Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Ralph Harding: Back Room Maestro of the Thompson

A look back at the Thompson Memorial?s driving force


By JEFF CORDES
Express Staff Writer

(Editor?s note: The indisputable driving force in the early and formative days of the Thompson Memorial golf tournament held at Sun Valley each August since 1977 was former Idaho Congressman Ralph Harding, a Malad City native. Harding passed away Oct. 26, 2006 at Bingham Memorial Hospital in Blackfoot, at age 77. He co-founded the annual charity golf tournament for leukemia and cancer research with baseball Hall of Fame slugger Harmon Killebrew. Harding did most of the nuts-and-bolts work of running the tournament in its early days from 1977-93. And he did it with a certain back room flair. Here is a story, published in the Aug. 23, 1984 edition of the Idaho Mountain Express, which touches upon Harding?s genius in bringing people together and building the foundation of what became a very successful tournament. After 30 years, the Thompson has raised $8,687,500 for cancer research. It was touch-and-go if the tournament would even survive 22 years ago when this article was written. Thanks in large part to Harding?s relentless efforts, it did). Photo by Willy Cook

(Editor's note: The indisputable driving force in the early and formative days of the Thompson Memorial golf tournament held at Sun Valley each August since 1977 was former Idaho Congressman Ralph Harding, a Malad City native. Harding passed away Oct. 26, 2006 at Bingham Memorial Hospital in Blackfoot, at age 77. He co-founded the annual charity golf tournament for leukemia and cancer research with baseball Hall of Fame slugger Harmon Killebrew. Harding did most of the nuts-and-bolts work of running the tournament in its early days from 1977-93. And he did it with a certain back room flair. Here is a story, published in the Aug. 23, 1984 edition of the Idaho Mountain Express, which touches upon Harding's genius in bringing people together and building the foundation of what became a very successful tournament. After 30 years, the Thompson has raised $8,687,500 for cancer research. It was touch-and-go if the tournament would even survive 22 years ago when this article was written. Thanks in large part to Harding's relentless efforts, it did).

Tuesday morning at Sun Valley Lodge, the stacks of golf sweaters and Danny Thompson Memorial hats and other swag were piled high in the Sage Room awaiting the arrival of 300 golfers for the eighth annual fund-raising golf function.

One floor up, former Idaho Congressman Ralph R. Harding sat in a small room overlooking the outdoor ice rink. Although he was enjoying the resort amenities, Harding wasn't a tourist. He was hard at work, focused entirely on piecing together the remaining tournament details.

It was nearly 10 a.m. The final tournament registration procedure was only 24 hours away. The golf tournament itself was three days away. Like a field general in the hours before an invasion, Harding sought to tie up the loose ends and make sure that, for the first time in several years, the field of 324 golfers was completely filled. In many cases you couldn't be certain who was coming until the final moment.

Eastern Idaho native Harding and recently inducted baseball Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew, from Payette in western Idaho, have co-sponsored the Thompson Memorial tournament on behalf of leukemia research since 1977. The tournament is named for Danny Thompson, a Minnesota Twins and Texas Rangers infielder. He died of leukemia in 1976 at 29. Thompson and Killebrew were pro baseball teammates.

It's a big undertaking for Harding and Killebrew, who are business partners in Boise. Much money is at stake. They are well aware of what it means to countless people. Back room organizer Harding, in particular, knows how hard it is to pull off.

"We're not going to do this again, it's too hard," said Harding on Tuesday morning in a joking aside preparatory to a busy day of orchestrating the last-minute particulars.

Harding, a Malad City native and Brigham Young University graduate, is the behind-the-scenes architect of the Thompson Memorial golf tournament. About this fact Killebrew, the more visible and well known of the two organizers, would be the first to agree.

The Second District Democrat talks like Jimmy Stewart, walks a little like golfer Tom Watson and knows about as many people as Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, a frequent Thompson participant.

Those are perfect credentials for the grass-roots chairman of golf Americana. It certainly doesn't hurt that Korean War Army veteran Harding has the tough guy/nice guy manner of a Western sheriff, which helps him get results on the job.

One of his many responsibilities atop the tournament committee is to twist a few arms and make travel arrangements for the Thompson Memorial "celebrities" that come to Sun Valley from the diverse arenas of sports, entertainment and politics.

Getting the politicians here is right up Harding's alley since he has an office in Washington, D.C. as an advisor and consultant for the Philippine Sugar Commission. First elected to the Idaho House of Representatives in 1955 at the age of 26, he was a member of the U.S. Congress during the Kennedy Administration and has been Democratic National Committeman from Idaho. He has also served as Special Assistant to the Secretary of the U.S. Air Force.

The timing of the Thompson Memorial is right, too. Congress goes on recess each year in August.

Not so simple is the task of convincing other well-known figures to briefly leave their worlds of commerce and dress down for a few days along the laid-back Sun Valley and Elkhorn golf courses. Harding's resources, for one thing, are limited. He does his best to sweeten the pot.

He explained a few years ago, "We've never paid anyone to come, although we do furnish transportation and put them up and comp them into the golf tournament. So we have to catch them at the right time on their schedules."

So, how does it work?

Here are a few actual scenes of Ralph Harding shooting from the hip Tuesday morning and trying his darnedest to round up the final hombres for the 1984 version of the Thompson Memorial golf tournament. His main prop is an open telephone line. And his primary helper is secretary Peggy Shurtliff of Boise.

Center stage is his:

"It's close to 9 a.m.," says Harding, mentally adjusting for Pacific Coast time and leaning back in his chair, telephone in hand, his feet propped up on a table cluttered with papers and other necessities.

After he dials the telephone Harding explains, "Telly's daughter is getting married Saturday, but maybe we can get him here for a round Thursday....."

"Mr. Savalas, please," says Harding. There is a pause while the actor and frequent Thompson Memorial celebrity guest comes to the phone.

"Telly, Ralph Harding. Telly, this is the best I can do for you. I'll have a jet down there to pick you up in Burbank tomorrow and we'll have you playing golf here in the afternoon.

"We want you to represent Greece in the international best ball, with your brothers. That's right. Yes, we can arrange that. I'm looking forward to playing with you.

"You'll play Thursday and Friday and then come to the dinner Friday night.

"We need you for the dinner, Telly.

"Saturday morning, we'll have you back in Burbank by 9 a.m. If you absolutely have to be back Friday night, we'll get you back, but we'll talk about that.

"Love ya, buddy. Bring cash...."

Harding gets up and walks around the table, assuring his audience that Lew Burdette is coming, and that Roger Maris is already on the course, and that basketball player Austin Carr is returning. So is Dean Oliver, the seven-time world champion calf roper who did so well in a Boise golf tournament last weekend.

Back to the telephone.

Harding gets on the line to Hank Aaron's house. He is told Aaron is away from home, in Mobile, Ala. The all-time home run champion is attending the funeral of his brother Tommie Aaron, the former major league ballplayer who died last Thursday of leukemia at the very young age of 45.

Harding determines that Aaron is due to return home about 9 p.m. Tuesday, that very evening, and he says he'll try to reach Aaron then.

A visitor and tournament participant enters the room. Harding greets him with enthusiasm.

Repeating his earlier pledge to play golf with Savalas, Harding apologizes that he won't be able to swing a few this year with the visitor. The talk swings over to politics. Fortunately the telephone cooperates for a few moments with total silence.

Of course, Harding says he's tickled with Bob Michel. The permanent chairman of the Republican National Convention is scheduled to get up in the middle of the night at the conclusion of this week's Republican Convention in Dallas, Texas, and fly directly to Idaho for the Thompson.

"He has never missed our tournament," says Harding about Michel, a fine amateur vocalist who breaks out into song whenever he finds a like-minded group of singers at Thompson social gatherings.

The discussion takes a Democratic turn and focuses on the financial disclosure problems of 1984 vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro. About five people are now in the room. All of them, men and women, have an opinion on the subject. Harding offers his, too.

"When you're running for national office, you better be cleaner than a hound's tooth," he says.

The dust settles from Harding's astute observation and the telephone decides that it is time to ring again.

Peggy Shurtliff answers the phone. "It's Congressman St. Germaine," she announces.

Harding reaches with haste for the receiver and bellows, "Oh, good....Freddy, how are you? Good!"

The conversation goes on for a while and Harding ends it by declaring, "When they pick you up, be dressed and ready for golf!"

Off the line, Harding explains, "That's the most powerful man in House Finance, and I'm not going to waste him. I've got to get hold of the president of the Bank of America."

Another phone call.

It's Brigham Young University basketball coach Ladell Andersen and he wants to talk with Ralph. A lifetime BYU sports rooter since graduating from the Provo (Utah) college in 1956, Harding certainly has no trouble with the request. A Mormon, Harding greets Andersen with élan.

"You're going to play with Bobby Knight and represent basketball. That's right, I know you haven't done it before. But I'm going to put this out to the press—that Knight has heard the competition is so tough, he's hiding in Montana and won't come out until tee time..."

"You...you...you...you," Harding stutters merrily while chuckling at this impromptu thought and Andersen's response, "...just tell him the future of basketball is at stake."

The conversation ends.

Harding is on a roll and it's only 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday. It's time to draw up a statement to the press.

He directs Shurtliff to take dictation while he roams around the room. "Take this down, Peggy, and we'll distribute it to the wire services."

Shurtliff readies her pen and writing pad. The Thompson general, who was a commissioned Army lieutenant at the time of his discharge, is ready with his battle plan.

Hands on his hips, Harding paces for a brief moment, in a little circle. He is thinking. He begins to beam his message out to the world, or whatever part of the world that Shurtliff's message will reach. Here comes the official preliminary news about the 1984 Danny Thompson Memorial.

The room is somber. So are Harding's opening words, although they take a more lighthearted turn a few paragraphs into the message.

He says, "The world's top amateur golfers are starting to assemble with former baseball greats, our nation's political leaders and successful business leaders for the eighth annual Danny Thompson Memorial leukemia fund-raising golf tournament, at Sun Valley.

"International best-ball teams have arrived from Mexico. This may be the year for the Mexicans, with Lee Trevino, and his victory, and Nancy Lopez, both winning on Sunday. In addition, teams will be arriving shortly from the Philippines, Korea and Japan."

By this time, Harding tires of the official press release vernacular and casually swings into more acceptable fare. He sprinkles the next few paragraphs with inside jokes calculated to make for interesting cocktail banter.

"Harmon Killebrew said he was nominating Larry Jackson and Early Wynn as baseball's best team in the international best ball.

"Harmon said pitchers became better golfers because they only had to pitch every fourth day. That left them three days to play golf."

He pauses only briefly to acknowledge the laughter in the room.

"Olympic basketball coach Bobby Knight is fishing in the streams of Idaho and Montana. Knight hasn't made up his mind who will be his partner, having to choose between BYU's Ladell Andersen and Danny Ainge of the Boston Celtics.

"Knight wants to see Ainge's golf swing before deciding."

He gets back to business for the grand finale.

"This will be the largest field we've ever had for the tournament. We're going to have more fun and raise more money for leukemia research than in the previous seven tournaments."

Harding's statement, of course, also includes tributes and platitudes to the numerous political leaders expected in Sun Valley, among them the Republicans.

Characteristically, Harding finds he has talked long enough. His main points have been made. He has held many morsels in reserve, for later use. There is still plenty of legwork to be done. He suddenly brings the press release to a close, asking Shurtliff to "clean it up," where necessary.

"And Peggy...." he lingers. She stops and listens attentively.

"Peggy, let's get it out to the wire services...and the television stations. And let's get Jim Poore on the phone at the Statesman and say that we need a little help...."




 Local Weather 
Search archives:


Copyright © 2014 Express Publishing Inc.   Terms of Use   Privacy Policy
All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited. 

The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.