Powell's legacy: He persevered, for the good of the game
A letter of congratulations from two presidents put a smile on the flushed face of Bill Powell as he sat erect in an easy chair under glaring floodlights, his daughter, Renee, perched on a stool to his left like a mother hen in full protect mode. It was her turn to help steady the hand of her 92-year-old father as he had done so many times for his daughter while she plowed her field of dreams in professional golf.
Bill Powell deserved all of the accolades he received last night as the PGA of America's Distinguished Service Award recipient, the second African American to be so honored (Bill Dickey was the first in 1999). I'm not certain that the presidential pats on the back from the honorable George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama balanced out a lifetime of trials and tribulations wrought for the love of golf, but I believe they helped.
"My love affair with the game of golf started at the age of nine and never wavered,'' said Powell as he read a script detailing his journey from the caddie yards of Minerva, Ohio, to digging nine holes out of the dirt in East Canton in 1946, making history as the first African American to design, construct and own a golf course (Clearview GC) in the process.
"You might ask why didn't I give up on golf,'' Powell said, as he passionately described a litany of incidents, both overt and covert, that would have sent a lesser man in search of another vocation. "How could I? I loved it too much.''
Briefly, Powell's story is rooted in American ingenuity, desire, determination and outright hardheadedness. How else do you explain a minority's rise from the caddie yard to the country club fairway alongside the boss of his domestic mother? In the Jim Crow era no less. The boss taught him how to play. Powell taught the boss a thing or two about quick study and setting goals.
The lad and a friend started the golf program at Minerva High. Powell served as captain and coach. He later attended Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio. In 1937, he led Wilberforce to victory in a match against Ohio Northern University in what is thought to be the first interracial golf match in this country's history.
But for a little exclusionary clause in the PGA's constitution, Powell would have turned pro when he returned home from a tour of duty in World War II. The ultimate slap in the face came shortly after that when he was denied a GI loan to build Clearview. With the support of family and financial backing from a couple of black physicians, Powell forged ahead, eventually adding another nine and securing National Register of Historic Places status for the course.
In the meantime, Renee blazed a trail of her own in becoming the second African American member of the LPGA. Althea Gibson was the first. Her brother Larry has been the agronomist, greens superintendent and overall caretaker of Clearview for years in a true family business.
Visitors to Clearview can sense the loving care in every blade of grass. It is Mr. Powell's legacy. That and his unwavering will power.
"In life you have to believe in yourself even if no one else does,'' Powell said. "Stand tall, stand firm and never give up.''
No one has ever stood taller than Bill Powell even when he was sitting down.
-- Pete McDaniel