Dickey was “first” First Tee of Phoenix – Bill Huffman’s Arizona Golf Blog
They say you can learn a lot about a man by the confines of his office, and maybe that’s why I took the time to drive into Phoenix this week, to stir my memories of William “Bill’’ Dickey, one of golf’s great gentleman.
Mr. Dickey, a leader among black golfers and a champion of minority youngsters everywhere, died early Tuesday morning (Oct. 16). The news came via Facebook, where one of the hundreds of kids he had put his arms around over the past 30-some years, Andy Walker, had delivered this sad message: “RIP, Mr. Dickey. You did a lot for golf and minority participation in the greatest game ever. I hope to continue your legacy.’’
Mr. Dickey was 84. He will be buried next Friday (Oct. 26) following a celebration of his life at Chaparral Suites Scottsdale (5001 N. Scottsdale Road) from 1 p.m. until 4 p.m. A prior visitation and viewing earlier in the day will be held at Universal Memorial Mortuary (1100 E. Jefferson Street) from 10 a.m. until noon.
The Facebook tribute by Walker, a long-time Phoenix resident and an All-American at Pepperdine University, where he helped the Waves win an NCAA title, got me thinking about those days I had spent with Mr. Dickey in his office off Washington Street. It was a special time with a special man in an office that once served as the “guard shack’’ at the entrance of a red brick building that sits on the edge of the city. And I smiled when I recalled the way he used to greet me at the door with a big smile and that deep, smooth voice that could have been in television or radio.
“Hello, Mr. William ‘Bill’ Huffman,’’ he would say. That we shared a similar name(s) was his way of making me feel comfortable. That he called me “Mr.’’ certainly was a courtesy that, unfortunately, is not spoken often enough these days.
But this time when I visited Mr. Dickey’s office there was no one to greet me so I just looked around in amazement at the photographs, plaques, crystal and other awards Mr. Dickey had collected through the years. There were pictures of him with other black pioneers of the game like Charlie Sifford, Ted Rhodes and Joe Louis (yes, the great boxer); a photo from 1948 of the Desert Mashies Golf Club, an organization of black golfers that Mr. Dickey had been the president of for eight terms; a photo with his arm around another Arizona golf icon, Karsten Solheim, and the PING founder’s wife, Louise; photos with former PGA Tour greats Chi Chi Rodriquez and Calvin Peete; and numerous shots of Mr. Dickey with his close friend Earl Woods and Earl’s son,Tiger.
There was a visor from the Masters with the lone signature of Jack Nicklaus on it; signed and sealed letters from Arnold Palmer and former presidents Gerald Ford and George W. Bush; plaques from the Arizona Golf Hall of Fame, the Western States Golf Association Hall of Fame, and the National Black Golf Hall of Fame, all saying he was a member; and the highest honors you can receive from the PGA Tour (Card Walker Award, 1992), PGA of America (Distinguished Service Award, 1999) and USGA (Joseph C. Dey Jr. Award, 2003). In fact, Mr. Dickey is believed to be the only man ever honored with all three of those prestigious awards by the PGA, PGA Tour and USGA.
Also on Mr. Dickey’s office walls was the Golf Digest Junior Development Award he received in 1989, the Dr. Ed Updegraff Award from the Arizona Golf Association in 1991, the Sharing and Caring Award from the Tiger Woods Foundation in 1999, the Anser Award from the Southwest Section of the PGA in 2001, the Martin Luther King Jr. Sharing the Dream Award from 2005, and the Life Team Captain award from Jackson State University from 2005. And there were other accolades from several fraternities and other civic organizations, including one from the Pat Tillman Foundation.
As if that wasn’t enough, there also was an honorary doctor’s degree from the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore on the wall, a Bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University, as well as several books he was featured in, including “Uneven Lies, The Heroic Story of African-Americans in Golf.’’ And the trophies he had won in various tournaments through the years, oh my! They were everywhere, as he had apparently cherished every single one of them.
Still, if Mr. Dickey were here today, he would probably tell you that all those accomplishments were very nice, but what he was most proud of during his life was helping to provide over 1,000 kids with over $3.1 million worth of scholarships. He did that through his National Minority Junior Golf Scholarship Association, which was later changed to the Bill Dickey Scholarship Association. And to think, Mr. Dickey never drew a salary from his foundation in all those years.
So I guess you could say with absolute resolve that Mr. Dickey’s life was devoted to kids, golf and education, and in many ways he was the first tee of Phoenix long before we had an organization called the First Tee of Phoenix. Mr. Dickey’s wife of over 50 years, Alice, said her husband had “three loves of his life’’ – family, golf and kids.
“Bill was a very soft-spoken person with stern principles,’’ Mrs. Dickey pointed out. “He was always very kind to kids, although he wanted them to earn his respect.
“In fact, I never heard him holler or cuss, although he might have done a little bit of that on the golf course. He was such a good person, and enjoyed his golf and life so much that I guess people, particularly kids, felt safe in his presence. And he had a great sense of humor and intelligence, which is why people were drawn to him.’’
Mr. Dickey founded two tournaments that grew in national stature and helped fund his scholarship ambitions for kids. One was the Bill Dickey East-West Golf Classic, which celebrated its 30th anniversary this spring with an appearance from Mr. Dickey, whose health had been on the decline since 2008, when he suffered a stroke while at that very same tournament. The second was the Bill Dickey Junior Invitational he founded in 2000 for the nation’s top high school minority golfers. Mr. Dickey also was the co-founder of the prestigious National Minority Collegiate Golf Championship, which most recently celebrated its 26th year.
Or as Mr. Dickey wrote in the program for this year’s East-West Classic: “I have had a love affair with the game of golf since the 1950s, when I made the move to Phoenix, and I picked up a club for the first time. I developed a desire over the years to provide opportunities for young people to learn the game because it helps develop character and integrity.’’
Those just happen to be some of the same values that are among the mission statement of The First Tee, an internationally respected youth program that promotes life skills and leadership through the game of golf. Hugh Smith, the executive director of the First Tee of Phoenix, was a disciple of Mr. Dickey’s going back to when Smith was a kid growing up in Seaside, Calif. It was Mr. Dickey, he said, who selected him for a scholarship to Jackson State.
According to Smith, the connection with Mr. Dickey came through his father, who picked up golf in the Army, and then formed a group with his military buddies in Northern California called the Ebony Seaview. Every time Mr. Dickey came to visit, Smith said, they would get to play special golf courses like Pebble Beach, Cypress Point and Del Monte, the oldest continuously operated course west of the Mississippi River.
“I’ve known Bill most of my life, and it seemed he always was a profound part of it,’’ recalled Smith, who won the National Minority Collegiate Golf Championship during his senior year at Jackson State.
“Whenever he would visit us, back as far as when I was 7, 8, 9 years old, we’d play all these great golf courses like Pebble and Cypress and Del Monte, which was our favorite back then. The kids would either play right in back of the adults or out in front, but we always got to play, and that was what was important.
“Later, when I moved to Phoenix (in 2006), Bill and I reconnected. He was so inspirational in the lives of so many kids. That topic came up the other day when I was talking with (First Tee CEO) Joe Louis Barrow Jr., and he told me, ‘Bill Dickey had more impact on the game with young kids with diverse backgrounds than anybody else,’ and he was absolutely right about that. So I’ve always listened carefully to what Mr. Dickey had to say.’’
Mr. Dickey was born March, 29, 1928 in Darby, Pa., a small town just outside of Philadelphia. Mrs. Dickey said her husband attended an integrated school, and that his family believed deeply in education. The youngest of four children, Mr. Dickey also was an all-around athlete in high school who was good enough to earn a football scholarship to Virginia Union University, a historically black college located in Richmond, Va. Shortly after a brief stint at VUU, he entered the Air Force, where he spent three and a half years before being honorably discharged and moving to Phoenix.
“A lot of people don’t know this, but Bill got kicked out of his first college (VUU). It wasn’t that he was a bad kid, but his teachers could never find him — he just wasn’t in class!’’ said Mrs. Dickey, laughing at the thought.
“But when he got out of the Air Force his sister, Eleanor Dickey Ragsdale, who was an influential teacher and educator here in Phoenix, was waiting for him at the airport. She already had him enrolled in Phoenix College before he hit the ground, and he ended up graduating from ASU (economics and management). So Bill got a lot of help and a little ‘push’ from Eleanor and her husband, Lincoln Ragsdale, who was a very strong civil rights activist nationally as well as a civic leader here in the black community.’’
Shortly after graduating from college, Mr. Dickey took up golf. He was now 28 and apparently the game didn’t come quite as easy as other sports because he often told his friends that the first round he played, “I shot in the 150s.’’ Eventually he figured it out, as Mr. Dickey did get down to a 4 handicap before spending much of his later years as an 11. Mrs. Dickey said he became “a little depressed’’ when he couldn’t play the game in recent years like he once did.
For 25 years, Mr. Dickey sold insurance and real estate in the Valley, but in 1981 he retired early. Even though he had been quite successful in business and was a pillar of various golf groups, including the Mashies and the Western States Golf Association, Mr. Dickey’s big mission in life had not yet begun.
Or as Dickey told an early corporate sponsor shortly after his retirement and just before his life blossomed for a second time: “There are thousands of black golfers throughout this country who belong to organized golf clubs. My interest is to improve communications among those clubs. Eventually, I would like to see a national tournament with golfers from coast-to-coast. This could also lead to establishing a nationwide junior golf program for interested minority youths.’’
Three years later, it all came to fruition — the national tournament, the kids, the scholarships. Mrs. Dickey said it happened that way because her husband, “naturally leaned toward helping African-Americans, as well as other minorities.’’
In 1999, about midway through his diversity campaign for kids and shortly before he accepted his Distinguished Service Award from the PGA, Mr. Dickey gave this synopsis of why he did what he did: “Although the means is golf, our end is to help kids further their education. There are too many youngsters in the U.S. who don’t have the financial backing to realize their academic potential. Our goal is to make that happen.’’
Walker, who attended Scottsdale Community College before making the big move to Pepperdine, said that he was one of the “lucky ones who grew up under Mr. Dickey’s watch.’’
“I had known Mr. Dickey since I was a little kid,’’ said Walker, who not long ago was featured in the Golf Channel’s “Big Break Ireland.’’ “It all began when he invited my dad to join the Desert Mashies, and my dad introduced my brother and myself to the game.
“But through the years Mr. Dickey influenced hundreds of kids, and funded black golf in general through a lot of colleges. His generosity and philanthropic nature were simply amazing. In fact, he even impacted Tiger Woods’ career when he was coming up, as well as Tiger’s niece, Cheyenne, and just so many other kids. He was amazing.’’
Cheyenne Woods had twittered earlier this week: “I began my golf career as a member of Mr. Dickey’s Desert Mashie Golf Club when I was about 8. He had a huge influence on my golf career.’’ Later she added: “Rest in peace, Mr. Bill Dickey. This man opened so many doors and gave so many opportunities to minority golfers. Thank you, Mr. Dickey.’’
Those series of photos of Cheyenne’s famous uncle that adorn Mr. Dickey’s office walls began when Tiger was a 13-year-old. Mrs. Dickey said that her husband was so close to the family that they were invited to visit Tiger when he was at Stanford. The Dickeys also attended Tiger’s 21st birthday party, which was held here in Scottsdale at the Fairmont Princess.
“Bill delighted in being part of that, knowing Tiger Woods. But the reality was he took so much pride in every kid he could help,’’ Mrs. Dickey said. “And there were a bunch of them.’’
Two of those were the Crawford brothers, Daryl and Derek, who are now the general managers at the ASU Karsten Golf Course and Raven Golf Club-Phoenix, respectively.
“Mr. Dickey is the reason that Daryl and I are in golf,’’ said Derek Crawford, who like his twin brother played golf for ASU. “With his support and the support of the Desert Mashies, we were able to travel and play in golf events.
“I can still remember traveling with Bill, his wife Alice, and daughter Debbie, driving to California for a Desert Mashie tournament. As we all know, he loved golf and wanted to see all kids, no matter what color, be involved with this great game. It’s hard to believe he’s gone . . . he will be missed by so many.’’
Added Daryl: “Mr. Dickey was always there for us; literally, a second father figure. I have so much respect and love for him, and what he accomplished for others in his life.’’
That’s kind of what I was thinking as I scanned Mr. Dickey’s extremely full office for one final time. Mrs. Dickey told me that her husband had only been in the hospital for about a week, and that Mr. Dickey had left this world from Ryan’s House while under the care of Hospice of the Valley.
Maybe that’s why a small stack of letters on his desk caught my eye. All had been opened recently, as Mr. Dickey’s well-worn letter opener shaped like a miniature 5-iron was laying nearby. And all were in a neat little stack with his eyeglasses still opened up and centered atop the pile.
Those letters were probably his only piece of unfinished business. Everything else about the life and legacy of Mr. William “Bill’’ Dickey had been answered brilliantly.