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It takes a village... (or a small town, anyway)

Peter McCormick

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It's been a tough year or so for my 60-ish friends.

Last Thanksgiving long-time TurfNet member and one of my best personal friends, Jerry Coldiron, left us way too soon, at 60, of cardiac arrest.

Shortly after Valentine's Day it was an 18-year stalwart on our TurfNet hockey team, Tom Morris CGCS (ret), at 61. They thought it was the flu but turned out to be spinal meningitis, source unknown, four days soup to nuts. Went to bed and didn't wake up. Again, way too young.

We just arrived at our summer place in the Maritimes to find our builder and good friend Mark Calder just spent a week in the hospital for congestive heart failure. He's 60 as well, but thankfully still kicking. Good thing, as I have repairs that need attention. ūüôā

The reality check for me is that I am older than all of them.

The good news (for which I'm ever searching these days) is that sometimes good things happen as a result of tragedy or misfortune.

Shortly after Jerry's death we launched the Jerry Coldiron Embrace Life! Fund in his memory, and awarded $10,000 at Beer & Pretzels to four individuals who exemplified Jerry's zest for life, positivity and spreading joy to others. The Fund will continue into the foreseeable future, acknowledging positivity in the turfgrass community.

The good news (for which I'm ever searching these days) is that sometimes good things happen as a result of tragedy or misfortune.

Today I want to talk about Tom Morris. Not THAT Tom Morris (of St. Andrews greenkeeping fame), although we did refer to Tommy as "Old Tom" upon occasion.

Tommy Mo was a classic, a one-of-a-kind, broke-the-mold, do his own thing, dance to his own drummer kind of guy. Originally from Massachusetts, he spent most of his adult life and career in Vermont, my  home state for the past ten years. It was a perfect fit for Tom, because Vermont (a long-time bastion of independence) is full of individualists, burned-out hippies, non-conformists and Subaru drivers. Maybe that's why I wound up here and found such a kindred spirit in Tommy.

Point of note: Contrary to popular legend, Vermonters don't wear Birkenstocks. At least I don't know any who do.

Old Tom wore work boots, wool socks, hiking shorts, and a Hawaiian shirt. Just about every day, year round, no matter the weather. For variety it might be running shoes and a t-shirt in summer. On bright days he would sport his iconic, appropriately crooked Lennon-esque sunglasses to complete the outfit. In winter he would add his trademark tweed driving cap and barn coat. None of this for show, mind you. That was just him. His style, and his alone.

He was a hockey player, referee and bluegrass musician. Along with Ken Lallier, CGCS, also from Vermont, Tommy was an original 1999 member of Team TurfNet, our first year playing in the Golf Course Hockey Challenge in Fort Erie and Niagara Falls, Ontario. He missed only two tournaments among the twenty since. Ken Lallier hasn't missed any. Our goaltender all 20 years. Iron Man. Brick Wall. Vermonter.

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Me with Trevor Clark (l) and Tommy Mo at Music in the Meadow, Chester, Vermont, June, 2017. Tommy was playing with The Bondville Boys in a fund-raiser for the Susan G. Komen cancer research fund.

Like a true Yankee (as in New Englander and Bruins/Red Sox fan), Old Tom was frugal. Our first year at the Hockey Challenge, he arrived with his gear in his father's World War II duffel bag. Much of his equipment was almost as old. He had a 1960s-era leather helmet. Gloves with no palms. A t-shirt with more holes than fabric, which he continued to wear for many more years until it completely fell apart.

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Post-game refreshment, with Brian Goudey (now with Syngenta), 2010. Nobody was thinking about who won or lost. It's all about the friendship.

Tom was a golf course superintendent for about 25 years at a handful of courses in Vermont. He was certified, and if my memory serves me correctly, he was president of the VtGCSA around the turn of the millennium when GCSAA was pushing it's dual membership program requiring all members of local chapters to also have membership in the national.

Vermonters as a rule don't like to be told what they can and cannot do, or what they have to do. Beyond that, the state has many short-season, low-budget facilities to which the $300 asked for national dues meant doing without something else. So there was a backlash, with Old Tom leading the hue and cry. This of course didn't sit well with some who sip the Kool-Aid.

As fate would have it, Tom lost his job at Sugarbush Golf Course shortly thereafter. His few local detractors pored over the chapter by-laws, cited the clause stating that chapter officers must be currently employed superintendents... and asked him to resign as president. I suspect that after 25 years Tommy had one foot out the golf industry door anyway, but he turned around and told them where they could stick their by-laws and everything else... and quit the business.

Drawing upon his skills learned as a superintendent, Tommy and his Sweetie (as he called Nancy Jean, his partner for many years before and since) started a property maintenance business servicing second homes and condos in the ski areas of southern Vermont. He refereed hockey games at night, and was a founding 30-year member of the Bondville Boys,  a popular local bluegrass band with which he played banjo and guitar, wrote songs and sang.

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Tom and Nancy Jean, an item for 27 years.

Like many others in rural New England, he cobbled together enough income to get by, played some music, cultivated a little 'Vermont lettuce' for personal use and enjoyed life. That he did.

I don't know how many guys have passed through Team TurfNet over the years, but I'd say somewhere between 50 and 75, maybe even 100. I know that if I were to ask any one of them who their favorite teammate was, every one would say Tom Morris. Was he the best player? No, but nobody played harder, even as he got older and slower. In fact, as coach, I awarded him several casual (and often tongue-in-cheek) team MVP awards to recognize his effort and commitment.

...if I were to ask any one of them who their favorite teammate was, every one would say Tom Morris.

It was in the dressing room that Tommy was in his element. Oh, the stories, the wisecracks, the memories of zany shenanigans that took place over those 20 years when men become boys again for at least a couple of days. Life-long memories were generated every year, even during those early years when we went winless for five years straight.

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Tom Morris (r) enjoying a yuck with Joe "Squeak" Kinlin (Bey Lea GC, NJ) in 2005. Must have been the early of the two daily games, judging by the Gatorade. Tom's trademark tweed cap can be seen hanging from the hook at the top of the photo.

When Tommy passed away in February, his Sweetie, Nancy Jean, announced that there would be a celebration of his life later in the year.  That turned out to be the first annual town-wide TommyFest, held at their stream-side home in Jamaica, Vermont, on July 7.

Jamaica is a classic small Vermont crossroad town of about a thousand people, white clapboard houses, a restaurant or two and a small grocery store.

The 237 towns in Vermont don't have mayors; they have selectmen. Cities have mayors, but there are only nine in the state, so not much is thought about them. Even so, Tommy Mo was considered by most Jamaica residents to be the defacto mayor of their town. If he wasn't playing music, he was chatting with people at the general store, bicycling through town or waving to passersby.

The entire town was invited to TommyFest, with a simple request from Nancy Jean to bring your love, a dish to share, a perennial to plant in the memorial garden that she had prepared overlooking their stream, and your musical instruments.

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By my estimate, about 1/3 of the town showed up. It was only proper that TurfNet sponsor the beer, which I had arranged through D&K's Jamaica Grocery. There was plenty of food (including baskets of hand-picked local strawberries), drink, music and love.

Thirty or forty people brought their acoustic instruments, an eclectic variety of guitars, mandolins, upright basses, fiddles, banjos, ukuleles... and even a guy with a blue clarinet. What started as a group sing-along of "Down on the Corner" soon broke up into smaller groups of musicians and singers spread out around the property. Tommy would have loved it, and been in the middle of it.

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Even I answered the call and brought my 12-string to strum a few tunes for Old Tom.

TurfNet was well represented, both hockey players and not. Trevor Clark, Tommy's defense partner on Team TurfNet, and his family drove from Toronto to stay with us for the weekend. Mark Fuller, CGCS ret, came from Connecticut. Ken Lallier, of course, was there, along with Jim Gernander, Joe Charbonneau, Chris Cowan and Tim Madden.

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Me with Syd Clark, Nancy Jean Henry (Sweetie, sporting Tom's #3, backwards), Mark Fuller, Ken Lallier, Jim Gernander and his wife Jenn. Foreground, Trevor and Susan Clark.

Many people brought perennials from their garden to help plant Tommy's memorial garden, which was appropriately festooned for the day with some of his instruments and Hawaiian shirts.

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Tommy's garden.

The take-home messages in all this are to spend your life doing things that you enjoy, with people you love. Do for others, lend a hand, pay it forward.  When it's time for a change, draw on your inner strengths and resources and take the plunge, without regret. Keep busy but reserve time to plant a garden, play music, ride a bike or go for a run, sit and splash in a stream on a hot day. Don't sweat the details; go with the flow.

The satisfaction for me is knowing that Tommy and Trevor and Ken and the other guys would not have been a part of my life (or each others) were it not for TurfNet. That's pretty cool.

We would all do well to live our lives well enough and touch enough others so that so many would want to spend a day honoring our memory. As Tom used to say, "Peace, Love and 3-Part Harmony."

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Guest Scott Cybulski CGCS

Posted

Nice write up Peter.  We had the New England Superintendents Championship on September 11, 2001 at CC of Vermont and I was fortunate enough to play in  Tom's group.  We all felt very lucky to be playing golf that day. It was a time of reflection and Tom offered up inspirational thoughts about love and hate in the world.  I feel lucky to have met and known Tom, I will surely never forget him.

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Well written Pete. I only skated with Tom and TurfNet for 4 or 5 years in the early days. He was a good guy, team mate and great story teller. Always a smile and big hello. You said it all in your note.

I only wish I could have stayed long enough to hear you play along with all those bluegrass players in celebration of Tom. Only the best to you.

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16 hours ago, Guest Scott Cybulski CGCS said:

Nice write up Peter.  We had the New England Superintendents Championship on September 11, 2001 at CC of Vermont and I was fortunate enough to play in  Tom's group.  We all felt very lucky to be playing golf that day. It was a time of reflection and Tom offered up inspirational thoughts about love and hate in the world.  I feel lucky to have met and known Tom, I will surely never forget him.

Scott - I had not heard that. I can imagine that playing golf with other supts on 9/11 would have been comforting to a degree on a most uncomfortable day.

Funny, but it occurred to me while writing this column that I had never heard Tommy mention playing golf. I thought perhaps that he was ‚Äúgolf free‚ÄĚ, as I am.

Thanks for the further insight.

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