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June 11, 2013
Column: A teacher’s gift — and a lesson learned
This past week I read an article about the five most common things people say when they are dying. Imagine, not keeping in touch with your old friends and family was the most common thing people regretted. Well, I’m not dying but this week I had a chance to take care of the number one item.
My 99-year-old mom passed away last week and I set up a service for her in my hometown of Long Branch, New Jersey last Saturday. This was the town I left as an 18-year-old to enter the U.S. Coast Guard. During my mom’s service and for the next couple of days after, I had the opportunity to catch up on the lives of many of my family and old friends.
Although we recalled many stories, my hometown always reminds me of a story that no one talks about but made a deep impact on my life. It was about a 14-year-old boy in the middle of having the greatest thrill of his life, which also turned out to be his biggest humiliation. It all happened at a time I had just fallen in love with golf and was hardly playing any other sports.
Since the age of 12 I had caddied at an all Jewish country club, Hollywood Golf Club in Deal, New Jersey. There was a member by the name of Pat Anacon who was not only a good golfer but the only Christian member of the club. He attained a membership by marrying the woman he chauffeured. As a young man, I always found it interesting that he also kept his membership in the local public golf course where he could play a couple times a week with his old buddies.
One day while ending a round of golf caddying for Mr. Anacon, he threw me a brand new Spalding Dot golf ball to put in the pocket of his bag. This was a time not long after World War II and golf balls were scarce since they didn’t make them during the war. To this day, I still remember looking at that beautiful clean white ball that had been never hit. I had never hit a new ball and somehow the ball ended up in my pocket instead of the pocket of the bag.
Everything seemed fine until the next day when the caddy master called me out of the caddy yard to speak to Mr. Anacon about the ball episode. I lied and lied about what I did with the ball. More people were getting blamed and the hole I was digging was getting deeper. Although I thought they believed me, as I walked away I will never forget how sick I felt inside about getting my friends in trouble.
That was 1954 and when the season ended in September, little Bobby DeStefano won his first Class A caddy championship at Hollywood Golf Club. The presentation of trophies was held at the annual caddy dinner with over 100 caddies attending. As a surprise, a new speaker arrived at the dinner by the name of Pat Anacon.
I can still hear Mr. Anacon’s speech today because it was primarily on honesty and how the game should be played. Similar to language I have used many times since that day. During his speech he kept looking at me and nodding but never really directing anything to me. The caddies were all aware of what this was about and the most exciting moment in my life was tainted with embarrassment. Not much attention was given to that incident again, but 60 years later, here I am telling my friends about it again.
Thirty years later when I was married with two children, honorably discharged from the Coast Guard, and head golf professional at Gardiner’s Bay Country Club for over 20 years, on one of my trips to New Jersey to see my mom I was told that Mr. Anacon was in Monmouth Memorial Hospital and it didn’t look good.
I immediately drove to the hospital, quickly found Mr. Anacon’s room and walked in to see a frail old man lying in the bed. When I said, “Hello,” he was not too sick to remember me and say, “Hello, Bob.”
He knew what the next line would be out of my mouth as I said, “Mr. Anacon I have to tell you something.”
His answer proved to me that he was still a class act right to the end. All he said was, “You don’t have to say anything, Bob, but I hope you learned something from this and will teach others.”
I sat and we talked for another hour and the Spalding Dot or honesty was never mentioned again. Mr. Anacon died the next day but not before knowing that he had taught a young man a valuable lesson.
I wish I could have known him better but I hope, no matter what your age, you can all have a Mr. Anacon enter your lives.