Word traveled quickly on Monday that Bucky O’Brien had died at age 77. O’Brien had been the club pro at the Country Club of Greenfield since 1969, but he’ll be missed not for the length of the tenure but for the quality of the man.
“He loved people,” said club member Forbes Byron. “He loved to be around them and he had a quick wit. He did great at roasts. Every year he emceed the Amateur-Member and he’d rag on everybody. He was good at it.”
The Amateur-Member put some of the best players from area country clubs into CC of G foursomes, a season-ending tourney followed by a banquet. “He only roasted the good players,” said close friend Tom Rogers. “Fan Gaudette of Northampton, he’d joke about his size, about still wearing his kids’ clothes. You didn’t want to answer back. If you did, watch out. He was a master at standup.”
O’Brien was about 5-foot-10 and a bit overweight, done in by all those extra helpings of Pat Coffin’s shepherd’s pie. He had kind blue eyes, an expressive grin and spoke in a low, raspy voice. If he wasn’t at the country club he was either at mass at Holy Trinity or picking up mail at the post office.
“Bucky loved the Irish songs. He loved to sing Irish music,” said Rogers, who added that beyond the wry disposition was the rare quality of someone who was at peace with himself. “We walked every night, summer, fall, winter, spring. We’d talk and it was always positive: ‘He’s a great guy ... That guy’s a great guy.’ He never had a down day and he always saw the best in everybody.”
Born in Providence, R.I., baptized James Joseph O’Brien Jr. and nicknamed Bucky by his father, he grew up in the heart of Springfield, in a neighborhood Pine Point. At golf he teamed up with his friend the late attorney Jon Hunt to help Springfield Tech win the state championship.
He served Uncle Sam in Korea, worked at a shampoo factory and “was thinking this isn’t really what I want to do, so I got a job at Memorial Golf Course,” he said for this column in 2004. “It’s gone now, an industrial park. It pains me to go by there.”
He was the club pro for several years at courses in Feeding Hills and Southwick, and applied for the Greenfield opening when Mac Sennett, another much-revered local golf icon, retired in 1968. “I told them if you’re looking for a pro to put you on the map then that’s what you should get, but if you want someone who’s going to be here seven days a week working and promoting, then we should keep talking.”
True to his word, assistant pro Kevin Piecuch once figured that O’Brien had worked 1,100 consecutive weekends at the country club, and that was almost nine years ago.
In Tuesday’s Recorder, Mark Durant wrote of Nate Burdick’s experience as a 12-year-old sneaking onto the course and teeing off on the second hole, out of view from the clubhouse. Finally he worked up the courage to ask O’Brien for a job. He got it, washing carts and picking up range balls for money and free golf. “Be sure to tee off on the first hole, not the second,” said O’Brien.
Burdick’s story is fairly typical. Josh Hillman is now the club pro at Taconic Golf Course in Williamstown. He grew up near the country club and like Burdick, would sneak shots on the practice range till one day a voice behind him asked, “‘Whattya doin’?”
It was O’Brien. “He knew I wasn’t a member. He said, ‘Here’s a range bucket. Pick ’em up after, all of ’em, not just the ones you hit. Then I was cleaning carts and closing up the shop. He let me buy a set of clubs on layaway, one club at a time, from my paper route money.”
Hillman attended the University of Rhode Island on a golf scholarship, turned pro and competed on the New England and Atlantic Coast circuits. “My father got me started but Bucky was the most influential. He taught me. He knew how to get the point across, not so much my swing but how to act, how to handle a good shot, a bad shot, my composure.”
Tom Rogers’ son Mike came under the tutelage of O’Brien and today is the club pro at Tewksbury Country Club. “I see him shaking hands and sending cards and going to wakes and that was the ‘Bucky’ way of doing things,” said Rogers.
When perennial women’s club champion Phyllis Canon joined Greenfield, women weren’t allowed to tee off until after noon. “Bucky brought it before the board and it was changed so we could get the same privileges,” said Canon.
At a junior tournament years ago, an 11-year-old golfer approached O’Brien and told him, “This is one of the few places we go where we’re treated equally.”
After he became sick his friends rallied around. Rogers did his laundry, changed his sheets and fed him. After he fell and broke his hip, Tom Suchanek came over with a hammer and nails. “He put a railing in the house so we could get him up the stairs,” said Rogers.
“He’d say I’m going to beat this thing and his fist shook. He fought. He fought tremendous.”
Yet the disease was inexorable, and this summer the slide began to quicken. One morning late last month he showed up at the country club, “Saying good-bye,” said Byron. “He joked with us, gave as well as he took.”
When there was nothing more that could be done, O’Brien came home and stayed. “He was so happy to be home,” said Rogers. “He said, ‘I’m in my home, in my bed and surrounded by family and friends. I’m happy.’”
Rogers is amazed by the number of people that rallied around their stricken friend. “Joe Viadero and Pat Coffin were the stars of the show,” he said of the local doctor and nurse. “Joe made sure he was comfortable, and Pat there’s no better... Bob and Fay Ferris, and J.J. (Kells), a rock, Irv Sanders... I don’t know how you can thank them all, the nurses at Buckley. Oh God, it just goes on and on ... Ernie Patenaude, Gordon Parker, Howie Natenshon, Anne Echeverria, Rick Weller. It was amazing the turnout of support, but he deserved every inch of it.”
When the end was near, Rosie Natenshon entered O’Brien’s home like an angel. “She brought her harp and played Irish music. She played ‘Danny Boy’ and they could see him mouthing the words.”
But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow,
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow
Tis we’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow
Oh, Bucky boy, Oh, Bucky boy, we loved you so.
O’Brien’s funeral was Friday at Holy Trinity. “I heard he didn’t want it on Saturday (today),” said Hillman. “Didn’t want to interfere with the Barber-Collins tournament. Isn’t that amazing? That’s Bucky.”
Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.