Lawrence Dickinson’s Winter School for Greenkeepers

Professor Dickinson early in his career.

For the past 82 years, at this time of the season turf managers have gravitated to the University of Massachusetts for what was originally named the Winter School for Greenkeepers at Massachusetts Agricultural College. Thousands of superintendents, many who hold positions at prestigious golf courses around the world, have benefited from the program that was initiated by the legendary professor Lawrence S. Dickinson. Many consider him the father of all turfgrass education, including Geoffrey Cornish, who first joined him as a young teaching assistant in 1937.

“He was an educator, a tremendous person in class. You’d go in for an hour with him, and it would seem like 10 minutes,” says Cornish. “He was very much a visionary; he talked about things 70 years ago that are contemporary today, long before there was any environmental awareness. Lawrence felt personally [that] there was a tremendous connection between man and his environment and was aware of the sense of well-being that came over people on a golf course.”

Dickinson was born in Amherst, Mass., in 1888 and enrolled at UMass after graduation from high school. Little did he know it was an association that would last most of his 77 years. “He started in Amherst, then he went to Chicago to work for a company that was getting into the lawn business, and he got very interested in it,” recalls Cornish. “He returned to Amherst to become superintendent of grounds at Mass Aggie, where he was also in charge of the police on the campus. He was the only one on the force, but there was no crime anyway. He was very glad to get that $100 extra to be the police on campus.”

Around 1925, Dickinson saw a need to provide education for turf managers, a rapidly growing profession within the agricultural field. “He felt very deeply that greenkeepers would sometimes take five years of trial and error to discover something that, in his classes, he could point out in a matter of minutes,” says Cornish. “Around the late 1920s, there was abundant research coming out on the growing of turfgrass, but it was impossible for the head greenkeeper of those days, as dedicated as the guy might be, to comprehend what it was all about. That was part of the objective of his school: to get that knowledge over to superintendents.”

Seven men registered for the first 10-week course in 1927; within a few years it was so popular that greenkeepers would have to be turned away. “The Mass Aggie program was the first of its kind; I think there are now 45 in the U.S. and Canada, all following Lawrence’s example,” notes Cornish. “You can see the impact that’s had on golf course maintenance. Superintendents would never have reached their professional stage unless universities recognized them.”

The class of 1958. Lawrence Dickinson is in the middle of the back row.

Dickinson engaged his students, many of whom had little formal schooling in the early years. “He was a lecturer, but said to his class, ‘Don’t follow me like sheep.’ Minutes later, people would start asking questions and he would get cross and stomp out of the room, but he would always come back in again,” says Cornish. “The students argued with him, but we were all a little bit afraid of Lawrence, who was very reserved. Even though he was a visionary on one hand, he was also a stubborn, old-time Yankee on the other. It was generally agreed that Oxford, Cambridge, Yale and Harvard were the four great higher institutions of the English-speaking world, but I’m sure Lawrence was convinced that Mass Aggie was a step above all of them.”

From left, Arthur Anderson of Braeburn, first graduate of the greenkeepers schoolin 1927; Professor Lawrence Dickinson; and Robert Williams, a 1936 graduate.

Dickinson bridged the divide between work in the field and study in the classroom by bringing in guest speakers every year. “Lawrence’s early classes had a vast impact on golf course education. He felt it was necessary to always have some connection with golf course architecture. Walter Hatch was his first assistant in that regard, and I was the next, and I took it right until Brian Silva took over,” says Cornish. Based in Amherst, Hatch ran the northern office for Donald Ross and was an accomplished golf architect and engineer, and just one of the regulars at the class. “Francis Ouimet used to visit regularly, and Lawrence always got him to speak on turf the golfer wants. I always thought that talk, which everybody heard, had a great impact on turf management in the U.S. And then he used to get a little known guy by the name of Robert Trent Jones who spoke about how the architect creates the golf course, but that the superintendent maintains and enhances it. Those were two tremendously important topics that went on for a number of years.”

In 1929, Dickinson spoke at the National Greenkeepers Convention, forerunner to today’s Golf Industry Show. As an educator, he addressed the issue of who was qualified to teach superintendents. “A most important qualification is that the teachers must be none but those who can actually ‘feel’ the greenkeeper’s part. The sorrows, joys, disappointments and praises,” Dickinson said. “The teacher must have felt the workman’s emotions. He should have had actual experience with pick, shovel and mower. Those are the first set of requirements for a teacher.”

A year later, Dickinson wrote his only book, “The Lawn: The Culture of Turf in Park, Golfing and Home Areas,” published by Orange Judd Publishing in New York and Kegan Paul, Trench Trubner & Co. in London. To introduce the topic, Dickinson wrote: “To establish the fact that good lawn turf adds to the pecuniary value of the home, estate or golf course is often the prerequisite of a turf specialist’s prescription; it seems advisable therefore that such a fact should be the first impression of this book.” He went on to state: “The greenkeeper must have good turf or lose his job.”

In a chapter on general maintenance Dickinson wrote: “Good construction will greatly lessen the cost of maintenance. It is far better, and much cheaper, to encourage and improve the existing turf on a lawn area than to remake it. Too often the errors that caused the lawn to fail in the first instance are repeated in the rebuilding. Also, if there is some grass growing, good maintenance methods will cause more grass to grow.”

In addition to propagation and maintenance of turf, Dickinson also taught another part of the profession—the need for which would not be recognized by others for decades. “He had a wonderful assistant who came to Amherst free of charge,” recalls Cornish. “Carl Treat was a prominent attorney from Boston who worked and studied so hard his sight was going. Doctors told him he had to take an outside job, so he took over as the head greenkeeper at Woodland, where he was a member. Carl brought in business management and finance that was so essential for a head greenkeeper to realize.”

Dickinson was an educator, though he also advanced the profession through research. “In the summer when he had time off, he went down to Long Island to a research center there, and he was the one who established that brown patch comes in as the temperature goes up and then drops suddenly,” says Cornish. “That was an eye-opener in those days, and that was the kind of thing Lawrence discovered. But, he was essentially an educator, and that’s what he believed in: turfgrass education.” Dickinson’s other contributions in research included use of the spade fork in aerification.

The “Prof” taught until his retirement on August 31, 1958, after 47 years of service to UMass. “I don’t think it was Alzheimer’s, but after his retirement, his memory seemed to be fading, but he played around a lot in his garden, which was on campus. His home was a university building that he was allowed to retain until his death,” notes Cornish. He played some golf, but it was not one of his primary hobbies. “He was a very athletic guy at one time, but he was on some kind of bars in the university gymnasium and he fell and had a very tragic accident and was out for almost a year. He did fully recover, however.

“He played at golf, but I don’t think he ever established a handicap. He was not a good golfer, but he always looked at courses from the point of view of maintenance.”

Many honors were bestowed upon Dickinson in his later years. He received the USGA Green Section Award in 1962 and was deeply appreciative of Dickinson Day at Mohawk Golf Club in Schenectady, N.Y., in 1958, where many of his former students came to pay homage to the man who put their careers on the correct path. His true legacy is in the work his students have performed for decades, grooming many of America’s finest courses to the high standards they display for millions of golfers every day.

Bob Labbance is Turf’s golf editor and a frequent contributor. He resides in Montpelier, Vt. He can be reached with your ideas and comments at blabbance@notowngolf.com .