Faith, family and golf course management

Jim Dickson overcame considerable childhood challenges thanks to a supportive community of friends and loved ones.


Jim Dickson
Jim Dickson’s life began in the shadows, which makes him all the more grateful for the sunshine he finds in his family, faith and career today. Photos by Trent Bouts

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Sept./Oct. 2022 issue of Through The Green, the publication of the Georgia GCSA, and is reprinted with permission.

James Blair was already homeless and had been living on his own for four years when he climbed aboard a church bus in Maryville, Tenn., and begged the Baptist faithful for money. He was disheveled, dirty and only 12 years old.

It was a moment that probably saved the young boy’s life, and it gave special meaning to a young married couple on that bus, who adopted the lad less than a year later.

Doug Dickson was the one who came face-to-face with the young Blair that day in 1978, as he was the bus captain, organizing bus stops that would pick up children for Sunday morning services in the medium-sized town 20 miles south of Knoxville. Blair didn’t go to the church service that day, but soon after he did join the other children in attending church services. Eventually, he would trust Doug and his wife, Barbara, enough to take their name.

“I was a little thug on the streets. I would beat you up and take your lunch money,” says Jim Dickson, that kid from the bus who is now the 55-year-old golf course superintendent at Sugar Hill (Ga.) Golf Club, a municipal facility 40 miles north of Atlanta. “I ran away from my home in Maryville when I was 8 because my mom didn’t want anything to do with me. I lived on the street because I didn’t trust people. I slept on farms or just on the street.”

Dickson wasn’t simply running from neglect. There were other issues at home that no 8-year-old — or child of any age — should be exposed to.

“I have eaten out of trash cans, and I have stolen quarters from a pool hall,” says Dickson, a six-year GCSAA member. “I would walk under the bleachers at the football stadium the morning after a game and search for change that had fallen out of pockets. I was a young hellion who never worried about what was going to happen tomorrow. Just getting through today was hard enough. I remember thinking, ‘No one will ever want this dirty little boy.’”

He even ran away from several children’s homes, the last in Maryville, when he climbed through a window and returned to a place he knew all too well — the streets. He didn’t attend school until the sixth grade and never slept in his own bed until he found a home with the Dicksons. He says he’ll never forget that first night at 3126 Delwood Lane.

“It was their faith that saved me and took me in. I was given a chance by the Dickson family, and that’s where my blessing started,” says Dickson, holding back the tears. “We all believe different things, and that’s our right. But I honestly believe if it hadn’t been for the grace of God, introducing me on that bus to the man who became my dad, I would never have had the life I have enjoyed. I didn’t even know it was a church bus.”

Jim Dickson
Dickson is now the superintendent at Sugar Hill Golf Club in Georgia, where he has served for the past three years.

Taking a chance, and taking him in

The Dicksons had been married for seven years but were just 26 years old when they adopted Jim.

“We never talked about having children at that point,” says Barbara Dickson, now 69 and retired from her career as a teacher’s aide and art framer. “Jim was back at the children’s home at that point, and we got to know him through our church. We fell in love with him. We would invite him to our house and take him to baseball games in town.

“We were ready to take him in, and we applied for adoption at the state level, but then he was gone. He wasn’t coming to church anymore. We lost touch for a few months but told the adoption agency that if he ever became available, we would be interested. God had his hand in our lives, and he made it happen.”

It wasn’t long before the Dicksons were teaching the young boy reading, writing and arithmetic, starting with the basic skill of writing his name. Dickson prayed that his teacher at Porter Elementary School wouldn’t call on him to read anything out loud because he didn’t want to be embarrassed. “Don’t you dare call on me,” he thought to himself.

Within months, however, the slender but athletic Dickson was tackling his schoolwork with vigor and becoming interested in sports, especially baseball. He begged his dad for a baseball glove and a chance to learn the game. Doug Dickson must have been proud to watch him play shortstop for Heritage High. He also played defensive back in football for the Mountaineers.

The new parents also provided Dickson, then 13, with rules and regulations, and discipline when those rules were broken, something Dickson admits was an all-too-common occurrence, at least initially. “Bless their hearts,” he says. “What they put up with from me as a kid who had never been disciplined a day in his life before. I remember I got a spanking the first week I lived with them. I cried, but they were mostly tears of joy because I knew they cared enough about me to discipline me. For some strange reason, God has been good to me. I have the greatest parents in the world.”

Sugar Hill Golf Club
A revitalized Sugar Hill, where Dickson says he plans to “hang his hat until the time comes to retire.” Photo by Jim Dickson

From the Marines to the golf course

Dickson added more discipline to his life when he joined the Marine Corps after high school. He was never deployed in his three years of active duty, but he was one of the infantry experts in operating ground-to-air missiles, the heat-seeking missiles that launch from a shoulder canister. He added three years of service in the reserves until he found his way onto the grounds staff at Royal Lakes Golf and Country Club in Flowery Branch, Ga., beside Lake Lanier. Success was coming to Dickson, albeit slowly.

He then was part of the grow-in at Legends Club at Chateau Elan in Braselton, Ga., before he got his chance, in 1998, to make his career in golf course management at Scales Creek Golf Club, in Homer, Ga., which was also at the grow-in stage.

“I called five superintendents and asked for their advice when Scales Creek offered me the superintendent job. I wasn’t sure I was ready, but they all said they would support me,” recalls Dickson. “They said, ‘You worked hard to get this opportunity. If you don’t take it, you may not get another chance.’” He realizes now he was at the tail end of the days when it was possible to succeed in the golf course management field without a college degree.

“I was in the trenches for five years and learned in the school of hard knocks. Book-wise, other superintendents are a whole lot smarter than me,” Dickson says. “But when I have a rake and a shovel, I can hold my own. The camaraderie is thick in this business, and I owe my success to everyone who helped me. I hope superintendents never lose that.”

Many of those who have helped Dickson professionally are members of the Georgia GCSA. “What a blessing to be able to be a part of this association,” he says. “It is hard for me to imagine making it to where I have with any other association. I know there are other good ones out there, but I cannot believe there is a better one than we have in Georgia.”

In 2011, Dickson took the reins at Lanier Golf Club in Cumming, Ga., and after nine years, the self-made superintendent headed 10 miles down the road with a challenge to revitalize Sugar Hill Golf Club. Play was plentiful, with more than 30,000 rounds a year, but the greens were lacking. It is a layout that opened in 1992 and is credited to Willard Byrd, who had designed Atlanta Athletic Club 30 years earlier.

Dickson knew he could make a difference, and now, three years into his stint, he is getting accolades for the condition of his Champion bermudagrass greens. “We still have work to do, but with two more years of solid cultural practices, we should be good,” he says.

Jim Dickson in childhood
Jim Dickson was still James Blair, 12, in this photo, when the young couple, either side of him, who would come to be his parents, took him to a football game. It was the first time he had sat in the stands that he used to walk beneath, hunting for change. Photo courtesy of Jim Dickson

Telling his story

Dickson is a fan of the University of Tennessee, but his life has been set in the Georgia mountains since he married his wife, Tracy, in 1986, before joining the Marines.

“I married a Georgia peach, so I had no choice,” he says with a laugh. “I couldn’t make it without my wife and daughter. Tracy has been my foundation, and Caroline, my 29-year-old daughter, has been my motivation. I have not been spared challenges in my life, but I have survived.

“I have a master’s degree in life. I have a great life now, and I’m a wealthy man in the things that matter. I am a big teddy bear, at 5 foot, 9 inches and 250 pounds. I’m a big family guy, and I’m still a mamma’s boy.”

He calls his parents, now enjoying retirement in Cookeville, Tenn., almost every day after work while he is driving home. “When he got married, we gave him his space, but he never forgot about us,” Barbara Dickson says with satisfaction. “We thank God for giving us a son like ‘Jimbo.’”

On a recent call, when Dickson told them he’d been asked to share his story in a magazine, it was a big moment.

“It’s an emotional thing for me. I never talked with them much about my life before the Dicksons,” he says. “I have so much respect for them that I didn’t want to burden them with it in any way. My mom’s response was, ‘If you can encourage one person to make it through whatever they’re facing by sharing your story, then it will be a successful thing to do.’”

After six career moves over three decades, Dickson feels like he has finally arrived. He enjoys his job and wants to finish his career at Sugar Hill. When you overcome huge obstacles like he has, challenges with the turfgrass are quite manageable. He has a staff of five and prides himself on being a hands-on superintendent who treats his people well and trains them for life.

“I’m not the only one in this life who has had a raw deal,” he says. “You have to figure out how to find the sunshine in your life. The sun is always shining, but sometimes you just can’t see it.”

Dickson is a hard worker who has paid his dues.

“There are a thousand supers who are better than me, but I am always seeking knowledge from the guys in the Georgia GCSA. It’s been tough, but I’ve done my time, and I feel like I belong,” he says.

That’s all the 12-year-old James Blair ever wanted — to belong. He found that sense of place and security, first with the Dicksons, then in marriage, then with the community of golf course superintendents, and now at Sugar Hill Golf Club.

“Sugar Hill is my last stop,” he says. “This is where I will hang my hat until the time comes to retire. Then I’ll just grab my fishing pole and say goodbye.”

Craig Smith is the former director of communication and media relations for GCSAA and the former communications director for the USGA who lives in Myrtle Beach, S.C.