Longtime industry figure Dave Fearis continues to lead a fulfilling career and life, not letting Alzheimer’s disease get him down.
Dave Fearis started working on a golf course at the age of 14 and today at 68 is still tending to a golf course in his “unofficial” retirement. He is a member of Tom Baier’s maintenance staff at Grand Summit Golf & Country Club in suburban Kansas City, Missouri. In the more than 50 years between those jobs, he was a dean’s-list student at Purdue University, president of the Golf Course Superintendent’s Association of America (GCSAA), host of PGA Tour Hall of Fame golfer Tom Watson’s charity event for numerous years, a sales representative and a GCSAA staff member.
Ferris is thankful he has lead a full life, one that includes being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s more than a year ago.
It’s Saturday morning – 5:30 to be exact – and Fearis dutifully heads to work at Grand Summit Golf & Country. It’s already warm, and it’s only going to get hotter.
Nearly 70, he could be doing a plethora of other things less taxing, but he’d have it no other way. He loves the golf course – even when it includes cleaning up bunkers and raking them after a storm the previous night. Fearis works six days a week, averaging 40 hours, doing everything from mowing to picking up trash to cutting cups.
“I love having him around,” Grand Summit Golf Course Superintendent Tom Baier says. “He has so much experience, and he has good ideas. He rolls up his sleeves and does everything I ask him to do. Dave’s been great.”
After a long career as a golf course superintendent, sales representative and GCSAA staff member, one would think Fearis might have little interest in “grunt” work. Not so.
“I got into this business because I loved the outdoors, and I loved the game of golf,” Fearis says. “I still like the early mornings, I like being on the golf course, and I like talking to the golfers. I see no reason that I shouldn’t be doing it as long as I’m healthy.”
To look at Fearis, one sees a picture of good health (other than a back that occasionally tightens up). He is tanned, with a beaming smile and bright eyes. He maintains a trim build and plays an occasional game of golf. But underneath the surface he is dealing with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.
It was March 2014 when his doctor confirmed what his wife, Lynn, had feared for more than a year. She had noticed some memory loss. A retired medical technologist, she understood enough – plus her mother had the disease – to know something was wrong.
Alzheimer’s has no cure. The average life expectancy is eight years, although people have been known to live as long as 20 years after symptoms appear. Memory loss is slight in the early stages, then gets progressively worse. That said, research in recent years has been promising to unlock the causes and treatment. For example, the Alzheimer’s Association says the active lifestyle Fearis leads will slow the advancement of the disease.
“My mother had Alzheimer’s,” Fearis says. “So, there is some explanation for my situation – heredity. That was a long time ago (early 1980s). We know so much more about it today. Early diagnosis is important. Not only for the person, but for the family. This disease affects the family because they are caregivers. Getting the right medicine, keeping active, testing your brain – it is important to keep as sharp as possible.”
Says Lynn Fearis: “The work is therapeutic for Dave. It keeps him active and focused. He loves being on the golf course. He would much rather be there than sitting at home on the couch watching television.”
To date, Fearis has not shared his diagnosis beyond family, some close friends, a few members of his local chapter, peers he served with at GCSAA and Baier. He is ready to share his story, in part because he wants people to learn about the importance of early diagnosis and treatment. He also knows word will spread about his condition, but the last thing he wants is a pity party.
“I have led a great life,” Fearis says. “I am blessed with a great wife and son, and great friends. I have traveled all over the world and met many wonderful people. I could feel sorry for myself, but what would that do? I am going to enjoy life as much as I can.”
Woody Moriarty learned at an early age that enjoying life is in Fearis’s DNA. He interned under him for two summers and then, in 2001, followed him as superintendent at Blue Hills Country Club in Kansas City. “Dave’s just a genuine guy,” Moriarty says. “He’d do anything for you. I wanted to work for him from the moment I met him. He never failed to introduce me to people. I was just an intern, but he wanted me to develop relationships. When I applied for the job at Blue Hills when Dave left, I knew so many people there because of Dave. The transition was easier because of what Dave did those summers and what he did after I got the job.”
Fearis not only remains active on the golf course, he also stays attuned to the golf industry. He is a volunteer for the First Tee of Greater Kansas City after previously serving on its board of directors. He attends Heart of America GCSA chapter meetings on occasion and keeps in contact with those he mentored and worked alongside. He still attends the annual Golf Industry Show. And, true to his engaging, opinionated style, he has thoughts about what he sees and hears. Here are a few:
- Those in the golf industry can be their own worst enemies. “We put in way too many hours, often times at the expense of our families and our health. There needs to be a better balance. That is probably the one thing I regret the most.”
- The best tool superintendents have is communications. “The students coming out today are extremely smart and talented. But I don’t believe they are better communicators than what I saw 15 to 20 years ago. I think they are so wrapped up in their gadgets they do not communicate face-to-face as well.”
- Working for a vendor can enhance your skills. “I know working as a salesman really helped me as a golf course superintendent. I got to see how others went about their work. It taught me things I did not know. It made me think.”
- Superintendents must remain focused on professionalism: “I was pleased with what GCSAA did under (former CEO) Steve Mona in regards to elevating the image of the golf course superintendent. We got recognition we had never before received. But it has to continue, especially at the facility and chapter levels. We need to continue to display ourselves as the professionals we are.”
- Tom Watson was in a no-win situation at the Ryder Cup. “I respect him so much. He’s a friend. The Europeans seem to play as a team. We appear to play more as individuals. Tom is so caring. I know it tore him up to see things happen as they did.”
- GCSAA board service terms should be evaluated. “Serving seven or eight years is too much of a burden for most people. I know that time away from the facility for the board has been cut back to a degree, but I still think the commitment keeps people from running. It’s not that we have bad people running for the board. But I think more people would consider it if the length of service were reduced as well as the time away – especially for the officers.”
Moriarty says people respect Fearis because they know where they stand with him.
“And I know he respects people who might disagree with him and are willing to say it,” Moriarty adds. “He is a passionate person, especially about our profession.”
Fearis is thankful for the opportunity Baier has provided him. He says the course is a hidden gem in a market that has several quality courses. Like riding a bike, Fearis says it took no time at all to get acclimated to the work. Neither Baier nor Fearis have broached the subject of how long the employment will last. And, neither is concerned.
“I just show up, and he puts me to work,” Fearis says. “I’ll do it as long as I can and as long as they’ll have me. It’s fun to be out on the course again.”
COVER PHOTO BY BRUCE MATHEWS