Keith & Me

By: Jeff Shelley

It’s been a sad week in Seattle because of the sudden death of Keith McCaw, a likable but quiet man who just so happened to be the 232nd richest American in 2002, with $970 million in his bank account. I knew Keith through a mutual friend, Walt Loomis. Walt and Keith, both 49, grew up together in north Seattle thanks in part to a common social strata (Walt’s grandfather founded Loomis Armored Car Company). The friendly twosome also share a wealth of friends from various walks of life.

Keith was more of a boater and aviator than a golfer, but he held memberships at Broadmoor Golf Club in Seattle and other clubs in Palm Springs and South Carolina. I once played with Keith and Walt at Broadmoor, an old-style track south of the campus of the University of Washington that also lists Bill Gates as a member.

At best, Keith was an average player; it was pretty obvious that excelling in golf was not one of his high priorities. During our round he brought out a then-new Goldwin driver. We marveled at the club’s lightness, but neither of us could hit a golf ball with the bloody thing.

We three had a good time hacking it around Broadmoor’s stately grounds, and even more fun in the bar afterward. There, Keith told the story about his “losing” a golf cart on Broadmoor’s 10th hole. Seems as if he failed to set the brake and the cart rolled quickly down the hill fronting the tee, with Keith in hot pursuit. It must have been comical for the onlookers to observe a billionaire chasing a $3,000 cart. Turns out that Keith never did overtake the stampeding vehicle. Before he could reach it, the cart veered left, jumped an embankment, and crashed in the adjoining fairway.

On another occasion, Walt invited me and two other friends – Webb and Darrell – to play Keith’s ultraprivate course, with Keith’s blessing. Located northeast of Seattle near the town of Arlington, Caledon Golf Club was purchased by Keith and his brothers Bruce and John in the mid-1990s. The par-72, 6,300-yard course was built by Donald Saunders. After selling his ownership share (estimated at over $500 million) in Bayliner Marine in late 1986 to the Brunswick Corporation, Saunders began building a recreational paradise for his family on the 950-acre spread. The McCaws acquired the property after Saunders divorced his wife and decided to tour Europe in a 1950 Cadillac. The brothers spotted an advertisement for the “private resort” in the Wall Street Journal.

Saunders, who recently passed away after contracting inoperable liver cancer, is a story unto himself. Even though he had never played golf, Saunders designed the course. Every day over several months he got into his helicopter and hovered above the forest, instructing the 100-man construction crew below where to cut trees for the fairways and where to move the dirt. The course turned out surprisingly well for a first-time designer.

Saunders also built a 14,000-square-foot lodge that contains a 200-seat banquet room, a disco dance area with 30,000 laser lights, a huge game room, a tavern transported intact from the Everett (Wash.) waterfront, an early 20th century soda fountain from Colfax (in southeast Wash.), a conservatory with a massive stone fireplace, and five bedrooms – each decorated in a different motif. The house is furnished with rare antiquities, including 17th century Flemish tapestries; an early 18th century Italian monastery dining table made of plank oak; three hand-colored botanical engravings by Basil Bresler published in 1613; and a mid-19th century Japanese altar.

Saunders also designed and constructed several fun-filled facilities in the surrounding woodlands. He built the world’s largest quarter-scale railroad system, which has two miles of track, several bridges and tunnels, and a nine-bay roadhouse for the cars. He also fashioned a Le Mans-style go-cart track. After the McCaws acquired Caledon, John and Bruce, owners of the Pac-West (Indy car) Racing Team, would fly in the team’s drivers and crews for endurance races using the go-carts, which reach speeds upwards of 70 mph. Also on site is a helipad and a swimming and fishing lake.

Walt, Webb, Darrell and I had Caledon all to ourselves. On one sunny Saturday, after taking a spin on the railroad system engineered by Caledon’s caretaker, we golfed until dark – probably 63 holes in all. When we couldn’t see anymore, we went inside and had a few cold ones in the old bar, whose old wooden booths were scrawled with the signatures of the sailors and ruffians who inhabited Everett’s waterfront in the early 1900s.

Caledon’s course is pristine, to be sure; only 200 rounds or so a year are played on it. Most of those are made by charitable organizations given use of the facility by the McCaws for fundraisers. A full-time crew of 12 conditions the layout, which has plenty of water and railroad “hazards,” but no sand bunkers. In my estimation, the course merits a 125 slope if the local golf association came in and measured, analyzed and rated it. Midway through the course is a fully-stocked halfway house.

Like the other sons in the McCaw family – the fourth is Craig, the genius who forged the $11.5-billion sale of McCaw Cellular Communications to AT&T in 1994, Keith was widely known for his generosity. Often anonymously, he donated money to Lakeside School, children’s-theater groups, and organizations fighting children’s diseases. He and his brothers donated $20 million to renovate the Seattle Opera House, which will be named Marion Oliver McCaw Hall in honor of their mother. The gift from Bruce, Craig, John and Keith McCaw was one of the largest donations ever to an arts project in the Pacific Northwest.

I haven’t talked to Walt yet, waiting until he has a chance to let the sudden death of one of his best friends sink in. But I’m thinking about him, Keith, and Keith’s wife and two daughters, and hope all the survivors turn out okay in the end. Just because Keith was one of the nation’s richest people doesn’t mean that he wasn't a helluva kind and generous guy with plenty of other things – besides money – going for him.

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