Tourney namesake speaks up

Friday, November 12, 2010

For more than 30 years, a group of golfers -- numbering as many as 108 -- have traveled from several big cities in the Southeast and Midwest to play at the Henry Horton Golf Course and last week the man for whom the informal tournament is named, spoke up because the state dismissed three park employees who've been running the golf course.

"They've been extremely kind to us," Bob Doggett of Louisville, Ky., said in a phone call to Lewisburg after reading about the dismissal of golf manager Kerry Blanton, assistant manager Rusty Jones and golf pro Jim Linbaugh. They were dismissed by Jim Fyke, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. His decision followed a lengthy investigation, preceded by a series of audits at the park.

Doggett was talking about employees at the inn, too.

"They reserve the same weekend for us and they go out of their way," he said of the hospitality he and his golf partners enjoy.

Doggett provided a small example of hospitality that is at the core of the reasons cited by TDEC Commissioner Jim Fyke's decision to dismiss the three men.

"Someone may come in and say, 'I need a spike,' and they'd take care of us; no charge," Doggett said, complimenting the state park's hospitality for repeat customers who apparently paid for their rounds of golf and rooms at the inn.

An abbreviated version of the employees' alleged misdeeds is that they let people play free, or at a reduced price when they were not supposed to grant such favors. Fyke sent dismissal letters to the three employees. The letters were several pages long.

"We've spent a lot of money down there," Doggett continued, "and we're not going somewhere else."

He and his friends have been elsewhere. "Not to say something bad about another place..." Doggett said, his words trailing off to another point during a phone call.

Blanton and Jones have said they filed grievances against their dismissals. Calls to the third employee have not resulted in contact. Grievances are a form of appeal, one that's been preceded by in-house hearings.

Doggett is willing to be a character witness; at least for Blanton. He spoke about the former manager, but his praise for the operation implied support for Blanton's assistant, and presumably the golf pro.

"I was sad to hear what happened down there," Doggett said from his home in Louisville, Ky.

The retired General Electric career man received the Tribune's news report about the dismissals. His nephew sent a copy.

"I called Kerry ... saying I was sorry that happened and asked if there was anything I could do," he said during the telephone interview that was one step Doggett took in response to his condolence call to Blanton.

Born in Waco, Texas, Doggett was raised in Pulaski. He moved from South Central Tennessee at age 14, but returned for visits, many motivated by golf.

"My brother-in-law was a Tennessee Highway Patrol trooper, so four of us played and the next year there were more, and it grew and grew.

"We've had as many as 108. They come from Chicago, Atlanta, St. Louis, but most are from the Louisville area."

The long-standing annual golf tournament is held on the third Saturday in May. Another trip has been added in the fall. It attracts a quarter to a third as many golfers as those playing golf in the spring.

"It's been a real good experience. There's only been one problem with one employee. Mr. Blanton took care of it. It was because of one of our people...

"Three or four years ago, they were doing some renovations and we had some new players," Doggett said. "The back nine were closed."

Blanton took steps to accommodate the new players so they didn't feel unfamiliar with the course, compared to the long-time players, before the tournament the next day, Doggett said.

The decades of annual golf matches developed a need for organization and the influx of golfers became known as the Doggett Classic. Records have been kept since 1980.

"Our headquarters is Cabin No. 4," he said. "We have our own flag to go up the pole under 'Old Glory.'"

The camaraderie led to a natural concern for each other. One golfer had cancer surgery.

"Skeeter, my lieutenant, has been with us for years. Pat at the snack bar has always asked about Skeeter."

Doggett went to work for GE when he was 18. He spent 40 years with the company. He's 72 and retired as a shop manager in 1992. About 600 people reported to him, so he's experienced "all walks of life," Doggett said.

Doggett Classic players include people from various professions. One of Doggett's friends is the human resources manager for a major operation in Cincinnati. A good number of the golfers worked for GE.

Tasks have been delegated to make the tournament run smoothly under a code of ethics and general rules.

"We have suspended guys for cheating," Doggett said. "One guy was suspended for a year, but he faced up to it and has been back five years.

"And, you take care of the golf course," he said. "If you see trash, you pick it up."

It's unclear when the park employees' grievance hearings will be conducted.