Island in the Sky

Remembering a coach, mentor and friend who changed my life
Mark Baldwin
Mark Baldwin
April 17, 2023

Please don't tell me life is just an illusion

Just because your eyes can’t see the light

Turn your head around

Well open up your eyes

Love is what life is all about 

The first time I met Jeff Beedy was on a driving range during the fall of my sophomore year of high school. I was working at the range of my local country club in a small New Hampshire town, selling and picking range balls. I’d set the range up in the early mornings on weekends, making sure divot mix boxes were full, club stands were neatly arranged, and stretching a multicolored rope on each side of the designated hitting area.

A fit, middle-aged man with a salt and pepper George Clooney look was swinging a short iron athletically, generating an alarming amount of clubhead speed. I already knew everyone at the club from the odd jobs I worked around the course, but I’d never seen this man before. 

As I approached him, two things struck me: the inconsistent shots didn’t match the skilled swing, and he was hitting balls outside of my neatly arranged hitting area. One shot thin and low, the next shot high and heavy. He seemed to be in a rush, reaching for the next ball almost as quick as the previous shot left his club. He must be teeing off soon, I thought. 

I said hello as I approached and asked if he would mind moving between the ropes. He looked at me with genuine curiosity and then back to the lines, and with his greenish, hazel eyes lighting up, he chuckled. He apologized with a smile and said perhaps he’d probably have more luck now. I thanked him and went back to work. 

Soon after, the head pro and my boss, Mike Marquis, showed up on the range. He said he was about to go play and his group was short a player. Would I have an interest in joining them? I’d get to play with the pro and stay on the clock. I practically leapt with excitement. 

When I arrived on the tee, Mr. Outside-the-Lines was waiting, driver in hand, face to the sun. As we were introduced, he mentioned that we’d met and made a joke about having already been in trouble. Jeff was the Headmaster at New Hampton School, a private boarding school 20 minutes away. Mike’s daughter was a student at his school, and Mike was helping Jeff with his golf game. New Hampton School was known both for its basketball program and as a last chance for kids who found trouble easily. 

We played a few holes and conversation came naturally. Jeff had been a professional freestyle skier and weighed professional baseball as a pitcher in the Cape Cod Leagues. He’d been a musician, a burnout, and dropped out of school. He had figured out how the rigidity of an antiquated education system failed him, and wrote about it. Jeff was then accepted to Harvard, where he eventually earned a masters degree in counseling psychology and a doctorate in human development. 

We’d only played four holes but it might as well have been four rounds. My play to that point had felt effortless and the putts were dropping. Before I hit my second shot on the hilly, par 4 fifth hole, Jeff said he planned on coaching the golf team in the spring and he wanted me on the team. Would I ever consider changing schools? I couldn’t believe he was asking. Mike had filled him in on my family’s financial circumstances and Jeff believed there would be significant financial aid available if I was willing to take a risk. 

Just like that, in four and a half holes of golf, a chance encounter changed my life. 

I’m looking for a peace of mind

An island in the sky

Ride the quest of time, baby

Never die

I spent the next two and a half years with him at New Hampton School. At a school filled with kids from diverse backgrounds, many from wealthy families, many from troubled pasts, Jeff won the respect – not just the acceptance – of everyone in school. Our golf team was full of nerds, jocks and outcasts whom Jeff encouraged to join the team to fulfill their sport requirement, and he accepted all of us as we were. 

His house sat atop a hill overlooking campus. Down the hill about 150 yards, Jeff’s office was on the top floor of the brick library building. There was a pond directly in front that was the perfect target for golf shots. After returning to campus one evening after practice, some members of the team started hitting golf balls from Jeff’s house into the pond. When the biggest wrestler in school hit a cold shank that shattered through a window in Jeff’s house, the entire team cringed and fell shockingly quiet. Jeff stormed out of the house, startled, and told the wrestler he needed to work on his swing. We went back to hitting balls. 

If you were a member of the team, you were family. All of us came to love him and aspired to be like him. He found ways to relate to everyone and to reach everyone – the more disconnected the person, the more Jeff was interested in connecting. 

Jeff encouraged me to go to Notre Dame where he was a visiting professor. During summer school following my junior year of college, I was delighted when Jeff’s book, Sports PLUS, was on our reading list in a sociology class. Jeff’s main pursuit in life was the dissemination of this idea that he had written extensively about: that the sports field was a classroom that was both a positive and negative learning environment. Students learned the most during intense moments of competition and Sports PLUS (Positive Learning Using Sports) was an entire system that helped parents, teachers, coaches, counselors and students make the most of those moments seamlessly. Having spent most summers working in Jeff’s camps that taught the PLUS model, that Notre Dame sociology class improved my GPA. 

When my Dad died suddenly during my senior year of college, two of the first people to put their lives on hold and come rescue me were Jeff and the club pro, Mike. I sat between the two in Mike’s pickup truck as we just drove. Each man shared stories of my father, of their fathers, of loss and love. They absorbed my pain and helped carry the burden. Before my Dad passed away, he had asked to hear me play guitar, a request I couldn’t meet until his service. It was the reassurance in Jeff’s presence that day that helped make those musical notes possible. 

After graduating and playing professional golf around Asia, I returned home. I had traveled around Asia for a full year, and despite making the majority of cuts on Tour, had nothing in the bank. Jeff and his partner, Karyn, had moved to New Orleans to head a school. Karyn, a talented musician with a soulful, bluesy voice, helped Jeff apply the principles of Sports PLUS to music. I’d spent my last dollar on a flight home from Taiwan and arrived in the Crescent City. 

The shotgun house was on Algiers Point, directly across the Mississippi River from the city. When you walked through the door you were greeted by Jeff’s impressive guitar collection and books strewn about the living room. There was always music being played – by Jeff, by Karyn, friends, neighbors and visitors. All were welcome. With his giant, callused hands, Jeff played the guitar like Ernie Els swung a club – with effortless precision. The Big Easy. Walk three minutes in one direction from Jeff and Karyn’s house and you were on the ferry boat. Walk five minutes in the other direction, and you were in some of the poorest, hardest neighborhoods in the city. 

I started sleeping on the couch in a spare room filled with amps, books, papers, and guitars, sharing the room with Charlie, Dizzy and Biggie, two dogs and a cat named after famous musicians. Soon enough, I too was adopted. I started coaching kids at a local golf course and helping Jeff with Sports PLUS. The humid night air was always filled with music, and we’d play until the strings got tired. Jeff became Papa Beeds.

We lived simply, eating local po’ boys, gumbo, couscous and rice, always with coffee in hand. We’d sneak off to play nine holes when he had a spare couple hours. His swing was fast and lively, his attention to the shots never quite focused enough. During each round, he’d take his cap off, run his hands through his thick silver hair, close his eyes and turn his face to the sun. It was as if he was feeling the sun’s warmth for the first time. We’d hear local bands on back streets. It would make him stop and smile. “That’s good, man!” He’d call out. I earned just enough money to get by but had never felt more fulfilled.

Dizzy and Charlie on New Orleans porch

Pretty little baby on your shoulder

All these questions they just come up empty

Turn your head around

Open up your eyes

Love is what life is all about 

I eventually returned to the road and competitive golf. In that time, Jeff and Karyn traveled the world, working at schools all over the US and abroad. We’d occasionally catch each other in passing or on the phone, but never found the time we once had. Jeff implemented the PLUS model at schools in South Korea, Cyprus, Zambia, and a refugee camp in Malawi. When we spoke, we always said we loved each other, even after we fell out of touch for too long. We’d often talk about applying the principles of Sports PLUS to golf to create a new program for the next generation.

In 2020, Jeff asked me to join the Board of Directors for the PLUS program. While I’m sure he was hopeful I’d be a helpful sounding board, I knew it was an attempt to bring us back together. His health had been deteriorating, and I had found out just the year before he had been living in remission with Hodgkin's Lymphoma. His brave daughters donated the stem cells for him to fight through two transplants, but it left him with low immunity and the pandemic came at a difficult moment. 

When I called him two weeks ago, he sounded frail. We caught up and reminisced, but his memories weren’t clear. He spoke of the impermanence of everything. I hung up, shaken. 

Jeff’s wife Karyn called twice in the morning darkness last week. Jeff had been taken to the ICU and the outlook wasn’t good. I caught a flight to Boston, slept in the cell phone lot of Logan Airport until visiting hours, and went to say goodbye. 

The end of life can be cruel, crippling and unfair. I sat with him in the ICU, harmonizing with his wife through tears, singing the hits from our New Orleans days, remembering the good times. He had so much more to offer and there was so much we’d wanted to do together. We just never found the time. 

The sun set and it was time to leave. I leaned close, ran my hand through his silver hair and told him I’d love him forever. He passed away shortly after. 

Jeff wasn’t perfect, but he was extraordinary. He made the lives of nearly everyone who knew him better. His love rippled through the world and touched lives immeasurably. I owe him so much. This is a reminder not to leave things unsaid and not to leave ideas unexplored. Jeff believed our ballparks, our courts, our fields, and our courses are all classrooms. He believed you model the behavior you teach, and become the change you want to see. His life’s research and work was devoted to improving kids’ lives.

In the coming months, I’ll be taking his work and applying it to coaching golf for junior and high school students in need. Jeff’s love, story and legacy, will live on in the lessons and joy of young golfers who learn it’s ok to start swinging outside the lines. 

Please don’t tell me life is just an illusion

Just because your eyes can’t see the light

Turn your head around

Well open up your eyes

Love is what life is all about 

-Lyrics from the song “Island in the Sky,” by Jeff Beedy

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