The Shirey family: Lexi, Walt, Lisa and Sofi. Photo by SandBar Photography
On a recent summer morning, the always outgoing Walt Shirey began to sing to his wife, Lisa. Of course, it was a love song.
It’s August and I’m having a good day. It’s a pretty day and I’m feeling pretty good. I’m doing the best that I can do. I want you to know I love you.
Sadly, in just a matter of days, Walt’s voice was silenced. The longtime owner of Golden Golf Services in Fort Myers, Fla., was just 54 when he passed away Aug. 4. His body — which had overcome serious setbacks throughout his life — finally gave out.
Walt’s message, however, will continue to be heard for as long as Lisa is able to spread it, she vows. “We always talked about writing a book, sharing our story. Part of it will be about what it takes to get through tragedies, faith and using it for good,” Lisa says.
The Shireys have made a name for themselves in southwest Florida with Golden Golf Services, which Lisa now oversees. Expansion is ongoing in the southeastern U.S., and the company has about 80 employees, among them installation manager James Randall and salesman Chocky Warriner. The company specializes in landscape plants, annuals, mulch and pine straw. Its presence in the golf industry began more than 20 years ago, and its reputation as a trendsetter remains intact.
“There wasn’t a lot of us doing it (pine straw) over here back then,” says Steven Wright, CGCS, a 34-year GCSAA member who oversees Pine Tree Golf Club in Boynton Beach, Fla. “Walt kind of set the standard with pine straw. They’ve always prided themselves on quality.”
Walt’s health, though, made maintaining a solid quality of life difficult. Ailments had dogged him since he was young, when his parents were told that both of his kidneys were nearly nonfunctional and that he’d have to have surgery — a procedure that took one of those kidneys and half of the other. Lisa recalls praying for Walt when she was a young girl, even before she knew him, when the pastor at a church service asked the congregation to keep Walt in their thoughts as he faced a kidney transplant at 16.
Known for his signature ponytail, straw hat and golf game, Walt was 20 (five years older than Lisa) when they finally met at a high school basketball game. “So outgoing. He stood out from the crowd,” Lisa says. “He could talk to a wall, and I’ll bet you it talked back.”
The Shireys married in 1988, but waited a decade before having children. They had their reasons. “We did it so we could do things together because we thought he’d die young,” Lisa says matter-of-factly. And the decision had seemed prudent when Walt suffered a massive heart attack at 31, before the couple had the first of two daughters (Lexi and Sofi). Lisa was more than six months pregnant with their second daughter when Walt had another heart attack. “He had a lot of panic attacks after the first one. I’d say he was crippled with anxiety,” Lisa says.
In 2010, Walt suffered severe trauma from a water slide accident in which he ruptured his kidney and had to go on dialysis. Later, he suffered a stroke, was briefly paralyzed on his right side, lost part of his vision, and received a second transplanted kidney. Once a self-taught, 2-handicap golfer, Walt’s dream of playing on the PGA Tour Champions was dashed by more health issues — head and neck tumors, radiation treatments and multiple surgeries, including the removal of one eye. He ultimately lost his vision completely. He attended his final Golf Industry Show earlier this year in Orlando in a wheelchair.
The Shirey way — a passion for work, including strong support for the GCSAA-affiliated chapters in Florida — never waned. They often picked up the tab for association members and superintendents to play in a tournament that the Shireys organized. “He believed in us,” says Mark Metzger, an 18-year GCSAA member and director of grounds at Stonebridge Country Club in Naples, Fla. “He was a visionary. A strong-willed man, amazing in all aspects of his life. Anytime I ever had a project, I called him. He saw the way a golf course should be presented. Lisa’s been a good wife, sidekick, supporter. She’s been really strong and has taken the reins — taken Walt’s vision and is moving it forward. I’m proud of what she’s doing.”
In his final year, Walt developed an aggressive form of squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck and had tumors near his brain. Still, even as his body deteriorated, Walt greeted friends and strangers alike, often praying for them, relaying messages of faith, and presenting them with tiny ceramic angels. Lisa remained firm by his side. After all, they were a team that did everything from stepping in to coach a youth basketball team when it was needed to sharing a LinkedIn page. Their feelings for each other were no doubt on the same page.
“It was true love,” Lisa says, “and we’re not going away. He’s in our happily ever after, and I’ll be there one day also. Until then, I have a company to run to support my family, my employees’ families, and give back to our community and the golf industry.”
Howard Richman is GCM’s associate editor.