By Dave Kindred
One morning in 1926, the small boy William Powell walked seven miles down a railroad track. He found his future. Not that he knew it. He knew only that he loved what he saw that morning. He saw a golf course. My, my. What a thing. He'd never seen so much green.
"Beautiful," he says now, seventy-five years later. Only he says it better than that. He says it sweet, soft, slow. "Beeyoootifulll," he says.
One morning in 2001, the great-grandson of Alabama slaves sits in a cart near the 1st tee of his very own course. He built it with his hands, with money from his factory job, with eighteen-hour days, with his wife and children working alongside.
People drove by on Ohio's U.S. Route 30 and saw William Powell on his wild land yanking out tree stumps as if they were bad teeth. They saw him hacking, tugging, burning, bulldozing, pulling up fence posts and picking up stones, planting, watering, mowing. He sweated rivers.
"We had seventy-eight acres, a dilapidated barn, a milk parlor in shambles, chickens in the weeds, no plumbing, no heat and a big ol' white tomcat chasing rats as big as it was," Powell says. "Whatever the 'pioneering spirit' is, we must've had it."
His body aches. Asked if he still plays golf, he laughs. "I fake it." He's five inches shorter than the five-foot-nine Wilberforce University fullback of his youth. "At 190, I looked 175."
He pats his windbreaker. "Got a stomach now for the first time."
He can talk. My, my. He sits three hours, talking. He drives a visitor on a tour of Clearview Golf Course, talking great good sense: "I'd rather fail trying than be successful doing nothing."
The way he tells his story, it's a lesson in American history. He worked on his golf course not for months or years. He worked for decades.
When he started, late in 1946, the pro golf tour enforced a Caucasians-only clause. Jackie Robinson hadn't joined the Dodgers. As Powell worked, Rosa Parks was arrested, Emmett Till beaten to death, Martin Luther King Jr. shot. Watts burned. Four young girls died in a Birmingham, Alabama, church. Bull Connor loosed the dogs of racial war.
William Powell kept working. His daughter, Renee, a former LPGA Tour player and now Clearview's club pro, asks, "How do you stick to something for fifty years when you have obstacles thrown in your path because your skin is the wrong color? My father's story is, 'Never give up.' I got death threats on tour, and I'd call home crying, and y'know what? My parents never said, 'Come on home.'"
Bankers wouldn't lend him money, not even a GI loan. An insurance man told him to keep quiet about his plans or white folks would build a course next door. Vandals plundered his meager place. He kept working. "Even black people thought I was a kook," Powell says. "Who wants to fight a racist, apartheid society all the time? But I had golf in me. And I had to bring it out."
Golf got into him that morning in 1926. Willie Powell and his friend George set out from their little town of Minerva, Ohio. They followed the railroad tracks to see a golf course, though they had no idea what a golf course was.
They hurried through a quarter-mile tunnel before a train could squeeze them against the side walls, those walls crumbling with stone jiggled loose by locomotives rumbling through.
The boys saw railroad construction done with giant steam shovels. They heard dynamite blasts. "So exciting," Powell says. "Like they were digging the Panama Canal."
Then they saw the golf course – beautiful - Edgewater Golf Course. All day they hung around. Powell inspected a Model-T Ford made into a tractor/mower with twelve-inch-wide steel rear wheels and a chain drive with three-fourths-inch flat metal studs. He saw golfers hit balls into the sky and he was amazed how far those balls went and he wanted to try it himself - if his mother ever would let him out of the house again.
Night fell before the boy retraced those seven railroad miles. He tried to sneak into bed, only to hear his mother say, "Willie! Go get me a switch!"
She wanted a whippy switch off a willow tree in the front yard. She used it to great effect. The boy, now a man eighty-four-years old, William Powell yet squirms on the seat of his golf cart and says, "That's a switchin' I'll never forget."
But golf had him. He caddied, thirty-five cents a loop. He became a player who in a different time might have been a professional: "I had the game. But like John Shippen and Teddy Rhodes and many others, not the opportunity. We had to pay the colored tax."
During World War II, U.S. Army Tech Sergeant Powell organized truck convoys in preparation for the D-Day invasion. He used downtime to play golf throughout Great Britain. But at war's end, back home, no golf.
"I had put my life on the line for this country," he says. "I'd just left a country where I was treated like a human being. Now I was supposed to be satisfied to be treated like dirt? I couldn't play any local events. I knew I ought to be allowed to. But there was nothing I could do about it."
Nothing? Powell had been captain of his college golf and football teams. He led men in the army. He often quoted grade-school principal R. R. Vaughn: "Billy, you know you are a little colored boy, and you have to realize you can't do things just as good as a white boy - you have to do them better!"
He would do something. "I couldn't stand being controlled by a certain part of society - you know who I mean - when they didn't come up to my standards."
What he'd do is build his own golf course. "It was necessary," he says. "I had to do it for my own pride. Necessary. I had the right to exist."
All these years later, William Powell knows why he wanted to build Clearview. But he doesn't know why he thought he could. He had no money, no land and no idea how he'd get either. "Then, miracles," he says.
He and his wife, Marcella, had admired land they saw while driving from East Canton to Minerva. They soon saw that land for sale. He made two doctors his partners; his stake came in a loan from his brother.
Clearview is now eighteen holes on 130 acres of rolling, verdant hills decorated with dogwoods and sassafras, oaks and maple. A cool breeze crosses the land transformed from wilderness into parkland. At the 1st tee, a sign calls it "America's Course." On February 16, 2001, Clearview was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Jeff Brown, an Ohio historian who finished the writing of Clearview's register nomination, says, "It's an amazing story, the only course in the history of America designed, built and owned by an African American."
"The lesson of Mr. Powell's life," says Dr. Obie Bender, assistant to the president of Baldwin-Wallace College and a Clearview player for thirty-five years, "is 'Never let other people define you.'"
Powell's wife, Marcella, died in 1996. His son, Larry, is course superintendent. Daughter Renee runs the shop, teaches and, like the rest of the family, is involved in the Clearview Legacy Foundation, preserving the course's history.
The Powells need a museum just for awards: An honorary doctorate from Baldwin-Wallace. The National Golf Foundation's Jack Nicklaus Golf Family of the Year Award in 1992. A Tiger Woods Foundation scholarship in the name of William and Marcella Powell. A lifetime PGA of America membership.
All nice, if late. "Those honors are beautiful," Powell says, there by the 1st tee fifty-five years after he drove off U.S. Route 30 and down a dirt lane to his life's work, "but they're empty, because Marcella's not here. She'd never say, 'This is not going to work.'"
He takes a visitor around the property, the afternoon light golden, and he talks about this tree stump, that creek, those flowers.
He drives to a new tee on the 5th hole, where the PGA of America is lending a hand in renovation, and he points out three maple trees now in the fairway rather than beside it.
"We'll take those down," he says.
"Might be interesting," the visitor says, "if you left one to get in the way."
Suddenly, William Powell raises his chin. His eyes brighten. "Maybe we could," he says, his old man's voice alive with a boy's excitement.