WILLIAM POWELL IS STANDING on the 14th tee of the Clearview Golf Club in East Canton, Ohio, looking down on undulating fairways bordered by hickories, maples and oaks. “The first week in May, it had wild crab apple out there,” says Powell. “It smelled like perfume. In the fall you have a beautiful panorama of colors. If you look down, you’ll see the trees and the opening. Isn’t that a clear view?”
It is indeed. The real marvel, though, is the clarity of Bill Powell’s view. Fifty years ago, Powell, a black GI just back from World War II, saw how this rolling stretch of farmland, then covered with weeds and soybeans, could be transformed into a golf course. Not that Powell, now 79, had ever thought of doing that. All the man wanted to do was play golf. He’d started caddying when he was only 9 years old, but there were just a couple of golf clubs in the Canton area that accepted African-Americans. The others, says Powell, would stop you “every kind of way they could.”
But Powell, who had married Marcella Oliver in 1940, wouldn’t be stopped. Ultimately he became the only black person in America known to have designed, built and owned his own golf course. Racism spurred him to action. “It upgraded my desire,” says Powell, who, after returning to civilian life, resumed his job as a security guard at the Timken Company, a bearing and steel manufacturer. Denied a GI loan to buy the 78-acre farm where he envisioned his course, he persuaded two black doctors to help finance his dream.
The Powells moved onto the farm in 1946, and when he wasn’t working at Timken, Bill spent his time in the fields leveling and clearing the land. It hardly occurred to him that he was a pioneer. Jackie Robinson hadn’t yet broken baseball’s color barrier, and it would be 16 years before the Professional Golfers Association would allow blacks on the pro tour. “Marcella was very much a part of this,” says Powell of his wife of 56 years, who died just two months ago. “I was possessed, and she went right along with it.”
The project stretched on long enough for the Powells’ children—Renée, Lawrence and William—to be recruited to help. “I’ve driven the tractor and mowed fairways,” says Renée, who spent 13 years on the women’s professional tour and is now the Clearview golf pro.
Clearview opened for play as a nine-hole course in 1948, but Powell stayed on at Timken 18 years more, saving up until he was able to buy out his partners and purchase another 52 acres to expand to 18 holes. “A lot of times I’m just speechless to think that someone would have his tenacity,” says Mary Walker, 70, Powell’s sister.
Powell inherited the trait from his parents, Barry and Massleaner, who reared six kids on his father’s meager wages from jobs at the local steel plant and the railroad and his mother’s from cleaning white families’ houses. From the 1920s to the 1960s, they were the only black couple to become a permanent part of Minerva, Ohio, about 10 miles from East Canton. “My dad was not a rolling stone,” says Powell. “He built our house in 1922, and it’s still standing.” Though the Powells were poor, so were a lot of other people during the Depression. “Everybody was friendly,” he says, “because nobody had nothing.”
Powell learned to pitch and putt while caddying at the Edgewater Golf Course, a five-mile walk from his home. When the white doctor whose house Massleaner cleaned needed a partner, he chose young Bill. “I played with him every day at noon,” says Powell. “When the bug bites you, you can’t turn it loose.” By the time he was 12, he spent all his spare time on the practice fairway, driving balls and analyzing their flight. “I don’t think there’s anybody,” he says, “that knows more about the mechanics of golf.”
Today, Powell has a truly integrated course, which is all he ever really wanted (in fact, the bulk of his clientele has always been white). And after all these years he is getting national attention. Tom Snyder asked him to come on his late-night talk show, and several movie companies have called about doing his life story. But Powell’s pleasure in being recognized is tinged with sorrow. “It’s sad,” says Renée, “because my mom isn’t here.”
Marcella isn’t far from Powell’s thoughts on this day either as he stands on his favorite spot on the hill. “My wife and I were driving to Minerva,” he says, thinking back to that day 50 years ago. “And I said, ‘Gee, look at that place down there. It’s beautiful. Look at that terrain.’ ”
It was at that moment that Powell knew he was going to build a golf course, seeing, as he puts it, the potential “that other people have to wait until it’s finished to see.”
Still, Bill Powell’s greatest strength may lie in what he once refused to see—and still does. “When a person can get you thinking you’re less,” he says, “then he can control you. I’ve always thought I was the best.”
LORNA GRISBY in East Canton