CHARLESTON — “Gods do not answer letters.”
John Updike told The New Yorker readers that in 1960. But he was wrong.
Fifty years ago this week, one did.
The letter came down from Sam Snead in heavenly Augusta, Ga., with Charleston as its destination.
Snead owned seven major championships. He won three Masters (1949, ’52, ’54). He won three PGA Championships (1942, ’49, ’51). He won the 1946 British Open. He holds the PGA Tour record with 82 career victories.
He answered my dad’s letter.
Snead mailed his response Friday, April 6, 1962, according to the envelope’s postmark. It was the Friday of Masters week. He was on his way to finishing 15th that year at the Masters when he took the time to write and mail a response to a high school sophomore.
My dad, Bill Hall, dated his letter to Snead as April 1, 1962. The letter said:
I am doing a report for several members of the Charleston School Board on the merits of having golf as a high school sport.
Do you feel that golf should be sponsored in high school like football and basketball? I would like to hear your opinion as the world’s most famous golfer as to why you are for or against golf in high school.
Thank you for your time and trouble.
Snead wrote his response at the bottom of the letter with blue ink. It said.
Dear Glfr Hall: To answer your question about golf being sponsored in high school I would say yes. I played in high school and quite a few boys can play golf that aren’t strong enough for basket ball [sic] & football. It certainly is a clean and gratifying sport. Sincerely, Sam Snead
Finding the letter
My dad had told me he had a letter from Snead about why Charleston should start golf.
He said he had it somewhere.
That meant he had no idea where it was.
My dad passed away in January 2011. My mom decided to sell their house, and I asked her to look for the Snead letter as she went through his things.
Preserved in one of Dad’s filing cabinets in their basement was a folder with the word “GOLF” on the label. The folder contained a treasure.
It had the Snead letter.
It also had the responses to several other letters that Dad sent to dignitaries as he tried to build a case for Charleston adding golf.
There were letters from Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary, John F. Kennedy’s Council on Youth Fitness, and the United States Golf Association with each of the three basically saying that golf is good but that adding it as a varsity sport is a local decision.
There were letters from IHSA Executive Secretary Albert Willis, IHSA Assistant Executive Secretary S.E. Alkire, Robinson High School golf coach Jim Mitchell and Mattoon High School golf coach Jerry Ferguson that detail golf’s status as a high school sport in 1962.
Another letter is from three-term Illinois’ United States Senator Paul Douglas. Sen. Douglas wrote, “Personally, I think golf has many merits as a sport for it is one of the few which can be played after one graduates whereas football, track, and basketball — while meritorious in themselves — do not provide recreation throughout life.”
The other significant inclusions in the file were newspaper clippings from the summer of 1962 that show strong involvement in the Charleston Country Club’s youth tournaments. A match play tournament had 32 participants, including my dad and aunt Cathy. Stories are also from the Charleston Country Club youth playing kids from other country clubs.
The letter to Snead says Dad intended to make a presentation to Charleston School Board members with these letters.
I wonder if he ever did.
Dad’s sister, Cathy, was in seventh grade in 1962 when the letters were sent and received. She says she was not aware of the Snead letter or Dad working on this specific project.
“I really don’t remember, but he did that for a lot of stuff,” Cathy said this week. “It probably wasn’t just golf but a lot of different things. … Your dad when he was growing up, he was so into politics. Even when he was in junior high and high school, he had a really strong interest in those things. He would spend summers doing volunteer work and that kind of stuff for different politicians.”
He also spent significant time playing golf both at the Charleston Country Club and at the golf course that used to be at Eastern Illinois University.
“In the summertime is when we played most of the time,” Cathy said. “(The country club) would do the youth stuff during the day. Mom or somebody would take us out or one of the mothers. … We played at the country club most of the time. We played at Eastern on our own. We played a lot when we were growing up.”
Golf was so predominant for Dad’s family that Cathy played golf in college at EIU and then Illinois State. She is believed to be Charleston’s first female athlete to receive an athletic scholarship (though that term was not used at the time).
Tom Strong was between Cathy and my dad in age. He graduated from Charleston High School in 1966 and now is the Vice President of the First National Bank in Greenville, Ill.
Strong did not know about Dad’s letter writing campaign, but he remembers playing golf with dad and there being a strong interest in Charleston adding golf around that time.
“There were four young men, and their dads all belonged to the Charleston Country Club — myself, Jim Paszalek, Jim Renshaw and John Reat — and the dads started talking about trying to get a golf team. I don’t think the school was quite ready for it yet,” Strong said this week. “It got to that some of the administration heard about it, and we all played other sports. I don’t think the coaches were thrilled about that. It kind of died on the vine right there. … For lack of support, it never went much farther.”
Stan Adkins has been the Charleston golf coach the last 35 years since 1977. Adkins started teaching in the Charleston School District in 1966, and he had played golf at Decatur Eisenhower High School and then Eastern Illinois University.
“When I started in ’66, I was a little surprised they didn’t (have golf), but I understood because (Charleston Athletic Director) Merv (Baker) coached all those things,” Adkins said this week. “I talked to him very nicely and pointed out (golf’s benefits). I had no idea of all of this.”
Golf becomes reality
Charleston High School added golf for the first time in the spring of 1971 (Illinois high school golf became a fall sport in 1974).
It was nine years after Snead spent time out of his Masters week to offer his support.
Dale Alexander was the Charleston golf coach the program’s first seven seasons. He could not be reached for comment for this story.
Adkins said he heard stories that Baker was against adding golf because it would take kids away from his track and field team.
“Merv’s mindset was on the big team sports,” Adkins said of stories he heard. “I couldn’t say anything (to him). Merv Baker was a friend of mine and my boss, too, as the athletic director.”
Baker or anyone presented with the information Dad collected should have given golf serious consideration.
Willis’ letter from the IHSA states there were 226 high schools that played golf in 1962. The letter from Robinson’s coach Mitchell says his team in 1962 had matches against Newton, Casey, Lawrenceville, Danville, Vincennes and Mattoon — all schools that close enough for Charleston to face. The letter from Mattoon’s coach Ferguson says the total expense of the Wave golf program including the coach’s salary was only $448.75.
Add the letter from Snead, and this one file folder contains a mountain of evidence on why Charleston should have added golf in 1962.
But it was not until Baker ended his coaching career that golf became a reality at CHS.
Baker stopped coaching after the 1969-70 school year to seek elected office, and it was Baker’s first year out of coaching that golf was added as a CHS sport.
“They gave it the good ole high school/college try to get something started that they really enjoyed,” Adkins said of Dad’s and other efforts to start CHS golf in the 1960s. “Maybe even though it didn’t happen right at the time, maybe they deserve credit for when it did start.”
What were the magic words that convinced the Charleston School Board to start CHS golf?
Was it some of the words that Snead scrawled on the bottom of a letter before he teed off at Augusta National Golf Club in 1962?
“When you get letters from these very important people, you can tell they’re happy that a young man in high school is asking their advice,” Adkins said. “The fact that Sam Snead would write back, I mean he was at the Masters. Why would he do that? Why would he take time? He could have answered it in July or thrown it away. He had other options, but he took the time to write a high school young man when he was undoubtedly playing in the Masters.”
We may never know because Snead passed away in May 23, 2002, but it seems like a common practice in his life. Al Barkow’s biography of Snead titled “Sam: The one and only Sam Snead” makes Snead’s letter to Bill Hall characteristic of the legendary golfer.
“Sam did not kowtow to people of social rank,” Barkow wrote. “When appearing at golf outings or other events at which ‘important’ people were present, if on arrival he first ran into a caddie he knew or an assistant professional or other working-class types, that’s who he spoke with first, and for as long as it took. The bigshots could wait.”
I know that Dad felt pride in being someone that Snead took time to communicate with one April day in 1962.
Dad kept the letter through his countless moves during the 50 years after he received the letter. Dad talked glowingly about the letter.
He knew how significant it was that a golfing god took time to answer his letter.
Erik Hall is a JG-TC Staff Writer. He can be reached at email@example.com or 238-6868.