Ken Melrose felt like a blast from the past. He knew the people in the audience who remembered him were wondering what he was doing there, while the people who didn't know him were wondering who he was. After all, it had been several years since Melrose, who retired from The Toro Co. in 2005 after serving 22 years as the company's CEO, was in the limelight at the Golf Industry Show.
The scene was the Celebrate GCSAA! event at the 2012 Golf Industry Show in Las Vegas. The hall was packed with hundreds of golf course superintendents. In a surprise move, Melrose was called to the stage by Golf Course Superintendents Association of America's (GCSAA) CEO Rhett Evans to make a special announcement.
It was then that Melrose announced he was donating $1 million of his own money to the GCSAA so golf course superintendents who can't afford to attend the Golf Industry Show and GCSAA Education Conference will be able to do so in future years, beginning with the 2013 show.
The crowd reacted with a unified gasp. Then they stood and cheered the man in the dapper blue suit. They were touched that Melrose would take care of their own. The 72-year-old Melrose enjoyed the moment, tears of joy flowing down his face.
"I'm glad I didn't have to say anything else," Melrose said, noting he was too choked up to talk.
Melrose is a rich man, and he' enjoying his retirement. There's nothing wrong with that, since Melrose worked hard to achieve such stature. But it's what Melrose is doing with his money - he's absolutely delighted to give it away - that makes his story so apt to tell in this season of giving.
Several years ago I asked the priest of my parish how much one should give to charity. He told me to give until it hurts. I asked Melrose if that was his philosophy.
Melrose understood where my priest was coming from, but he said it's his philosophy to give because it makes him happy. There's nothing that puts a bigger smile on Melrose's face than to surprise people with donations that cause their eyes to widen and mouths to drop.
"I'm having a great time surprising people," he said.
He did that recently with a hefty donation to the Orange County Public Library in Orlando, Fla. Melrose grew up in Orlando, and his mother volunteered at the library. One day, Melrose walked into the library and told them he wanted to make a $1 million donation in remembrance of his mother. "You want to do what?" they said.
When Melrose called the GCSAA's Evans to tell him he wanted to donate a million bucks, a flabbergasted Evans had the same reaction.
Melrose says his parents taught him to serve God by serving others.
"I was brought up with the idea that I'm on this planet to serve others," he added. "One of the ways you do that is by giving financially."
Even when Melrose was younger and didn't have as much to give, he always tried to give more than expected.
Melrose has a special place in his heart for the golf course maintenance industry. Several years ago, Toro wanted to turn its focus from consumer products to another segment because of the volatility in the consumer market.
"We wanted something more stable," Melrose said. "We moved our emphasis to golf equipment and irrigation."
Melrose said Toro's research and development team did its homework in golf and irrigation, and the company rolled out some solid products.
"But it was up to superintendents to buy them," Melrose said.
Superintendents did, of course, and Toro is now regarded as one of the top equipment manufacturers in the field. Melrose hasn't forgotten the role superintendents played in making the company he led for more than two decades such a success, and he wants to show them his appreciation.
Melrose's donation was placed in an endowment fund. It will pay for 20 superintendents to attend the Golf Industry Show for many years to come.
"This is the time of my life that has been the most gratifying," Melrose said. "It's a time of giving back, and it's very gratifying to do so."
It's appropriate that Toro's color is red. Melrose would look fitting in a Santa suit. He certainly has the jolly one's passion for giving.
Aylward can be reached at 330-723-2136 or firstname.lastname@example.org.