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Mr. Palmer's Neighborhood
It was 1994 when the saucy old, widowed lady next door surprised me when she said she spent a lot of time watching televised golf. Then she about shocked all the hairs off my head when she confided the reason why.
She used to spend hours and hours with her hands deep in Arnold Palmer's pants. "He always paid me," she said matter-of-factly. "To me, he was just another customer. His office called a while back, but I told them I don't do that kind of thing anymore."
She was Palmer's seamstress, something I'd never known in the two years she and I had lived next door to one another on Arnold Palmer Drive, one-half mile from Latrobe Country Club and the humble home of Palmer himself. Her casual mention inspired a giddy impulse to dash inside and phone five friends who mistook my breathlessness to mean I'd sired triplets to supermodels. It was a sound indicator why I was sure I'd never fit in as a year-round resident of the birthplace of the venerable gent. In the birthplace and residence of one of America's biggest deals, the man himself was no big deal.
And that's just the way he liked it.
The lesson became clear when many years later and after nearly 100 hours of one-on-one time with the man himself, I learned what little value he placed on puffy flattery. I started one of our in-depth interviews by saying how much I enjoyed hearing his historic insights during our breezy little sessions. He responded: "And I can't tell you how much I enjoy you coming in here to blow so much sweet smoke up my ass!"
He made that off-color remark in 2007 just two days after dining with Queen Elizabeth at the White House of George W. Bush. I kept waiting for the day he'd ask me to pull his finger.
That Palmer felt that comfortable talking that way to me would have floored my late father. Paul Rodell's contribution to history's most pivotal conflict was to serve our country as a U.S. Navy chaplain's assistant. It's almost impossible to conjure a less perilous title for a World War II veteran. Maybe Army pillow tester? That's why his stories as a foot soldier in Arnie's Army struck his sons as more stirring than his days dusting bibles on behalf of God and Uncle Sam.
He got sunburned at Oakmont in '62. Stiff new golf shoes blistered his feet on a long march following Palmer at Firestone in '75. He caught hell for spilling beer on the couch reaching for Kleenex to mop away tears when Palmer crossed the Swilcan Burn for the last time in '95. I was raised with a reverence for the man I still, out of respect, refer to as Mr. Palmer.
But that's not why I moved to tiny Youngstown, Pennsylvania (me and the 326 other locals are always snobbishly informing strangers that Mr. Palmer's Latrobe Country Club is actually in Youngstown, 15696, not Latrobe, 15650).
I was a general assignment newspaper reporter in a small Latrobe bureau office that was right next door to B.C. Kenly's, a friendly tavern that served 50-cent Rolling Rock drafts. The buildings were a well-struck 3 wood from Latrobe Brewing Company. I was assigned to cover local school boards, city council, and the daily doings of small town life. When my wife-to-be and I were searching for an area home, it seemed prudent to move to a place that in those days of Y2K computer bug hysteria assured convenient access to a brewery that produced good, cheap beer.
But the real reason we moved here was the same one Palmer cited as the reason he never left: we're both fond of the folks. They are tough, no-nonsense people who work hard and play hard. "Latrobe, that old steel town, is the crucible that forged Arnold Palmer," says Jim Nantz, the Palmer confidant and CBS Sports announcer who'd go an hour out of his way to visit Palmer anytime marquee competition took him to Pittsburgh.
I knew what he meant. Latrobe is populated by the kind of men and women you need to mold an enduring American icon. They're the quirky, no-nonsense people he never left behind. The story of Latrobe and Arnold Palmer is the story of how one small town and a big time celebrity forever bonded to forge a mutually beneficial relationship admired around the world. Palmer gushed about Latrobe, it seems, specifically because the folks here never really gushed about him. Neither Latrobe nor Palmer took the other for granted, but neither took one another too seriously either. It was a mutual love that was engrained but never enforced.
A man known for hitching his pants never, in the watchful eyes of observant locals, ever got too big for his britches. Why would this legendary man, feted in glitzy palaces around the world, choose to live in a humble Western Pennsylvania shot-and-a-beer town just 320 yards from the drafty little shack where he was born?
It was a question I'd yet to ask when my then-girlfriend (and eventual bride) Valerie and I moved into 505 Main Street and I began a career of writing general feature stories for various national magazines. It wasn't until the local council changed my address to Arnold Palmer Drive that I began to concentrate on golf writing. Palmer is not tiny Youngstown's only claim to fame. The rest of Main Street was renamed in honor of another famous resident, the late Mister Fred Rogers, a schoolmate of Palmer's. At the time I could leave my front door and turn left and be on Arnold Palmer Drive or turn right and stroll down Fred Rogers Way.
Alas, my golf game still tends to trend after Mister Rogers. It is gentle, unfailingly polite, and is something grown up meanies make vicious fun of. But none of that stopped me from seizing the Palmer connection. "I may never be the best golf writer," I reasoned, "but I can be the only one on Arnold Palmer Drive just down the street from Latrobe Country Club and Arnold Palmer himself."
Even before employing that little professional conceit, I was awestruck every single time I had a brush with Palmer, a small town neighbor who didn't know me from the biblical Adam. I'd slow the car to a crawl when I'd see him teeing up on the club's roadside 117-yard par-3 second hole — he'd aced it four times — in the hopes I'd see some magic. A courteous motorist, he once waved me through a stale yellow light. I must have run five senior citizens and a school bus full of frightened toddlers off the road on my mad rush to the bar to spill the news to my buddies.
And I was among the small gallery at Laurel Valley Golf Club for the Pennsylvania Classic two weeks after September 11, 2001, and saw Palmer make deliberate and bracing eye contact with every one of us while his forgettable partners teed off. In those still-fragile days, his lingering eyes seemed to convey encouraging strength. I understood that day the messianic charisma that's inspired a nation for more than 50 years.
I remember the sunny Saturday morning outside the Youngstown Post Office, a small town social center, when my wife and I were approached by a striking autumn-haired woman with a soft spot for golden retrievers like the one tugging at the end of our leash. "He is magnificent," she gushed, luxuriously kneading both hands deep into Casey's fur. "Oh, you must have him come and meet our Prince! Please call. It will be so much fun!"
We promised we would. After she'd skipped away, my wife asked the identity of the bubbly stranger. "That's Mrs. Winnie Walzer Palmer," I said. "She married young Arnold on December 20, 1954, the same day as my own father and mother were married. When my old man heard the coincidental news and sent them an anniversary card, Winnie responded the next five years with ones of her own."
I called a week later but was told she wasn't feeling well. It was 1998. We didn't know it, but she was suffering from the cancer that would defeat her in November 1999.
I remember being steadfastly mystified by local reporters, chums all, who treated their frequent dealings with Palmer the way I used to treat the hapless punching bags who were appointed to the local municipal authority board. I understood a certain professional detachment was necessary to cover a subject, but this wasn't some politician seeking our dollars and votes. This wasn't some preening movie star posing as an action hero out to charm the ticket-buying public.
This was Arnold Palmer.
Thus, I was terrified that someday I'd be called upon in a professional capacity to interview Mr. Palmer because I believed my most pointed question would be along the lines of: "What's it like to be so great? And, please, try to be honest ... unless you don't feel like it." I was convinced my story would read, "It's been five hours since I was privileged to sit down and meet the great Arnold Palmer. My right hand is still tingling from his introductory greeting. My fair and balanced conclusion is as such: this man is far too accomplished to have to submit to silly questions from impudent reporters like myself."
I understood such gushing would earn widespread ridicule from industry colleagues. I'd be finished, unemployable, a lonely ghost rattling through the cobwebbed house with no prospects and nothing but time to dream in vain of better days that would never dawn.
It didn't matter. I figured I'd never be in a position to interview Palmer. Editors whom I worked for understood I was more comfortable in the company of caddies than kings. And even if I did and was unable to further function as a professional journalist, I knew the failing would leave me plenty of time to learn how to work a sewing machine.
I knew the neighborhood was in need of another seamstress. Little did I know then how circumstance would lead me to within reach of Palmer's inner circle, how he'd confide in me, how he'd volunteer to write the foreword and cover endorsement for my silly Crayons! book, and how his top business officer told me three days after Palmer's death that my intimate stories about Palmer had made me the de facto spokesman for Arnie's Army. He was weeping as he said this. The emotional revelation left me feeling startled. Could it be true?
I was thinking of all this, this surreal journey, on October 4, 2016, as I watched Palmer pilot Pete Luster fly Palmer's Citation X through the cloud-flecked skies above Latrobe for one last time. My wife and I had been invited to attend the celebrity-studded memorial at St. Vincent College. I had a story to tell, a story about a big-time guy who never once thought of leaving the small town that shaped him. It is a euphoric story, one told with much love, joy, and appreciation for both the man and the town. The tricky part, as always, would be telling such a story without blowing too much sweet smoke up anybody's ass.
* * *
It is a kingdom so minuscule, so inconspicuous, many of those who traverse it on a daily basis fail to grasp its significance or existence even. It's an uneven two-lane road that leads from a country road to a one-stoplight town that lacks the regal structures, parade ground stables, gilded trappings of royalty or any dwelling refined observers would consider palatial.
There's a post office, an entrance to the local high school, a volunteer firehouse, a monument to local veterans, a snappy diner, an art gallery, some ball fields, a disproportionate number of friendly taverns, a few restaurants, and rows of two-story homes that can be described with adjectives ranging from immaculate to dilapidated and most everything in between. It's just a good, old, small American town, one where nearly every utility pole is proudly festooned year-round with the flag. In many ways it may be indistinguishable from the town you call home.
But on that otherwise nondescript little street once lived a man considered around the world to be The King, and it was here on this 1.6-mile stretch he could look and see everything he ever needed. There was history, recreation, productivity, commerce, conviviality, and, oh, man, there were friends.
Understand, this is not Latrobe. It is — to further muddle everything you've ever heard about Arnold Palmer — Youngstown. The name is redundant enough that all the signs for the hometown Youngstown Grille emphasize you're in Youngstown, Pennsylvania, ("not Ohio").
It's one of those geographic anomalies that to get to the Latrobe Country Club you have to depart actual Latrobe and drive 3.5 miles south across U.S. Route 30 to Youngstown, and, of course, you can't get to Latrobe Country Club without traversing at least some of Arnold Palmer Drive, and that's the only thing about the conundrum that makes perfect sense.
Even without Palmer, you could contend the town is deceptively special. It is home to not one but two thriving technology leaders — Kennametal and Westmoreland Mechanical Testing and Research — whose innovative fingerprints are on equipment all around the world and far, far above it. Both have contributed breakthroughs that wound up enhancing safety features on the International Space Station. Aggressive Grinding Service has been a North American leader in precision carbide grinding and ceramic finishing since 1988. That's a lot of international productivity for a town of just 326 to export. Of course, even those titans can't claim to be Youngstown's greatest export.
That flesh-and-blood export grew up in a drafty old house along 9 Mile Run creek near what today is the tee to Latrobe Country Club's 5 hole. So if the wind was just right, and his aim was true, this man, who'd been around the world too many times to count, could have hit the back porch of the home in which he was born with a drive struck from the front porch of the home where he was living the week he passed away 87 years later.
He told me in '10 of his childhood memories of that first home: "It was really an old farm house from before they built the golf course. It was rickety but wonderful. I remember the snows would come in through the windows. I'd wake up in the morning, and there was snow on the bed. I'd pump well water from the kitchen to the basement for my mother to do laundry. Then it was hung out to dry right there beside the old 6th hole. That's the way it was. We had pigs and chickens in the backyard and every fall we'd butcher the pigs for food. That was in the '30s, during the Depression."
Palmer bought the club and all its property in 1971. He spent three years weighing what to do with the old home before deciding it had to go. "I gave serious thought to fixing it up, but it would have been so expensive that it wasn't worth it. Pennsylvania governor Raymond Shafer wanted to keep it and preserve it as a historic site. Now, I wish I had done just that. If I had to do over, I would have kept it."
His answer had me bust out laughing. "C'mon!" I said. "Who do you think you're kidding? You'd right away move back in and resume living there, bed snows and all!" He laughed sheepishly, nearly blushed, like I'd caught Palmer in a lie. It's a fact that since he became a wage-earning adult in 1955, Palmer's had just three primary residences in his entire life, and they've all been within 320 yards of the house in which he was born. Heck, given that kind of hometown devotion, local leaders would have been justified in renaming the main street Arnold Palmer Drive for no other reason than Palmer's civic steadfastness.
And the ceremonial street signs aren't the only place on the short drive you'll find his name. The western end of Arnold Palmer Drive forms a T at the end of the auxiliary runway for the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport, which was named in 1999. The entrance is farther south and leads visitors and tourists to a namesake statue of Palmer leaning on a golf club. Built of bronze and dedicated in 2007, it's a rare example of something immovable still capable of swaggering.
Many tourists and executives landing at Arnold Palmer naturally check into the SpringHill Suites by Marriott right on the airport end of Arnold Palmer Drive. Co-owned by Palmer and Marriott, the hotel's decor is a lavish tribute to Palmer. Before they both died 55 days apart in the fall of 2016, Arnold and his brother Jerry, who was 15 years younger, were often found having drinks and entertaining guests in the lobby bar.
Jerry had been the general manager at his brother's club. At one time a turkey farm, his home was on the street named for his brother, and there were many days when his sole method of transportation was a club golf cart he'd use to get from home to the club — the 16th tee was his back yard — and back again.
Jerry and I were friends who enjoyed golfing and drinking together. If that makes it sound like I'm being boastfully exclusive with that statement, allow me to clarify. Jerry enjoyed golfing and drinking with everyone he met. The Palmers were convivial people in a convivial town. If anyone made eye contact with either of them, they were likely to get a warm handshake, some pleasant conversation, and maybe a new friend.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Arnold Palmer"
Copyright © 2018 Chris Rodell.
Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword Gary Player 7
1 Mr. Palmer's Neighborhood 15
2 Meeting the Man 27
3 It's Always a Heyday in Latrobe 41
4 Jim Nantz 55
5 Palmer's Letters and Caddies 61
6 The Golf Channel 81
7 Golfing Around the World 85
8 Local Golf Courses 99
9 Tom Ridge 115
10 Random Acts of Palmer 119
11 Jerry Palmer 131
12 Arnold Palmer Regional Airport 137
13 The Palmer Timeline 141
14 Palmer's Final Days 209
15 Latrobe's Legacy 223
About the Author 237