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North Carolina’s “golfing storyteller” passes away at 97

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By HOWARD WARD

John Derr couldn’t have planned it better.

The 97-year-old Derr died at his home in Pinehurst on June 6, the victim of a heart attack while watching American Pharoah become the first thoroughbred in 37 years to win the Triple Crown.

Derr’s daughter, Marguerite “Cricket” Gentry, found him in his chair, the TV still on, when she came to check on him a few minutes after 7 p.m.

“It was like he had stood up and said, ’Hooray!’   ooray’ and then fell over,” Gentry said.

Although his life spanned all 12 Triple Crown winners, it was golf that Derr loved most, and it was his association with the game’s greats such as Bing Crosby, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson that gave him the material for a lifetime of story-telling and publication of three books.

Derr referred to his early years of covering golf as “The Golden Era,” and it gave him the opportunity to become close friends with the stars, even traveling and rooming with Snead at times.

Derr first covered the Masters Tournament in 1935 as a 16-year-old sports editor for the Gaston Gazette. That was the second year of the Masters and the scene of Gene Sarazen’s famed double eagle on the par-5 15th hole.

Derr’s big break occurred during World War II when Gen. Stilwell sent him back to the United States to report the 1944 World Series for Armed Services Radio. Derr’s coverage was broadcast around the world to the troops. That broadcast made Derr a household name to veterans and got him started on his career as a reporter for CBS.

Hired by the legendary Red Barber, Derr worked alongside Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite among others at CBS. He served as the head of CBS Radio and TV sports networks and was called “Dean of Golf Telecasters.” Bing Crosby demanded CBS broadcast his tournament, The Crosby, and put Derr behind the broadcast microphone.

Derr would go on to cover 62 Masters in one form or another, including daily CBS radio reports beginning in 1945. This lengthy association led to his being honored with the Masters Major Achievement Award in 2007.

In addition, Derr was appointed an Ambassador of North Carolina and awarded the Order of the Longleaf Pine, the highest civilian honor the state can bestow, on his 90th birthday.

A founding board member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, Derr later served as WGHF president and board chairman. He served for a decade as executive director of the Carolinas PGA Section, retiring in 1984.

Over the years, Derr was named to several halls of fame, including the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, the Carolinas Golf Hall of Fame, the Gaston County Hall of Fame and the Carolinas PGA Hall of Fame.

Derr covered Ben Hogan’s first PGA Tour victory in the 1940 North and South Open in Pinehurst. He later walked the course with Hogan at Carnoustie during his 1953 Open win.

Derr developed a passion for golf as a youngster when his father built him a two-hole course on their farm. He was unable at the time to play other sports because of a chronic knee problem.

His career as a reporter began in high school, writing school sports for The Gazette. Unable to afford college, he entered an arrangement with nearby Belmont Abbey College to serve as sports information director in exchange for a tutored course in advanced English and creative writing.

“Father Gregory was the teacher and I was the class,” Derr liked to joke. “I was the class dummy, but also the valedictorian — all the same.”

Derr obviously loved life as a reporter and considered it one of life’s most valuable professions.

“A reporter can no longer be a fan,” he used to say. “But you can be the eyes of those who are not present. They depend on you to tell them what’s happening. Do it well.”

He did.

Derr was a much sought after speaker, and never refused a request if it was possible.

His work at CBS led him to encounters with many outstanding people outside of the sports world, including Gandhi and Albert Einstein. In his later years, he was a neighbor of Stephen King in Maine.

A couple of Derr’s favorite stories involved Einstein and long-time Augusta National Chairman Clifford Roberts.

He loved to tell how he met Einstein while out walking a golf course one morning and asked the professor if he played the game.

“No,” Einstein replied, “It’s too complicated.”

As for Roberts, the stern Augusta chairman for so many years, Derr related the following incident.

“Clifford and I were walking the par-5 15th hole at Augusta when I casually remarked. ‘This place is so beautiful, I think when I die I’ll be cremated and have my ashes scattered in this little pond.’”

Roberts fixed me with that cold stare of his and said, “John, this is a golf course, not a cemetery.”

One of my personal favorites came one night at a gathering of Pinehurst’s renowned Tin Whistles Club.

John and I were talking during the social hour and I asked if the lady accompanying him was his girlfriend. “Yeah,” he said. “She’s not all that great looking, but she can still drive at night.”

Derr was interred in the family plot in Charlotte. A memorial is planned later this summer in Pinehurst.

 

 

 

 

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