One Of A Kind
Respected Southampton Superintendent Calls It Quits After 37 Years
December 11, 2006
- The first impression of
are the wistful eyes, unabated by a homogenous life seen rooted in a strong value system.
The outgoing Southampton Golf Club superintendent is so disarming, so gentlemanly, that if you asked for a key to his home, he'd probably oblige with his diaphragm-laden chuckle while politely mouthing "yes sir." He is glib and gentle in his delivery. He didn't attend college but, listening to him, you could say he has a Ph.D. in life.
Etheridge is a relic and rarity in the business, analogous to an eight-track player in today's technological buffet of compact discs and
systems; a relic in that he lasted 37 uninterrupted years at the same club; a rarity in that he's African-American in a business that is predominately Caucasian across the board, on and off the course.
In this day and age of rung-climbing among superintendents, Etheridge spurned other offers because money grabs weren't what he was about. Nor did prestige interest him much.
Etheridge decided to exit the profession quietly, the way he'd prefer it, but not before the club could honor him in a dignified way Sept. 15.
Despite a hellacious storm that poured more than 7 inches of rain on the area the night of his club's retirement party - washing out roads in some cases - 217 of the 545 members still showed up. It was the least the club could do, according to 13-year president
who also served five previous years as Etheridge's green chairman.
thought so highly of Etheridge that he was one of the many voices pushing to extend a consulting offer and family membership gratis. So, in some ways, Etheridge isn't really leaving, although he officially handed over the reins Nov. 16.
|Elton Etheridge confers with incoming superintendent James Choinski during a late October afternoon. (John Mummert/USGA) |
"Everything," said Armusewicz when asked what he'd miss most about him. "One thing about Elton: you never worried about the golf club. He was here day and night. If he heard a crash of thunder, he'd be here. But we'll miss everything about him because you knew everything would be all right in the morning when you got here."
If there was a polar opposite for attention deficit disorder, that'd be the 69-year-old Etheridge. The same job for 34 of his 37 years at the club; a marriage of 49 to wife, Florence; the same unvarnished desk that dates unofficially back to the 1940s; all while outlasting nine green committee chairmen and seven presidents. He had an effective laid-back style that put people at ease while, at the same time, creating the notion that challenging him was irreverent and out of the question.
"I was 25, probably the youngest GM in the Met area," said Ruhling, now 38, in the confines of the clubhouse recently. "Here's a guy, close to 60, and I'm thinking, 'Geez, how am I going to get along with him?'
"He was the nicest guy to get along with. I found him to be real easy-going and supportive of everything. He's very modest, very low key."
"Oh yeahhhhhh," said Etheridge, exhibiting his endearing laugh when asked if he was easy to work for.
That was demonstrated as his full-time crew of six, which inflates to 15 during the busy season, kidded and chided Etheridge as they went about their maintenance on this overcast, chilly day. Etheridge, baseball cap tipped below his brow, would just smile easily and take it all in stride.
An argument could be made that besides Etheridge's wife, no one has spent more time with Etheridge in the past four years than newly anointed superintendent
. Etheridge took a chance on the out-of-work Choinski after he served four years as the superintendent at Muttontown Golf Club in
"He has a lot of years on this golf course," said Choinski. "There is nothing he hasn't covered. The best thing about being here for four years was to watch him."
No Easy Task
Fifty years ago, the Southampton-reared Etheridge said he wouldn't have thought that his life would lead him to a golf course. He starred at
as a four-time letterman, standing out most as an athletic quarterback and record-holder in track and field. He attended the school with Robert "Hook" Williams whom he had befriended in the first grade.
After a two-year stint as a corporal in the U.S. Army, Etheridge got married and returned to the area looking for work. He did menial landscaping jobs, bumping into Williams around 1969 while he held the Southampton Country Club superintendent job.
"He was mowing lawns and I said, 'Why don't you come work for me?'" said Williams, 68, the current superintendent at Maidstone Club in
Etheridge admitted he knew little about golf course maintenance. He recalled his first day on the job, learning how to cut greens. Then he was introduced to bunkers. Soon he became Williams' assistant and oversaw a crew.
In 1972, a chain of events would alter Etheridge's life. First, Williams' uncle,
, died. He had been the superintendent at
for a number of years. Feeling pulled to take his place, Williams turned in his resignation at
but not before making a recommendation.
"The people at
asked me who would take my place," said Williams. "I said, 'You've got Elton right here.'
"It became a very good opportunity for Elton. Year-round jobs were rare back then. There weren't that many."
Added Etheridge: "Looking back when I took this job - I was just talking about this with my wife - we had three kids and I had just bought my house. It stabilized our living, our mortgage payment."
|Etheridge's unvarnished desk was like a best friend over his 34 years as a superintendent. The history of the desk, which served as a comfort zone during stressed-out times, pre-dated Etheridge. (John Mummert/USGA) |
By that time Etheridge had plenty of knowledge but found he was still learning on the fly. He'd find solace in a limited budget by relying on the pragmatism his mother, a housekeeper, and father, a landscaper, taught him as a child. They instilled their values and he, the youngest of seven children, used them as guiding principles in his life.
"One lesson they taught us was to be honest," said Etheridge. "We'd have to work for a living. No one will give you anything. Make sure you go to church. Respect your elders. When you get a job, respect the job and work hard on it."
And he did. Oftentimes Etheridge and his staff would purchase used down-trodden machinery. Or he'd borrow equipment from a neighbor.
"He had more equipment after I left," Williams laughed. "I'd try to cry my way into a new truck. I didn't buy used stuff. But Elton believed it would save the club money."
Said Armusewicz: "When I came here, there was stuff breaking down and getting fixed all the time. I told Elton, 'That's it, we're buying stuff and not doing this anymore.' He'd say, 'I can save you money and fix it.' He was just trying to do his part."
In hindsight, by outsourcing bustedequipment, Etheridge was tending to a track with one arm figuratively tied behind his back. There were 200 members when he took the reins in 1972 to its present 545. That meant having a course, open year-round weather permitting, prepared without ever closing. But he never complained.
Before the membership grew, the club would allow the passers-by on County Road 39 to drop in and play. They couldn't get on the neighboring Shinnecock Hills Golf Club or National Golf Links of America, both exclusive clubs with high pedigrees, so why not let them on if they had open tee times. That was a time before
exploded as a vacationing haven for
As more people came, Etheridge endured 30,000 rounds a year, 150 of them per day during the summer. Turf compaction and wear and tear issues were a constant since the cart fleet grew from 30 to 85, after the caddie program was eliminated in 1974.
With mild weather becoming more common in the tony area, the club decided in 1977 to winterize the course. USGA agronomist
drew up a plan with different greens and fairways. With additional work heaped upon him, Etheridge didn't blanch. In fact, he turned to the USGA for guidance, citing the Association's Turf Advisory Service as "a life-saver." TAS is predicated on USGA Green Section agronomists making visits and acting as consultants on turfgrass.
As the times changed, Etheridge changed with it. He educated himself by eschewing school and attending national meetings. The fact that he was one of the few minorities in a superintendent's position never intimidated him. Yet it was in the back of his head.
"Going into meetings, I never saw minorities," he said. "You know, they'd ask, 'What is your job?' Every now and then I'd see a black assistant.
"I just don't understand. I've been in this a long time. It's gotten a little better because I have seen more assistants. That makes me feel really good. You see some [Hispanics], Asians and African-Americans now."
One day earlier this year, Etheridge awoke at the usual time,
, and felt something different. He went about his business, making his same morning stop at a local 24-hour convenience store, but felt a gnawing feeling.
He sought out Williams.
"Talking to Hook," said Etheridge, "it came to a point where I was getting up every morning. 'You know,' I said to myself, 'It's in the morning.' It finally got to me. Not that I was tired. It just got to me."
Etheridge informed the club that the wheels toward retirement were being put in motion. Armusewicz told him to take his time.
During that timeframe, Etheridge tabbed Choinski as his replacement. Choinski said it's a daunting task, adding that he'd be crazy to overhaul the course because Etheridge's formula worked.
Etheridge and his wife still reside in the same house they purchased more than 30 years ago, a mere seven minutes from the course. He said they have no plans to sell, even though he marvels that he could probably net 45 times the $18,000 he originally paid. He's unsure what he'll do now. Maybe he'll dabble in his wife's Native American group, play some golf, lounge around, consult at the course or spend time with his family, the highest priority in his life.
|Goodbye: Etheridge walks away with no regrets and an abundant amount of respect. (John Mummert/USGA)|
For 37 years he awoke early every day to provide for his wife and three daughters,
, 45, and
, 43. The job helped him put two of them through college, and the third one through a
fashion institution. Etheridge said his proudest achievement in life has been being the best father he could be.
While rummaging through his office, he pulled several dated photos of his daughters from a dusty shelf and a memory-laced smile formed on his lips. Then he broke into stories about his grandchildren, gushing about their accomplishments. The inference was made without having to say it. Etheridge enjoyed his job but loves his family.
"Elton is very, very family oriented," said Williams, his lifelong friend. "He's always been a rock."
As Etheridge took a bite into a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich, he was asked to reflect on a career that has come full circle. At first he seemed pensive, searching for anecdotes or stories. Then the words tumbled out like bees emerging from a comb.
"When I started, it wasn't as technical," he said. "Now, you've got to go to school, meetings, stay up on stuff. You have to keep sharp on chemicals. Be more aware of diseases. It's really grown the last 15 years. You look at it now and say, 'Holy Christmas!' I'm lucky I had a lot of input from the USGA.
"One thing about this job, you can't deter Mother Nature. It's the only job in a field where every day you come to work with a different challenge. It'll change on you so fast. It's analogous to a kitchen preparing food. You could put the food out and I'd say, 'This hamburger doesn't taste good.' What do you do? You'd throw it away. Well, you can't throw turf away."
Etheridge is asked one more question, perhaps the hardest one of the interview. Probably best to save it for last. What of his legacy? What will it be?
"My legacy?" he inquisitively asked. "I hope my legacy is that I left the impression that a minority could handle his job as well as any other race. And I kept my gentlemanly ways and the members respected me."
For a man so woven into the fabric of
- his dog Beebee is buried at the post office - Etheridge needn't worry about that.
His legacy is without blemish.
Ken Klavon is the USGA Web Editor. E-mail him with questions or comments at email@example.com.