'I'm Just a Simple Guy'
Mandell, 37, is a Southern Pines golf course architect and recipient of the 2005 Business Guild of Pinehurst Member of the Year Award.
Thomas, the Sanford District President of United Methodist Men, asked Mandell to speak for the recent UMC district men's gathering at Page Memorial.
"Richard was born into a New York Jewish family of modest means," Thomas said. "He's a well-known golf course architect here in the Southeast, and he's been a marvelous leader in our church (Page Memorial)."
"Fifteen years ago, I would not have been standing in front of a bunch of people in a church," said Mandell, speaking on "God Is in Control."
Mandell's wife, Dr. Mary Mandell, a psychiatrist serving with FirstHealth Behavioral Health Services, attended the lecture. She and Mandell are members of Page Memorial and have a 2-year-old son named Thomas.
"My story is simple; there's no drama here -- but don't leave on that account," Mandell said jokingly. "I'm just a simple guy who found Jesus Christ."
Mandell grew up in Westchester County, New York, in a "sort of an upper middle class neighborhood." His parents, both Jewish, divorced when he was seven; he stayed with his mother, who worked outside the home, and his two brothers who are six and nine years older than he.
"I was on my own, more than anything," Mandell said. "I realized the only one I could rely on was myself. The fact that I had to sink or swim really made me a lot of what I am today."
By his tenth-grade year, he'd decided to design golf courses. He enrolled in the University of Georgia to major in landscape architecture.
"Coming south as a young Jewish boy to the Bible Belt is a major transition, whether you're very Jewish or not," Mandell said. "What we Yankees see is Jerry Falwell, televangelism and the negative press about Christianity. That's what my exposure was.
"I always looked at the Bible as a crutch. Religion was a crutch -- you couldn't survive on your own; you needed something else, some higher being. Today, I'm ashamed of that, but that's how a lot of my friends thought."
The 'Faith Card'
The summer before his college senior year, Mandell caddied on the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour.
"I was working at a golf shop in Newnan, Ga., south of Atlanta," he said. "A friend graduated from the University of Georgia and played as a rookie on the LPGA tour. She said, 'Come on up. I'm playing in Atlantic City this week. Why don't you carry my bag?'"
Mandell said he had zero dollars to his name.
"I had enough gas to reach Philadelphia to get to my cousin's house," he said. "I got up the next morning to drive to Atlantic City from Philly. I realized I had no gas."
He drove to a nearby gas station in a rough neighborhood.
Mandell said, "I told the guy, 'Here's the deal. I've got no money. I've got to get to Atlantic City. I'll be back tonight. I promise I will pay you back. Can you give me $5 worth of gas?'"
The guy believed him.
"I filled the tank," Mandell said. "I didn't think there were any tolls, but I was almost to Atlantic City, and there was a 35-cent toll. I had 15 cents. I handed the lady the 15 cents and said, 'This is it. This is all the money I've got in the world. You've got two choices: You can let me go, or you can let me go and call the cops later.' So she let me go. I got to Atlantic City. My player gave me money. I paid everybody back, and the guy at the gas station was just amazed that somebody would pay him back."
Mandell said he's always had faith that something was going to come through for him -- and every single time it did.
"I teach Sunday School for the high school kids at Page Memorial," he said, "and we always use the 'faith card.' We somewhat joke about using the term 'faith,' because 'faith' is somewhat all-encompassing. But to me, I didn't really know what faith was at the time (during college), from a non-religious, secular point of view. To me, it was just faith. It was always there, and I always had it. I was never proven wrong."
A five-handicap golfer when he left college, Mandell, who said "college was a great time in my life," graduated from the University of Georgia with a landscape architecture degree. He moved to Pinehurst in 1990, worked as an intern with Dan Maples Design of Pinehurst and then worked briefly for Maples before a recession ended his employment.
"I didn't really like Pinehurst at that time," said Mandell, who is presently writing a book about the history of golf course architecture in the Sandhills. "The transition of a Jewish kid to Athens, Ga., is nothing like the transition of a college kid to Pinehurst."
The audience laughed.
Mandell moved to Atlanta in January 1991 and lived in the basement of a former roommate's parents' house.
"I'd developed back problems," he said. "I could hardly walk and really needed back surgery."
He decided that instead of seeking a golf course design job, he would caddy on the Men's European Golf Tour.
"That's logical, right?" he asked his audience.
The day before he was to leave for the tour, a golf course architect from Braselton, Ga., offered him a job.
"I knew it was temporary; I went for the experience," he said.
The job lasted less than a year, and Mandell, then 25 and collecting unemployment, started his own golf design business with three civil engineers from Maryland; the company had offices there and in Georgia. For many years, Mandell struggled with finding projects and paying his bills while running the Atlanta office.
"Somehow when I had bills to pay, within a week, I'd get a project," he said.
In Atlanta in 1995 he met his wife-to-be, Mary, the daughter of a Methodist minister and, at that time, an Emory University medical student.
"One day she said to me, 'Do you believe in Jesus Christ?'" Mandell related. "And I said, 'Yeah, he's the Son of God.' I knew nothing about Methodism and nothing about Christianity in those days. Then she said, 'Did you know Jews don't believe that?' And I said, 'Really?'"
Mandell said, "I must have been sneaking around the halls in Hebrew school when they announced that."
Mandell began studying Christianity.
"I read the Bible from cover to cover," he said, "and throughout the book I was just amazed, like 'Wow!that's neatI see this'It's all about faith, faith in Jesus Christsimple as thatI guess I'm a Christian.' It was the best decision I ever made in my life."
He warned the audience that he might get teary-eyed.
"I might cry," he said. "I cried at the end of 'Caddy Shack,' so I'll cry at anything."
The Mandells married in 1996 and moved to Durham so that Mary, who earned undergraduate and medical degrees at Emory University, could finish her residency at UNC in Chapel Hill. They moved to Pinehurst six years ago and joined Page Memorial UMC of Aberdeen, where Richard chairs a building team working to establish a Community Outreach Center (COC) for needy people.
"The (COC) will help the whole community and help revitalize the Aberdeen downtown area," Mandell said. "Many ministries and missions that Page Memorial Church undertakes benefit people in need as well as the community at large. The COC will help expand our music ministries and enlarge our bazaar efforts, but most important, help expand many giving ministries such as our Samaritan's Fund and other efforts, both local and worldwide."
Page Memorial is actively raising money to pay for renovations to the COC building and will be greatly appreciative if anyone may feel moved to assist in the project, either by donations or otherwise, Mandell said.
Steve Crain may be reached at email@example.com.
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