The SELFLESS PRO
BY MARY ANN KOENIG
Arnold Palmer once said, “Golf is deceptively simple and endlessly complicated.” For professional golfer Joe Kern and his fishing buddy Bill Sedleckis, their friendship marks that equation perfectly and identifies a relationship that evolved from simple to complicated, with a truly endless quality.
In October, Kern was named PGA Senior Tour Treasure Coast Golfer of the Year, an indication that his game is on a level beyond that of mere mortal golfers. He is the director of instruction at the Jim Fazio-designed The Moorings at Hawks Nest in Vero Beach.
But Kern’s talent for the game ranks second to another exemplary trait. He’s gifted with a giving spirit of grand proportions and received the Deacon Palmer Award [named for Arnold Palmer’s father] in 2017 as recognition.
According to the PGA, the award “bestows special recognition upon a PGA Professional who personally displays outstanding integrity, character and leadership in the effort to overcome a major obstacle in his/her life.”
This prestigious acknowledgment had its genesis during a fishing trip to Lake Okeechobee that became a turning point for both men, when Kern made an offer that few would ever consider and many would never be courageous enough to undertake.
Kern, a Titusville native, was the head golf professional at Indian River Club in Vero Beach when he met Sedleckis. As pro and member, the two played golf there occasionally, but their friendship was cultivated around fishing.
“I do a lot of fishing at Lake Okeechobee,” Sedleckis says, “so I invited Joe to come with me, and we ended up going regularly.”
But Sedleckis was living with the knowledge that his time as a golfer and a fisherman were limited.
On that fishing trip to Lake Okeechobee, Sedleckis confessed that it might be their last together.
“I have kidney failure,” he told Kern. “I’m going to have to go on dialysis and get on a list for a donor. I need a transplant.” Without skipping a beat, Kern offered, “I’ll give you a kidney.”
“I was driving,” Sedleckis remembers, “and I almost drove off the road. I said maybe you should check with your wife.”
Also, Sedleckis wasn’t sure they’d match.
“I’m blood type A positive, it probably wouldn’t work,” he told Kern, who responded, “my blood type is A positive, too.”
Inside this professional athlete is the heart of an altruist, graced with a powerful backswing and a follow-through that explodes with deceptive speed. He can launch a golf ball 280 yards down a fairway, high and straight, a titan missile of a shot. It’s a major talent, but perhaps eclipsed by a quality of selflessness, a virtue that distinguishes Kern’s impulses, and invokes something so personal yet so universal: The willingness to offer a life-saving gift.
Kern remembers that Sedleckis dropped the conversation quickly and their fishing trip went on as usual. Finally, on the way home, Kern offered, “Let me know what you’d like me to do next.” Sedleckis dismissed it and didn’t mention the kidney offer again. But Kern had only been home about 10 minutes when his phone rang. It was Sedleckis calling. “You can go to the blood bank and they’ll start the process,” he said.
Then came a week of tests at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville where they discovered that the fishing buddies were a perfect match. Kern went through the tests with a persistent thought: “I’m not the sick one, I’m going to make this as easy on him as possible, I’m not going to complain about being pricked by needles, it wasn’t easy but it was OK,” he says.
With the tests successfully completed, surgery was scheduled for April 1, 2017.
That morning at the clinic, they were in dual operating rooms while Kern’s wife, Kim, and his sister, Eileen, who had come down from Tennessee, waited with Sedleckis’ wife, Valerie. Hours later they were finally told that the surgery went well.
The next morning, Kern and Sedleckis were out of bed and walking the halls together. Sedleckis felt great, and remembers, “After the third lap around the kidney ward the nurses were ready to call security.”
Kern was discharged three days later. Sedleckis spent nearly a month at Mayo for post-op observation and daily testing until he was cleared to return home. They continue to fish together.
Kern is the youngest of eight children, and perhaps growing up with that many siblings taught him about sharing, and a sense of community.
His golf career began in high school with a school intercom announcement recruiting members for the golf team.
“I was one of only two freshmen,” Kern says. “I was terrible, but the coach needed young guys, and he let me stay on the team. I’ve probably thought about it every day of my life since then.”
Later he worked with David Liddle, the PGA professional at La Cita Country Club in Titusville. When Liddle moved to the Doral golf school in Miami to work with golf guru Jimmy Ballard, Kern went with him.
“Jimmy Ballard taught me how to teach,” Kern says. “He was working with some of the best players in the world, Curtis Strange, Hal Sutton, Sandy Lyle.”
Through that association Kern joined the world of professional golf that had beckoned in high school. “I knew from the first shot, this is what I’m going to do,” he says.
His advice for a successful game: “Golf is one of the few sports where we self-criticize a bad shot immediately. No other sport is like that, in others we just try to do better the next time. With golf we hang onto what we do wrong.”
His positive philosophy on golf is very much in keeping with the idea of helping a friend in need. He encourages clients to, “forget shots that don’t go where you want. It’s about forward thinking, positive thinking.”
In his acceptance speech for the Deacon Palmer award, Kern said, “Thank you for the award, but I’m more thankful that Bill’s alive. I did it for that. I had something that a friend of mine needed. And I would do it again.”
Now Sedleckis says, “I feel wonderful. But the real star of this kidney transplant is Joe.”
And he’s only troubled by one element. “Bill expected to be a scratch golfer after the surgery,” Kern says.
“Yeah,” echoes Sedleckis, “He’s a professional athlete, but it didn’t help my golf game at all.”
Lives in: Vero Beach
Occupation: Professional golfer/instructor
Family: Wife, Kim
Education: PGA of America
Hobbies: Golf, fishing, outdoors and all sports
What inspires me: “Helping people play better golf inspires me.”
Something most people don’t know about me: “My wife and I foster cats.”