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Amherst golf coach Tracy Mehr, who ’embraced each teachable moment,’ dies at 91

Tracy Mehr and his wife, Carol, in an undated family photo.
Tracy Mehr and his wife, Carol, in an undated family photo.

Part of the job of coaching Amherst College’s men’s and women’s golf teams was teaching players “how to swing,” Tracy Mehr once said, “but my educational function is to teach them how to live with themselves and their limitations.”

That involved helping players “to accept the game for what it is, to turn weakness into strength,” he said in a 1990 Amherst Magazine interview, “and in the process to grow a little bit.”

Mr. Mehr lost vision in one eye not long after he won the 1971 Massachusetts Amateur golf championship, but he never lost his direction as a mentor to student athletes and colleagues in his 36 years at the college.

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“He embraced each teachable moment and delivered the right lessons effectively – directly, yet with a caring touch,” E.J. Mills, Amherst’s head football coach, said as part of a series of tributes the college posted online. “I’ll forever remember Tracy for finding creative ways to instruct his students on how best to learn from their mistakes.”

A professor of physical education emeritus who coached multiple sports at Amherst, Mr. Mehr died in his Hoschton, Ga., home Feb. 26 of congestive heart failure. He was 91.

He was an assistant football coach from 1965 to 2000, when Amherst posted a 173-87-4 record and was co-champion the first year of football competition in the current New England Small College Athletic Conference.

In 2011, the Gridiron Club of Greater Boston honored Mr. Mehr with the John Baronian Award for Lifetime Contribution to Football. He had been an assistant at Boston College in the early 1960s.

“He was the best coach I ever played for,” said former BC football captain Charlie Smith, who also was coached by Mr. Mehr at what is now Loyola Blakefield, a Jesuit prep school in Towson, Md.

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Smith said Mr. Mehr cared about “how his players conducted themselves, their academics, and the kind of person they could become.”

Amherst golf and hockey coach Jack Arena, who succeeded Mr. Mehr as men’s golf coach, said that when his friend and mentor asked a question, “no matter how harmless it seemed, he always pushed you for an answer far deeper than anything you would have thought of.”

John Tracy Mehr was a namesake son of John Tracy Mehr, a salesman who was known as Jack, and the former Josephine Tracey, an executive assistant.

Mr. Mehr won three Wisconsin State Golf Association father and son championships with Jack and captured the state junior boys’ championship in 1946, the same year he graduated from Marquette University High School in Milwaukee.

He attended the College of the Holy Cross on a football scholarship, captained the golf team, and served in the Marine Corps during the Korean War.

While coaching football at Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda, Md., he met Carol Lawless, who had grown up in Canton. They married in 1958.

She would later work in the admissions office at Hampshire College and then start her own travel agency in Amherst, the Travel Loft, where Mr. Mehr helped out as her accountant.

After coaching at Georgetown Prep, Mr. Mehr moved to Loyola Blakefield, where his football teams won two Maryland Scholastic championships, and then was hired by Boston College.

In the summer of 1971, while painting his house in Amherst and helping to raise his children, Mr. Mehr became the first player from Western Massachusetts to win the Massachusetts Amateur, clinching the title at Taconic Golf Club in Williamstown.

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A Western Massachusetts Golf Hall of Fame inductee, Mr. Mehr also competed in the British Amateur and British Senior Amateur, and along the way played with golfers such as Arnold Palmer.

In 1978, Mr. Mehr started Amherst’s women’s golf program. He was named Eastern Regional Coach of the Year in 1985 for both men’s and women’s golf, an unprecedented feat.

“I love for young players to have moments of success because the game is so fragile,” he said in the 1990 Amherst Magazine interview, the year his women’s team won the National Golf Coaches Association Division 2-3 championship.

Michelle Morgan, whom Mr. Mehr asked to succeed him as women’s golf coach, said he was “my go-to guy, and to this day I still feel Tracy on my shoulder. I often say to myself: ‘What would Tracy do?’ ”

Mr. Mehr was also a mentor to Morgan’s son, Jesse IV, who had played in the Mass. Amateur. Years later, he still carries Mr. Mehr’s letters of support and congratulations in his golf bag.

When Mr. Mehr, a former Amherst School Committee member, retired from the college in 2001, a scholarship for students he called “diamonds in the rough” was established in his name. The initial fund-raising group was headed by Walter Donovan, a former Amherst football player and former trustee.

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“I used to room with Tracy on our team’s road trips to colleges in Maine, and it was the beginning of a great friendship,” said Donovan, who gave his son the middle name Tracy.

In 2011, 40 years after his Mass. Amateur triumph, Mr. Mehr returned to Taconic, where he was honored by former players and colleagues. During a golf outing at the gathering, he played in the final foursome and sank a 15-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole.

“You would have thought he had just won the Masters,” Arena recalled. “He broke out in a smile and we all clapped and cheered.”

That weekend, Mr. Mehr received a letter from his old acquaintance Arnold Palmer.

Rick Murphy, a football captain and quarterback at Amherst in the early 1970s, and an organizer of the three-day festivities, said Mr. Mehr was “enormously generous” with his time, knowledge, patience, and encouragement, and added that “I am glad he was a part of my life.”

In 1971, Mr. Mehr was awarded the Mass. Amateur championship trophy, but his name was not engraved on it and he didn’t bother to do so as the years passed. After the Taconic reunion, friends presented him with the freshly engraved trophy.

In addition to his wife, Carol, Mr. Mehr leaves four daughters, Barbara of Towson, Md., Mary Lange of Charleston, S.C., Kate of Annapolis, Md., and Kristen of Atlanta; a son, John of Kiawah Island, S.C.; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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A private service has been held and a celebration of his life in the fall in Amherst will be announced.

In her eulogy, Kate — who had played on the Amherst women’s golf team coached by her father — said that he “got us to believe in ourselves, and helped us see who we were capable of being in this world.”

Marvin Pave can be reached at marvin.pave@rcn.com.