Jerry Stark was working on the GM assembly line when friends introduced him to the game of croquet. By the time he died of stomach cancer last month at age 55, he was the fifth-ranked American player and had for two decades been croquet master at St. Helena&’s tony Meadowood resort.


Even his then-girlfriend and future wife had her doubts when Kansas City, Mo., native Jerry Stark announced in 1983 that he was moving to Phoenix so he could play croquet.

It was not the kind of thing most people did, let alone big, burly, former high school football types like Stark, who had spent most of his work life thus far on a General Motors assembly line.

But Stark, who once likened his passion for the stately lawn game to a flu he simply couldn't shake, somehow knew where he belonged in life, and it was on a croquet court, wearing white and holding a mallet.

When he died of stomach cancer last month at age 55, he was the fifth-ranked American player and had for two decades been croquet master at St. Helena's tony Meadowood resort.

"He worked his dream job I think," his wife, Donna, said Friday from the home they shared in Lake County's Hidden Valley Lake. "Not many people get to do that."

In his mid-20s, Stark was a GM assembly line worker trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life when friends lured him to a weekend croquet party in Kansas City with the promise of beer.

He was quickly hooked.

He and his friends were soon playing every weekend, sometimes in the snow. And then someone showed up with a magazine depicting the slick world of Phoenix croquet, where the game was played on manicured courts with custom equipment.

A high school friend was playing with the Arizona Croquet Club in Phoenix, and after a two-week visit, Stark found his life's calling.

"He just kind of fell in love with it," his wife said. Soon, he announced he was moving to Phoenix, too. "I couldn't believe he was leaving Kansas City just to go play croquet. I thought he was a little nuts."

For the next several years, croquet was Stark's "pastime and his passion," she said.

He earned a living as a sales rep for a paint company, later selling billboard space, and in the meantime kept improving his game until others took notice.

When in 1989 he got a call from Meadowood asking if he might take a job as assistant to the croquet master, "he was thrilled," his wife said. Three years later, he was given the top job.

Stark had gotten his first big break in 1987 at the Wine Country Invitational, later renamed the Sonoma-Cutrer World Championship. It was his first exposure to international competition.

Drafted for the U.S. team by the U.S. Croquet Association, Stark was soon traveling and playing internationally, eventually racking up five national titles and earning a spot in the American Croquet Hall of Fame.

Stark often said the appeal of croquet was in its civilized nature and morality, where players competed aggressively but followed the rules and behaved like gentlemen.

But the 6-foot-1 man with cropped hair and a long red beard also loved the surprise on people's faces when they learned about his work.

"Whenever anybody asked him what he did for a living, he always said, &‘Don't laugh,'" Donna Stark said. "He loved telling people that he played croquet. He loved croquet."

In addition to his wife, Stark is survived by a son, Zachary Stark, of Hidden Valley Lake; a daughter, Jessie Porter, of Raleigh, N.C.; mother, Jo DeFoe Stark, of Kansas City, Mo.; brother James Stark, of Kansas City, Mo.; sister Nancye Calkins of Kansas City, Mo.; and numerous nieces, nephews and in-laws.

A celebration of his life will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, June 19, at the Meadowood resort, 900 Meadowood Lane, in St. Helena.

Traditional white croquet attire is welcomed.

- Mary Callahan

The Press Democrat