Above: Dale McNamara with former player Maggie Roller, left and her daughter Jenni, now a TU freshman golfer.
By Ken MacLeod
In daughter Melissa Luellen and former player Maggie Roller, among many others, a legacy of caring and sharing established by legendary University of Tulsa women’s golf coach Dale McNamara lives on.
McNamara passed away at age 86 early Sunday morning due to complications from a rare form of GIST cancer. It was just Oct. 10-11 that she spent two days at Cedar Ridge taking great delight in watching the TU women’s team win the Dale McNamara Invitational. On hand were former players Blue Kinander and Cathy Mockett. Dale was particularly interested in Maggie’s daughter Jenni, a freshman at TU, and helping her cure a hook on her tee shots.
Escorting her around during the final round, I was fortunate to have a long chat with Dale about her life and times and though she said the cancer was an implacable foe she was cautiously optimistic.
From the column we wrote for the Oct.-Nov. issue of Golf Oklahoma.
“I’ve always looked at life as 18 holes,” said the pioneer who started the TU program and led the school to four national championships and five runner-up finishes. “I’ve had an amazing, wonderful life with a loving husband and two wonderful daughters. I’m on the last three holes, and this cancer has been tough. But I’m getting better and not giving up. I’m going to make it to 95.”
Alas, that was not to be. Dale went downhill quickly over the last week and passed away with daughters Cathey and Melissa at her side. Maggie was there at the hospital for most of the final days and Jenni spoke to her over the phone late on her final night.
“Giving back and being grateful, that summarizes what she taught me,” said Maggie, who played for Dale from 1985-1989 and was a member of the 1988 NCAA Championship team and is now the director of instruction at Cedar Ridge, founder of a local AJGA event and mother of three star athletes, two of them collegiate golfers. “She just had a presence about her. A way of making us pursue excellence in every aspect of our lives. She was such an encourager and a master of motivation. She never dwelled on the past. She just had us focus on the next shot. And she talked so much about life.”
In later years Maggie was an invaluable friend, taking Dale to golf events including the NCAA Championship at The Blessings in northwest Arkansas where Melissa’s Auburn team was in contention. She had her out to her LPGA-USGA junior clinics to meet and inspire the young players and spent much time just being a friend.
“She was like a second mother to me,” Maggie said, a sentiment echoed by both Kinander and Mockett when they visited during the tournament. “Her relationship with Jenni was really special. Jenni started calling her after tournaments a few years ago and I don’t even know what they talked about half the time, but Coach really helped her so much with mental strategy. The relationship that Dale and Jenni had was so incredibly special to me as a mom, watching my mentor/coach pour so much into my daughter.”
Melissa, who succeeded Dale as coach at Tulsa in 2000 after 11 years of playing the LPGA Tour and has carved out her own Hall of Fame career as a coach and player, said she has been overwhelmed by the heartfelt messages and remembrances she has received already in the short time since Dale’s passing.
“She just touched so many lives and what I’m getting specifically from so many former players is how they have never forgotten the lessons that she taught them,” Melissa said. “She was a warrior and never afraid to take on a difference of opinion and she instilled that in Cathy and I. I’ve always admired my mom and it’s heartwarming to hear so many stories about how much she meant to so many people.”
Melissa, who earlier this week led her Auburn team to victory in the prestigious East Lake Cup, had no intention of being a collegiate coach until Dale suggested it toward the end of her LPGA career. But she took those lessons she had learned playing for her mother at Tulsa on to an ultra successful career that started at Tulsa, moved to Arizona State where her team won the 2009 NCAA Championship among many other successes, and since 2015 has been the head coach of Auburn.
“Mom just believed that you’re on this planet to help others,” Melissa said. “That was her inspiration for all those years she served on the Tulsa Park Board after coaching. She really believed in that.”
Dale helped and inspired those she worked with at TU as well, as attested by both current Athletic Director Rick Dickson, who first met Dale as a student at TU in 1974, to Sports Information Director Don Tomkalski, who said Dale was instrumental in making him feel comfortable when he started at TU in 1984.
Again from the Oct. column.
“What a delightful human above everything else that she’s been,” said Dickson, now in his second stint at the TU helm. “She’s so fun, but has so much resolve. All the things she is and has been to the university and the city, she has been even more to me and my wife Brenda. You can imagine when I came back here in 1988 then became AD in 1990, I didn’t know what I was doing. She was so helpful and such a guiding light.”
That light will shine for many years to come, thanks to those inspired by this remarkable woman.