By By Frederick N. Rasmussen and The Baltimore Sun
Apr 14, 2013 | 3:36 PM
J. Thomas "Gus" Novotny, a retired Howard County entrepreneur who combined his love for golf and trains and turned them into businesses, died March 24 from cancer at his home in Palm Gardens, Fla. He was 75.
The son of a supervisor and a homemaker, John Thomas Novotny was born in Baltimore and raised in Hamilton.
Mr. Novotny, who never used his first name, was known to family, friends and business associates as "Gus."
After graduating from Polytechnic Institute in 1956, he earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in 1960 from the University of Maryland, College Park.
Mr. Novotny taught drafting at Bladensburg High School and Atholton High School, and was the first drafting instructor when the Howard Vo-Tech Center opened in 1968.
Mr. Novotny's love for golf began when he was a kid shagging practice balls at Mount Pleasant Golf Course in Northeast Baltimore, not far from his Hamilton home.
Irv Schloss, who was the club's pro at the time, took an interest in the youngster, eventually convincing him that a commercial golf range where people of all ages could come to practice or learn the game could be a viable and lucrative business venture.
In 1964, with $1,000, Mr. Novotny opened Rocky Gorge Golf Fairway along Route 29 in Laurel, on a corner of a farm that was owned by partner Frances Robinson. He eventually stopped teaching in the early 1970s and turned his attention to the full-time operation of his golf range.
"From 59 tees (27 covered), golfers young and old, beginners and 2-handicappers, male and female, will hit 102,000 golf balls over and over and over — who can even calculate the swings? — this year alone," reported The Baltimore Sun in 2002. "And they've been swinging, dubbing, whiffing, slicing and duck-hooking from morning into late evening for 38 years."
Passers-by on Route 29 can't help but notice a junked car sitting on the golf course that Mr. Novotny placed there as an advertisement and teaching tool, whereby golfers are meant to hit it with balls.
"It is about 170 yards from the tees," said a daughter, Carol Wolfe of Ellicott City, who manages the golf range.
Every couple of years, a new junker is brought in, said Ms. Wolfe, to replace the previous one that is well-battered by the pounding from thousands of golf balls.
Many of the innovations Mr. Novotny's introduced at Rocky Gorge have become standard at golf ranges across the nation.
"He established the first double-deck golf range, heated tees and automatic golf ball washer," said Ms. Wolfe.
Other innovations included industrial-type garage doors behind much of the driving range, which are raised in fair weather and lowered in foul; a synthetic-turf hitting surface at each tee; new golf balls rather than worn ones, which was standard practice at golf ranges; and special night lighting.
"Think you can stick lights anyplace? Place them wrong, and golfers can't follow the white ball in the glare — but nights are big money-makers in the range business," reported The Baltimore Sun in the 2002 article. "He helped General Electric calculate optimal distances and heights for lights. He even helped write a manual on the subject."
Several years ago, Sports Illustrated ranked Rocky Gorge as one of the nation's 10 best driving ranges. In addition to the practice range, the 11-acre site also includes a 19-hole miniature golf course that Mr. Novotny designed. Group and individual golf lessons are also available.
In 1981, he introduced a dozen batting cages.
An amiable man, Mr. Novotny was seldom seen not wearing his bowler hat.
In an interview with a golf-range trade magazine, he explained his philosophy of what a golf range really is.
"A golf range is like a hospital," he said. "Golfers are born there, and sick golfers come there. The pro is the doctor. No one goes when his swing is healthy.
"As long as you give them a good ball, a good place to hit, good lighting at night, a friendly atmosphere, make them comfortable while staying at your hospital they'll feel a little cured," he said. "But they're not cured, because no one is ever cured in golf."
Also, during the 1980s, he owned and operated a golf-range consulting business.
Mr. Novotny's second passion in life was model trains and real trains.
"He fell in love with trains when he was a boy and every summer he'd ride the B&O to Ohio," said Ms. Wolfe. "In 1985, he bought a Wabash Railroad dome car and then a passenger car."
In 1993, Mr. Novotny sold EnterTRAINment; the operation eventually entered bankruptcy and its assets were sold at auction in 1995.
The former Hanover, Howard County, resident was semi-retired and moved to Palm Gardens in 1995.
Last year, he was inducted into the Howard County Community Sports Hall of Fame.
A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at noon Tuesday at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Roman Catholic Church, 4795 Ilchester Road, Ellicott City.
In addition to Ms. Wolfe, Mr. Novotny is survived by his wife of 17 years, Janet Novotny; two sons, Michael Novotny of Ellicott City and Steve Novotny of Jessup; two other daughters, Karen Trask of Columbia and Cindy Ackroyd of Catonsville; a stepdaughter, Jennifer Wickline of Linthicum; a sister, Pat Cosgrove of Ellicott City; and six grandchildren. An earlier marriage to the former Charlotte Lober ended in divorce.