By MIKE CULLITY
MONTPELIER, VT. – Bob Labbance’s office is a cramped former hair salon in the back of an old white Colonial. As a tributary outside swelled with April runoff, Labbance fretted about forgetting to record the first telecast of another spring rite, the Masters Par-3 Contest.
His sense of golf history is sharp. Surrounded by his expansive collection of golf books and memorabilia, Labbance reflected fondly on his quarter-century as a golf writer, photographer, historian and collector.
His eyes sparkled as he recounted his first visit to Augusta National, his friendship with legendary golf scribe Herbert Warren Wind and his collaborations with esteemed course architect Geoffrey Cornish. And his enthusiasm was palpable as he discussed his two recently published books: “The Vardon Invasion,” an account of Harry Vardon’s 1900 tour of America co-authored by Brian Siplo, and “The Life and Work of Wayne Stiles,” a biography of the Massachusetts architect co-authored by Kevin Mendik.
“I consider myself incredibly lucky,” he said. “Some people never get to do what they really wanted to.”
Labbance’s take on his fortune echoes Hall of Fame first baseman Lou Gehrig’s famous “luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech. Sadly, the writer’s circumstance mirrors the ballplayer’s: Labbance, 55, was diagnosed in December with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the incurable neurological disorder known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, that confines him to a motorized wheelchair.
Labbance, who already had made an unlikely recovery from a spinal-cord injury suffered in a fall from a golf course bridge in 2004, is the third individual with close ties to Vermont golf to be diagnosed with ALS in recent years. The disease claimed former PGA Tour pro Jeff Julian in 2004 and club professional Jeff Hadley in 2006.
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Labbance’s passion for his work burns even as his disease steadily extinguishes his motor skills. On May 1, he and Mendik gave a lecture on Stiles at the Massachusetts Golf Museum to a small crowd of architecture devotees that included Cornish, 93. And he is focusing energy on new projects.
“I want to stay busy because the alternative is too depressing, and it’s just wasting whatever time I’ve got (left),” Labbance said. “I’ve really tried to live in the present during this whole disease, but it’s hard to ignore what’s coming. . . . It just amazes me every day when I can do less and less.”
Since his diagnosis, Labbance’s ALS has progressed upward from his legs. During the winter and spring, he made the short commute to his office six days a week, with family or friends providing transportation. But with his physical capabilities declining each day, he’ll soon be confined to working from the East Montpelier home he shares with his wife, Kathie Hickman; son Griffin, 18; and daughter Simone, 15.
While acting as Labbance’s primary caregiver, Hickman balances a full-time job as an office manager for a Northfield, Vt., law firm with her responsibilities as a mother of two teenagers. Meanwhile, Griffin is preparing to enroll at Rhode Island’s Roger Williams College in the fall.
“I used to think I was really busy, but I didn’t know the meaning of the word,” Hickman said. “It’s hard not to bottom out at times, feel like you’ve already paid your dues. Lightning has already struck once. Why did it have to strike again?”
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The initial strike occurred during an August 2004 round at Stiles-designed Keene (N.H.) Country Club. Playing with Mendik, Labbance slipped while crossing an old wooden bridge and fell headfirst into the creek a few feet below. His head struck a rock, immediately paralyzing him from the neck down.
“I looked in the water, and he’s lying underneath with his eyes open, not moving, golf bag still on his back,” said Mendik, who rescued Labbance from the creek and summoned help.
After surgery and seven weeks of rehabilitation, Labbance walked out of a Vermont hospital. An 8-handicap before the accident, he resumed playing golf in 2005, typically playing from the women’s tees and using a cart.
In mid-2007, however, Labbance’s health declined. At first he believed his symptoms were surgical aftereffects or medication-related. Shortly before his diagnosis, however, Labbance called Kimberly Julian, Jeff’s wife.
“By what he was telling me, I knew that it was ALS,” she said. “And I think he pretty much knew, too.”
After a Boston neurologist confirmed the diagnosis, Labbance spent a few months in denial. “It was a real knee-buckler to think that this was really the case,” Hickman said.
Slowly, however, Labbance is preparing for what lies ahead. While watching the first round of this year’s Masters at his home with Scott Peters and Steve Lyon, two of Julian’s closest friends, the three discussed Julian’s final days. “We talked about that until I really didn’t want to hear any more because it was getting too gruesome,” Labbance said.
Meanwhile, the Montpelier community has rallied to aid Labbance and his family.
A local contractor recently installed an elevator and a handicap-accessible bathroom in the family’s three-level residence; working for cost, the firm used donated labor and materials and organized a group of local volunteers to repaint the home. And on May 10, more than 150 friends gathered for a pot-luck fundraiser in nearby Barre. Golf industry colleagues also are holding a June 23 fundraiser.
“Without the support of the community and the golf industry, we’d be in trouble,” Labbance said. “We’re incredibly grateful to all these people.”
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Although Labbance gets emotional when discussing the support he and his family have received, he strives to remain an upbeat participant in life.
Picture him in a Hawaiian shirt gleefully being spun around the dance floor as a band at his recent fundraiser channeled the Rolling Stones. Picture him sharing belly laughs at a May reunion with 14 high-school buddies in Connecticut. And picture him speaking proudly about the school cultural fair his daughter recently spearheaded.
“He has decided to embrace life as opposed to hiding and denying his future,” Peters said. “Jeff (Julian) was so powerful in his decision to live, and I feel very much the same with Bob. That they’re handed a death sentence, they’re looking it right in the eye, and they’re choosing to live.”
“I think his mental fortitude is phenomenal,” added Mendik, who has arranged for all proceeds from the Stiles book to go into a college fund for Labbance’s children. “I couldn’t even begin to put myself in his place, once 3 1/2 years ago and then again now.
“I think the hardest part of all this for me is that I feel like I can’t save him this time.”
– Mike Cullity is a freelance writer from Manchester, N.H.
A golf outing and auction will be held June 23 at Ekwanok Golf Club in Manchester, Vt., to raise money for Bob Labbance and his family.
The tournament will have an 11 a.m. shotgun start, with registration to begin at 9:30 a.m. Cost is $500 per person, and entry is limited to the first 100 registrants.
The auction follows the golf.
Auction items include the chance to play golf with top architects on the Golfweek’s Best Top 100 Modern Courses list, including:
• Tom Doak at Pacific Dunes
• Mike DeVries at Kingsley Club
• Gil Hanse at Boston Golf Club
• Jim Engh at Sanctuary
Make tournament entry checks payable to: Labbance Family Fund, P.O. Box 53, Bloomfield, CT 06002. Individual donations also are welcome. Donations are not tax-deductible.
For more information, call Bradley Klein at 860-243-3296 or Tony Pioppi at 860-344-8895.