Finishing What He Started: Cancer Can't Stop Golf Turf Management Student
Keith ‘Skip’ Douglass gave up a coveted job as a golf course superintendent in Texas to enroll at The Rutgers Professional Golf Turf Management School last fall. Douglass and his wife had decided to relocate to Scottsdale, Ariz., and he wanted the prestige of having a Rutgers certificate to help him succeed in that golf mecca. So, he headed to New Brunswick in October 2011 to enter the first 10-week session of the program.
Douglass knew the Rutgers course would be intense, so when he felt exhausted after class each day, he chalked it up the stress of being in school after a more than 30-year hiatus. But as the weeks passed, he developed other symptoms – severe nosebleeds, bruising and night sweats. He blamed them on the moister climate.
It wasn’t until he completed the first 10-week session and headed back west and went to the doctor that he discovered why he was feeling so lousy. A bone marrow biopsy showed he had an unusual form of leukemia.
His doctor at Scottsdale Healthcare in Arizona hospitalized him immediately and began a seven-day course of chemotherapy to knock the hairy cell leukemia (HCL) into remission. The treatment also knocked out his immune system, and he spent another three weeks in the hospital before going home to recuperate.
“I remember the fear, with my immune system so compromised,” said the 49-year-old father of three.
Through it all, Rutgers classmate Josh Knapp kept in weekly phone contact with Douglass. In spite of their age difference – “I have kids almost his age!” Douglass said – the two had become good friends. Knapp, 25, was visiting Douglass in Scottsdale in September when Douglass got the results of his latest bone marrow test: the leukemia had returned.
Douglass and his wife faced a formidable decision: stay in Arizona for his next round of treatment, or return to New Jersey in October 2012 for the second 10-week session of the golf turf school and undergo treatment there.
For Douglass, the decision was clear. “I wanted to finish what I started. Nobody in my family ever had college of any kind,” he said. “I decided one way or another, I was going to earn a college certificate.”
Before becoming a golf superintendent in Amarillo, Texas, Douglass held a hodgepodge of jobs, from licensed barber and cabinet maker to prison guard – the kind who sits atop a horse with a shotgun and oversees crop-picking. But he had discovered a love of golf while in high school and, while working as a guard, also worked part-time in a golf pro shop.
In 1990, when a national PGA tour played at the Amarillo Country Club, Douglass caddied for one of the players, which led to a three-year gig on the road. When that ended, a friend suggested Douglass “get in the dirt.” Starting as a laborer, he worked his way up to golf course superintendent, a position he held for seven years.
When Douglass called to inform the Rutgers program about his situation, he reached Rosemary Mahony, administrative assistant to Director Ned Lipman. Mahony, who had undergone treatment for lymphoma in 2011, immediately took Douglass under her wing. She referred Douglass to The Cancer Institute of New Jersey in New Brunswick, and the day before his first appointment, Mahony gave him a tour of the hospital to put him at ease.
“It’s a scary place to be, especially when you’re 2,400 miles from home,” Mahony said. “I didn’t want him to have to walk blindly into it.”
Douglass called Mahony “my little angel in New Jersey.”
The whole school is rallying behind Douglass. The instructors at the golf turf school were notified of Douglass’ situation and “they are all willing to help him through this,” Mahony said.
This fall, Knapp drove cross-country with Douglass to New Jersey and is one of his four roommates. “I told him I would be there to help him study and whatever else he needed,” the Redmond, Ore., native said. “We’re all ready to help.”
After Douglass completes the program in December, he’ll continue chemotherapy treatment for several months in Scottsdale.
Now in its 52nd year, the intensive two-year Golf Turf Management certificate program involves two, full-time 10-week classroom sessions during the off season, sandwiched around a nine-month, paid golf course internship that minimizes the time students must live without a paycheck. The program teaches students all the essentials, including weeds, trees, grass, soils, irrigation and golf course construction. It also introduces students to fundamental leadership skills, such as management, budgeting and effective speaking, needed to help them advance through the ranks.
Between 60 and 80 students graduate from the program each year. Rutgers uses its network to help them land jobs and continues to assist them throughout their professional careers. The program draws students from nearly every state and around the world.
Douglass already has done his internship at the Legacy Resort in South Phoenix and has been offered a job as second assistant superintendent upon completion. He hopes to be well enough to accept it. While HCL is incurable, it is treatable and those with it can live long lives.
“I don’t want to go on disability. I’ve got a lot of work years left in me,” Douglass said. “What I’ve learned from this is I’ve got to live every day the best that I can.”
– Margaret McHugh
PHOTO CAPTION: Skip Douglass and his "New Jersey angel," Rosemary Mahony.
CREDIT: Rebecca Rathmill