ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA | On a quiet September morning splashed in late summer sunshine, Eric Keith is doing the work he and his father, Charlie, have done for more than 90 years combined.
Inside Biltmore Forest Country Club’s gleaming new maintenance facility, Keith and his colleague Ray Clark are leaning over a mowing reel pulled from one of the club’s many mowers, making sure the edges are sharpened to provide a proper cut.
The golf course, a Donald Ross-designed piece of joy in the western North Carolina hills, is closed on Mondays but the maintenance facility buzzes with activity. Before the fall and the first frost change the rhythm of life, there are fairways to cut, edges to trim, sprinklers to run.
The new facility (it’s actually two buildings) opened in August, replacing a cramped, weather-beaten metal structure that wasn’t big enough for all the staff members to have a seat during lunch breaks. Some sat on their tractors. Others found a spot on the floor against a wall. A few found a table to gather around.
That building lasted approximately 50 years, having replaced a dirt-floored barn where a few men and their machines had set up shop.
Charlie Keith hasn’t seen the new facility because after working 55 years as the staff mechanic at Biltmore Forest, he suffered a stroke two years ago. He’s bedridden now, nursed by his wife, while his work ethic and loyalty continue to pulse through the staff with Eric in the middle.
Times have changed around the world. Employees don’t spend the entirety of their working lives at one place or with one company anymore. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American changes jobs 10 times before age 40 and has 12 jobs throughout his or her career. That’s three times as many job changes as our grandfathers had. Many trade out jobs like they change cell phones.
But not Charlie and Eric Keith. Following his father’s lead, Eric is now staff mechanic and in his 36th year at Biltmore Forest. Between them, they have given nearly a century of service to a club that has cultivated a deep well of employees who are in their third decade or more of service.
“The work ethic (the Keiths) have created is incredible,” says Wayne Brown, who went to Asheville High School with Eric’s sister and is in his 23rd year on the Biltmore Forest maintenance staff. “It’s unheard of today. Everybody is looking for another dollar, another 50 cents.
“What I’ve seen from them is how they keep coming back here and how they created a better work ethic for me. When you see the father doing the work over and over and taking care of his family, it rubs off.”
Biltmore Forest Country Club is a grand old club, rich in history and with an appreciation for the people who have been a part of the place. It has the look and feel of old money and that’s not entirely misleading, but it has stayed current.
The golf course underwent a $7 million renovation in 2015 that included regrassing the fairways and tees with zoysia while making various other changes. The membership also looked inward, taking care of a staff that has taken care of them through the years.
“We value loyalty,” says Jim Hyler, a member and former USGA president. “It says a lot about (the Keiths) and the culture of the club. Unfortunately very few people in the club have any idea about what they do but that is true of any club.”
On one wall of the new maintenance facility is a plaque bearing a quote from the late Bill Samuels, the club superintendent for 25 years. It reads, “When I lock the gate for the last time, I want this course to be in the best shape it has ever been.”
That mantra has been passed down to Michael Heustis, who replaced Samuels two years ago, inheriting a staff of loyalists including the Keiths. He has succeeded not only in maintaining and enhancing the overall condition of Biltmore Forest, but by keeping the staff together and thriving.
Quietly at the center of it is Eric Keith.
As a child, his father would bring him to Biltmore Forest on summer days and give him various assignments. Sometimes it was pulling crabgrass. Sometimes it was watering dry spots. Sometimes it was both at once.
“He’d tell me, ‘See you in half an hour,’ ” Keith says.
For a time, Eric was the assistant superintendent at Biltmore Forest but it didn’t fit him. His wife, Karen, got sick with cancer and he needed to spend more time with her before she passed away.
About that time, Charlie Keith decided to retire. The only person who knew as much about the club’s equipment was Eric.
“I told the super my dad was retiring and I know how to do all the stuff he does,” Eric says. “He said, that’s great.”
After he retired, Charlie Keith still came in and helped his son a couple of days a week, which didn’t get in the way of his mowing fairways three days a week. It was like a calling he couldn’t ignore.
Richard Harcke, who has been a member of the Biltmore Forest greens committee since 1995, has watched the father-son dynamic at work and seen it spread through the staff.
“They are so humble,” Harcke says. “Eric is always doing something, getting something done. That’s the attitude.”
Russell Burleson has been on the course staff for 24 years, working with father and son.
“They are two different personalities but the work ethic carried over,” Burleson says. “Eric is more like rock ’n’ roll and his dad was more country and western but both of them are strong and honest and always wanting to make sure the equipment is working right.”
Every weekday Eric is at work by 6 a.m. and he’ll work weekends if needed. He has a place on a lake in South Carolina where he likes to fish when he isn’t taking care of the 100 or so pieces of course equipment at Biltmore Forest. Whether it’s a Weed Eater or a turbo-charged diesel engine, Keith tends to it like it’s a needy child.
“I’m very particular about the things I do. My dad never said anything about that to me. It was just the example he set.”
If you’re wondering, Keith gave up golf years ago.
Since the course converted to zoysia fairways, Keith says he’s had to spend more time making sure the reels are sharp on the mowers.
“If I see a (uneven) streak in the fairway, it hurts my pride,” he says. “I’m very particular about the things I do. My dad never said anything about that to me. It was just the example he set.”
Two years ago, Keith came into work one morning and sensed something was wrong with his father. A stroke brought him down and now Charlie Keith can’t take care of himself after devoting his life to taking care of his family and the equipment at Biltmore Forest.
“He always gave me a hard time and said when he started they worked in a barn with a wood heater and had to lay on the ground in the dirt,” Eric says. “Now we have all these new hydraulic lifts and fancy stuff. He wouldn’t know what to think if he saw this.”
Charlie Keith might not recognize the building but he would appreciate what was happening every day at Biltmore Forest Country Club. He worked for five superintendents and Eric has worked for three.
They have been the tie that binds the maintenance staff together, a rope-strong thread in the fabric of a special club.
“This crew has been here for a long time,” says Mark Hedberg, a club member.
“We take good care of them and they take good care of us.”
Top photo: Eric and Charlie Keith, courtesy of Biltmore Forest Country Club
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