January 4, 2010

Goodwill Ambassador

Dr. William Powell's legacy will be more than the golf course he built, but the example he set

Dr. William Powell prevailed against racism to build, own and operate Clearview Golf Club.

Dr. William Powell prevailed against racism to build, own and operate Clearview Golf Club.

"Invictus," Clint Eastwood's latest cinematic contribution, is a searing inspirational film about Nelson Mandela's early years as president of South Africa and how he promoted the country's rugby team to help forge racial unity during its nascent post-apartheid era. The title and spirit of the film find roots in a poem that English writer William Ernest Henley penned in 1885.

Even if you've never read the poem or even heard of it, you still might recognize these piercing closing lines:

*"I am the master of my fate.

I am the captain of my soul."*

On not so grand a scale as Mandela, but with no less courage, charity and strength of character did Dr. William Powell deliver his own gift of peace and understanding to his country in the face of uncompromising bigotry and hate. Powell fought for the United States in World War II, committed to freeing the world from the yoke of tyranny. But he came home to find an enemy within, walls erected to replace the ones he'd helped tear down in other lands.

When not gripped by the frenetic duties of warfare, transporting explosives across Allied countryside, assisting in preparations for the D-Day invasion of continental Europe, U.S. Army Tech. Sgt. Powell sampled some of the finest and most revered courses in England and Scotland. When the war ended, so did his access to golf.

But a new pitched battle ensued, one for his pride, for principle, and for those who felt the sting of exclusion in whatever insidious form it was administered. The son of Alabama slaves, Powell, an accomplished golfer who had caddied as a youngster and was captain of his college golf team, refused to let others dictate the terms of his existence.

His gesture of civil disobedience was to construct his own golf course. Starting in 1946, Powell with his own hands built Clearview Golf Club in East Canton, Ohio. It is the first and only golf course in America built, owned and operated by an African-American citizen. Clearview went on to become a celebrated destination, symbolizing one man's perseverance over the cold cancer of prejudice that human nature can never fully eradicate.

Dr. Powell died Dec. 31 after complications from a stroke he had suffered days earlier. Few hours of his 93-plus years on Earth were ever wasted, so his passing delivers him a well-deserved rest. His legacy was long ago secured.

"Bill Powell will forever be one of golf's most unforgettable American heroes," PGA of America president Jim Remy said. "Bill made us appreciate the game and each other that much more by his gentle, yet firm example. He was born with a fire within his heart to build on his dream. In the process, he made golf a beacon for people of all color."

Remy is right in that Clearview is a manifestation of all that Powell believed in, but Powell neither made golf nor Clearview some kind of beacon. He himself was the beacon. Clearview was simply the vehicle through which he communicated certain high ideals, and those ideals he expected to find in the game when they did not readily come to him in life.

When that did not materialize, when the game forsook him, Powell did not retreat, and he did not become cynical when he had every reason to do so. Instead, he built his own golf course that became a repository for golf's implied rectitude. But a golf course, though it lives and breathes, cannot exude those principles.

Only Powell himself could adequately communicate inclusion and acceptance and forgiveness and the kind of intrinsic goodness that transcended the very symbols that his course represented to others. Media outlets the world over flocked to Clearview, but too often in telling Powell's life story, they trampled over the real story of how he was living it.

He didn't build Clearview and then simply determine his mission accomplished. No, the construction of his cherished course, one that took him years to build while holding down a job as a security guard and raising a family, was only the beginning.

This I came to realize in 2006, while in the midst of writing a story about Clearview Golf Club and Dr. Powell for Golf World. I shared a telling anecdote about Powell in a personal essay in the latest edition of "Chicken Soup for the Golfer's Soul." A few passages from that account worth are sharing again now:

  • "She all but threw herself at the ball, all 50 pounds of her. The small driver accented with a pink grip sent her golf ball, also bright pink, some 120 yards down the fairway, a mighty blow for a girl of 9. She then promptly ran after it with excited abandon, as if the ball might disappear if she did not hasten to strike her next shot. *

  • "Off some distance, standing outside the door of a modest clubhouse on a sunny and hot afternoon, the proprietor of the club and his own daughter watched with knowing wonder and genuine appreciation -- not only for the girl's preternatural talent, but also for her unbridled enthusiasm for a game that had been their life's work. Later, they would tell the little girl's father how much they enjoyed the simple innocence and joy of the moment. *

  • "'That little girl loves the game,' the soft-spoken elderly man, 90 years old but still effusing boyish enthusiasm for golf, said with wistfulness and a trace of melancholy, as if he were recalling in his mind's eye the little girl in his own daughter. 'You can tell; you can see it the way she went after that ball and scurrying down that fairway. Stay on it with her. Keep encouraging her.' *

  • "The man who spoke was Dr. William Powell. He had built that fairway and the rest of the par-71 golf course not just with his bare hands, but his bared soul, his sweat, his tears, his blood, and his dignity. *

  • "... That young girl was my daughter, Ellie. She and my son, Alex, and I went to play 18 holes at Mr. Powell's Clearview Golf Club in July of 2006. That year, the historic club was celebrating its 60th anniversary. Our visit represented the third of a half-dozen trips I had made to Clearview that summer from my home near Columbus to visit with Dr. P, as he is known, his daughter, Renee, a former LPGA golfer, and his son, Larry, the course superintendent, as I gathered information for a feature story I was writing for Golf World magazine. The family had poured their lives and fortunes into the golf course, and though they barely earned a living from it, they managed to create a place that fulfilled its mission -- to welcome golfers from all walks of life. *

  • "... 'I can tell you're a golfer,' the kind old gentleman told my daughter, seeing her in a way that so many people over the years had refused to look at him. His words denoted an acceptance of her with what one would describe as fraternal pride augmented by genuine enthusiasm. *

  • "He accepted her without blinders or prejudice or hesitation." *

The legacy of Dr. William Powell isn't Clearview Golf Club but the clear-minded convictions of a man who never gave up on the fragmented goodness of human nature.

Golf and his contributions to it were the pursuits that animated Dr. Powell's physical self, but all the more important was that it illuminated his essence, his soul. He was the captain of it, and he shared it willingly, and he made the world -- not just the cloistered world of golf -- a better place, something far too few people try to do and fewer still succeed.

The absence of one of the most historically important figures in the game at the outset of a new year and new decade predictably conjures references to Tiger Woods. A realistic assessment leads one to surmise that William Powell wouldn't garner more than passing mention, when, honestly, his story and his contributions to golf should dominate the conversation.