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Barbara Nicklaus, golf great’s wife, lauded for children’s charity work

Early in Barbara and Jack Nicklaus’ marriage in Ohio, their daughter Nan began having choking episodes. By the time they’d get her to the doctor, she’d be fine. Until the next episode.

Finally the doctor advised a more thorough exam and they took her to Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, where a scan showed a little shadow in her chest, Barbara recalled last week. A bronchoscopy found the culprit: a blue crayon. But in taking it out, a piece dropped into one of Nan’s lungs.

“So I had an 11-month-old in a hospital,” she said. “We said to ourselves, if we’re ever in a position to help anyone, we wanted it to be children.”

Nan recovered and today has five children of her own. And Barbara Nicklaus, now 74, has been a driving force in children’s charities, back in her native Columbus and in Palm Beach County, where she and the golf legend have lived since 1965.

She has helped raise millions of dollars for charities, including the Barbara and Jack Nicklaus Junior Golf Endowment Fund, which supports junior golf programs; for Stop! Children’s Cancer of Palm Beach County; and as a member of the Center for Family Services board.

She is heavily involved in the PGA Tour’s Memorial Tournament, which Jack founded in 1976 to benefit Nationwide Children’s Hospital. And they started the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation in 2005, working with Palm Beach County hospitals and partnering with Miami Children’s Hospital to open an outpatient center in 2012 off PGA Boulevard in Palm Beach Gardens, down the street from their Lost Tree home in North Palm Beach.

The foundation’s main fundraiser is called The Jake, after their 17-month-old grandson who died in a hot tub in 2005. The annual event has raised more than $11 million.

Barbara and her son Gary co-chair the Children’s Healthcare Charity, the host organization for the Honda Classic golf tournament, which drew 193,000 people to the city this past year and collected more than $2.5 million for 136 local charities. The Nicklaus foundation is the tournament’s biggest beneficiary, receiving roughly half the contributions.

“Their leadership and vision have set the way for us to accomplish what we have,” tournament Executive Director Ed McEnroe said Friday. “We don’t try to quadruple attendance solely for the fact we want to create a great entertainment vehicle for the community. Our end goal is to improve the lives of those who are in need in our community.”

The daughter of an Ohio high school teacher, Barbara said she’d barely seen the outside of Columbus before meeting Jack. “I knew nothing about golf when I met Jack,” she added.

As a couple, they’d take the occasional vacation to Florida and visit Jack’s parents in Fort Lauderdale. But Jack and Barbara didn’t move to Florida until shortly after Jack turned pro. As an amateur, he’d been fine taking winters off, she said. “When he turned pro, he said, ‘I really need to be somewhere where I can practice all year ‘round.’ ”

Three of their children were born in Ohio and the last two in Florida. They have 22 grandchildren. (One to watch is one of Nan’s sons, 6-foot-3, 247-pound Nick O’Leary, a Florida State tight end and former Dwyer High football star likely headed to the NFL this year. His grandmother’s partial to golf, but is a big football fan.)

Much of Barbara’s effort with hospitals centers on making life easier for families of sick children. If a family has a sick child, she said, there’s a lot of travel involved to find specialized care and that frequently means one parent has to give up a job.

The Miami Children’s Hospital Nicklaus Outpatient Center, off PGA Boulevard in Legacy Place, addresses that by having 11 sub-specialists, urgent care and an entire floor for rehab. So if a local parent needs to bring children for these services, it can be done without taking days off to travel and stay elsewhere, she said.

“One mother stopped me in the grocery store not too long ago,” she said. “She had tears in her eyes and said, ‘I want to thank you for what you’ve done for our family. Basically you’ve saved us three days a month at home.’”

The mother explained that she had a son who needed treatments in Miami, requiring that she rent a van and drive down and stay over because the boy was too tired from the trip to go right into the hospital.

“With this outpatient center, we can go and be back in a few hours,” she told Nicklaus.

“That made it all worthwhile,” Nicklaus said. “Helping families — that’s our major goal.”

City Council Member Joe Russo serves as the Children’s Healthcare Charity’s treasurer and took time at the Jan. 8 council meeting to laud Barbara Nicklaus from the dais for being named the 2015 recipient of the U.S. Golf Association’s highest honor, the Bob Jones Award, for her years of youth-related charitable work.

“God gives certain people talent and certain people do a lot more with it than others,” Russo said. “And Barbara … she truly cares more than anyone I’ve ever met in my life about making the world a better place for children.

“She says, ‘When we leave this Earth, they’re going to be here long after us and the difference you can make is a bigger difference when you’re making it with a child.’ ”

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