There are many in southern Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast whose lives will always be defined as Pre-Katrina and Post-Katrina. My family was one of those impacted by this life changing hurricane. Prior to the storm, my golf career was on track, doing what I loved since I was a 10 years old, being involved in golf, giving back and having fun. I was hired to be the PGA Director of Golf at Eastover in New Orleans during construction in 1987 with Tim Hogan, PGA, coming with me from Beau Chene. I left Beau Chene at the age of 33, the number one ranked golf course in Louisiana at the time, to take on this new adventurous challenge. Just like Beau Chene, we added 18 more holes at Eastover in 2000. I enjoyed an excellent salary with benefits, drove a complimentary Chevrolet Tahoe and was a limited partner with a retirement package tied to the golf course that secured a comfortable retirement. I was also the head women’s golf coach for the University of New Orleans. I was living the dream all of us in the PGA aspired to when we were young apprentices. In one day I lost it all.
The memory of the morning of August 29 is still very vivid in my mind. As I had done with many hurricanes when I came to New Orleans in 1976, we would simply go to a downtown hotel. We could bring our pets, guaranteed power, three meals per day and ride it out in relaxation. This time it was no different. Paul Buckley, GM of the New Orleans Hilton, always made it a point to take care of my family, and this time, the University of New Orleans Women’s Golf Team. I followed the weather through the night before and after midnight a category 5 hurricane was predicted on a line to New Orleans. I was getting very concerned, not only for my family, I also had a mostly international women’s golf team to look after. The decision was made to leave New Orleans and head east; it looked like everyone was going west and north. We took both vehicles, my wife Carol, my children Jared and Josie, our golden retriever Maggie and a bird cage with our two cockatiels. Our drive into New Orleans to meet up with the golf team was eerie; we were basically the only ones driving into New Orleans. I thought I had a good idea of taking the backroads to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, avoiding the mass exodus via Highway 90. What looked like the perfect plan until the old bridge that opened sideways was stuck. We backtracked to Slidell and our travel east into the unknown. After hours had passed, we got back on Highway 90 in Mobile to look for gasoline and with everyone sold out, we found what seemed to be our last chance, and the rain and wind was coming in hard. After getting back on the interstate, when we got to Florida, we started calling ahead, hoping to stay in Tallahassee. Every hotel was booked. The hotels heading south were booked, and the decision was made to head north on a two lane highway ending when we found refuge in Bainbridge, GA, at 4:00 in the morning.
I didn’t sleep, just watched television, hoping to find out how New Orleans was doing. When daylight came, the TV news was showing part of the roof of the Superdome gone and the problems the people were having who had not evacuated. When the levees broke, it was chaos. We were thankful to have left New Orleans. Now we had major decisions to make, where to go. My wife Carol had family in Nashville, and they opened their home to all of us. They had a pool, and that was the perfect diversion.
Nashville was excellent to all of us. We were clothed by the many donors; wherever we went to eat, they did not charge us. The very exclusive Belle Meade Country Club opened their doors to us, loaned the team clubs, and the team actually played a couple of rounds. We had complimentary tickets to the zoo and emergency money from the Red Cross. We all went to church in Nashville and my family being Catholic, we got to experience an act of sincere kindness of our faith. We found St. Edwards Catholic Church. The priest asked if there was anyone in the congregation who had to leave because of the storm, and we raised our hands, the only ones who did. He asked me to tell our story. The priest had my wife, myself and children bring the host to the altar for the Eucharist. After the service, so many people came to us. Father Joseph Breen asked me to come to his office and gave me $250 for gas. It moved many of the team to tears, two from Sweden, one from Guatemala, one from South Africa and one from England, to see the kindness of the people of the United States in their time of need.
While I could not reach the owner of Eastover, I still had a golf team to take care of. It was in Nashville that I was able to reach Jim Miller, the athletic director at UNO. He said the decision was entirely mine about the future of the team. I actually had to find a college since UNO was closed. My first thought was of Rob Bradley, my fellow PGA Member friend at Ellendale Country Club in Houma that had missed the wrath of Katrina. He said I could stay with his family, and the team could play his course if I could get the team to Nicholls State. Over the phone, this was accomplished by a gracious Nicholls State Athletic Director Rob Bernardi. He helped the team members enroll in their classes and into an excellent dorm. The NCAA allowed me to arrange for the purchase for the team a $1,000 vehicle due to the hardship. My next step was my family.
Our caravan left Nashville for my wife’s hometown of St. Louis. We stayed with the Held family, my wife’s sister Susie and her husband Jim and their children. My two children Jared and Josie were enrolled in school with their cousins. It was in St. Louis that I was able to view my home in Slidell by satellite. The roof was a light color to later find out the shingles and lining had been blown away. So I knew things were not good in Slidell, and I was now leaving my family behind in St. Louis and heading to my new temporary home in Houma with the kindest people you could ever meet, Rob and Patty Bradley and their daughter Gabrielle. We slowly found our new normal. Rob and I got permission to go back to UNO past the Massachusetts National Guard to retrieve the team’s golf clubs to find a dorm in total mold and the clubs under a roof that had caved in. After hours, we got the clubs. We then rode to Slidell. The I-10 Twin Span bridge had been blown away; we took the old Highway 11 bridge to find my house destroyed, not only from three feet of flood water, but water damage from a destroyed roof. I found a couch in my backyard, a pier at doorstep and huge pine trees snapped in half. I got a blue tarp for the roof, put my name on the list for a FEMA trailer and slowly began the arduous task of insurance where I spent many hours in the Nicholls State library.
After a 16-day trek and going through ten states, the team settled in at Nicholls State, attended class, competed for UNO and won two tournaments that fall. Christmas Eve, a FEMA trailer was delivered to my house, the golf team was home for the holidays and my family returned to Slidell to be greeted by the Bradley family. The team got back to UNO for the spring semester. We left the luxuries of Houma and Nicholls State. The team was in the old Bienville Hall without computer connections. Coffee shops became their study hall, and golf course availability was rare. In February, the team received the heartbreaking news that due to the decline in enrollment, women’s golf would be one of eight sports that would not return the following season. Fortunately, I was able to land everyone on the team who did not graduate a new university with equal or more scholarship than what they had at UNO. The time had now come to take a hard look at my uncertain future.
My first visit after the storm to Eastover was seeing eighteen years of taking a course from construction to 36 holes to absolute total ruin. Eastover in one of the lowest areas of New Orleans took in major flooding, eight feet in some areas and wind damage. Clubhouse, golf cart building, maintenance building, golf course and every home destroyed. Your personal mementos really don’t mean that much because the loss is just so massive. Comparing it to a war zone would be kind.
The rebuilding of my home, my life and my career were now underway. When you lose two jobs and your home, you have to dig deep. I would think often from the end of the movie Shawshank Redemption, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things and no good thing ever dies.” Hope and faith were what we had. Rob Bradley had a benefit tournament for the PGA Members and Golf Course Superintendents; Masters Champion Craig Stadler came to Ellendale. There was a Jimmy Headrick Benefit Tournament; the outpouring of love and support was moving. The summer and fall of 2006, I did officiating for the Arrowhead Junior Golf Tour. In October 2006, we got back in our home and as a family, we watched as they took away the FEMA trailer. In March of 2007, Eastover tried unsuccessfully to open nine of the 36 holes working out of a trailer. This lasted eight months. With no population, a membership that was displaced, no grocery stores, hospitals, restaurants, it was a futile attempt. Joe Orticke, former Police Superintendent of New Orleans, who had been the executive director of the destroyed The First Tee of New Orleans, had moved to Alabama to take care of his mother. He asked me if I would come in and help bring it back to life as their executive director. What a challenge. Everything was destroyed including its home, the Joe Bartholomew Memorial Golf Course. With the help of fellow PGA Member Fred Frederickson, we began the rebuilding of the program at Brechtel Park Golf Course where Fred was the director of golf. Working out of my car, I turned to my fellow PGA members to serve with me on the board, Fred Frederickson, Robert Brown, Brad White, Luke Farabaugh, PGA Tour Member Kelly Gibson and corporate leaders of New Orleans and existing members of the board before the storm. Through the dedication of many, the chapter rose to the highest level of “ACE” in the network with the highest retention in the country. Mike Rodrigue of The Fore!Kids Foundation helped build a relationship with the PGA Tour that led to a $200,000 donation. A chapter that was once in total ruin was now on national television, print media, local television, and we were on our way, now reaching inner city schools. My personal recovery was again sidetracked when politics and self-interests left me leaving a special job in 2009, one that was awarded nationally and with over $200,000 in the bank. A decline did follow with the resignation of the president, past president, treasurer, secretary and two executive directors, and the program basically went into dormancy with no funds. The First Tee of Greater New Orleans is now back on the right track to serve the many youth of New Orleans with the driving force of the Fore!Kids Foundation and president of TFTGNO Mike Rodrigue leading the way.
The next step on my road to rebuilding my career was through the help of my friend PGA Member Brad Weaver who was with me when we tried to reopen Eastover. He had since landed the golf position of the newly reopened Lakewood Golf Club in 2009. He brought me on where I had served my PGA apprenticeship when I first came to New Orleans, to help rebuild the reputation of this once respected golf facility. This was a clean slate. With the assistance of a fabulous volunteer staff, we built a nationally recognized junior golf program that was visited by The Golf Channel. We brought back the dormant New Orleans Amateur Golf Championship, The Mackel, with the help of founder Dave Lagarde. Along with Kelly Gibson and the Moore Family, we started a national junior golf championship, The Tommy Moore Allstate Sugar Bowl Memorial Junior Golf Championship. Tommy grew up at Lakewood, the number one ranked junior golfer in the world, member of the NCAA Champions, Oklahoma State and lost to a rare blood disease in 1998. On my road to career recovery, I took on another setback when my Lakewood position was eliminated due to budget cuts in 2014.
Today, ten years since Katrina, I am still rebuilding. As in the past ten years, I could not have accomplished it without sincere friends. After Lakewood, it was Gulf States PGA Hall of Fame Member and owner of Oak Harbor in Slidell, George Cascino, who has given me a home to grow the game. When I got into the PGA Apprentice Program in 1976, it was George who signed my sponsorship papers. I guess I have come full circle in a way. Along with growing junior golf at Oak Harbor into a leader with 22 juniors on two teams of the PGA Junior League Golf, a weekly year-round junior golf clinic, and bringing The Mackel – The New Orleans Amateur Championship – to Oak Harbor, I serve as Tour Director for Southeast Louisiana for the U.S. Kids Golf Tour, presently running the summer tour and ramping up a fall tour. My foundation with Tim Hogan, The BC Cup Foundation in memory of Tim’s son Barry and my son Colin, is in its twenty first year. We have never missed a year despite Katrina and last year awarded our 57th, 58th, 59th and 60th college scholarships each for $3,000 based on community service and academics.
I have lost a lot due to Hurricane Katrina, but I have gained so much more. Through it all, I found something much more valuable than the positions and wealth I lost. I find opportunities to help make a positive difference in peoples’ lives and growing the game that means so much to me. This is how I measure my life today. I am looking forward to the next ten years with hope, faith, family and friends to carry me forward. I am truly blessed!