By Bill McGrath
Niagara Gazette — The Porter Cup tournament lost its “voice” last week and I lost a good friend. Tom Denn, one of the men who I will forever associate with the success of one of the best amateur golf tournaments in the nation, died at 79 after his failing health caught up to him.
For all the many years that I covered the Porter Cup, Denn was there with a warm greeting, a waiting golf cart and a story or two about what was going on that day.
Tom was what you would call a people person. I always enjoyed sitting with him at the Porter Cup media luncheon or at the players’ dinner because I knew he would generate some interesting and informative conversation with whoever was at the table.
Over the years, he was chairman of the Porter Cup Executive Committee and volunteered his time to make the tournament a success for more than 40 years. He sold ads, chaired the qualifier, reassured members about the tournament's future, housed players with his wife, Nan, and was the familiar voice on the public address system for the long drive contest off the 10th tee. And he served as chairman of the tournament in 1982.
Of all of those, to get a real feel for the Porter Cup, he said there was nothing like housing the players, a continuing tradition which he and Nan did along with many other Niagara Falls Country Club members.
"We housed players for 22 years," Denn told me for a story in 2003. "In fact, Nan was in charge of housing one year. Sometimes we had three kids, sometimes we had two kids. We never had a champion and never had anyone real close. But they were good kids. We never had a single incident in all those years."
Tom earned the “Voice of the Porter Cup” moniker for his many years of welcoming and introducing each of the players as they began their rounds on the first tee. That distinctive voice and articulate command of the language enhanced his talent as a great story teller.
One of his favorite stories was about Mike Viechie, a player from Medicine Hat, Alberta. It was back in the days of the national qualifier and golfers came from long distances to try to earn a spot in the tournament that was growing in prestige in the amateur ranks.
"Sunday night, I get a call. It was Viechie and he said, 'I'm over here at the Seagrams Tower. Can you come over and pick me up?' So I did. I said, 'Mike, how did you get here?' and he said, 'Mr. Denn, I hitch-hiked.' Now this kid hitch-hiked all the way from Alberta, Canada — and he didn't make the cut. So he had to hang around here for the rest of the tournament while the other guys played. Talk about disappointment. But he was a good kid."
It was those kind of experiences that club members have, Denn believed, that has kept the Porter Cup going and growing.
But there was a time the Porter Cup was taking some heat from members unhappy with giving up their golf course. At one point, during an awards ceremony in the 70s, Denn assured the players and everyone else the Porter Cup would continue.
"There were some dissidents," Denn recalled years later. "We had a minority, who happened to be a vocal minority, who didn't like the tournament because they had to give up the golf course for four days, but it never amounted to much. The tournament was never in jeopardy.”
Adjustments were made to the schedule and the course was opened for member play each day after all the Porter Cup players had teed off and no more came of it.
Denn was born and raised in Utica, studied at Niagara University and graduated in 1955. After a long career with Marine Midland Bank, where he rose to the position of district vice president, he joined the investment firm of Lytle Associates in 1976 and then started his own business — Thomas P. Denn Investments in Niagara Falls. His son, Steve, the Porter Cup's current director, joined him in 1997. Tom and Nan also have a daughter, Sharon.
The last time I saw Tom was at the 2011 tournament. His vision had been failing for a long time, and he had other health issues, but it never stopped him from taking part in the Porter Cup.
Just as always we hopped in a cart — I had a column I wanted to write and needed a mid-amateur player to talk to. “You drive,” he ordered, and off we went to the back nine. Along the way, Tom had me slow down for a young lady walking along the cart path and he offered her a ride. That was so typical of him, thinking of others. She hopped on and told us she had just arrived from somewhere in Indiana and had been on the road since before dawn to come see her son, Patrick Rodgers.
We found Patrick and I found my mid-am player shortly after that. Little did any of us know then that Rodgers would be the toast of the tournament three days later, slipping into the champion’s green blazer.
The Porter Cup will go on under Steve Denn’s excellent direction and with the many volunteers that make it a success each year. It just won’t be the same without Tom Denn.Bill McGrath is a former sports editor of the Niagara Gazette who covered the Porter Cup for more than 40 years.