Philly's tin-cup course
Bob Wheeler, an ex-cop, taps local volunteers and union workers to helpmake the Juniata Golf Club green again. It's Philadelphia's tin-cupcourse.
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Volunteers converted the existing cart barn to a clubhouse that can seat 120 for a meal. They traded free golf for ranger duty, ushering off the errant, nongolfing teenager. If supplies needed to be moved, guys showed up with pickup trucks. If money needed to be raised, businesses paid to have their name put on a bench.Skip to next paragraph
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The Juniata Golf Foundation consists of 15 business and neighborhood leaders who backed the effort and encouraged others to, largely because of Wheels' street credibility. "When you come up living in the neighborhood and you come up in sports, you end up knowing a million people," says Tom Dooley, of the heavy equipment operating engineers union. "You build your reputation, and if it's a good one, it's a good one." Wheeler, he says, is "a straight-up guy, the kind of guy you trust. When Bob asks for help, we help."
Recently, at a meeting days before the club was due to host a wedding in its ambitiously named but unfurnished "Foundation Room," board members agonized that they had no tables, no dance floor, not even bathroom partitions.
A half-hour after the meeting – "a half-hour later," repeats Wheeler – he got word that a nearby restaurant was closing and selling its contents. "We got $10,000 worth of equipment for $1,000." The wedding could go on. "It was like it was made to be – like somebody was looking out for us," recalls the self-effacing Wheeler, in as direct a reference to cosmic intervention as you might expect in these surrounds.
Golf here serves the spectrum of age groups. About 70 senior members play most every day, and ease the cash flow early in the spring by paying a $400 membership fee. The pay-as-you-go players are the working people, from Juniata and beyond, who dole out about $30 a round, which includes a cart, if one is available.
The board hopes to surpass its $380,000 budget this year and have money to put back into the course, and ultimately to help other area charities. Though he'll write grant proposals and flush out all sources of potential cash for a new clubhouse, Wheeler almost seems to favor the pitch-in approach. "The thing I like about the place more than anything is there isn't any of the cliquishness that's the downfall of golf courses," he says. "This is a family atmosphere."
Married 30 years, Wheels has no children of his own. His prison-guard father was away for long stretches for work, and Wheeler has spent a lifetime being a surrogate father to others, as his coaches were to him.
During much of his tenure at the police department, he was assigned to oversee the neighborhood's arm of the Police Athletic League, a nonprofit group that brings sports, education, and recreation programs to 27 sites citywide. "I've always felt like I had 500 kids," he says of the hundreds who spent virtually every day at the league center. "But I maybe saw 20 parents, ever."
Golf is one more way to keep kids off the streets, he believes. The course hosts golf teams, church youth groups, clinics, Special Olympics, and students who need a break from summer school down the street.
The course's 85-acre green space offers elbow room in a community where there is little of it. The first hole is the traditional sledding hill in Juniata, and neighborhood kids can wander the course after golfers have finished up. Parents know that if their children go over to play or help out with work, they can expect them to be safe and supervised for five or six hours. Says the grey-haired, ruddy-faced ex-cop, who still spends his days in shorts and sneakers: "The kids need a place where they can stretch out."
Wheels should know.