BOB ALMAN: When or how did you ever take up USCA croquet?
DAVID McCOY: I took up croquet in 2000 at the insistence of Mary Pat Pace, our neighbor in Palm Beach Polo and Country Club. She worked on me for several years after we moved there to try the game. Finally - knowing that I was Chairman of The York Theatre Company in NYC (an off-Broadway professional musical theatre), she said, "You know David, a lot of interesting, wealthy people play croquet! I bet some of them would help your theatre company!"
That set the hook, and she reeled me in! I joined the club and started playing... and winning, and soon gave up trying to improve my golf game. I was totally hooked. As she said, I also ended up finding in the croquet world a president, four directors, and numerous audience members for the theatre company... and a few croquet players from my theatre friends, as well!
BOB: My dear friend Edith Hall was one of them. I told her she should play croquet, and she told me about her connection to your theatre company. I enrolled us in a member/guest event at the Center - I guess it was in 2007 - after which she decided to join. I believe she donated her daughter's catering to your theatre company for special occasions. She kind of bonded with another newcomer in our first game, and they decided, on the spot, that they could both join because now they had somebody to play with.
DAVID: Yes, Edith has been wonderfully supportive of York and the Foundation and Center as well. It’s the generosity of people like Edith that allowed me to stabilize the financial position of the Center.
And I want to highlight what you said about new members and the importance of matching them with others at the same level. Marie Sweetser, the Club’s Membership Manager, does a great job with that individually, and numerous National Croquet Club members run doubles games in both American Rules and Golf croquet where you just show up and get two games several times a week. Having all those opportunities for a pleasant, competitive, social interaction is an essential element of building and keeping membership. Many great new friendships (and a few marriages!) have come from that.
DAVID: My coach and mentor who encouraged me to get more involved and play in tournaments was Gary Weltner, the President of the Croquet Club at Palm Beach Polo, followed by the infamous Mik Mehas, who later "adopted" me and took over as my instructor and good friend. In 2006 (checking this date), I became a Lifetime Member of the Croquet Club at the National Croquet Center, then operated by Croquet Enterprises - the for-profit subsidiary of the Croquet Foundation of America which owned the Center and was set up to manage the entire operations.
BOB: Gary Weltner did an essential job in the last year or so of my stint as organizing manager of the Center. I think he was the head of Croquet Enterprises. He was a very laid-back guy, and sometimes apologized to me for some quite-dubious instructions from on high, which I had to deal with in some way. I was wholly absorbed in managing the Center and publicizing it with the press and being out in the community, and acting as House Manager for all the events we managed to capture. And Gary handled the things I wanted nothing to do with: the financial stuff! Your strong suit!
DAVID: Soon after I started playing at the NCC, Gary began telling me that the Center was in financial trouble. I started offering advice because I was in disbelief that such a gorgeous place could possibly have financial problems. I heard that the event business was dropping both due to the impending recession and because rumors had spread outside to the community, that the Center was in trouble and might close. Obviously, no one wanted to book a big event or wedding and have the place fold before it took place. And we even lost some members out of the same fear.
BOB: Uh-oh. Sounds like Gary is hooking you on more than croquet games....
DAVID: Yes, hooked again! I started working with Gary to try to come up with ideas to close the $130k operating deficit projected for the summer of 2007. Gary asked me to join the Board and I agreed. I also joined a task force of volunteers that formed to try to save the Center. Ruth Summers and others helped with a letter campaign requesting donations to cover the shortfall.
BOB: So I think it was in 2007 that you were TOTALLY hooked on saving the Center, David. You wouldn't have said that, no one would have, in retrospect, but that's when I think it happened. At that time, I was asking specific people with money and influence, "Are you willing to be responsible for having the National Croquet Center survive?" and they would say things like, "Well, surely we wouldn't let a place like this go under...." but not one of them would make a personal commitment. Although you didn't say it, my guess is that you knew, yourself, that you were the guy who would do that. If I had asked you that question in December of 2007, what would you have said?
DAVID: Well, I thought to myself, a $130,000 deficit isn’t so bad. We have that problem in the theatre several times a year for almost every show! But the other thing I noticed was that there was no effective and organized development plan to ask people to help, and to give them recognition when they did. So I agreed to take over as President of Croquet Enterprises (and General Manager of the Center) after Stewart and Josie Jackson left, following their two years as volunteers as general manager and receptionist/Pro Shop manager, after the departure of the previous GM.
I had almost no background in the history of the Center or croquet. I just knew I loved the game, the people and the beautiful Center. The person who helped me understand the history and what had been tried and either worked or failed, was you! As you will recall, I spent many hours on the phone and in copious emails asking you for advice, despite warnings I received that I shouldn’t talk to you for fear you might report it on your website and make our financial matters worse!
BOB: Yes, I much appreciated that, too. It was like, "Somebody who understands, is listening and can actually DO something! I remember I also arranged a long lunch with Joe Dillon, the caterer I had hired who had invested so much of himself in having the Center succeed, only to be so totally frustrated with the disastrous Jenner reign as general manager that Joe had to quit, himself.
DAVID: The most obvious issue I saw was the organization structure. The legal advice given to the CFA Board at the outset was that almost all of the Center’s income-generating activity (outside events, Pro Shop, and croquet club) was "unrelated business income." That would cause the not-for-profit Foundation, as owner, to lose its tax-exempt status. So they needed to have the Center be operated by a for-profit subsidiary. That meant the for-profit operator of the Center paid about $50k/year in property tax, plus sales taxes on all of its purchases. It also meant that donations to support the Center’s deficit were not tax deductible. That was a disaster!
The "Club" at that time was in name only, operated by Croquet Enterprises, instead of having its own board, although it did have an effective Social Committee, headed by Lee Little, with Ruth Summers and others, as I recall.
BOB: One of the really strange instructions I got from above, early on, was that we didn’t need a croquet club. So be it! I enlisted Lee Little to head a "Social Committee" which actually did almost everything a "club" would do in that period; including interact with the South Florida Host Committee, composed of liaisons to other South Florida croquet clubs for incoming groups from England, and to help with two editions of our International Croquet Festival. We named the committee the Ambassadors, and they all did a great job for a long time.
I knew NOTHING about finances, but I did know about managing croquet clubs, and I knew about publicity, and even though the San Francisco Croquet Club had achieved the kind of 50l(c)(3) status it needed as a channel for donations, it was mostly through the hard work of an attorney at the club, Warren Hernand, that it happened. Jack Osborn called me in the early 90's I think it was, to get the precise language to use by the USCA and the CFA. But you're there now in 2008 as General Manager, and you're focusing on organizational structures....
DAVID: And one of my first steps as General Manager was to find and hire Jay Fleischer, a lawyer with experience in organizing not-for-profit corporations, to help us restructure the Foundation and the Center. I gave him my rationale about the related nature of much of the income previously thought to be unrelated, and asked him to research it. He did, and wrote a 45-page, "clean opinion letter" supporting those positions. He determined I was correct that there was a clearly legitimate basis to restructure the operations and to return operation of the Center to the Foundation.
BOB: So that's the beginning of all the necessary restructuring that happened - which people can read about in your Hall of Fame writeup: setting up a business plan, developing a cash-flow analysis tool, and the various fundraising activities – all of which you had done as part of your experience with the York Theatre Company.
But David, I want to ask you a difficult question now, about the Hall of Fame. It seems to me it's too much about "popularity" and financial donations, and too little about other genuine contributions to the sport and the culture. I'm thinking of two people which the Hall of Fame has declined to induct: people who really did make fabulous contributions, one of them in the financial/organizational arena, and one of them as a player.
Mik Mehas, in any other sport, would be in the Hall of Fame for his achievements as a player, as a competitor, as a personality, perhaps even as a teacher - because he took on many, many people, and gave them intensive instruction over time, without payment. Mehas was truly the most interesting player we have ever had. He cultivated the press, which was good for the sport. He tried his best to look "sporty," with a costume that made him look like a baseball player. You are one of his successes as a teacher. Gary Weltner, with a personality as opposite to Mehas as possible, is another highly under-appreciated figure. How does that happen?
DAVID: I think it has to do with process. Nominees for the Hall of Fame are submitted by USCA members, and up until this year were elected by a vote of the Croquet Foundation of America Board. As the Board changes over time, those elected have varied greatly over the years. They have run the gamut from movie and other celebrities for the publicity and membership they could attract to the sport (e.g. Harpo Marx, Richard Rodgers, Daryl Zanuck); to people who were just beloved by the electors at the time because of their dedication and ambassadorship for the sport (like Margaret Mihlon); to USCA staff members who went above and beyond in their dedication to the sport (Anne Frost Robinson, Shereen Hayes); and to some who supported the sport through major financial commitments in addition to their substantial participation in the sport. The balance is largely made up of very-high level championship players plus many of the officers of the CFA and the USCA for their years of volunteer efforts and contributions to the management and development of the sport, most of whom were also championship players.
There’s a clear case to be made for those who have been supporters financially, in addition to their long-term dedication and other contributions to the sport. Neither the CFA nor the USCA could be effective in promoting and developing the sport without the help of major contributors, dedicated to the success and future of the sport. The sport has benefitted greatly in many ways from those few people whose financial support played a prominent, but by no means exclusive, role in their induction.
BOB: Well, Mehas was very poor, so you were never going to get any money, directly from him.
DAVID: Yes, but all the things you mentioned about his outstanding achievements were correct. Mik Mehas was a wonderful teacher and friend. He wanted me to win, and always watched and critiqued my play. (During my games, however, I had to avoid him like the plague to keep him from sneaking me advice.) I miss Mik and wish he were here now to consult and "fix" my deteriorating game (or maybe if I just had the time to practice...)
Mik was known as "The Bad Boy of Croquet" for good reason. He liked and promoted that image. He seemed to go out of his way to go against authority and push the rules beyond their limits. He had a ferocious temper when challenged, bordering on the physical on numerous occasions, in competitions and otherwise – but never directed at me. I often wonder if the brain tumor that eventually killed him didn’t impact his personality that way. It was in that part of the brain that controls aspects of personality and impulse control.
BOB: I looked up that possibility, too, because there was no rational explanation for those violent extremes, which, however, were part of what made him interesting. I was the guy, incidentally, who publicized him as "The Bad Boy of Croquet" when I did an interview with him early on at Sonoma-Cutrer. I told him what I was doing, and remember telling him he actually NEEDED to create a sporty persona around all those antics. I think he understood, because he told me later that in his finals game in Cairo, when he just barely lost to an Egyptian for the world championship, very early on, the voluble crowd shouted "Bad Boy, Bad Boy, Bad Boy" as encouragement. He told me at one time, "I don’t know whether to kill you or kiss you for the Bad Boy thing." I asked him to please do neither!
DAVIDMCCOY: Yes, that persona did work for him in a way, but the sad thing is that he had, at some point in time, fought with or pissed off just about everyone in the management structure of croquet, plus most of his croquet peers, some of whom accused him of cheating. For me, however, he was always a great, unselfish teacher, and always fun and interesting to be around. And he had a million stories...
People seemed to fall into two camps: either they hated Mik, or they liked him despite his obvious faults. I was in that latter camp, but I was in the minority.
BOB: I will say that I was with you in the minority, not for liking him exactly, but for forgiving him for some of the bizarre extremes. I guess the worst time was when he was on the USCA Selection Committee for the 2002 Golf Croquet World Championship, and actually requested Tony Hall, president of the WCF, not to communicate with me at all! Tony, to his great credit, emailed back to him and the USCA Selection Committee something like, "There’s no way that I’m going to fail to communicate with the host of the facility with whom I negotiated this event, so Bob will be copied in all our correspondence."
So, it makes sense that Mehas is not in the Hall of Fame.
DAVID:Far as I know, despite his amazing croquet skills and achievements, no one ever nominated him to the Hall of Fame, due to his reputation.
BOB: And Gary’s case? Was it just his sort of self-effacing style, or what?
DAVID: Yes, Gary was always very low key in his approach, quietly getting things done, as best he could under the difficult circumstances. He and his wife Barbara did an amazing job of running croquet at Palm Beach Polo for years, including the highly-popular Laura Heart Invitational, and when they moved away, the program just withered and died. At the Center, Gary volunteered a great deal of time and I think he did the best he could under the difficult circumstances. Given the extreme financial stress of the Center, I think tensions existed between some members of the CFA Board and Gary but I don’t really know the details. After he resigned, he and his wife Barbara refocused their croquet activities at PGA, where they lived. As with Mik, to my knowledge, no one ever nominated him for the Hall of Fame, either.
BOB: I’ve guessed that the reason you and your delightful wife Millie chose Wellington as your southern residence has to do with Millie’s horse, and you just happened to choose Palm Beach Polo, which just happened to be USCA headquarters, with those four croquet courts right at the entrance. Our individual lives seem in retrospect to have been governed by sheer accidents which, looking back, appear most significant and consequential…