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Competitors and friends remember champion golfer Ellie Van Eenenaam

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Elena G. Van Eenenaam, 76, former women’s club champion at Ives Hill and three-time winner of the Watertown women’s city golf tournament, died Sunday. The wife of Dr. David Van Eenenaam and mother of four children, she excelled at the game for years, racking up a number of late career titles. Her funeral is at 11 a.m. today at First Presbyterian Church, 403 Washington Street.

Friends and competitors remember fondly her character both on and off the course.

“People my age that started caddying, you watched the people you’re working for and you try to emulate the ones that play well,” said Dan O’Leary, the golf pro at Ives Hill from 1972 to 2000. “Well, Ellie was a role model like that. I never saw her do anything in 40 years that she would have to apologize for.”

Van Eenenaam “probably played five days a week,” every week, O’ Leary said.

Lanie Gerken, who played in the U.S. Women’s Open and is the golf professional at Ives Hill, remembers Mrs. Van Eenenaam with affection.

“We grew up playing golf against one another,” she said. “I was the young kid on the block coming up ... playing the club championships with her and city tournaments also, and I’m sure somewhere in the past we came to battle somewhere along the way.

“And the young kid won out, unfortunately,” Gerken said, laughing.

Gerken, who also played in four Canadian Opens, used to jump on the trampoline with Van Eenenaam’s children before bursting onto the Watertown golf scene with a 1978 victory in the city women’s tournament at the age of 15. She said that “Mrs. Van” was humble and “didn’t want to be the center of attention.”

“You never saw her get razzled but you know there was that competitive edge. She didn’t want to lose,” Gerken said. “We won’t put her in any club-throwing contests but she always wanted to get better.”

Van Eenenaam’s children said that they discovered a box of golf medals their mother had won when she was a junior player in Michigan. They said their mother had never told them how successful she was at golf as a teenager.

Despite her success in city tournaments, she had to battle for her trophies, O’Leary said.

“First of all there was a girl named Mary Kennedy who became the golf coach at Penn State who won it all the time when she was here,” he said. “Then Lanie Gerken ... when Lanie was around she won everything. ... So when the young people get out of the way, Ellie had a couple of shots at it.”

Van Eenenaam was also an active member of several philanthropic organizations.

Jane Schmitt, Samaritan Medical Center’s director of volunteer services, said Van Eenenaam served as a mentor and was an active fund-raiser and a volunteer in the hospital gift shop, where “she came in every Monday very faithfully.” Eventually becoming the gift shop chairwoman.

Schmitt, who also played golf with Van Eenenaam, said, “Ellie was helpful to me when I first started as the director of volunteer services. She was a real support to me.”

Mary Sanford knew Van Eenenaam for 45 years. Their husbands were both surgeons and arrived in Watertown within a year of each other — the Van Eenenaams the latecomers in 1968.

The two women played golf together, but “she was a much better golfer than me,” Sanford said.

They worked together as volunteers at the First Presbyterian Church, where Van Eenenaam served as a deacon, and were co-chairwomen of the Bicentennial Committee in 2003. Both women were involved with and served terms as president of the PEO Sisterhood, which raises money to help women obtain education. They also helped organize the Medical Scholarship Ball to raise money for students entering the medical field. Though Sanford said the last ball was in 1980, the organization still raises enough money to provide 10, $1,000 scholarships every year.

“Everything that Ellie has worked on she’s worked on with pride and enthusiasm and I can say that because we worked so closely together,” Sanford said.

Van Eenenaam also volunteered at the Jefferson County Historical Society.

Judy George, who was in charge of programs and volunteers at the society for 17 years, said Van Eenenaam was “always very willing to help.”

Patricia Stabino, a regular golf partner, said that even though she wasn’t always able to keep up with Van Eenenaam, “we just had such a good time together. She was just such a great person and a great golfer and a great friend of mine.”

“She had friends wherever she went,” Sanford said. “She was a friendly competitor and always looked great on the golf course, too. So many of her friends and family are coming to this funeral. ... It’s wonderful that they have so many friends coming from all over.”

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