A spirit of service

Gene Weiser put his life on the line to protect his country and others abroad. Today, he is devoted to serving the golf industry.


Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
GCSAA Class A superintendent Gene Weiser is working his way up the industry ranks, currently at El Paso Golf Club in El Paso, Ill. Based on his military service, he knows how to move up in the ranks. Photo by Jim Bowling

Gene Weiser engaged the suicide bomber face to face.

Weiser, a GCSAA Class A superintendent, has experience in the field on the family farm and the golf course grounds, such as the one where he works now at El Paso Golf Club in El Paso, Ill. Those spots, however, bear no resemblance whatsoever to the streets of a distant country where peril resulted in a faceoff.

It happened 40 years ago outside a cafe in France. A corporal at the time in the U.S. Marines, Weiser was on leave with friends and sightseeing at a spot frequented by high-ranking military officials. The weather was anything but cold; Weiser, however, got a chill when he observed a curious figure in what appeared to be a vest equipped with explosives. “It was a beautiful day. The guy had on a heavy jacket. Something didn’t look right,” Weiser says.

Weiser’s instincts kicked in. He proceeded to kick butt.

“I went after him. Tackled him. I knew something was strapped to him. He was going to take out that cafe. I held him down and kept my hand on him until the police and bomb squad came. Patrons helped keep him down. He was strapped with a suicide vest and had a dead man trigger (a button that would trigger the explosion as soon as he let go). He had C-4 (explosive) and nails, BBs and other things in the vest for maximum destruction,” says Weiser, whose actions prevented deaths of potentially countless civilians.

Weiser — a heavily decorated figure (he earned a Bronze Star for those heroic actions) who courageously served his country for more than 25 years — continues to serve. Now it is in the golf industry.

“I go from carrying a weapon to carrying a shovel and a Stimpmeter. I got into this career, and I’m giving it my all,” Weiser says.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
The list of awards and honors that Weiser accumulated is long and distinguished, including a Purple Heart. Photo courtesy of Gene Weiser

A matter of life and death

It was mid-June this year, and Weiser was in prayer mode.

“Haven’t had rain since May 5 or 6. The short grass is irrigated. We let the rough grow. No mowing. We don’t have to,” he says.

A native of Radcliff, Ky., and one of 23 students in his graduating class, Weiser grew up near U.S. Army installation Fort Knox. Family members, many of whom at one time were enlisted in the Army, owned a farm that produced corn and tobacco, the latter of which was a main reason this lifestyle wasn’t in his wheelhouse. “I didn’t want to be a farmer. The long hours, the tobacco regulations … I enlisted in the Marines right away,” Weiser says.

No fooling. He hopped a bus in 1980 to join the Marines at a recruit depot in Parris Island, S.C. What followed was an unexpectedly long yet fruitful journey that often meant staying alive in treacherous situations. He spent time in hot spots — Afghanistan, Beirut, Somalia. He was in combat infantry units. In Somalia, he engaged the enemy to prevent the deaths of civilians attempting to secure food. Meanwhile, Weiser continued to move up the ranks, from corporal to sergeant. The risk of life and limb remained, too, like the time he protected staff from an incoming mortar barrage while placing himself in the direct line of fire. During the attack, First Sgt. Weiser received wounds rendering him incapable of returning fire.

Weiser was supposed to retire Nov. 14, 2001. You probably can imagine what changed that plan. When the U.S. was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, Weiser’s retirement orders were rescinded. He obeyed. Willingly. “They needed people. I just kept re-upping,” says Weiser, who rose to the rank of E-8 First Sargeant in 2001 and stayed at that rank for almost all of his deployment.

Weiser completed three tours each in Iraq and Afghanistan. The latter is where his life changed in a massive way. At least he was among those who remained alive. Near that country’s capital at Kabul, Weiser’s convoy got struck by an improvised explosive device. He was in the lead Humvee. “We lost three (of his team) in our vehicle. I broke the femur and fibula in my right leg,” he says.

Also in Kabul, he helped stop an insurgent from destroying a water-treatment plant when Weiser placed himself in front of an oncoming suicide bomber and taking incoming fire to keep subordinates out of harm’s way.

That wasn’t the entire story. It got worse. “Shrapnel tore part of the ventricle in my heart. After I was out of the Marines, I had to relearn how to walk. It took seven months,” he says.

In late 2006, Weiser retired. There was no (re)call to duty that time. “I was looking forward to it (retirement) quite a bit, go into civilian life, find another career,” he says.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Weiser leads his staff onto No. 10 at the course. From left: greenkeepers Kevin Walker, Garrison Meyer and Blake Ramsey; Weiser; foreman Russ Starkey Jr.; and greenkeeper Leo Kepner. Photo by Jim Bowling

Golf it is

Golf was more than a habit for Weiser. It transformed into a lifestyle and, ultimately, a career.

After being cleared by a doctor to tee it up, Weiser got busy. “I played every day at Rehoboth Beach Country Club in Delaware. I’d been there (Delaware), liked the area. Before, I used to play every now and then; I kinda liked the game. I got some exercise,” Weiser says. “The superintendent at the golf club said, ‘You play golf every day and pay for it. Want to play it for free?’ He stuck a weed eater in my hands. He said, ‘If you can hang with that all day, you’ve got no problem.’ I said, ‘What do I have to do to do what you do?’ He told me to go to turf school, learn everything. What I learned to like about working at the course is, every day was different. Still is. Instant gratification, that’s how I see it. They (golfers) either hate you or love you.”

One of the many stops along the way in Weiser’s career in the U.S. Marines. Photo courtesy of Gene Weiser

Marines flag

He spent nearly six years early in his career at Reems Creek Golf Course in Weaverville, N.C., as an intern and eventually assistant superintendent. In the meantime, he learned. Weiser earned a degree in turf management from Penn State University and a master’s in plant physiology from the University Delaware, focusing on a study to develop a bentgrass species both drought- and heat-tolerant and able to withstand most diseases.

His first superintendent role came in 2014 at Garrison Lake Golf Club in Smyrna, Del., where he oversaw an irrigation project that included repair or replacement of about 450 heads. More recently, he spent some time at courses in Iowa, including Washington Golf & Country Club in the town of Washington, before moving on to Illinois. From the outset in this second career, it was almost like starting a job right out of college. “Getting into this was exciting and scary. I felt I had the skills. I learned it can be stressful. And I was afraid of messing up,” he says.

El Paso GC didn’t mess around when it determined Weiser was the right fit. Danny Maffeo led the hiring committee search, even posting it on the GCSAA Job Board, a move that paid off. So did Weiser’s service background. “I’m a vet just like Gene. To see him spend that time in the Marines and go on and get a degree got my attention. Whether you’re in the Marines or an Eagle Scout, that résumé finds its way to the top of the pile,” Maffeo says. “He has a passion for learning and, more importantly, a passion for teaching people. He wasn’t going to come in and just be the grounds superintendent. He was going to teach.”

Weiser also guided. Although he only spent about four years in Iowa until he departed for El Paso GC, it was enough time for Weiser to show this battle-tested veteran has a side not everyone may be able to see. Chloe Nelsen worked on the course for Weiser while she was confronting personal issues during high school. “He’s a hard-working man, always on the go. He very much was very good to all of us,” Nelsen says. “We had fun. And we got the job done.”

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Weiser and General Manager Rick Robbins arrived at El Paso GC at nearly the same time. Both have lofty goals to take the place to another level. Photos by Jim Bowling

Honors, goals and the future

The sign in Weiser’s maintenance shop gets right to the point.

There’re no problems. Only solutions.

Weiser is the answer to all that El Paso GC General Manager Rick Robbins wants in a superintendent. “I can’t tell you how excited we are to have him here. We plan to take this course to another level with what we can build with his direction,” Robbins says. “Every time I ask him about something, he already knows about it. That gives me a sense I don’t have to worry about what happens on that course.”

No individual can elevate El Paso GC, Weiser says, and he counts on those surrounding him to come along for the ride. “I like to teach my guys. I don’t have just a crew. I have a team,” says Weiser, stationed at a semi-private course in the central Illinois town with a population of roughly 2,800. “Everybody has input no matter the situation. I treat them as equals. I’m just the band leader; they are the orchestra.”

To Matt Nielsen, Weiser’s dedication strikes a chord. It has much to do with how, when Weiser moved on and accepted the job at El Paso GC, he spent the first three weeks there driving 197 miles each way six days a week and starting the day, as Weiser says “at 0400 hours,” before finding a closer residence. “The way Gene ticks, he’s very strong-willed in his ways. So dedicated. He knows what he’s doing,” says Nielsen, a field sales representative for D&K Products. “It all stems from his long tenure in the military.”

Aspirations drive Weiser. He already signed up to be a GCSAA grassroots ambassador. “I think that’s awesome. That’s for our future,” he says.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Weiser is all about getting his hands dirty. He proved in his other career that he isn’t afraid of stepping in to lend a hand.

 There’s more. “My main goal is to become a Certified Golf Course Superintendent. Then I can say to myself, ‘You did it,’ and I’m in that core group of CGCS. Then I can say I’m one of the best instead of people telling me that,” he says.

In addition to his Bronze Star for “being engaged in an action against an enemy of the U.S. while serving in a military operation involving conflict with an opposing foreign force or while serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed forces in which the U.S. is not a belligerent party,” Weiser also was awarded four Purple Hearts, which are presented to service members who have been wounded or killed as a result of enemy action while serving in the U.S. military. For the episode he encountered in France, that country’s parliament awarded him the Legion of Merit.

“My career in the Marines meant a lot to me. I’m proud of it,” says Weiser, who retired as an E-9 Battalion Sargeant Major out of Quantico, Va. “If I could do it all over again, I would.”

The golf industry has him now. Weiser, 60, started May 2 at El Paso GC. He remembers how it began: “Digging holes, working on irrigation,” says Weiser, who has been working side by side with Robbins to investigate the potential purchase of a new irrigation system. Weiser says he wouldn’t mind retiring some day at El Paso GC as a man who has proved, over and over, here and abroad, he served this Illinois facility the only way he knows how.

“When I do something, I do it right,” Weiser says.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Weiser (left) stands on a sea wall at the port of Beirut, part of his more-than-25-year run in the service. Photo courtesy of Gene Weiser

Howard Richman (hrichman@gcsaa.org) is GCM’s associate editor.