With Joe Paterno as my witness

By |  February 18, 2015 0 Comments

Ohio State versus Oregon: I had no horse in the first-ever College Football Playoff championship game. Still, being a sports fan, I hoped to watch the game among friends, high-calorie snacks and cold beers. ¶ Instead, I watched it alone in a hotel room in downtown Minneapolis, a Snickers bar my only snack, a bottle of water my only drink.

The January magazine was due to press the next morning, so I was still approving (and in some cases writing) stories as the game was being played, but my focus was on the next day’s activity. I landed in Minneapolis that night because I had scheduled a meeting with Bill Larson, CGCS, Town & Country Club, at his maintenance facility in St. Paul, Minn., at 9 a.m. the next day.

It was my hope that Larson would be willing to accept the 2015 Herb Graffis Businessperson of the Year award. If he was unwilling? Panic button.

I arrived at Town & Country Club right on time. Larson beat me to the course by only a few minutes — black ice caused a big pile-up on his route to the course that morning. My luck was already in high gear, as I left the hotel without a minute to spare, but rolled in right on time.

As I had done the previous three years (Paul Chojnacky in 2012; Wayne Kappelman in 2013; Jim Rattigan in 2014), the winner of the Graffis Award did not know why, exactly, I was there. For Larson, he was under the impression that I was primarily in town to visit with an advertiser. He probably thought I had heard about his state-of-the-art maintenance facility and wanted to get a quick tour before flying home. (Should you happen to be in his area, Larson says he’d be happy to give all Golfdom readers a tour as well; just drop him a line ahead of time.)

Luckily for me, Larson was willing to make plenty of time to show me the shop, talk about his career, grab breakfast, meet the crew and even introduce me to the club president.

“You’re asking me questions; I’d rather be asking you questions,” Larson told me mid-interview. “How did you get your job? You’ve got a pretty good gig, yeah? I bet you’ve seen some great maintenance facilities over the years…”

Yes and yes, but few that could rival Larson’s facility. And no, I wasn’t about to let Larson change the topic of conversation — I was there to learn more about him, whether he liked it or not.

It was almost 1 p.m. before I finally let Larson off the hook and told him that the sole reason I was in chilly St. Paul was to interview him. I laid out that I wanted to feature him on the cover of this issue as the 2015 winner of the Graffis award, and I wanted to write a story detailing some of the successes he’s had as a superintendent and a project manager over the past 26 years.

“I don’t know what to say,” was his response. The February cover story hung in the balance. I told him I wanted him to say yes. His eyes misty, he choked out a yes, and we shook hands. He was shocked and I was relieved. My publisher, Pat Roberts, sent me a one-word text: “Well?” I replied, “We have our winner.” The life-sized Joe Paterno cutout in Larson’s office was the only eyewitness. I’m pretty sure he was smiling.

As you can surmise, that’s a recent photo of Larson on the cover. That wasn’t taken last summer. That was taken a week after the Ohio State/Oregon game. This all came together rather quickly.

It might be a dangerous way to live, but like Larson says in this month’s cover story, “I’ve learned that risk-takers can be rewarded.”

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