Sam Emerson spent most of his life on a golf course. He grew up caddying at Hillcrest Country Club near his home on St. Paul’s east side and continued his passion for the game as a golf pro and teacher throughout his life.
“He always said how lucky he was to have the best office in the world,” said Sam’s wife, Jo Emerson, mayor of White Bear Lake. The two celebrated 28 years of marriage before Sam succumbed July 5 to complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 82.
Sam never served in the military but he had a sister who was a career Air Force officer, a father-in-law who was career Army and a stepson who served in the Army. “He loved veterans,” Jo said, which led Sam to found a nonprofit organization called Eagles Turf in 2012. The program teaches golf to disabled veterans and those suffering from PTSD, including his stepson.
Sam was visiting him at a VA medical center when he noticed something that bothered him. The patients weren’t doing anything. There were no activities. So the White Bear Lake resident decided to introduce them to an activity he knew best: golf.
Friend Pat McFarlane, who served on the board of Eagle’s Turf, said Sam’s niche was working with the disabled. He taught them to swing and putt and provided camaraderie and confidence. “It was a huge deal for him,” McFarlane said. The organization is now under United Heroes League in Hastings and going strong.
Sam’s affinity for teaching the game he loved earned him the Minnesota PGA’s Section Teacher of the Year Award in 2014. He was also honored with the Section PGA Horton Smith Award in 2003.
A favorite story from McFarlane is how Sam wanted to donate his hat collection to Eagle’s Turf. “He had a lot of memorabilia from all these golf courses. One was a visor with a famous signature from one of the U.S. Opens. I said, ‘Sam, do you want to donate this one signed by Arnold Palmer?’ He said, ‘Maybe we better keep that one.’”
Sam was a life member of the PGA. He played in multiple U.S. Open and Senior Open tournaments.
He also loved trout fishing and hunting, a good single malt scotch, music of all kinds, dancing and time spent with family and friends, noted his obituary.
The family thanks staff at Cerenity Care Center for their wonderful care of Sam. He moved to the facility a couple years ago after never quite recovering from a surgery. He was unsteady on his feet from Parkinson’s and suffered dementia, also related to the disease.
Jo was unable to visit Sam at the care center due to COVID-19, but they talked every day and used Zoom and FaceTime. Towards the end, his caregivers brought his bed down to an area divided by glass. “The staff was amazing,” she said. “We all had to wear masks, which didn’t help him recognize us, but we could at least see each other. It was hard. He hated not being able to walk or teach golf.”
The mayor also noted that the care center has not had one case of COVID-19.
Sam is preceded in death by his parents, a sister and son Samuel Jr. He is survived by Jo; three children, Dawn (Larry) Giese, Jeff and Barry (Julie) Emerson; and by his “bonus” children, Barbara (Chris) Sabal; Dave (Julie) Karle; Pamela (Thomas) Frame and Douglas (Shana) Karle; as well as 19 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
A celebration of life will be held when it is safe to gather. Jo said Sam had a lot of friends, including his Johnson High School classmates, and a celebration is warranted.
They had a lot of good times and good memories, his wife said. “Sam was a lot of fun. We had a good ride. That’s what Sam would have said.”
Memorials are preferred to United Heroes League, 15211 Ravenna Trail, Hastings, MN 55033; Evans Scholars Foundation, 2501 Patriot Blvd., Glenview, IL 60026; Church of St. Mary of the Lake or Cerenity Care Center. Sam was interred at St. Mary of the Lake Catholic Cemetery.
— Debra Neutkens