by James Leach
Thirty-six years after he played for the US golf team at the 1961 Maccabiah Games, Peter Liebschutz '60 will head back to Israel in July to represent his country again in the 15th edition of the quadrennial games.
Earning a place on the team against some of the country's best amateur golfers is difficult enough, but before Liebschutz ever teed it up in the qualifying rounds at Florida's famed Doral Country Club, he first had to overcome the effects of a paralyzing and nearly fatal brain tumor. It is typical of Liebschutz that it should take some prying to get at this story, but the result bears retelling.
Liebschutz is a gifted, all-around athlete who lettered in five sports for Brighton High School near Rochester in the '50s. Beyond playing varsity football, soccer, basketball, baseball and golf, he won the school's intramural wrestling championship at his weight, and was the Monroe County high school bowling champion. And that was in addition to playing in the band and orchestra and filling leadership positions in high school government. He is a member of two sports halls of fame in the Rochester area.
When it came time to make a college choice, Liebschutz's coaches urged him to find someplace where he could compete at the highest level. J. Boyd Mullan '25, father of Liebschutz's high school friend and classmate Jean, made a strong case for Colgate, and the college proved to have everything that Peter wanted: "It was small, a liberal arts college with a good reputation for academics and athletics."
As a freshman he wrestled and played soccer, in the process dislocating a knee that would continue to trouble him throughout the years. And, while freshmen were ineligible for the varsity golf team, he did play for a freshman team that included at least four members who were current or future state champions: Stewart "Skip" Wallace (New York State junior champion), Lloyd Monroe (New Jersey junior state champion), Bill Bohnhoff (state junior champion in North Dakota), and Don Allen (a Rochester friend who would win the New York State amateur championship six times). Allen and Liebschutz went on to play in the first and second positions on varsity teams, which also included classmate Terry Van Houten.
Colgate's home course in those days was a nine-hole affair on the hillside behind Andrews and Stillman residence halls. The old Seven Oaks wound alongside the cemetery and ski hill and offered a distinct advantage for a golfer with the knowledge and ability to hit the ball to the right spot. To this day Liebschutz has the repertoire of draws and fades, knockdowns and high floaters that made him virtually unbeatable on that hillside. He excelled for the varsity his last three years and was the intramural champ as a sophomore.
Coach Jim Dalgety was so impressed by his new charges that he reportedly dusted off a set of preliminary drawings by new Cornell graduate Robert Trent Jones. Work began that year on the modern-day Colgate University Seven Oaks Golf Course, which Golf Digest now calls one of the country's top five college courses.
Despite success and recognition on the golf course, Liebschutz was never obsessed with the game. "I never wanted a game where I had to hit a lot of balls and play all the time," he says. "I developed a game that could travel."
Unless he was playing a match, Liebschutz was more apt to be in the library or on the basketball court than he was on the golf course. He still plays remarkably few rounds, yet has such a natural game that he challenges par virtually from his first round of the year on.
From Colgate Liebschutz expected to join the armed services, but his physical condition (bad knee, allergies and color blindness) ironically made him ineligible. His service to the country was deferred until after his studies at Albany Law School, and then he served as a civilian.
Liebschutz had joined a Rochester law firm when he was contacted by a State Department representative and invited to a professional hockey game. The night out turned out to be an interview and, soon after, Liebschutz was asked to become a civilian consultant to the State Department in Vietnam.
"There was such a rapid buildup in money, equipment and personnel," said Liebschutz, "the State Department wanted people who could get information without a higher-ranking person being worried about someone blowing the whistle." At the age of 27 he established a Central Data Collection Center headquartered with a briefing room in Saigon. In photographs from those days Liebschutz is briefing President Richard Nixon, Secretary of State Henry Cabot Lodge, and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, among other national and international figures. But Liebschutz' advice and national policy took opposite courses.
"Vietnam is a beautiful country populated by bright people and it was unfortunate to have war descend on their heads to the extent the Americans did," he said. "We were doing the wrong thing. The military was taking over. There was no threat to American soil."
After a year and a half he was awarded a medal for civilian service and returned to Rochester. Coming from the level of independence he had experienced in Vietnam, Liebschutz chafed at working in a large firm, so he set out in his own practice. The work was night and day, but it also provided the flexibility for a long list of community involvements, the Colgate Club of Rochester, the Jaycees, the Rochester Museum and Science Center, the Boy Scouts, the Jewish Welfare Fund, and the Rochester Memorial Art Gallery, among many others.
Along the way he was playing for championship amateur basketball and major league fast-pitch softball teams, and he took up his golf clubs often enough to qualify for the New York State Amateur Golf Championship in each of the past five decades, at the same time capturing more than 35 club golf titles, including the Irondequoit Country Club championship 20 times when he was a member there.
Athletics probably saved his life. The headaches came to be of a variety different from the allergy headaches that had plagued him for years. Then the basketball began slipping off his fingers in uncustomary ways. He had vertigo and dizzy spells and noises in his head and he'd lost the hearing in one ear. Visits to specialists failed to yield a diagnosis until he had a CAT scan. The doctor summoned Liebschutz to his office and told him of the large and involved tumor that had attached itself to several vital nerves and his brain stem.
"They told me it was too far gone, that it was time to round up the family and put my affairs in order," said Liebschutz. He turned instead to his Colgate roommate and longtime friend Dr. Michael Wolk, an internist and cardiologist at the New York Hospital of Cornell Medical Center. Wolk arranged for consultations and eventually surgery with a noted neurologist and a gifted neurosurgeon.
The road back hasn't been an easy one ("it grabbed so many nerves"), but as Liebschutz says, "Every day now is a gift" (especially the day in 1993 when he married his high school friend Renee). These days the cane is gone, replaced at times by a nine iron, but there is still some paralysis on the right side, and not being able to control that right eye and face is irksome.
Peter Liebschutz no longer visualizes every movement in his golf swing in slow motion the way he could as a younger man. But these days he says he sees a whole lot more.