There were two spectacular baseball playoff games both ending in walk-off hits. Spectacular stuff even if the pace of the games is enough to make you crazy as you watch. Those games will not be the subject of the blog this morning. There's an old political term called, "personal privilege." It is used by legislators when they rise to speak on a subject that really isn't germane to the business of the day but is something on their mind.
Today, I am requesting personal privilege to write about Pat Conway.
Ninety-nine percent of you have, I understand, never heard the name. But you should--at least this once--because there are people in the world who touch lives without ever becoming rich or famous and Patty was one of them. We all had a teacher, a coach, a mentor somewhere along the way--or just a good friend--who touched us in a way we never forget. Patty was a lifelong friend of mine. She was a teacher, a mentor and a role model for my daughter Brigid. She died yesterday of lung cancer--one of those non-smokers who still somehow gets the disease--at the age of 56.
Patty and I both grew up in Bob DeStefano's junior golf program at Gardiner's Bay Country Club on
. Talk about touching lives--Bob started his junior program when he first got to Gardiner's Bay in 1962 and he's still running it--open to any kid on Shelter Island not just club members--today. Patty was in Bob's first class and was one of his best pupils. Even though she was about 5-foot-1 and might have weighed 110 pounds at most, she became an excellent player, good enough to take a shot at playing as a pro, before she came back to Shelter Island 25 years ago to be Bob's assistant pro. Shelter Island
I came to the program several years after Patty, a late starter in golf and never a very good player. By then, Patty was one of the 'big kids,' helping Bob with the younger kids. We were friends as teen-agers even though she was a little older than me and good friends when she came back to
. I loved playing golf with Patty because it was almost like taking a playing lesson while laughing your way through 18 holes. She was just fun. Shelter Island
The number of second generation (and even a few third generation) kids that Bob has now taught is remarkable. My two kids were second generation junior golfers (as are my brother's) and, right from the start, Patty took Brigid under her wing. In Brigid she clearly saw herself reborn. Brigid's small for her age, but extremely determined. Patty's biggest challenge with Brigid was convincing her that it is very difficult (though not impossible for Brigid) to talk while swinging the club. Her patience in taking her from a tiny eight-year-old who made contact about 25 percent of the time to an 11-year-old who, though still tiny, could actually play the game and--more important--love the game, was amazing.
The two of them bonded. Patty often told Brigid that their goal was to show people that you didn't have to be big and strong to be a good player. "Hit it past the big kids Brigid," she would often say. Brigid has won the long drive competition in her age group at the end of the summer four years out of four. I swear to God I don't know how she's done it or how Patty did it. The third year I was off-island on the day of the various junior contests and called Brigid to see how things had gone. How'd long drive go Brigid?" I asked.
"Still undefeated," she answered.
Patty was one of those people we all meet who never seemed to have a bad day. At a golf club that has been divided in recent years over every issue you can possibly imagine, where some people walk by one another in the clubhouse without so much as a nod of the head, everyone loved Patty Conway. She was one of those rare people who never had an enemy and I can't imagine anyone ever said a bad word about her. If they did, something was truly wrong with them. Even in her 50s, she could still hit the golf ball long and straight and when she had time to play she could still score. And she always laughed.
When I had my heart surgery this summer Patty was distraught. "I just saw you," she said the week after the surgery. (I had been on the
Island during the U.S. Open) You looked great. How could I have missed that something was wrong?"
"I don't know," I said. "Maybe if you'd had an angiogram to work with you'd have noticed."
She laughed but still acted as if she'd done something wrong not diagnosing me on the spot.
She and Brigid had another great summer, playing nine holes on the last day of the summer. When we got back to
for the start of school I asked Brigid if she wanted to take some lessons in the fall to keep her swing at the level she had reached during the summer. She shook her head vehemently. "No dad, I don't want someone else talking to me about my swing. Patty's my teacher." Washington
Apparently, even though she never showed it at all, Patty wasn't feeling so hot this summer. She finally went to a doctor and that's when the tests came back showing lung cancer--that had spread. Whether anything would have been different if she had gone to the doctor sooner we'll never know. They tried chemo but it was too late.
Two summers ago Brigid won the Most Improved Award in her age group. This is a big deal if you are in Bob's program. I still have the trophy from the year I won it when I was 15. When Bob announced Brigid's name as the winner and she went up to get her trophy, he stuck the microphone in his hand knowing that some of Brigid's spontaneous comments are priceless.
“Do you want to say a few words Brigid?" he asked.
Brigid never hesitated. "I owe it all to Patty," she said.
Which she did.
Now I have a little girl who says she doesn't want to play golf anymore because it won't be the same without Patty as her teacher. She's right, of course, it won't be the same. Walking into the pro shop or onto the range or into the clubhouse at Gardiner's Bay won't be the same without Patty there with that light-up-the-room smile of hers always ready to attack the day with zeal and joy regardless of whatever else might be going on.
I know Brigid will play golf next summer. More than anything, Bob DeStefano passed on to Patty the ability to teach kids to love the game, regardless of their skill level. There's no better example than me. Patty passed that on to Brigid who loves to go in the basement on cold winter nights and practice her putting. Brigid will play next summer and in the future because she will know that Patty would want her to keep playing and keep hitting it past the big kids.
Patty did that all her life--on and off the golf course. She would expect no less of Brigid.