Published December 4, 2008
They call him “the AB.” Or just Wilton, which he prefers.
He doesn’t wear his collar and exchanges his crosier for a set of clubs.
But when Archbishop Wilton Gregory gets on a golfing green, his buddies swear to his uncanny ability to pop lost balls out of treetops—an ability that they can only call heavenly intervention.
But when a ball is lost in the rough, there is not much this man of God can do other than to yell with the rest of them.
Loudly. Quoting Scripture.
That distinctive voice—a booming, resonant voice that works perfectly well without a microphone (and carries well over an 18-hole course)—automatically brings a big smile to Deacon Bill Garrett’s face. The two men have been golfing partners—and friends—since they hit the racquetball courts almost four years ago.
Whether it’s on the golf course, at a meeting, or at a social gathering, those who count the archbishop as a friend invariably say the same thing: This man of the cloth is the real deal—genuine, able to connect with many different people and, above all, someone who loves to laugh.
Deacon Garrett first met the archbishop prior to his installation in January 2005 and admits he “studied up” on him. As a fundraiser and president of Saint Joseph’s Mercy Foundation, he was used to doing his research on people.
“I knew he liked to play racquetball, and I played racquetball; I figured I’ve got nothing to lose, to see if he might be interested. … So I walked up to him and challenged him to a game.”
Deacon Garrett said he purposely didn’t give his name. “I figured if he didn’t want to play, I would just disappear, and no one would know.”
That didn’t happen. He got a call soon after; the archbishop wanted to play the next day.
Their occasional racquetball games grew into regular golf outings as the weather warmed.
“He says he likes to play golf when the temperature is above his age,” Deacon Garrett said of the 60-year-old archbishop.
He and the archbishop soon became known as “the deacon and the AB” on the golf courses they frequented. Since then, they have been joined by friends Chris Reynolds and Mark Christopher, who round out the foursome. The men have traveled to Costa Rica and Myrtle Beach for golfing weekends. On their last trip, Reynolds presented each with a set of bobblehead look-alike dolls in golfing stance, of course.
“Whenever I want the AB to say yes, I just bring out the doll and set that head to wobbling,” Deacon Garrett says with a laugh.
While he loves to joke with him, the deacon makes a distinction when he serves on the altar during Mass with the archbishop, leaving the informality behind.
“There are times when he is the shepherd and times when he is one of the sheep. What is very clear, he wants to know other people,” said Deacon Garrett.
“I’ve learned about myself as we got to know him better,” he said. “He truly is a good listener.”
The “Other Garretts”
Mary Ellen and Scott Garrett keep a special framed photo over the kitchen sink; it’s a reminder of the day the archbishop renewed their wedding vows for their 25th anniversary and then joined the family for dinner.
“That was a wonderful event,” Mary Ellen said. “He had the whole service written that involved all our kids. (The couple has three college-age children). He has a wonderful knack of including everybody and making you feel like you’re part of something special.”
Deacon Garrett had introduced the archbishop to the “other Garretts.”
“He always introduces me as the older brother,” said Scott, although the two are not related.
Deacon Garrett knew Mary Ellen Garrett though her charitable work with the Saint Joseph’s Mercy Foundation. With the deacon’s wife, Susan, the couples have become good friends. Deacon Garrett invited the two to golf with him and the archbishop.
They made an immediate connection, Mary Ellen said.
“He even knew my great uncle’s name; he was the founding archbishop in a Minnesota diocese,” said Mary Ellen. “I was absolutely floored.”
The two have since shared Chicago stories, since many of her relatives are from the Windy City.
But it was during one of their first golf outings that Mary Ellen asked the archbishop to share their quirky tradition of splitting a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on the green.
“I asked him when was the last time he had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” recounts Mary Ellen. “He said he has never cared for peanut butter and jelly. I asked him what did he eat as a kid? He said, ‘Liver and onions.’”
“Well, the next time you come over, I’m making liver and onions,” Mary Ellen said.
He came over, and liver and onions were served. Now the Garretts frequently invite the archbishop over to meet other friends, although liver and onions have not been on the menu lately. (But neither has peanut butter and jelly.)
“He is so personal, and we’re able to talk about many things, even controversial subjects. We talk about the shortage of priests, about marriage. … Sometimes I have to remember who he is,” said Scott. “He carries no airs about him. He loves to laugh, and he’s so pleasant to be around. When we invite him over, we’ve always invited people over to give them the chance to know him. Two minutes with him, all the guards are down, and everyone is relaxed.”
The couple says they weren’t active in the archdiocese prior to meeting the archbishop. Now Mary Ellen, a Merrill Lynch financial advisor, serves on the archdiocese’s investment committee, while Scott lends his advertising and marketing expertise to Catholic Charities.
While the Garretts laugh often with the archbishop, they say they appreciate how much he has given them.
“He’s made us become more aware of our faith and our desire to give back. He’s made us want to become better people just by being around him. He’s a true leader,” said Mary Ellen.
Golfing was also the theme for Mike Cote, when he met the archbishop during a Catholic Charities board dinner.
“Our conversation naturally gravitated to golf, and before I knew it, we were arranging tee times,” Cote said. Their friendship has blossomed over the years.
“We have enjoyed countless rounds of golf, thoughtful conversations, casual, kitchen table-style dinners, and were even able to spend time together four years ago in Rome, a city he knows well, having studied there years ago,” said Cote.
“I feel truly blessed by the closeness of our relationship—which is the result of our mutual respect for each other. He is such a vibrant man of God, and our interactions have had an enormous impact on me, especially spiritually,” Cote said.
Like the Garretts and Cote, Chris Reynolds started his friendship with the archbishop on the golf course, as part of the foursome with Deacon Garrett, but his friendship continues off the course.
“When you meet the archbishop for the first time, you feel like you’ve known him forever. He’s incredibly intelligent, and there is something magnetic about him. There have been a number of times when we are brought into the reality of who we’re with. … He’s such a regular guy,” said Reynolds. “I’ve enjoyed his friendship—I know that we feel humbled and blessed we have this special person in our lives.”