100 years of the Northern Ohio GCSA

GCSAA's first chapter remembers its past and looks to the future.


Filed to: Ohio, Chapters

NOGCSA members at 2023 GCSAA Conference and Show
Members of the Northern Ohio GCSA gathered behind the portrait of their chapter and GCSAA founder Col. John Morley that they commissioned and presented to GCSAA. The picture of the group was taken in February at the GCSAA Conference and Trade Show in Orlando. Photo by Montana Pritchard

Five words eloquently summarize the historic event that occurred a century ago this month.

“It all started with us.”

Yes, the seeds that in time would come to be known as the Northern Ohio Golf Course Superintendents Association were planted at Youngstown Country Club and organized by the guiding force of greenkeeper Col. John Morley. He was joined by a group that included the likes of Fred A. Burkhardt, Frank W. Ermer and William “Rocky” Rockefeller (a distant cousin of oil magnate John D. Rockefeller).

They gathered on a cold, rainy day in 1923 at Youngstown CC, where Morley served as superintendent. The outcome resulted in what was founded 100 years ago as the Cleveland District Greenkeepers Association — the original chapter of superintendents in the country.

It also was a predecessor to something that took their endeavor to another level. In 1926, the National Association of Greenkeepers of America was launched. In time, it would become GCSAA.

May 12 is the 100-year anniversary of that historic meeting in Youngstown. At the time, they would have no idea how their effort would affect golf. The magnitude of it all created wonderful ripples, led by Morley, a pioneer from England whose presence in America changed lives. He served as the first president of the first chapter in the country — and the first president of this entire association.

NOGCSA past president Bill Prest, who uttered those words earlier in this piece about who essentially got this party started all those years ago, swells with pride.

“We are the first local superintendent association in the country. We were innovators. How could you not be proud of being from where it all started?” says Prest, chapter president in 1998 and 49-year retired GCSAA member. “We started programs that were picked up by other associations. I think we will continue to lead at the local level and national level.”

NOGCSA members at 1965 GCSAA Conference and Trade Show
NOGCSA welcoming committee members for the national conference and trade show in 1965 in Cleveland included (from left) Larry Crittenden, Frank Dunlap, John Dunlap, Tim Smith, Don Figurella and John Spodnik. Photos courtesy of Ken Smith

Morley memories

John Pustai senses a kinship with Morley. He also marvels at the man.

“What he did to start all of this was quite an undertaking. The amount of time Morley put into getting this thing (NOGCSA) off the ground, and the national (GCSAA), the travel he did, could not be easy. Back then, you couldn’t hop on a plane and be in Chicago in 45 minutes. He traveled to New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana … all of it to get people on board,” Pustai says.

A 26-year GCSAA member and Class A superintendent at Highland Park Golf Course in Highland Hills, Ohio, Pustai finished his second year as chapter president in 2022. He once worked at the same location that Morley had presided over, Bass Lake Resort, later known as Chardon Lakes Golf Course in Chardon, Ohio. “It’s cool we worked on the same ground,” he says.

Morley was meticulous about all chapter doings. “He made scrapbooks, kept meeting notes, pictures, places we’d been,” says GCSAA Class A superintendent Mark Figurella, a 28-year association member who is at Barrington Golf Club in Aurora, Ohio, and is a past NOGCSA president and current anniversary committee co-chair. His family also has deep ties to the chapter. His late father, Robert, is a past chapter president, and his uncle Don was a president.

In 1965, NOGCSA was at the center of the superintendent universe. It held what is now known as the GCSAA Conference and Trade Show in Cleveland. “I went with my dad. They had a sod green, kind of like they had this year at the show in Orlando. Pretty neat,” Mark Figurella says.

The moral of the story, he adds: “I think he’d be happy. Proud. His goal was to get everybody on the same page and help each other.”

Maintenance work at Shaker Heights Country Club
At Shaker Heights Country Club, Tim Smith changes cups while Colin Smith supervises.

There for you

That help-your-brother-or-sister mentality that Morley fostered resonates with Steve Maclay, current chapter president.

Maclay, an eight-year GCSAA member from Valleaire Golf Club in Hinckley, Ohio, could see smoke rising through the air as he drove on the turnpike toward home after attending his son’s baseball game. That was about the time that he got the phone call telling him his maintenance facility was on fire. Ultimately, it — and everything in it — was destroyed.

“As I headed back, I was a mess. I couldn’t sleep well at all that night,” Maclay says. He didn’t know it at the time, but that same evening chapter administrator Michelle Frazier-Feher, CGCS, emailed chapter members about Maclay’s plight.

He says, “When I got to the parking lot the next morning, I was able to mow my greens. People like (17-year GCSAA member and Class A superintendent) Jim Robinson, 10 minutes from me at Pine Hills (Golf Club in Hinckley), kept donating stuff. It saved me — emotionally, physically, mentally. They were there for me. You see how much a family this organization is.”

Family affair

Innovation is synonymous with the NOGCSA.

People such as charter member Mal McLaren, who did on-site turfgrass research and is the namesake of the chapter’s marquee award, is among those who contributed to improving the industry. Count the Smith family as those who sparked innovation.

William Smith was a charter member — and so much more. His contributions to the local and national organizations were crucial to advancement. He made two pairs of special horseshoes for horses so they wouldn’t leave impressions on turf while pulling a mower. Tim Smith, a longtime superintendent and grandson of William Smith, learned from his father, Colin Smith, who was involved in creating multiple cultivation tools to improve turf: pieces of mowing equipment; heavy fairway aerifiers that used air compression to lift and drop the machine; sand cultivation machines; automatic irrigation; green and fairway slicers and rollers. Tim Smith’s son Ken Smith, CGCS Retired, is a 37-year GCSAA member.

Tim Smith, who worked at places like Shaker Heights (Ohio) Country Club, gave it his all. “There wasn’t a day that I didn’t want to get up and go to work,” says Tim Smith, a 62-year retired GCSAA member. “It was my life.”

Maintenance work at Shaker Heights Country Club
The Ohio Cup is a Ryder Cup-style event that brought together the Northern Ohio GCSA and other state chapters. At the 2021 event at Lake Forest Country Club in Hudson, Ohio, are (from left) Chuck Hayes, Tony Cisterino, Michelle Frazier-Feher, CGCS, Bryan Fitch, Tom Bolon, Len Marino, Steve Maclay and David Willmott. Photo courtesy of Michelle Frazier-Feher, CGCS

Model of consistency

The NOGCSA delivered more than its share of leaders to the top of GCSAA.

Nine chapter members have served as GCSAA president. The most recent was Mark F. Jordan, CGCS, natural resource leader at Westfield Country Club in Westfield Center, Ohio. Jordan, committee co-chair for the 100-year anniversary, looks to the first president for inspiration of what made this milestone possible — even if it sounds as if Morley wouldn’t be comfortable taking the credit.

“It wasn’t about him. It was about others, improving others, and be the best we can,” says Jordan, GCSAA’s 85th president in 2021 and a disciple of another past president, John Spodnik. “It’s cool to be part of the lineage.

“He (Morley) really wanted to help others learn from each other. It impacted thousands and thousands of people through his actions, leadership and vision. He was a leader way before his time. He had a vision. He pursued it. He created camaraderie in a nonthreatening environment. He developed a sense of belonging. All for one, one for all. It’s a sustainable model. I think he’d be proud, not only of Northern Ohio, but for all of us. That model he created is a long-term model, a brotherhood and sisterhood, for all of us.”

A month — and century — to remember

NOGCSA is in celebration mode much of this year.

On May 12, the Col. John Morley Legacy Meeting is scheduled at Youngstown CC, to be hosted by GCSAA Class A superintendent Chris Sumrall, a two-year association member. It will feature guest speaker and past GCSAA President Bruce Williams, CGCS.

On June 5, a Club Officials Meeting is slated for Elyria (Ohio) Country Club, to be hosted by GCSAA Class A superintendent Pat Rodgers, a 27-year member. It will feature speaker Michael Hurdzan, Ph.D., a renowned architect and 2013 recipient of GCSAA’s Old Tom Morris Award.

On Sept. 11, the Annual Clambake at Portage Country Club in Akron, Ohio, is to be hosted by GCSAA Class A superintendent Derek Trenchard, a 22-year association member.

The final extravaganza is scheduled for Nov. 11. The Centennial Gala Celebration at Westwood Country Club in Rocky River, Ohio, will be hosted by GCSAA Class A superintendent and 43-year association member David Webner. Guest speaker will be GCSAA CEO Rhett Evans.

Green Care for Troops event
Members of the Northern Ohio GCSA help others outside of the industry, such as here during a Green Care for Troops event to support active military or veterans with work at their homes. Photo courtesy of Michelle Frazier-Feher, CGCS

NOGCSA has been planning its centennial for a decade.

Others quickly followed the path the chapter blazed. A year after NOGCSA’s inception, in 1924, the Golf Course Superintendents Association of New England formed. Later that same year, Ontario, Canada, Golf Superintendents’ Association followed.

NOGCSA, though, always will be the first.

“Northern Ohio became a leader in many ways. Whether trendsetting or not, that is the mindset here,” says Frank Dobie, a 65-year GCSAA member, recipient of the 2011 Col. John Morley Distinguished Service Award and the 2022 USGA Green Section Award and superintendent/general manager emeritus at Sharon Golf Club in Sharon Center, Ohio.

What stands out about the NOGCSA for Al Muhle is its tight-knit ways. A 59-year GCSAA Retired member, Muhle says, “We had that camaraderie. You’d be on the telephone with buddies, talking about how much grass we lost over the weekend. We all were very dedicated people to the industry.”

NOGCSA has had many influential members woven into its fabric through the years. Some of them include Terry Bonar, USGA Green Section Award recipient; Jean Esposito, CGCS, the first woman NOGCSA president; Bill Lyons, recipient of the National Golf Foundation’s inaugural Outstanding Service Award; William Montague, the first chapter member to achieve Master Greenkeeper status; Nelson Monical, who revived the Northern Ohio Equipment Demonstration and Show 60 years ago; and Ralph “Bunny” Rodgers, who in the early years was significant to the chapter’s formation.

A former superintendent at Boston Hills Country Club in Hudson, Ohio, Frazier-Feher notes that NOGCSA is 330 members strong. Strength in numbers has special meaning to this association that turns 100.

“It’s an amazing thing to be part of an organization that has lasted this long and continues to grow,” says Frazier-Feher, a 29-year GCSAA member and 2005 president of NOGCSA. “The gala will be one of those events we’ll look back at, remember where we came from, where we’re going, and hopefully do this again in another hundred years.”

Howard Richman (hrichman@gcsaa.org) is GCM’s associate editor.