By Tim O’MeiliaPicture a neighborhood agitator. A troublemaker. An interloper. Now imagine a white-haired thoracic surgeon dressed in his croquet whites — cotton Bermuda shorts and polo-style shirt — propping a croquet mallet on his shoulder at a jaunty angle.
That’s how a revolutionary looks in Gulf Stream or coastal Delray Beach.
Meet Bill Luke, surgeon, pilot, medical missionary, model wooden ship builder, champion croquet player and — on Nov. 13 — the newest member of the Hall of Fame of the Croquet Foundation of America, based in West Palm Beach.
He’s the guy who roused the neighborhood against him in Delray Beach when he dared try to build a croquet court, which brings in a decidedly unruly crowd
He’s the guy who battled the establishment at the St. Andrew’s Club in Gulf Stream for years to build a nouveau croquet lawn.
It’s these uppity malletheads you’ve got to worry about. Pretty soon, the place will be overrun with wooden balls and manners.
That fact that there is a National Croquet Center in West Palm Beach — much less anywhere at all — is due in no small part to the maverick from Cape Cod. Luke was a major financial donor for the center, which was built in 2001 when the association had nowhere to go.
By then Luke had already built an impressive resume in the sport he first took up when his wife, Joan, pestered him into taking lessons at the PGA National Golf Resort in Palm Beach Gardens in the mid-1980s. A few of their British friends puttered about in the sport.
The Lukes were smitten. They began taking trips along the East Coast, playing in tournaments and filling their bookshelves with trophies. There’s no prize money in croquet. The only cash is what competitors spend to play.
“It’s all about the silver,” said Luke, referring to the trophies.
Luke, now 82 and nearly immobile with ALS, describes croquet as chess on a lawn. Unlike backyard croquet, wickets in the competitive game are barely an eighth of an inch wider than the wooden ball. Tactics are as important as talent.
He can barely speak now. His son, David, helps translate. He moves about with the help of a motorized chair and communicates through a remarkable software program that allows him to swiftly spell out words with the swish of a computer mouse.
“It’s a mental game,” Luke said of croquet. “You have to think four or five shots ahead. It involves shot-making skills and mind-boggling strategy.”
The Lukes tired of the drive from Gulf Stream, where they retired in 1985, to Palm Beach Gardens. So in 1990 they bought two lots off Thomas Street in nearby Delray Beach on which to build a croquet lawn.
Presto! Neighborhood interlopers. Nearby residents immediately organized, protesting what they thought would become a social club with attendant noise and traffic.
Eventually, despite numerous code violation citations, the basketball-sized court was approved by Delray Beach.
“That was more difficult than opening a brothel,” Luke said later. Many of the protesters became converts to croquet.
Luke suggested naming the short street leading to the court Wicket Way but he said city officials turned him down. It’s now called Luke Lane.
The Lukes turned their sights to building courts at the St. Andrew’s Club in Gulf Stream where they were members. The club had earlier tabled the idea — for a decade.
It was a rather sticky wicket. “The usual response at cocktail parties was, ‘What the #*&^@ is croquet?’ ” Luke wrote later. The Lukes pressed on, underwriting the cost of courts in 1996. Four years later, the sport had caught on so well that St. Andrew’s was host
for the International Golf Croquet Championships.
A plaque embedded in the lawn at St. Andrew’s notes that the courts are dedicated to the upstart Lukes.
The couple preached the croquet gospel up and down the East Coast. Luke and a friend resurrected the Cape Cod Croquet Club in Falmouth, Mass. He won the Massachusetts singles title in 1994. They built a home in Cashiers in mountainous western North Carolina and were hosts for tournaments at the Chattooga Club there. Luke won titles for four consecutive years.
“One of the great things about croquet is the many wonderful people you meet. Joan and I never went to a tournament without meeting a new best friend,” Luke wrote. “I have many great memories and not a single bad memory.”
When the National Croquet Center opened, the locker rooms were named for the Lukes, although he suggested the lavatory be dubbed “Luke’s Loo.” He has been a member
of the board of the nonprofit Croquet Foundation of America.
“Whatever you can think of, Dr. Luke has done,’’ said Shereen Hayes, comptroller of the U.S. Croquet Association. “Whether he was starting a club, promoting croquet or being a big financial supporter,
he has a great passion for croquet.”
Meanwhile, although officially retired, Luke helped organize doctors who made six trips to Central America to treat people who seldom have access to medical care.
Luke began noticing the early symptoms of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) in 1998 while he was still playing competitively. Occasionally he would lose his balance. He began limping.
It wasn’t until 2002 that the diagnosis became official. Luke gave up croquet, flying, boating and other pursuits. Joan died in 2005.
ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive, degenerative neurological disease. The muscles become weak and waste away. “In time, the voluntary muscles of respiration fail, reducing vital capacity, resulting in pulmonary failure and death,” Luke wrote matter-of-factly about the affliction.
“ALS in most cases does not affect cognitive functions. The mind remains alert while trapped in a useless shell — the cruelest of diseases,” he wrote.
Those with ALS typically die in three to five years. Luke has lived with it for 12. He has made use of the time by becoming an advocate for research. He has testified three times in Washington and remains active in local support groups.
“Although I am pretty much an aphasic blob in a wheelchair, I remain as active as I can,” he wrote.
Luke said he was shocked when he learned of his nomination to the Hall of Fame. “My first reaction was no as I didn’t think there was a chance of it happening,” he wrote.
Hayes says otherwise. “He has been one of our irreplaceable members. It would be a big error not to have Dr. Luke in the Hall of Fame,” she said.
When he is inducted Nov. 13, he will be among friends in a gentlemen’s sport he helped to grow. Some kind of malcontent he is.