Story by Collin Hanner & Morgan Kinney
There wasn’t a time when Mary Whitaker wasn’t smiling, and that’s not much of an overstatement. Between her two loves — golf and music — the reasons were few and far between to not be happy.
“She once told me she loves playing the orchestra, she loves music, but golf was her passion,” said Donna Dolson, a French horn player for the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and longtime friend of Whitaker.
The Mary Whitaker Memorial Golf Tournament takes place today at the Chautauqua Golf Club to benefit the Mary E. Whitaker Endowment Fund established through the Chautauqua Foundation to support the CSO. The 18-hole scramble event starts at noon.
Whitaker, a violinist with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra for 35 years, was slain late last summer in her Sherman, New York, home — a 15-minute drive from Chautauqua Institution. The death of the 61-year-old took the entire community by surprise.
One of Whitaker’s Manhattan neighbors told the New York Times her death was “the most random awful thing anyone can imagine,” adding that her killing was “confusing, bizarre and disturbing all at the same time.” In Chautauqua, the reaction was similarly dumbfounded.
“The last [CSO] performance [of the season] was on a Tuesday night,” said Rainy Evans, a friend of Whitaker. “It wasn’t until a Wednesday afternoon they discovered her because she had missed an appointment. We knew something was wrong because that wasn’t Mary. Within an hour of hearing of it, what musicians were here met in the plaza and we had a vigil. Everybody was in shock.”
Immediately following that day, Rainy Evans and her husband, Rick, decided they had to do something to honor their friend’s memory. Conversations with Whitaker’s partner, Suzanne Gilman, on how to memorialize Whitaker were wide ranging, but they all came back to Whitaker’s love.
A golf benefit was the end result. More than 50 players will take the course for the scramble, and a dinner and silent auction will follow in the evening. A cash bar will also be available throughout the event for spectators and other guests.
Players will have the opportunity to purchase mulligans, from which proceeds will provide a scholarship to a young golfer in Chautauqua Lake Central School District.
Even in death, Whitaker’s friends acknowledge the endowment means she is still working for the orchestra. She spent her life as an active member of Local 802, New York City’s largest musician’s union, and advocating for the symphony in Chautauqua. Friends said her knack for problem-solving and relentless positivity made her great at her job.
“If there was a challenge, she could meet it head-on with grace and you would never know,” Dolson said. “She was always working behind the scenes and you would never know it. Even when she died, she was always working for the orchestra and no one knew it. That’s who she was — she was representing [the orchestra].”
Rick Evans said the benefit is a fitting celebration of someone who spent most of her free time on the green. He recalls one particular round he played with Whitaker where she chose to forsake the revelry at the 19th hole for more golf.
“We’re all drinking beer there, but Mary stopped after one or two glasses and said, ‘I’m not going to drink anymore because I’m going to the learning center to practice,’ ” he said. “The rest of us kept knocking down beers.”
But Whitaker took note of their post-round celebration and knew what was making them happy. After Rick Evans had torn his meniscus, Whitaker left a four-pack of beer on the Evans’ front porch as a certain kind of “medicine.” He has yet to drink the beer and hopes to share it with all members of the CSO at some point.
Cindy Frank, a violinist for the CSO and a regular in Whitaker’s foursomes, shared some of her favorite memories with Whitaker on the course. Frank admitted she’s not the greatest golfer, but also said that never mattered to Whitaker.
“She was really enthusiastic and very patient with other people who weren’t as good,” Frank said. “She was just that person — everyone’s favorite golf partner.”
Occasionally, Frank said, their golf antics spread beyond the course.
“Somebody had drove their ball by the range and we picked up a ball that we thought was ours,” she said. “It said ‘Mojo’ on it. We were hitting that ball around all day and for the rest of the summer, and into the winter, it was all about that mojo.”
They later discovered Mojo is actually a golf ball mass-produced by Nike. But Frank said the novelty never really disappeared, and at the event today, each golfer will be presented with a Mojo golf ball along with the story behind it in hope that it will bring happiness to other golfers.
“That was the thing about Mary — it was all about having fun,” Frank said. “We’re going to find our mojo [at the benefit].”
Those interested in supporting the benefit are welcome to join golfers and supporters alike after the afternoon of golf has ended. A happy hour, dinner and silent auction will take place at the Chautauqua Golf Club starting at 5:30 p.m.