Story of ‘wild car’ accident at KC golf course ends in two funerals — 58 years later

Even in the world of golf, where crazy tales fly like grassy divots, few people are anything but astounded at how the story of a freak Kansas City golf accident in 1959 has come to an end — Wednesday, with two funerals, 58 years later.

“It’s so unbelievable, it’s unbelievable,” said Anita Covert, the partner of one of those involved, when told Tuesday of the coincidental ending to the decades-old tale.

“Oh, my heaven’s sake,” said a taken aback Judie Scanlon, whose mother, Janet Stephenson, was a victim that day. “I remember that incident. It has been so long ago. I was 18 at the time.”

Bernie Richter, now 76, was a 19-year-old Rockhurst College student working in the pro shop at the old Blue Hills Club golf course when he witnessed the accident. Long gone, the golf course existed between 59th and 63rd streets along The Paseo from 1912 to 1962, at which point its officers voted to build the new Blue Hills Country Club at its current location near 125th Street and Wornall Road.

But to Richter, a real estate lender for 40 years, the event is as clear to him as if it had happened yesterday. That is why, on Tuesday, while Richter was reading obituaries in The Star, he happened on a name that threw the coincidental ending together.

“It was a freaky accident,” Richter said, “and a freaky coincidence in life.”

What he pieced together this week had its beginning nearly six decades ago, about 5 p.m. on a Monday, Sept. 7, 1959. On that day, some 6,000 spectators had gathered at the Blue Hills Club golf course for the Kansas City Open.

The tournament was tense. Golfer Don Fairfield of Casey, Ill., was on the green of what normally was the course’s 9th hole, but which for the tournament had been designated as the 18th and final.

Fairfield was on the edge of winning the entire tournament. A dense crowd had circled around the green, only to watch Fairfield miss a shot and then three-putt the hole, dropping him into a tie for first place with Dow Finsterwald, a pro out of Tequesta, Fla.

Had Fairfield made the shot and won, perhaps the crowd would have remained in place to celebrate his victory.

Instead, sensing that the tournament would go into a sudden-death playoff, the mass of people began moving away from the 18th hole toward the club house, cutting across the tournament’s 9th hole and down the steep embankment on the far side of its green. They were heading toward the tee box of hole No. 1 to get ready for the playoff.

That’s when Richter saw it: a runaway 1957 Chevrolet convertible, coasting down the fairway and picking up speed as it neared the unsuspecting crowd. The next day, a front-page story in The Kansas City Times, “Wild Car at Golf Meet,” would report the car reached 35 mph.

“The hole is right in front of me,” Richter said. “Here’s this car coming down the fairway. I’m wondering, ‘What fool is this?’ 

But there was no fool driver. The car was empty. So many people had come to the tournament that cars had been parked up along the crest of the sloping 9th fairway. Somehow, the car had come loose, its emergency brake off, and was rolling free toward the oblivious throng of men, women and children.

Patrolman Ralph Stewart, who was working the tournament, blasted his whistle to warn people in the path, The Times reported.

“Stewart deserves a lot of credit,” a witness told the paper. “I think most persons heard the whistle first and then saw the car. Then people started screaming and trying to get out of the way.”

Panicked people scrambled and dove to the side while others glanced off the car’s bumper, or were tossed in the air. One person landed on the car’s hood. The Chevy mangled a stroller, luckily empty, before crashing into a tree.

No one was killed or too seriously injured. First reports had eight people hurt, later increased to 10. The most notable person injured, admitted to St. Mary’s Hospital, was then 41-year-old Janet Cauley Stephenson — the wife of a popular trophy-winning golfer, Tom Stephenson, and, the paper noted, the sister of The Kansas City Star’s Washington correspondent, John. R. Cauley.

The car?

It belonged to a young man — 20-year-old Donald Gary Barnhart of Independence, a junior tournament golfer who was serving as a crowd marshal on the 18th hole. Barnhart told the paper that he had arrived early, parked his car at 10 a.m. and hadn’t moved it since. Witnesses told the paper that teenagers were tampering inside the car right before it rolled free onto the fairway.

“I had another boy with me who can verify that I put the car in gear when I parked and that I put on the emergency brake,” Barnhart said at the time. “I have no idea what caused it to come rolling down the fairway like that.”

That, for the most part, was the end of the story. It would be the only time that a quirk of fate would so link Stephenson and Barnhart — until, that is, on June 13.

That’s when Richter was reading the obituary page and saw that Janet Cauley Stephenson had died last week, on Friday, at age 99. Her obituary noted many things: her deep Catholic faith, her love of sports, her five children and many grandchildren, great- and great-great grandchildren.

It also noted that Stephenson was 65 when she picked up the game of golf and played for nearly 30 years at the Blue Hills Country Club.

“She was going to quit when she was 92,” her obituary read, “but then she got a birdie one day playing with her daughters, so she came back for more.”

What Richter had also known, because they had been acquaintances for years, is that Gary Barnhart of Lee’s Summit also had died last week, on Tuesday, at age 78, after he failed to get a liver transplant.

He had gone into mortgage banking and residential real estate, living with Covert, his partner for nearly 30 years. He, too, had remained a golfer his entire life, winning championships in college and after.

Barnhart’s visitation and service at Speaks Suburban Chapel: Wednesday.

Stephenson’s wake and Mass at St. Peter’s Catholic Church: also Wednesday.

As far as anyone remembers, neither Stephenson nor Barnhart had any other connections. There would be a lawsuit, quickly settled, over Stephenson’s injuries. As far as daughter Scanlon recalls, her mother never expressed any hard feelings about that wild day 58 years ago.

“It could have been awful,” she said, but as she recalls her mom wasn’t struck until after the car had hit the tree. One of her arms never quite straightened afterward.

“Those kids were just messing around,” Scanlon said. “They were just being kids and had no idea what they were doing. Certainly, more things happened in her 99 years, so many great things happened in her life, she didn’t really talk about it.”

Covert, Barnhart’s partner, said the same. While she certainly remembers Barnhart mentioning the event from years ago, it must not have been much.

“I can’t remember exactly,” she said. “Nobody got killed or anything, did they?”

More, she hopes people remember him in the way she remembers him, as a guy who believed in “working hard and playing hard.” He loved to fish. He loved the lake. He loved friends and family.

“He was happy,” Covert said. “He loved to golf. He was a very, very good golfer.”

Eric Adler: 816-234-4431, @eadler