Inside The Fight To Keep NJSGA Hall Of Famer John Shippen's Legacy Alive
PHOTO: Ruby and Thurman Simmons display portrait of NJSGA Hall of Famer John Shippen
By George Willis, New York Post
Ruby Simmons would like to move from her New Jersey home to Arizona, where the weather is warmer and she can see her grandchildren more often.
At age 74, she’d also like to travel and enjoy retirement the way it should be enjoyed. So would her husband of 55 years, Thurman Simmons, also 74.
“I’m in the last quarter of the game and time is running out,” Ruby said recently. “As you get older you lose some fight. I don’t have the fight like I had.”
For the past 30 years, much of that fight has included keeping alive the legacy of John Shippen — the first American-born golf professional, who happened to be an African-American. From their modest home off St. Ann Street in Scotch Plains, N.J., the Simmons have spent nearly half their lives working tirelessly to see Shippen credited for a legendary golf career highlighted by his participation in the 1896 U.S. Open played at Shinnecock Hills.
“It’s been a long journey to legitimize the fact he was the first American pro golfer,” Thurman Simmons said. “Now that the U.S. Open is back at Shinnecock, it’s brought him back to life. People are retelling his story.”
Shippen’s story might have been forgotten if not for the Simmons, who are the co-founders of the John Shippen Memorial Golf Foundation. They are no relation to the golfer and knew nothing about him until 1988. That’s when Ruby, an educator, took a course on African-American Literature at Union County College in Cranford, N.J. The professor assigned her to write an essay on Shippen.
“I just wanted to finish this course,” Ruby told the Post. “Once I started researching, I found it interesting that no one knew about this man. I’m a great advocate of looking at forgotten people.”
The Simmons learned Shippen was born in Washington, D.C., in 1879 and moved with his family at age 12 to the Shinnecock reservation on Long Island — where his father, a Presbyterian minister had been assigned. As a teenager, Shippen worked with the crews who helped build Shinnecock Hills.
The club’s owner, a Scotsman named Willie Dunn, began to teach some of the workers to caddy and play golf. Shippen became a star pupil, and Dunn made him an assistant. Shippen soon was good enough to give lessons to members.
When it was announced the second U.S. Open would be played at Shinnecock in 1896, Shippen and another caddy, Oscar Bunn, were encouraged by the membership to enter. Several of the English and Scottish professionals confronted USGA president Theodore Havemeyer and threatened to withdraw if Shippen, an African-American, and Bunn, a full-blooded Shinnecock Indian, were allowed to compete.
Havemeyer told the protesters the tournament would be played as scheduled even if Shippen and Bunn were the only participants. Thirty-three participants showed for their tee times, and Shippen, just 16 years old, validated his entry by shooting a 78 in the first round — good enough for a tie for the lead after 18 holes.
He lost a chance to win the 36-hole tournament when his tee shot on the par-4 13th hole landed in a sandy road and he took an 11. He wound up shooting an 81. The seven strokes he lost on the hole ended up being the difference between his score and the winning 152 by James Foulis of Scotland.
Shippen finished tied for fifth place and earned $10 in prize money. Bunn finished out of the money in 21st place. Shippen would compete in six U.S. Opens, the last coming in 1913. No African-American played in the U.S. Open again until Ted Rhodes in 1948.
Shippen would serve as a golf professional at several clubs including Aronimink Golf Club near Philadelphia, but is best known for his tenure as the head pro at Shady Rest Golf Course in Scotch Plains, the first African-American golf club in the United States. He served there from 1924 to his retirement in 1960 — an era when luminaries like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Count Basie played there and where Althea Gibson honed her tennis skills.
The essay was just the beginning for the Simmons. Inspired by Shippen’s forgotten legacy and lack of recognition, the couple decided he couldn’t be forgotten. In 1995, they founded the John Shippen Memorial Golf Foundation and later the John Shippen Youth Golf Academy, where youngsters take part in an eight-week course to learn about Shippen and golf. They also began lobbying the USGA and the PGA to legitimize the fact Shippen was America’s first American-born pro golfer.
Every month for two years, Thurman would go to the USGA offices in Far Hills, N.J., and ask to speak with someone about Shippen, and correct the misconception that he was half Shinnecock Indian.
“The last time I went up there it was a snowstorm,” Thurman said.
Board members have come and gone, and so have promises of help and financial assistance. There is no way to estimate how much of their own money they’ve spent on food, tournament supplies, correspondence, memorabilia authentication and scholarships.
“We never kept a tally,” Ruby said. “If something came up, we did whatever was necessary.”
Thanks in part to their tireless efforts, Shippen has been recognized by the USGA as America’s first golf professional and in 2009 the PGA of America bestowed him his PGA Membership card posthumously. This past May, Shippen was part of the inaugural class inducted into the New Jersey Golf Association Hall of Fame at the Galloping Hill Golf Course in Kenilworth, N.J. The Simmonses were there to represent Shippen, who has no living family members.
There are other achievements: raising funds to locate and erect a headstone on Shippen’s grave at Rosedale Cemetery in Linden, N.J.; establishing the golf academy which, in addition to instruction, offers the opportunity to earn four scholarships that are annually awarded. They also worked to get Scotch Plains to acknowledge their local legend with the naming of John Shippen Drive and also lobbied for allocation of space for a John Shippen Museum at Shady Rest, which is now known as Scotch Hills Country Club.
The current initiative is to convince the U.S. Postal Service to put Shippen’s face on a commemorative stamp. The Simmons made a formal request two years ago, but were turned down. This year, they are gathering signatures for a reapplication.
“I’ve always believed when you’re consistent with something people believe that you really care,” Ruby said.
The Simmons keep all of Shippen’s memorabilia gathered over three decades in their home. It includes articles, posters, paintings, pictures, and even a putter Shippen made in 1900. They’re looking for a suitable place to display the artifacts like the USGA museum in Far Hills, the N.J. Golf Association headquarters at Galloping Hill or the museum at Scotch Hills Golf Club. A Gofundme page, accessible under the John Shippen Foundation on Facebook, is serving as a fundraiser for the museum space.
Once the stamp is approved and the memorabilia finds a home, the Simmons can start thinking about moving to Arizona.