him through the people with whom he had worked. They told us stories about John I had never heard and showed me pictures of him they had taken. And, remarkably, people I had never met gave me bear hugs. The experience was simultaneously emotional, moving and rewarding. When I returned home, I thought, I must do this again, and my kids need to go with me.
Not long after that first trip, my daughter wanted to go to Los Angeles to meet a friend, so I made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. I planned a route for us and loaded up architectural plans from about 35 of John’s projects. This time, I did some research and made a rough itinerary of the clubs and contacts on my list. Chelsea and I started off one morning on what ultimately became a 4,100-mile journey driving south, zig-zagging through Oregon and California, showing up at courses where John had worked. Superintendents, general managers and club staff welcomed us warmly. Some drove us around the courses, others gave us tours of the clubhouses and treated us to lunch. My kids and I don’t play golf, so we couldn’t necessarily appreciate the finer points of John’s designs. Chelsea, however, was there to witness first-hand her father’s beautiful craftsmanship and to gain an understanding of where her dad went and what he did all that time he was away from home.
A year later, I made another trip with my son. We made a swing through Idaho and Utah. Over and over, we met people who told us how much they enjoyed working with John and respected his work, his character and his integrity. They told us how much he talked about his family. They seemed to know all about us. On one tour through a clubhouse, we happened upon a photograph of John hanging in the club’s history hall. I had my son pose next to it and took a picture. They look so much alike now.
My kids have always been very proud of their dad, but after those two trips, they have a new appreciation. Visiting John’s courses and listening to people talk about him was the best therapy.
A few months ago, Johnny was in Texas earning his pilot’s license. After finishing it, he drove back from Austin with his girlfriend. During our previous trip together, I had taken my son to see one of John’s courses in Twin Falls, Idaho. Johnny texted me from the road, asking for the name of it. He wanted to stop there with his girlfriend. When you think about it, my kids don't have a father to introduce the important people in their lives to, so they must find other ways. Showing them his golf courses and talking to people he touched is a beautiful way to do that.