By John Gearan '65
With Bill McMahon ’80, there is always an insightful story attached, usually rich in detail and marinated with good humor.
“Believe it or not, I met Julius Boros and had the opportunity to play with his son, Guy, and the two professionals he was working with at the Country Club of Miami,” recalls McMahon. “These guys were pros and I’m a so-so amateur. Off the first tee, I hit a very good drive, right down the middle.” Now comes the pause for the punch line … “That was the last shot I ever hit with vision … that was 1983.”
McMahon remembers picking up his ball in the fairway, putting it in his pocket and driving in a golf cart for nine holes before politely excusing himself. He did not complain, though he knew exactly what had happened: Blood vessels had ruptured in his left eye. He had a similar hemorrhaging incident in his right eye 10 days before while shoveling snow back home. He had been expecting this terrible day of reckoning. Long suffering from juvenile diabetes, he had been taking insulin shots daily since he was 7. “I knew there was a hammer over my head,” he says.
“That was the last time, without someone helping me, that I teed up a golf ball and hit it like anyone else,” McMahon explains. In January 1984, during a delicate operation, McMahon experienced a glaucoma implosion which destroyed the optic nerves in both eyes. “No hope remained of ever getting my vision back.”
While revisiting that bleak moment, McMahon’s sunshiny optimism does not retreat for a moment. “I am a happy camper. Being blind has not stopped me from doing anything I want to do in this world.”
McMahon, 55, talks easily about his “charmed life.” He grew up in East Norwalk, Conn., the oldest of four boys, just around the corner from the Shorehaven Golf Club. His mother, Eleanor, administered his first insulin shot and, thereafter, injected him with daily doses of self-confidence. She urged him to deal with his diabetes and his restricted diets and to stay fully engaged in life. So Bill played golf, caddied, shot hoops, served on the Fairfield Prep student council and was a social all-star.
An English major, McMahon got the most out of his time at Holy Cross. He played intramurals, kept stats at basketball games, served as business manager for The Crusader, enjoyed rounds of golf and even caddied in his spare time to make some pin money. His upbeat and caring personality earned him a close circle of loyal friends. He remains remarkably close to his alum chums and several Jesuits. At reunions, McMahon often greets classmates by name. Sometimes they wonder aloud how he recognizes them. “Your voice hasn’t changed,” he replies.
“He is so passionate about Holy Cross, still a big part of his life,’’ says one of his classmates and friends.
William H. McMahon IV has many purple ties. His late father William III, a longtime Norwalk lawyer, graduated in 1949. His brothers, Paul ’88 and Gene ’84 (married to Victoria Wills ’83), followed in his footsteps to the Cross. His inspiration after blindness beset him was Edward J. McHugh ’51, a leading advocate for the blind. “Without Holy Cross I could never have accomplished what I have,” McMahon says.
Upon graduation, he worked in banking before becoming a highly successful salesman for a national golf equipment company. “For me, it was a dream job. I was making more than six figures and involved with the game I love,” notes McMahon.
Blindness revised his career plans. Moving to Framingham, Mass., he spent four months at the renowned Carroll Center for the Blind, named for Rev. Thomas J. Carroll Jr. ’32, an eminent pioneer in rehabilitation for the blind. McMahon adapted quickly, acquiring skills such as cane use, reading Braille and handling seeing-eye dogs. Refocused, McMahon landed a job in the insurance business, climbing the corporate ladder from sales rep to regional marketing director. He conducted most of his business by telephone. He still had his fastball: his amazing ability to communicate and to charm.
When explaining his good fortune, McMahon’s mantra is “faith, family and friends.” Three people emerged as central figures as he adjusted to blindness. Ed McHugh ’51, Joe Lazaro and his golf coach, Kevin Sullivan.
McMahon first met McHugh when a classmate brought him home for a visit. “We pull up and there is a guy hanging off a ladder, cleaning the leaves out of the house’s gutter,” Bill recalls. “That’s my dad,” the friend told him. She hadn’t thought to mention that her father has been blind since birth. “Never occurred to me. Dad had always done everything a sighted person would do,” she explains. Ed McHugh had negotiated the hill of Holy Cross for four years. He operated a family trucking business, married and had four children. He served as Massachusetts Commissioner for the Blind. And he was an avid golfer.
“That day, six years before losing my own eyesight, I ‘coached’ Ed McHugh. My friend showed me the ropes. Ed proved to me that playing golf blind was possible. As my eyesight failed, Ed gave me tips and made connections. He introduced me to the legendary Joe Lazaro, my dear friend who died at 95 this past Christmas,” McMahon explains.
McMahon met Lazaro in 1984 during Lazaro’s annual blind golf tournament at the Marlboro, Mass., Country Club. Lazaro’s playing partners that day: Bob Hope, U.S. House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill Jr. and Heisman Trophy winner-in-waiting Doug Flutie. McMahon went on to play in 23 Lazaro tournaments and toured the world with his “inspiration and hero” to compete in blind tournaments.
Sullivan, a golf instructor in Southborough, Mass., has been McMahon’s coach (never called caddie in blind golf) for more than two decades. “He is my eyes on the golf course,” says McMahon. Sullivan, with rapid-fire instructions, tells McMahon what kind of lie he has, how far he’s away from the pin and if there are trees to the right or a pond on the left. He lines McMahon up, positions the club head behind the ball, and then says the magic word, “clear!” McMahon swings and, like any other golfer, hopes the ball lands in a convenient spot.
“I don’t consider myself as Bill’s coach. We are a team,” says Sullivan. “We have traveled all over creation to play in tournaments. I think of Bill as the brother I never had. We’ve had a great ride.” Adds Sullivan, “As Bill says: Blindness has taken him to places that his sight never would have.” Because of his dedication to McMahon, Sullivan has been inducted into the U.S. Blind Golf Association Hall of Fame.
In the comfort of his Framingham home, McMahon relishes telling stories about golf and the light-hearted moments associated with his blindness. He tells of Kevin McHale calling him out onto the Boston Garden’s parquet floor before a Celtics game. “Hey Chief (Robert Parish), tap on the rim. I want to see Bill try a few free throws,” McHale gushes. McMahon steps to the foul line. Swish ... swish. “I made two in a row. I couldn’t do that again in a million years,” McMahon says. Meanwhile, McHale, Parrish and Larry Bird fall in a heap of hysterics onto the famed parquet.
There is the time at a Celtics banquet McMahon mistakenly starts eating K.C. Jones’s salad, and K.C. goes into a mock rage. And another time during a golf outing that hockey great Bobby Orr puts his hand on his shoulder and tells him to relax. “Have fun … if you want stress Bill, go back to the office!”
His greatest joy comes from helping others. Over the years, Bill and his family have helped run 21 charity golf events, raising more than $975,000 to fight juvenile diabetes. He pitches in to organize golf programs for autistic kids, the newly blind, paraplegics and Special Olympians. He has served as a board member for many organizations, including the U.S. Blind Golf Association for 28 years. He has been bestowed a long list of honors and awards for his good deeds.
McMahon does not dwell on his tribulations. Along with his blindness, he has had other serious health obstacles to overcome. He had to undergo extensive rehab after a nasty fall in 2007 that caused multiple injuries to his back, left arm and wrist. He has endured a number of what he calls “mini-strokes.” His youngest brother Kevin donated his kidney to him for a 1996 life-saving transplant. In late March, McMahon was thrown “another curveball.” Doctors advised him that his 19-year-old kidney is failing and that he must find a match for another replacement kidney, the sooner the better.
Yet McMahon does not complain. He prefers to praise his family and friends who constantly assist him as readers and chauffeurs and in many other ways. “I’ve been dealt some lousy cards, but played them pretty well,’’ he remarks. He considers himself a lucky guy who can still play nine holes of golf on a good day. “I have no regrets,” he says. Then comes that impish smile. “Except maybe one … I’ve never had a hole-in-one.” ■
Freelance writer John W. Gearan ’65 was an award-winning reporter and columnist for the Worcester Telegram and Gazette for 35 years.