Tom Archdeacon: Centerville family raises funds, spirits through golf

Dr. Raj Kulkarni, a successful local orthodontist who was raised in India, was remembering one of his first introductions to golf. His company was sponsoring an outing at a local course and though he didn’t play the game or know its rules, he was fascinated.

“I was with one of my staff members in a cart and I wanted to get a closer look at the way people drive the ball off the tee,” he said. “One group was playing the men’s tees, but the back tee was empty so I took the cart up there to get a direct view. I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to be up there.

“One person in the group turned around and just cussed me out and called me names. He said to the other guys, ‘I don’t know where ‘they’ come from. Who let ‘these people’ on the course?’

“I didn’t know how to respond because this group was invited by us to play. It was at our outing.”

What made it worse was the guy’s tee shot was as off-course as his social view.

“He drove his ball into the trees and blamed me,” Kulkarni said with a faint smile. “He just kept saying these terrible things. My staff said, ‘How do you stay so quiet?’ ”

Kulkarni admitted it had bothered him and he didn’t forget it. Neither did his staffers, who put their money together at Christmas and got him golf lessons at Yankee Trace.

Soon after that he found himself waiting to pick up his kids from a birthday party at the Magic Castle on Wilmington Pike. He wandered next door to the Rollandia Golf Center, where the salesman turned his full attention on him.

By the time Kulkarni left, he had a set of clubs, a golf bag, balls and tees to go with those free lessons.

Within two years he had a 3 handicap and now is a member at NCR. A few years back he and his family attended the Masters.

When he and wife Benu’s three daughters were big enough to swing golf clubs, he began teaching them the game.

Today, Nina, a former Centerville High School star, is a Xavier University sophomore on a golf scholarship.

Esha, a 17-year-old senior at Centerville, is the Lady Elks’ No. 1 golfer. A two-time, first team Greater Western Ohio Conference selection, she just set a GWOC record last week with a 71 in the league’s preseason tournament at Beechwood Golf Course in Arcanum. That broke the women’s record there. Over the past two years, Esha has also shot 71 at PipeStone and at Yankee Trace and had a 31 over nine holes at Community last year.

And then there’s Trisha, a 15-year-old sophomore at Centerville.

“She was the best golfer of the three,” Raj said. “She could out-drive her sisters and she had terrific bunker play.”

If you noticed the past tense, it’s because Trisha no longer plays.

A little over three years ago, the sight in her right eye began to fail. She already had had major problems with the left eye when she was younger and this time she was found to have a retinal detachment in the right.

After going to various specialists around the country, she ended up in the care of Dr. Vinit Mahajan, an assistant professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences at the University of Iowa, a renowned vitro retinal surgeon and the director of the Omics Laboratory at Iowa.

During Trisha’s surgeries and ongoing treatments in Iowa, the family has come to understand the scope of retinal detachment and eye inflammation problems that destroy the vision of so many people, especially children.

With that in mind, the ever-effusive Esha wanted to do something not only for her sister, but for other children — many of less-fortunate circumstance — and the nationally-acclaimed Iowa program that does so much to help them.

“I sat down with Trisha and said, ‘I want to raise money for the foundation, but I’m trying to think of a way,” Esha said. “I said, ‘People have 5K runs and dinners, but I don’t know what would be best.’

“She said, ‘Esha, you’re a golfer. There’s an obvious choice.’ ”

And that gave birth to the Kulkarni Family Golf Outing for Retinal Research at PipeStone Golf Course in Miamisburg on July 26.

Local businesses responded with prizes and food and 91 golfers signed up for the scramble. Others who didn’t play made — and still are making — donations, while also learning about the disorder that so often goes undetected until it is too late.

The venture made over $42,000.

“More than just the money we raised, maybe it will lead to someone else raising money, too,” Trisha said. “Eventually something will come out of it. It puts us one step closer to finding something that will help. If it’s tomorrow or 10 years from now, I’m optimistic that at some point I will have vision again.

“In the world of medicine, anything is possible.”

Love at first blush

The conversation, quite literally, made Trisha squirm in her seat. Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore and she buried her head into her sister who sat shoulder to shoulder and was just as uncomfortable.

Neither girl wanted to hear the details or think about them.

But no, the subject wasn’t Trisha’s vision problems.

The topic had turned to the day their dad proposed to their mom.

Benu and Raj were sitting across the dining room table from the girls in the family’s Centerville home the other evening and I was prodding them about when they met.

Raj grew up in Bangalore, India, where he played many sports in his youth, was a good student and eventually graduated from dental school. Benu was raised n Philadelphia, but came to India for medical school.

They first saw each other, Raj said, at the Bowring and Lady Curzon Hospital in Bangalore.

“It was December of 1985,” Raj said. “I first saw her on the 14th for just 10 minutes.”

Trisha giggled and half-whispered to her sister: “Oh, he’s going to tell the story.”

Although she was smiling, Benu shook her head, but Raj didn’t falter:

“I didn’t say anything on the 14th, but then I saw her a second time on the 16th. We spoke a few minutes and I proposed to her.”

Benu held up one hand: “Let me tell this then. I was there with a friend and … aaaah.”

“And her friend liked my dad,” Esha chimed in.

“I was there to find out about him for my friend,” Benu explained.

“You were the wing woman,” Esha grinned.

“I asked him, ‘Are you married? Do you live with your family?’ ” Benu said.

Raj grinned: “I thought, ‘If you are so interested…’”

“Oh Dad,” Trisha said, putting a hand over her face.

“I said to (Benu), ‘Why don’t we have a cup of tea or something?’ ” Raj recalled. “We walked across the street to a restaurant and she started asking questions again. But when I saw a brief pause, I chose that moment to ask her to marry me.”

As she remembered the moment, Benu smiled: “You said, ‘I don’t know of any other serious relationship between a man and a woman besides marriage.’ ”

Raj paraphrased: “I said, ‘I like you. I like what I see.’ ”

“Oh Dad, please,” Trisha said as she and Esha put their heads together and tried to close their ears.

“I didn’t say yes,” Benu said.

“And you didn’t say no,” Raj remembered.

“I was too shocked to say no,” Benu countered.

Benu was leaving for America right after that and would be gone a couple of months. “I told her if you come back and you call me I will take it as a yes,” Raj said.

“And guess who called?” Benu smiled. “I guess it was love at first sight.”

The couple then courted for a few years and married in 1990 — first with a civil ceremony, then an elaborate Hindu wedding in India and finally a third marriage ceremony back in Philadelphia.

When they moved to the U.S. in the early 1990s, Raj — who had had a dental practice in India — got another dental degree from the University of Pennsylvania and did more work at the University of Pittsburgh.

They moved to Dayton in 1996 and today Kulkarni and Fitz Orthodontics is based in Springboro and has several offices in southwest Ohio and one in Columbus.

After he discovered golf, Raj saw it was a sport he could share with his daughters.

“To be blessed with three daughters, I found myself to be the luckiest man,” he said. “But I wanted to extend the time they’d spend with me all through our lives. I knew they would be close to their mom and, as they got older, they would get closer to her. At the same time they would distance their time with Dad.

“So I took them out golfing when they were little. Most courses don’t let little children go out, so I’d wait until very cold evenings and bundle them up and take them in the cart with hot chocolate. It was almost like a picnic and, one after another, they got interested.”

Of the three girls, Esha is “the social butterfly,” Trisha said. “That’s what her fifth-grade teacher called her. She makes an impact with every person she meets.”

And last month Esha used that personality and her dad’s propose-on-the-spot courage to put together a successful golf outing in just three weeks of talking up the project to local businesses, friends and anyone who would listen.

“When we’d go to all these different clinics where my sister was treated, I’d see all the kids there and a lot of them aren’t as privileged as we are,” Esha said. “Many kids don’t get diagnosed at all. I wanted to do what I could to help them and to help the people at Iowa who are helping my sister.

“I’m hoping the more you can help with research, the better chance there is to help not only Trisha, but all the other kids like her.”

Focused on goals

While Trisha may be lacking most of her sight, she has an abundance of something else, said Esha:

“She is the strongest person in our family and she showed that even before this happened.”

Benu agreed: “She has given the rest of us strength that we didn’t know we had. Her resilience, the way she manages her life, we’re in awe most of the time.”

Although Trisha said the eye problems have altered some of the things she can do, she said she got one of her best pieces of advice from Dr. Mahajan, who, she said, is like an “uncle” to her:

“He’s always told me: ‘You do your part and I’ll do mine.’

“The way I take that is that I should keep working hard and put my heart and soul into doing what I can do. I try not to let obstacles stop me from reaching my goals.

“Some things in your life you can’t control — for me it’s my vision — but I’m not taking this as a bad thing. A lot of good is coming from my situation. I think a lot of kids will benefit from the awareness and the research we’re trying to promote.

“And through it all, I’m continuing my life as if I had all my vision. I’m still very ambitious. I shoot for as much as I can do.”

She learned Braille in about a third of the time it takes most people and she’s now getting top grades in honors classes. She’s fitness minded and works out four times a week. She is on the student council and the speech and debate team. She swims, plays the piano and the cello and is on her way to getting a black belt in taekwondo.

She said she’s always had a passion for medicine and one day had hoped to make that her career path.

“I don’t know what will happen with my vision and I realize maybe evaluating patients won’t be practical, but I want to stay in the medical field,” Trisha said. “With my passion for speaking, maybe now I can have a career in medical law.”

And should medical advances come, she may be retooling her plans again.

That scenario was one of the objectives of the golf outing and the fund drive Esha has kept alive. (To get involved or donate, contact Esha at

“People who know Trisha know how hard she works and they know what the University of Iowa means to our family and so many others around the nation,” Esha said. “Everyone at the golf outing said this is a good cause and they wanted to help. And now some people are still doing that.”

The game that once came with such a snub now has the Kulkarni family — and especially Trisha — in full embrace.

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