Len Ross, a former Fresno Unified teacher and administrator known best for the opportunities and inspiration he provided young people as the director of the junior golf tournament that bears his name, has died at the age of 96.
Mr. Ross’ passing came Monday, less than two months before the 70th edition of the Len Ross-Fresno City Junior Amateur will be played across five courses in the Fresno area.
The son of an Austrian mother and Italian father, Mr. Ross was born in Fresno on Aug. 20, 1920. At a young age, his family moved to Santa Cruz, where he was introduced to the sport he grew to love. Raised in a poor family, Mr. Ross helped make some extra money working as a caddy at nearby Pasatiempo Golf Club.
After high school, Mr. Ross joined the Marines and fought in World War II, serving in the South Pacific, according to son Randy Ross.
Mr. Ross returned to the San Joaquin Valley after the war and attended Fresno State, where he captained and co-founded the college’s golf team in 1946.
The next year, Mr. Ross founded the area’s first junior tournament. It had just seven participants in its inaugural year.
With the help of his wife, Velva, what was originally known as the Fresno Junior Golf Tournament grew into one of the premier events of its kind in California, drawing hundreds of boys and girls.
If everybody took something they were good at and shared it with the kids, the world would be a better place and Len chose golf.
Randy Ross, on the passing of his father, Len Ross, who was instrumental in creating junior golf opportunities in the San Joaquin Valley
Known as “Mr. Junior Golf” in Fresno, Mr. Ross enlisted sponsors and golf pros alike to create an atmosphere not generally witnessed on the junior circuit.
The Ross home would transform into a barracks of sorts, housing players from out of town and sometimes out of state for the four-day tournament that takes place every Easter week.
“There would be 30 to 40 kids sleeping in the house with just one bathroom. I don’t know how we did it,” his son recalled.
Future pros such as Bob Lunn, Johnny Miller and Jerry Heard stayed under the Ross roof.
The tournament’s relevancy endures: Among the recent winners was back-to-back champ Bryson DeChambeau (2010-11), who went on to star at Clovis East High and Southern Methodist, won the NCAA and U.S. Amateur championships and joined the pro tour.
Mike Firpo, executive director at First Tee of Fresno (the local chapter of a national youth development program), remembers meeting Mr. Ross for the first time as a 9-year-old playing in his first junior golf tournament.
1947 The first edition of the four-day Fresno Junior Golf Tournament, which has been held in Easter Week every year since.
“I still remember when he walked up to me as a little kid. He was so genuine. He treated all the kids as if they’re the most important thing in the world at the moment,” Firpo said. “It’s crucial, and to be honest I try to copy that.”
It wasn’t just a love of the game that Mr. Ross was teaching. He also emphasized the values that come with the sport.
“He wasn’t trying to make pro golfers,” Randy Ross said. “There’s a lot of things that golf can teach you: sportsmanship, integrity, honesty. If everybody took something they were good at and shared it with the kids, the world would be a better place and Len chose golf.”
Mr. Ross shared his passion with children and could relate to those who grew up poor. Without programs such as his, they might never have had the chance to be on the greens.
Ironically, according to son Randy, Mr. Ross didn’t even own a pair of clubs until he was in college.
“He always wanted to help the kids that didn’t get a chance,” Randy Ross said. “He didn’t want those kids to have to look through the fence like he did.”
In 2006, again leaning on Velva’s support as well as that of friends and city officials, Mr. Ross opened the Len Ross Junior Golf Learning Center in southwest Fresno. Funded by the Fresno-Greater San Joaquin Valley Junior Golf Foundation, it provides a free golf learning center for all junior players.
I hit seven beaches with the Marines (in World War II), but they were nothing like this. I find it difficult to speak at times like this, but my whole life has been wrapped up in children.
Len Ross told a group of students at Turner Elementary who threw a surprise ceremony for his retirement in 1986.
“He was a legend,” friend and local tournament director Bill Finn said. “I use him as a model for the Fresno City Amateur. He just had a way with people. I remember after every tournament, he would sit down and write a letter to each person that volunteered. It was a hand-written letter and it just made you feel good.”
His trademark phrase was “Anything for the kids,” and it went beyond the course. Mr. Ross was known to “provide food, fatherly advice, sleeping quarters, transportation and yes, on occasion, discipline,” according to a 1983 Fresno Bee article.
As an educator, Mr. Ross was principal at Scandinavian, Vinland, Figarden, Powers and Turner schools during his 35 years with Fresno Unified.
At Turner, Mr. Ross was credited as the driving force behind a gardening center that remains in the northeast corner of campus.
Mr. Ross was inducted into the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame in 1997 for his then “50-year commitment to junior golf … estimated (to have) touched the lives of at least 75,000 boys and girls.” He was presented with the Hall’s Harold Zinkin Sr. Award in 2012.
“Golf is for everyone and everyone is important,” Mr. Ross told The Bee in 1983. “The winner isn’t necessarily the person who wins the tournament but it’s how you played and conducted yourself. People will remember that long after they have forgotten who finished first. I believe strongly in young people. I will never forget those dinners, games, kangaroo court sessions and the rows of sleeping bags in our living and family rooms.”
He is survived by his son Randy and wife Velva. He was preceded in death by son Steve.
No public services will be held at Mr. Ross’ request. The family asks in lieu of flowers that donations be made to the Fresno-Greater San Joaquin Valley Junior Golf Foundation.
Leonard “Len” V. Ross
- Born: Aug. 20, 1920
- Died: Feb. 13, 2017
- Occupation: Former Fresno Unified teacher and administrator, junior golf tournament director and instructor
- Survivors: Son Randy Ross; wife Velva Ross. Mr. Ross was preceded in death by his son Steve.
- Services: No services will be held, per Mr. Ross’ request. In lieu of flowers, send donations to the Fresno-Greater San Joaquin Valley Junior Golf Foundation at 7110 N. Fresno Ave., Ste. 460, Fresno, CA 93720.