Bev Vanstrum overcomes early obstacles to earn place in history

Note: Bev Vanstrum of Stillwater passed away on Dec. 4 at the age of 78. This story originally appeared in the Stillwater Gazette on April 12, 2001.

By Stuart Groskreutz – Stillwater Gazette

Some prep golfers have to wait until their senior season to earn a high school letter. Despite being one of the most dominant golfers in Minnesota history, Bev Vanstrum waited until she was a senior citizen before proudly earning her letter from St. Paul Johnson High School.

Vanstrum is among a group of five outstanding contributors to athletics who are being inducted into the St. Croix Valley Sports Hall of Fame at The Grand on Wednesday, May 2.

Although there was a remarkable lack of opportunities provided to women in athletics while growing up, Vanstrum took advantage of those limited chances to play and learned quickly.

Vanstrum finished her stellar career with 21 state championships in all, including four Senior Women’s State Amateur titles. From 1953 to 1968, she won seven state match-play championships, six state stroke-play titles and four state amateur crowns. She also finished second in state championships 13 times.

Despite playing well in a number of women’s leagues, public links events and invitational tournaments at clubs, Vanstrum was not allowed to participate on the boys’ golf team at Johnson High School, which did not offer sports for girls at the time.

Vanstrum qualified for the golf team, but the St. Paul School Board sent her parents a letter informing them that she would not be allowed to compete, saying that "competition was bad for girls."

Eventually, Vanstrum was honored with a letter from Johnson, although it wasn’t until 1998 when the snub was discovered as part of a look back in history during the school’s 100-year birthday celebration.

"They decided I had been denied my rights of earning a letter and they had an assembly and handed a "J" to me," she said. "They also inducted me into their Hall of Fame. That was really a thrill."

Despite the inequities, Vanstrum displays no bitterness about those early days.

"This was the way things were and you just accepted it," she said. "When my parents received a letter saying I would not be eligible, I just accepted it."

When Vanstrum was allowed to compete, she was nearly unbeatable.

Playing with a one handicap, Vanstrum finished fourth in the professional Westboro Open in St. Louis as an amateur in 1952 and attracted several sponsors. She considered making a career as a professional, but she fell in love with Bob Vanstrum – also an avid golfer – and decided to stay home and get married.

Following the guidance of her father as a youngster, Vanstrum was encouraged by Les Bolstad to practice with the men’s golf team while attending the University of Minnesota. Bolstad worked with Vanstrum throughout her college career and when she was a senior in 1952, Bolstad arranged for her to compete in the Women’s National Collegiate Championship in Columbus, Ohio.

A virtual unknown prior to the tournament, Vanstrum surprised many by finishing second after losing in the finals on the 19th hole.

That tournament provided Vanstrum one of her most memorable experiences in the sport.

"I didn’t think that I was even that caliber of a player at that time," Vanstrum said. "I lost to a girl from Texas, but that was a turning point. I started getting entry blanks from all over the country."

Following graduation, Vanstrum taught school in Mound and played golf during the summer. While her three children were all in school, she earned a Masters Degree in Educational Psychology and returned to teaching as a special education teacher in the St. Paul schools. She even developed innovative video programs using puppets to help kindergarten and first grade children to read.

Vanstrum helped coach the Mahtomedi Junior High golf team in the late 1970s when her sons were on the team. The boys went on to lead Mahtomedi to the 1983 state championship. Vanstrum was also an assistant under head coach Mike O’Rourke when the Stillwater High School girls’ team won consecutive state titles in 1986 and 1987.

Slowed by back surgeries – she has had five in the past 10 years – Vanstrum doesn’t get to play golf as much as she would like.

"I started having back problems back in 1991 and I’ve had a lot of back surgery," she said. "I don’t get to play much more than nine holes occasionally."

She still loves the game, however, and recently visited Augusta, Ga., to watch practice rounds for the Masters.

"It’s nice to see all the flowers and the players," Vanstrum said. "It really is something that I enjoy."

While growing up, Vanstrum preferred tennis to golf but by the time she was 15 she checked out a book by Byron Nelson from the library and began practicing. Her parents Violet and Bob Gammon were avid golfers and played a large role in fostering Vanstrum’s interest in the game.

One of her early memories involves her father hitting golf balls into a rug that he draped over a clothes line in the back yard. She recalled watching him miss the rug on one occasion and the golf ball went through the neighbors’ storm door.

Although cold to golf in the beginning, Vanstrum grew to enjoy the sport while caddying for her father during several tournaments.

She eventually put down the tennis racket in favor of golf clubs and Vanstrum’s father worked with her as they practiced every evening during the summer, often before getting forced inside by swarms of mosquitoes.

I was just a little girl, but he was so enthused about it," Vanstrum said.

That summer, her scores dropped so fast in her women’s golf league that the handicap chair couldn’t keep up with the scores and she won a prize every week.

The prizes and awards continued to pour in later in her career. In addition to receiving her letter in a special ceremony honoring her at Johnson High School, Vanstrum was inducted into the MGA-PGA Hall of Fame at Bunker Hills in 1991.