In the parking lot, before we went into the Penwell-Gabel chapel in Highland Park for Ralph Cowell’s funeral, Tommy Tompkins was saying, “Ralph has a good tee time today, 11 o’clock on a Saturday morning in nice weather.” That was another way of saying he already was on that great golf course in the sky.
Inside, the Rev. Jerry Vaughn, of Berryton, told a story that linked Ralph’s lifelong occupation, professional window cleaning, with his lifelong passion, amateur golf.
There is artistry in using the squeegee, the main tool in window cleaning, just as there is with a golf club, and Ralph once explained the use of them by saying, “The object with both is to finish with the fewest possible strokes.” Not bad for funeral parlor humor.
Ralph was better than just pretty good with both. If he wasn’t the best window cleaner in town, he was close, and it’s a fact I never have heard anyone argue that he wasn’t. It’s also a fact I never have heard anyone argue that, in his day, he wasn’t one of the best golfers in town, too. Or one of the best on the AT&SF main line, for that matter.
When he could play, he really could play. He won some tournaments, and came close to winning some more. At the peak of his career, in the 1950s and 1960s, it was rare that someone hit the ball farther than he did. It was of his competitive faults that he often forgot the match to make the point he could hit the ball farther than you could.
BUT HE HAD THE REST of the game, too, and a temper to go with it. He might throw a club on occasion, in frustration, and on special occasions he would be so angry he’d forget and throw the club north when the course dictated that he’d be going south. It’s embarrassing to have to turn around and go back to pick up a thrown club.
Ralph was big and muscular in his prime and he put it all into every sport he played, like softball, where he was known to break bats, and bowling, where he was known to send pins flying across three lanes, in both directions.
This is not to say he was a violent man, on or off the course. Just the opposite. Ninety-nine percent of the time he was all smiles, soft-spoken and gentlemanly. He had a great sense of humor, and he relished competition, even from hackers like yours truly.
In the 1950s I played regularly at Shawnee Country Club in a group that included Ralph, Si Stephens, Stan Emerson and Jim Farmer. We were a diverse group that laughed a lot, and it could be said I felt secure playing with them, or visiting a watering hole after we played.
Why? Because Ralph was a boxing champion in the Navy in World War II, Stephens was a former Kansas City Golden Glover and Farmer was an ex-cop. I don’t know how Emerson felt about it, but I was sure it was good company for a lifelong coward.
THAT WAS AN UNLIKELY GROUP, but no more so than the foursome that once went on an incredible winter golfing trip. I can’t remember how we got together, except that Charley Howes had to be part of it because he owned an airplane.
However it happened, one January morning in the 1950s Charley, architect Bill Kiene, Ralph and I chipped ice from around the hangar door at Billard Airport so we could get the plane out. It was a single-engine Piper, overloaded with luggage and golf clubs, but we flew from Topeka to Brownsville, Texas, stopping a couple of times to “rest,” as in rest stop, and to refuel.
We played golf there next morning, then flew to Monterrey, Mexico, where we played for three days at the Valle Alto Country Club, which welcomed us like foreign dignitaries. We stayed in a Hilton Hotel, enjoyed Mexican hospitality at its best, and in those days the price not only was right, but ridiculous.
As I recall, the trip was notable for at least two reasons: When we did it, it was the first time Ralph had flown, and when he died, it remained the only time he ever flew.
When I left Topeka in 1961 Ralph still was going strong on the golf course, but when I returned in 1985 his game had dwindled. Some good golfers grow older and appear not to lose much as far as golf is concerned. Al Lewis at 77 regularly shoots his age and is disgustingly pretty long and straight. Si Stephens at 80, with a new Great Big Bertha (courtesy of Charley Hoag), seems to hit it farther than ever, and Gerry Barker, in his mid-80s, still will play you even.
RALPH WASN’T like that. When his prime-time game went south, it must have gone all the way back to Monterrey. It just disappeared, like overnight. Still, he liked to play, and we played together again until about four years ago when a succession of physical ailments forced him to give it up. He was 78 when he died.
At his funeral there were only seven past and present members from Shawnee Country Club, his home course for almost 50 years. There would have been at least 50, but the rest have died or moved on. Let the record show that Stephens, Tompkins, Hoag, Bob Hentzen, Bob Miller and John Davies were there to honor a good man.
I remember Ralph as a friend. He may have been a little rough around the edges, but he was solid as a rock, and if you ever had to go to war he’s the kind of man you’d want on your side.