Dartmouth golf course benefactor made hefty donation for irrigation upgrades

By JOHN LIPPMAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 04-17-2023 9:30 PM

HANOVER — When it was turned on at the Dartmouth College campus in 1995, it was proudly hailed as “the top end of current technology,” “unbelievably sophisticated and effective.”

A new research lab at Thayer School of Engineering? A new testing lab at then-named Dartmouth Medical School? Internet access installed in college dorms?

No, not quite. The gushing praise was heaped upon a new water sprinkling system installed at the Hanover County Club that irrigated all 18 holes of the college’s golf course, promising to transform the scorched fairways under a beating August sun into a verdant greensward along the banks of the Connecticut River.

And it was all made possible thanks to $675,000 “plus additional monies” given by brothers Robert and Thomas Keeler, both Dartmouth alumni, according to a story in the Valley News at the time.

The donation came years before Keeler, a Cincinnati lawyer and avid golfer who died in 2002 at age 88, gave $3.8 million to his alma mater for the “sole purpose of upgrading and maintaining its golf course.” The college closed the links in a cost-cutting move in 2020, and now the money is tied up in a legal dispute between the college and Keeler’s estate.

Arguing that Dartmouth has violated the terms of his bequest, Keeler’s eponymous charitable foundation has asked for what remains of the $3.8 million to be returned, according to a story published on Monday by New Hampshire Bulletin.

The college refused. New Hampshire’s Charitable Trusts Unit, the part of the Attorney General’s Office that oversees nonprofits, and a circuit court judge have both affirmed Dartmouth was not required to return the money. Now, Keeler’s estate and foundation have appealed to the state Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments on March 30. A decision is pending.

In the Valley News story nearly 30 years ago, Hanover Country Club’s new irrigation system — the Keelers paid to replace the original golf course sprinkler system installed in the 1920s — was hailed as “the only one of its kind in the Twin States and one of the first in New England.”

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The dated system it replaced was only able to water tee boxes and greens but not the fairways. The computer-operated system — involving some six miles of pipe and 150,000 feet of wiring — watered the entire golf course and no longer required a groundskeeper to get up at 1 a.m. and work in the early morning hours to haul around hoses.

“You tell it what you want to water, how much you want to water, give it a priority, put it on automatic and walk away,” head groundskeeper Steve Lyon told the newspaper.

The labor-saving technology also allowed Lyon the joy of being able to go out to see a movie with his wife on a Saturday night, something he couldn’t do previously.

On hand for the June 29 dedication of the irrigation system was a “knickers-clad” Robert Keeler, who acknowledged he had “no conception” of the immense task the grounds crew faced in making sure the golf course got enough water each night during the summer.

Taking his turn at the computer controls, Keeler commented he thought the new automatic system might take “the excitement out of the traditional method of hauling hoses to place sprinklers around the course at night.

“I think a lot of the romance is gone,” he volunteered.

Au contraire, another attendee offered.

“Steve will actually get a little romance back into his life since he won’t always be in here,” quipped an unnamed person in the room.

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.

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