Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Personal Privilege Day – Patty Conway, a Friend to Me and Teacher, Mentor and Role Model to Many

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 Shelter Island. 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.

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 Shelter Island. 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.

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 Washington 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."

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.


case said...

thank you

Anonymous said...

John, so sorry to hear of your and Brigid's loss. You both were so lucky to have such a wonderful person influence your life and I'm sure Brigid will share her memories of Patty for the rest of her life.


Laura's Husband said...

These are the types of stories you tell so well...sad?-yes...heart warming?-yes...inspiring? YES!

Thanks for sharing with us the people of sports who make it all worth while yet never make it to the sports pages.

thedean said...

Brigid needs to "pay it forward" to keep Patty's memory alive with one caution - we live in a different age and time. I had a similar situation where a teacher helped me to be the first in my family to get a college education. A few years ago i took two basketball players "under my wing" tutored them, paid for SAT prep classes and saw them get college scholarships. Here is the kicker, everyone in town wanted to know "what I was up to", "why would you help these two kids while your own son is on the bench?" The answer was those two kids were not getting into college without basketball scholarships. My son did not need basketball to get into school and knew it. People today are so petty and live in such shells but it should not deter her. It has not detered me, but just a little "reality therapy" this is a possibility and it is a shame. I will keep your friend Patty and her family in my prayers.

Anonymous said...

I second all the sentiment....

thedean - your story had a happier ending than I thought it would after you started it out, and told the story. I thought you were going to say the NCAA came after you and the kids you sought to help...good to know that it was just the pettiness of others that was the downside. That's very manageable.

Gunnar said...

Beautifully written, I am sorry for this loss to Brigid and your family.

Mike said...

Thanks for sharing, John. You truly have a gift. A very sweet story. After five minutes of reading, I'm am sad to hear of your loss,sad for Bridgid, and inspired by people making a difference simply by caring and exhibiting a "can do" attitude. It seems from a far that you have come across many such people in your travels. It occurs to me that you are certainly blessed in that way.

Matt Dick said...

Stop apologizing for choosing the topics of you blog posts. A) the topics are great and B) we're all enjoying them.


Anonymous said...

john - once again thank you for sharing.

JP said...

Very well written and couldn't have said it better myself. I grew up with the family and Patty was one of the nicest, caring, people I've ever met. I'm glad to hear of the influence she had over you and your daughter. Thank you for sharing...


Vince Spence said...

Is it just me, or do stories like this blot out the T.O., Crabtree, Favre garbage we are inundated with every day?

I wish I could remember to say "Patty Conway" every time a T.O. type story breaks and allows me to think wonderful, versus very negative, thoughts.

Every sports has their Patty Conways, but I think golf has a higher percentage. Just my opinion.

Thank you, John...

Anonymous said...

Wow..I guess this is what a blog is
really intended to do. I am glad you are sharing these personal things with us.I am a long time fan and this one today reminds me why.

Jeannie said...

John, What a beautiful story! I know Patty's sister who is also a wonderful person. How sad for Brigid that she has lost such a special person. Hopefully when she hits a great shot or sinks a long putt she will smile because she knows Patty is watching her. I too lost my first golf teacher the other day, Barney Corrigan from the IBM Club in Sands Point. He also promoted Junior golf and I have been lucky enough to stay in the business although not as a pro. Jeannie

Patricia said...

John, you said it so well! And for many of us, not only were our children involved with Jr. Golf, but many adults loved Patty's clinics. She was a class act in everything she did!! Brigit will always remember the life lessons Patty taught her!


Kristina Lange Lewis said...

When Patty Conway was approached last year by some mothers on Shelter Island about golf lessons for their sons, her response, without hesitation, was "Sure, I'd love to." She didn't care that they were only six years old. Patty just cared about having chocolate bars in her pockets and showing Kal, Liam, Lucas and Daniel how to have fun on the golf course. She succeeded, despite the rule about little boys having to keep their shirts tucked in for an ENTIRE hour! Kal is seven now and enjoys playing golf with his dad, thanks to his first teacher, Patty Conway.

Thank you, John, for your tribute. We will miss her.

Anonymous said...

Hi John, Patty was an early and favorite teacher of mine when I came late to the game as an adult learner at GBCC. She was always patient, always gentle but effective in her critiques and always a lot of fun. She will be very sorely missed. I'm so glad you took time from your regular topics to introduce your readers to this wonderful woman who will be very much missed by all who knew her. Thanks, Julia Brennan

Anonymous said...


Well said about a truly wonderful person -- Gardiner's Bay will not be the same.


Pat and Newt

Josh Mothner said...

A great tribute to a wonderful woman! Shelter Island will miss her, Garidner's Bay will miss her, and although I've only seen her on occasion over the years....I will miss her as well!

Denise Ryan Webster said...

John - what wonderful words about a wonderful person. Patty and I were childhood friends and spent lots of our time on the course at Gardiners Bay. I have been gone from Shelter Island for 38 years but have spent the last few days remembering my carefree childhood and teenage years at Gardiners Bay with a very special person. She was a gift to so very many. Rest in Peace Patty,- with fond memories Denise Ryan Webster

Anonymous said...


Thank you John for sharing this with so many.
G.B.C.C. will not be the same nor will the island in general.
She will be dearly missed.
I could not have said it better about the fact that if Pat was having a bad day, one never knew it.
There are not too many Patty's in our world.
She is gone, but never to be forgotten.

Kammy Maxfeldt said...

Such a heart warming story about Pat and Brigid. As a fellow golf professional I can remember Pat never ceased to learn how to communicate the game of golf to others, she has always been a role model to me as a Golf Professional. She will be so dearly missed by all the lives she has touched.

John Caccese said...

Dear John:

My sister-in-law Andrea just called to tell me about Patty and I was sure you'd write something appropriate and wonderful about Patty, the fine life she led and the golf environment in which she thrived.

You did a wonderful job, and let me express my deepest sympathy to you and Brigid. Patty's influence on both of you has been profound.


Anonymous said...

John --

This is a wonderful tribute to Patty. Her passing is such a loss. Thank you for taking time and space to commemorate her life and the joy she gave to you -- and to others. In the weeks before she passed, she was still giving my Dad lectures on his physical therapy.

A lot of people knew Patty. I played 9 holes at the Dartmouth College course over Columbus Day weekend and the assistant pro up there knew her -- and knew she had cancer.


PS Harrumph. You were NOT a "late starter" in golf, unless starting at age 9 [ok, maybe 10, I forget] is "late".

Ken Wright said...

John, thank you so much for articulating what so manyof us from GBCC are feeling.
Patty was such a great friend as well as a teacher to us.
We have been blessed with her presence and will have many fond memories for many years because of Patty.
Finally, those who knew Patty are so much better due to her good example and influence.
Ken Wright

Anonymous said...

Hi John
Well, there was a true sadness for Steve and I when we heard the news about Patty. Here we are in Florida all these years and whenever I would get back for a weekend during the summer months, I was blessed when Patty would say, Hey,let's play 9 holes." Often I would be with Valerie and the 3 of us would just talk and play and be so happy that we were lucky enough to experience a bit of heaven at Gardiners Bay.
We will all miss her, but will never forget her beauty, inside and out.
By the way, John, it's hard to believe Brigid is 11. (Evan is already 25) Yikes!!
With much love,
Harriet Rosenberg

margaritazavalia@hotmail.com said...

Dear John it was when I opened you new book that found out about Patty. My best summers ever, perhaps the best years of my life where the ones I spend in Shelter Island and Patty was one of the reasons, I remember when I had to face Mimi Ross at the Clubs Championship and was terrified of making a fool out of myself, having being a good tennis player had the pride of winning but not the same skill at golf, Patty said to me don't be intemidated by Mimi "you are good" and coming from Patty, whom I dearly loved and mostly trusted I DID IT,
It is a privilege to be able to say Patti Conway was a friend of mine..
John thanks for the memories of those wonderful summers in Shelter Island and your daughter is extremly to have had a such terrific teacher-model on Patricia Conway
Always enjoying your writting
the argentine tennis player