Published January 20, 2005
Of all the guests in town for the installation, none had a more unique perspective on the man at the center of the events than Dan Polites, the golf pro who has been giving golf lessons to the bishop of Belleville for the last eight or nine years.
The Catholic coach of the golf team at Bishop Althoff High School in Belleville and the owner of a driving range, Polites heard one of his employees saying, “Well, hello, Bishop Gregory,” some years ago just outside his office door.
It’s typical of the unassuming nature of then-Bishop Wilton Gregory, Polites said, that he would just come in, dressed sharply in casual clothes, and inquire about taking golf lessons. Polites and his wife, Terri, and their three children have grown close to the bishop over the years, and Dan plays golf with him regularly.
“He is an avid golfer. He shoots in the 80s. He is also an avid racquetball player and I believe very proficient in racquetball,” according to the 41-year-old golf pro, who said he and his wife were very honored to be invited to the installation.
“We were flattered we were invited and there was no question we’d come,” he said at a buffet reception at the Atlanta Airport Marriott following the Jan. 17 installation.
“You couldn’t help but fall in love with him once you get to know him.”
He spoke of his admiration for Archbishop Gregory as a Catholic who watched him lead the Belleville Diocese and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and as a golf partner who enjoyed the bishop’s comfortable presence and sociable nature whoever happened to be playing with them that day or whatever the circumstances.
“He was a terrific student, a great listener. He just enjoyed getting out and playing,” Polites said. “He never minded who he was with or who we went out with. He was very outgoing and people were people. He enjoyed meeting people. He was very unassuming.”
“He separates his occupation as bishop from his recreational side . . . He got addicted to golf and it was a nice escape for him.”
He chuckled over the many times surprised people, some venting their golfing woes with bad language, discovered they were in a foursome with the unassuming bishop.
“About the third or fourth hole, they’d say, ‘What do you do for a living, Wilton?’ and he’d say, ‘I’m bishop of Belleville.’ They’d just die,” Polites hooted.
In other insights into the archbishop, Polites said he was very focused and very well organized, yet also the kind of person who was “up-to-speed” on a variety of topics, including computers, high tech sports equipment and gear.
“He knew what was in, he could relate to kids really well,” Polites said. “He is a computer expert, yet I never felt intimidated. He is someone I feel really comfortable with.”
Polites said when Bishop Gregory came to Belleville, the diocese was in the midst of a very difficult time involving a sexual abuse scandal.
“He was impeccable,” Polites said. “He did what he had to do . . . I really admire the way he had to take care of business.”
“Atlanta is in for something special,” he continued. “He must have that inner grace . . . He is very comfortable as who he is. I saw him on ‘60 Minutes’ and ‘Face the Nation.’ They put him on the hot seat and they didn’t rattle him. He is grounded in who he is.”
“I am going to miss him. Atlanta is really blessed.”