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‘He made people believe in themselves’: How David VonBrethorst chased his dream of becoming a golf pro while battling cancer

Nov. 23, 2022 Updated Wed., Nov. 23, 2022 at 5:10 p.m.

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

First, a funny anecdote about David VonBrethorst, because it’s just necessary.

Necessary to illustrate that for all the many sides to the man, there was always another to be found, and that however far he would go with his passions – his family and friends, his work as a pastor, coaching girls track and finally as a golf professional, most recently at Circling Raven – he could always find it in himself to go beyond, especially in the furtherance of everyday needling.

And necessary because a smile will be essential company as his longer story unfolds.

So he’s playing a round with his longtime friend Greg Peach, the former Eastern Washington football great and a big enough stick off the tee that he would always outdrive VonBrethorst – and then rib him about the Walmart that could be built between the spots where their shots landed.

“Then this day he crushes it and gets me, and of course he has to take a picture of it,” Peach said.

Most guys would have left it at that, or maybe at a few more verbal darts delivered over the next couple of holes. Not the man everyone calls Von. Fast forward to this past Christmas, when Peach’s wife Kolbi brings out a large package for him to unwrap.

“He’s blown up this picture and had a buddy Photoshop a Walmart in between the two of us,” Peach said. “It’s framed, like 18x24, a poster. It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.”

And it’s just a slice of Von.

“He is somebody,” Peach said, “worth knowing about.”

So, just where to start with Von? Well, in Spokane, of course – he’s one of those quintessential Spokane guys, a Ferris grad “who knew everybody,” said his wife, Monica, who met her future husband of 27 years at a church camp when they were both 10. Together they raised three daughters – twins Abigail and Madison, and Ava – while he served as a pastor at three Spokane churches, the last being Emmaus, which the VonBrethorsts planted themselves.

He also moonlighted for nearly 20 years as the head girls track coach at Ferris – motivating and cajoling with relentless positivity, which required the occasional detour into entertainment.

“There was one track trip when he hired and paid a couple of guys to meet the bus at a rest area for a shaving-cream fight,” Monica recalled. “They came out from behind the bathrooms and went crazy on the girls. He was always trying to keep things fun and light-hearted.”

But in 2017, VonBrethorst sensed a need for change in his life. And the change he hit on was golf.

Not 18 holes a couple of times a week. Golf, as profession.

He had put his clubs away early in his marriage and nearly sold them when the family moved into a new home. But at age 42, he sought out Gary Lindeblad, then the professional at Indian Canyon, and later at Kalispel Country Club – first for lessons, then for advice and finally for entrée into the world of being a club pro.

“I truly tried to talk him out of it,” Lindeblad said. “Being a golf pro on the front end is not all that rewarding and it doesn’t pay. You’re schlepping golf bags and cleaning carts and you don’t get enough of a chance to do what you really want to do – play and teach. And there’s no way to jump into the middle of it. The process to get in the PGA is time-consuming and a pain and it’s not something you usually start in your 40s.”

VonBrethorst persisted, and eventually was hired to work in the bag room at Kalispel. Within a couple of months, he was behind the register in the pro shop (“people loved him too much to keep him downstairs,” Lindeblad said) and taking the initial steps in the PGA’s certification process. He proved to be a quick study in all aspects of the job – teaching, organization and, especially, relationships.

“He even officiated weddings for members,” Monica said. “He just had a way, making friends with people.”

In late 2019, Dave Christenson, director of golf at Circling Raven Golf Club south of Coeur d’Alene, was looking for a new pro and asked Lindeblad about potential candidates. Lindeblad had one recommendation.

“If I had to hire a head pro for Augusta National,” he told Christenson, “Von could do it.”

Though the lack of PGA endorsement seemed large, it wasn’t like hiring the batboy to manage the Mariners. Christenson took note of VonBrethorst’s ideas, managerial skills and way with people.

“You could tell he would be a good fit,” he said. “He knew what I was thinking and was one step ahead of me.”

So in February 2020, VonBrethorst was hired at Circling Raven.

Three months after being diagnosed with cancer.

It happened after what Monica called “routine” gall bladder surgery, when a tumor was discovered. Chemotherapy was started, but it sent him into liver failure – he also had autoimmune hepatitis – so a steroid regimen was ordered, and scans throughout the next 18 months revealed no cancer.

Until September 2021, when tumors were detected in both his liver and pancreas. VonBrethorst was at Stage 4. More chemo and radiation followed, but through the following summer the cancer grew.

Still, he continued to throw himself into his job, and his pursuit of PGA certification. At Circling Raven, he launched programs for juniors and women, broadening the course’s appeal beyond that of its destination reputation and distinguishing himself as a teacher.

Monica VonBrethorst watched it all with some mixed feelings – worrying about the toll, both on her husband and her family, even while understanding “he was doing this for me, too” and seeing a bigger picture.

“It gave him purpose,” she said. “It distracted him from what was going on with his body. He preferred going to the driving range than sitting and resting after chemo. We have a putting green in the basement and every time after chemo he’d go putt 20 balls before sitting down. It was his motivation.”

In September, he went to Boise to tackle the playing portion of his PGA test. Despite brutal conditions – rain, lightning delays, playing 36 holes in a day and vomiting throughout from the effects of his illness – VonBrethorst passed by carding a pair of 74s.

“I told a guy at PGA headquarters, those two rounds made anything I’ve done in golf look like a booger,” said Lindeblad, himself a cancer survivor of 20-plus years. “It was like playing and having the grim reaper caddy for you. I’ve never been so proud of another golfer’s achievement.”

A month later, VonBrethorst was in Dallas for a week for PGA school – in class from 8 to 5, doing homework at night in a hotel room, sleeping in a recliner because the pain in his abdomen made it impossible to lay down. He returned to Spokane on a Sunday and tried to get all of his assignments and videos sent in but was foiled by a balking connection.

The next day, he was hospitalized. After a week, he entered hospice care.

It was at this point that Lindeblad interceded, calling PGA section CEO Frank Talarico with an appeal to grant VonBrethorst his certification. Talarico then got on the horn to national officials and wrote an eloquent endorsement.

But on Nov. 11 – a Friday – David VonBrethorst died at the age of 47.

On the following Monday came a letter that he’d been granted PGA Class A certification.

It’s welcome validation, but it doesn’t erase all the heartbreak. Ava VonBrethorst had pushed up her wedding to Coleman Gunion to Nov. 4, in hopes her father could witness it, but he was unable to participate.

Now his life will be memorialized at a Saturday service at the Ferris auditorium at 1 p.m. They will hear from old track protégés and those he counseled as a pastor and the community of golf “where, if he could have continued, he would have made an incredible mark,” Christenson said.

And everyone will have a long thought about purpose.

“He was an inspiration,” Peach said. “I haven’t seen that many people make that decision at 45 to start again at the bottom of the food chain with that much confidence and positive outlook. And he was thriving. Just loving it.

“It made me think: what am I doing? I’m 36. I have to make sure every step I’m making is toward what I’m passionate about, and not just the safe thing to do.”

It seems like the proper epitaph.

“He made people,” Monica VonBrethorst said, “believe in themselves.”

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