In the pre-tournament calm before the John Deere Classic (JDC) spectators poured in and the pros teed off this week, Pat Eikenberry took a chance to soak it all in and reflect on his amazing volunteer opportunity.
“On Monday afternoon, I took my golf cart, drove around every hole and through Pork Chop Hill … stopped at the 18th green and lit a cigar. I thought ‘This is what I want to remember,” said Mr. Eikenberry, the 2022 JDC volunteer chairman.
“A couple of the past chairs, Lee Garlach and Mark Kilmer, said to me ‘this week is going to go fast, take it in and absorb it,’” he told the QCBJ two days later while tooling around the course again.
“Nobody knows all that goes on here behind the scenes,” added Mr. Eikenberry, whose decade on the JDC board has led to the top rung. “We used to think of this as a golf event, but it’s a charitable event.”
As he traveled the course, greeting each Deere Run staff member, JDC volunteer and others whose efforts transform the Silvis golf course into a small city for a week, he marveled at the tournament’s impact, title sponsor John Deere’s generosity and commitment, and just what the JDC means for the Quad Cities.
Mr. Eikenberry, whose 38-year engineering career now has him serving as executive vice president, civil engineering, for Rock Island-based IMEG, recalled all the board meetings, strategic planning, work days and downright dirty volunteer jobs he has had with JDC; that’s one of the reasons he keeps grubby work clothes – along with a JDC blazer and tie – in his vehicle.
“My first few years it was like drinking water with a fire hose. There are so many things here to learn,” he added. “You tend to get more on you than you absorb.”
From interacting with the PGA to understanding tournament finances, player services, ticketing and even the maintenance crew’s “Grunt Dome,” Mr. Eikenberry said it is essential to understand the whole operation. “The world is our client here – that JDC experience has to be great for all of us.”
Mr. Eikenberry recalled how he was recruited to JDC by the Bettendorf city administrator and longtime JDC board member Decker Ploehn and how, at the time, he really knew little about the now 51-year-old tournament. “I was looking at it as a sporting event, but the true mission is the community giveback,” he said, adding that he was surprised when asked to join the JDC Executive Committee.
Last year, the JDC pumped $12.56 million into area nonprofits through its charitable arm, Birdies for Charity.
Although COVID-19 canceled the 2020 tournament and led to many post-COVID changes in 2021, Mr. Eikenberry is convinced “We’re back. Better than normal.”
He credits pandemic-inspired changes with propelling the JDC forward into the digital world while improving its efficiency. “COVID taught us a lot – we didn’t need paper pairing sheets or paper tickets. Now there are QCR Codes on signs all over the course that you can take a picture of and get a pairing sheet.”
Ticketing now is all handled on your cell phone, he said. “Sure there is some frustration with patrons who are not as tech savvy. But a lot of aspects have been tightened up including our printing budget.”
He’s also left his mark on the tournament by making sure “every board meeting is 100% strategic.” With the normal staff reports now shared in committee meetings, he said the board’s focus is on “How can we make this better …We’ve got so much talent around that board table,” he said, adding it would be a shame not to be “tapping into the great strategic minds.”
Among his duties was selecting board members and volunteers to lead the multitude of tournament committees. “You’ve got to pick the right people,” he said.
With Mr. Eikenberry’s focus on “the next 50 years,” he has ushered in other changes including a uniform update for the board that is on display this week. He credited his successor, Dr. Sue Rector, the JDC chairman elect, with taking the lead on a “re-fresh” of the board members’ JDC attire.
While sporting the newly designed JDC blazer when he presents the trophy to the 2022 champion will be a highlight of his chairmanship, Mr. Eikenberry carries many memories and is proud that he’s always done whatever was asked of a volunteer. Whether it was shoveling mulch, lugging and setting up tables for six hours, or crawling underneath a hospitality chalet in search of a water leak. After a year as immediate past chair, he will return to the volunteer ranks.
Clair Peterson, the 20-year tournament director who will transition to the advisory role of executive director after this year’s tournament, said Mr. Eikenberry shares many characteristics of his predecessors. “He’s grounded, down to earth, humble and hardworking. He’s in it for the right reasons — not for his own self glory. It’s so refreshing to have someone like that because there is a lot of groundwork that has to be done behind the scenes.”
As volunteer chair, Mr. Eikenberry has taken “on a more public face and more public role — and we’re very fortunate to have a guy like him, just like we’ve been fortunate to have all of his predecessors, men and women, who have served before him,” said Mr. Peterson.
With a JDC staff of only seven full-time employees, he added “Imagine trying to do this without people like Pat or the rest of the board or the committee chairs, or the volunteers. They make the impossible possible all on a volunteer basis. We never want to take that for granted.”
And Mr. Eikenberry also is not afraid – and actually likes – “to get his hands dirty,” said Mr. Peterson. “He’s gone through all of the committee chairs up to this point, and predictably Pat always said that operations was his favorite, because he loved being in a grunt shirt and riding around to do whatever needed to be done. He has said several times, if he could have that assignment for the rest of his board tenure, that would make him very happy.”
Mr. Eikenberry, a Quad Cities native and Bettendorf High School graduate, also is no stranger to community service. He has chaired the boards of UnityPoint Health, Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce, Bettendorf Development Corp. and Robert Young Mental Health Center. In his professional life, he was board president and national director for the State of Iowa for the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC).
“But this one’s special,” Mr. Eikenberry said of the JDC chair role. “You look at what this does for our community – all the economic impact and you look at the charitable piece and support – there are 475 to 500 nonprofits that benefit from this each year. As for economic impact and footprint, this is the most impactful board I’ve ever served on.
“Who can say they finished their career and was the John Deere Classic board chair and chaired a PGA event – but I’m not saying I’m ending my career,” he quipped.
Mr. Eikenberry credits the support of his family, namely wife Trish, who he affectionately calls “the first lady of the JDC” with allowing him to devote so much time to chairing the community’s largest single event. She and their two daughters, Shannon and Jill, and son Jake – and nine grandchildren – are expected to be on hand for the weekend’s JDC festivities.
In fact, his son Jake caddied for his dad during the Wednesday Pro-Am, where Mr. Eikenberry had the honor of being paired with 2021 JDC Champion Lucas Glover and Deere UAW representative Joel Oltman, who was picked to play on behalf of Deere & Co. CEO John May (who caddied for the 15-year Deere employee).
Mr. Eikenberry also credits his company and his executive assistant Jennifer Masterson with allowing him to fill the big shoes at the JDC. “Jen Masterson’s phenomenal when I’m out here – or traveling for work – she just handles it all.
“I’m used to working a lot of hours. But IMEG really is about community involvement and we give a lot here to the Quad Cities and every community we work in. The people who work at IMEG make it easy for me to do things like this,” he added.
His advice to Dr. Rector for the 2023 JDC: “Keep your head down. Work hard. And when it’s tournament week, try to look up and enjoy it.”