By Bob Denney, PGA.com
ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- It was a humble stage entrance, but the twinkle in Jerene Gill’s eyes that day in 1959 in Norman, Okla., would have filled the canvas of a Norman Rockwell painting. Had the great illustrator of Americana been a guest, Rockwell would have had himself a cover for the next issue of The Saturday Evening Post as a two-year-old boy came marching across the living room floor dragging his father’s guitar like it was a bag of potatoes.
What was once a burdensome wooden instrument for Vincent Grant Gill would become an appendage -– an extension of a young man’s soul and the beginning of a remarkable altruistic journey from honky tonk saloons to the Grand Ole Opry and beyond.
The journey blossomed as a gifted youngster born with a mammoth heart lifted him to unparalleled heights in arguably the most competitive industry. How does one survive to entertain and leave an impression that lasts well past the curtain call?
Gill’s music will outlive us all. An adoring public that embraces his skills has witnessed his capturing 15 Grammy Awards among a bagful of other honors, and are now in legion with those who cannot get up from a chair to applaud him. Gill also discovered early in life that his passion for music rivals a passion for golf -– each possessing a quality to bridge the masses and give back to society.
The “Gill Touch” that he gives to a project or a cause is a state of selflessness that manifests itself in charitable organizations, big and small, from coast to coast. Many have included golf, while others aren’t structured at all. In fact, they may be a daily vignette that only Vince may know.
“Vince has a big heart, and is very respectful of other people,” said his wife, Amy Grant, herself a Christian and pop music star before the couple married in March 2000. “He understands that other people’s needs are as important as his own.”
It was 1994 when Vince visited the Special Care facility in Oklahoma City that was a recipient of funds from the former Vince Gill Celebrity Golf Tournament. To get hands-on evidence of where the tournament proceeds were going, Gill visited the center, which was then housed in an old undersized school.
“Vince walked into a room where this 14-year-old girl, Thera, was sitting in a wheelchair,” said Special Care Co-Founder/Director Pam Newby. “Thera had cerebral palsy and could not speak. The moment he entered the room, she let out a big laugh that startled everyone. She was almost screaming and laughing at the same time. Vince came over to her to calm her down. ‘Hey, it’s just me, Vince. Everything’s OK,’ he said. She eventually calmed down and her parents saw what an impact that visit made.
“Thera died in 2002. Vince’s music was played at her funeral and her parents spoke at that time about how Vince had made their daughter smile.”
In 2000, with his wife and country star Reba McEntire on stage, Gill helped clinch the end to a $4 million fundraising campaign to lift Special Care into a new 30,000-square-foot facility. Today, more than 150 disabled boys and girls age 6 to 20 are finding hope in a new home.
Gill began playing golf at age 7, inspired by his father, Stan Gill, an administrative law judge who had moved the family from Norman to Oklahoma City when Vince was 4.
Gill attended Northwest Classen High School in Oklahoma City, along with Benny Garcia, whom he had met in the seventh grade. The son of a professional guitar player, Garcia said weekend activities at the Gill home began with a session watching a golf tournament on television in the basement.
“Vince introduced me to golf,” said Garcia, a guitar technician for Gill’s traveling troupe since 1990. “I didn’t think it was that fun when I first started. I wish I had, because it’s infectious and I have seen what golf has done to help others through Vince. I wish that everyone could have a friend like Vince Gill. It’s been a wonderful ride.”
Gill began playing competitive golf at age 10 and was breaking 80 by the time he entered junior high school. He once considered a career as a professional, but committed himself to music.
Now a resident of Nashville, a city that Amy Grant calls “a generous community that is contagious,” Gill has touched strangers’ lives in the most innocent of circumstances. A waitress at a café serving him and friend Clyde Russell mentions that she was attending Belmont University, majoring in music. But, limited funds meant she can’t continue her college education.
“After she left, Vince suggested that there’s a scholarship in his brother’s name for which she might be eligible,” said Russell, who had first met Gill as tournament director for the former LGPA Sara Lee Classic “That girl returned to college.”
Gill had no second thoughts about extending his golf career to the majors. He may play to a 1 handicap, and posted a 62 in a member-guest event, but when you can produce lyrics that flow like fine wine, you should be blessed that music is your day job.
“As a parent, there comes a time when you have to decide if you set your foot down or allow your children to be what they want to be,” said Jerene Gill. “When Vince packed his guitar after graduating from high school and headed to Louisville to play with Bluegrass Alliance, I was sad. But, I know I did the right thing.”
And, Jerene also knew that she couldn’t stop her youngest son from a love of golf.
“One day I looked out the window and Vince had come home from school, got the lawn mower out of the garage and headed to the backyard,” she said. “When I looked out a few minutes later, Vince had mowed a large circle and turned off the mower. He then got his clubs and began chipping and putting in that circle.”
The late Stan Gill, was a native of Stafford, Kan., just nine miles from St. John, which was Jerene’s hometown. The Gill family also included Vince’s half-brother Bob, and a sister, Gina.
Bob took Vince under his wing and was his inspiration on the journey to success. In 1968, Bob was injured in an automobile accident and remained in a coma for three months. He died in 1993. Two years later, Vince finished the touching “Go Rest High On That Mountain” in memory of his step-brother.
In 1993, Gill founded the Vinny Pro-Celebrity Golf Invitational, which serves as the primary beneficiary for the Tennessee Golf Foundation. “The Vinny” has generated some $3 million for junior golf, providing support and expanding junior golf programs as well as supporting an endowment fund to perpetuate the future of junior golf in Tennessee. Gill’s support of the Tennessee Golf Foundation also resulted in some 1,300 junior golfers competing annually in 160 events on the Vince Gill Tennessee PGA Junior Tour, one of the country’s finest junior circuits.
“As far as Tennessee junior golf is concerned, Vince is our guardian angel,” said Tennessee PGA Executive Director Dick Horton. “His willingness to do anything he’s asked is remarkable. He loves golf with a passion, and he also has given golf credit for keeping him out of making poor choices in life. And, I believe as strong a relationship he had to his Dad, some of that was golf.”
In May 2001, the First Tee Facility at Nashville’s Shelby Park was named The VinnyLinks in Gill’s honor. Today, the thousands of visitors to Golf House Tennessee in Franklin play The Little Course at Aspen Grove and tour the Vince Gill Putting Course.
The circular drive to Golf House Tennessee features a bronze statue of a man watching a young boy swing a golf club. The man rests his left hand on the young boy’ right shoulder. The statue rests in “The Judge’s Court.” It is a memorial to Judge Stan Gill, who passed away in 1997, but not before visiting the Little Course and the Putting Course.
A year later, Stan Gill’s words of wisdom to his youngest son appeared in a song that Vince dedicated to his father -- “The Key To Life.”
I made it from the beer joints to the Opry stage
He said the only difference is what you’re getting paid
He didn’t care that everybody knew my name
He said it’s all for nothin’ if you don’t stay the same.
As a musician’s work progresses through the years, we sometimes get that rare opportunity to peer into an artist’s soul. In “This Old Guitar and Me,” we get that opportunity to follow the trail of a young boy from the living room floor of Norman to manhood living among the bright lights.
From Maine to California, with a five-piece travelin’ band
Singin’ songs about the hard times that face the common man
This old guitar and me, Lord we did the best we could
One was born a sinner and one a piece of wood
God sent me a wooden angel to guide me on my way
We were meant to be together until my dyin' day
To all of those he has touched, and to all he will eventually meet, Vince Gill continues to give back as few Americans can or will dream to do. On Wednesday night, The Professional Golfers’ Association of America proudly bestows its highest honor –- The PGA Distinguished Service Award -– upon Vince Gill, someone whose passion for the game of golf has matched the music of his soul and has continued to bring happiness and fulfillment to so many.
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