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Jerry Stark

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."

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