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John Reitman

By John Reitman

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Recovery shot

Pat BergerThere is a saying that life is what happens while you're busy making other plans. No one knows that better than Pat Berger.


When he left Michigan State in 1980 with a certificate in turfgrass management, Berger couldn't imagine a career path that included anything other than working toward becoming a golf course superintendent. Today, Berger, 60, is director of sports turf operations at the University of Arkansas, and reflects on the circumstances that took him from the golf course to the athletic field.


"There were times I'd thought about changing professions," said Berger. "But I always told myself that I was a golf course superintendent."


Oh, how things change.


A series of family tragedies ultimately forced Berger from a career in golf and into sports field management 12 years ago so he could spend more time at home where he was needed, and are a sobering reminder that no job is more important than the job of being a husband and father.


Until that point, Berger's career path appeared to be going in the direction of many superintendents before him and since.


He had just completed an internship at Oak Hill Country Club and accepted a full-time position at the club on superintendent Dick Bator's crew where preparations were underway for that year's PGA Championship. Not even his wife Beverly's pregnancy with the couple's first child, Brent, was a match for preparing for a major championship.


"I was at the hospital for the delivery," Berger said. "I kissed my wife goodbye and went back to work."


Indeed, while the creation of life took a backseat to a young greenkeeper's career plans, the end of life for the child of a seasoned superintendent some 20 years later was a reality check that a job is not more important than family.


It was about 2000 when Erika, the third of the Berger's four children, had taken ill with a rare eating disorder. A standout high school soccer player, Erika's symptoms included the inability to hold down food. Unlike other eating disorders in which the process is voluntary and forced, for Erika, regurgitation was involuntary and uncontrollable.


The Bergers spent the better part of the next 10 years crossing the country from one hospital to another in pursuit of two things - a diagnosis and hope. They were able to get one. Eventually Erika was diagnosed with gastroparesis, a disease for which there is no known cure. She died Jan. 29, 2010, 12 days before her 25th birthday. 


When the family's bout with Erika's illness began, Berger had just taken a job as superintendent at Four Hills Golf Club in Albuquerque, N.M. His family remained behind in Fayetteville, Ark., as he settled in. The news hit shortly after he had made the move.


His supervisors at Four Hills were accommodating, and Berger returned to Arkansas as often as possible without compromising conditions on the golf course. As much as Berger appreciated the understanding of his bosses, he knew his place as a father was with his family.


Erika BergerAs Berger weighed the decision before him, he received a call from Arkansas turfgrass professor Mike Richardson, Ph.D., informing him the head groundskeeper's job at the University of Arkansas was open. The two had become acquainted during Berger's time at Texarkana Country Club from 1987 to 1999. Although Berger had been passed over for the Arkansas job once before, there was little to lose in applying a second time.


"I had a decision to make. It was a pay cut to leave the golf course," he said. "But that is where the doctors were, and it is where my family was."


Richardson went to the assistant athletic director charged with filling the head groundskeeper's position and recommended Berger.


"When I came to Arkansas, he was the superintendent at Texarkana Country Club and was one of the guys that I connected with during my first few years here," Richardson said. "(He is a) smart, hard worker, innovative and just a passionate grass guy."


Fortunately for Berger, he had better luck at the university the second time around. He spent the next several years honing managing what Richardson says are the best playing surfaces in the Southeastern Conference and being at home as much as possible for his daughter. The latter is something that probably never could have occurred had he remained in golf, where 70-hour and 80-hour weeks during the playing season are common.


Watching his daughter's condition deteriorate took a toll on everyone in the family.


"We have four other kids, and it affected the whole family," he said. "Our two youngest daughters (Erin and Elizabeth), they were the ones who saw the rapid deterioration from an athletic spark plug to someone who was very sick. They still ask 'why?' "


That is a question Berger still cannot answer.


Six months after Erika's death, Berger's wife was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer.


Thanks to an intense radiation program, Beverly, who is a nurse by profession, has been cancer free for a year, but is unable to return to work.


"When radiation kills something, it doesn't just kill the cancer. It kills a lot of things," he said.


Despite the challenges life has thrown his way, Berger feels he has been blessed by how some of the pieces of his life have fallen into place so that he could be part of what was transpiring.


"I have been as lucky as anybody," he said. "But, I do look at things a little differently now."


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