Our Hometown Latrobe' s Hero: Arnold Palmer 1929-2016
It’s a sad day in Latrobe. Arnie died on Sunday. People asked me over the years what he was like. I always let them know that he was just like he seemed on TV. Just a great guy who hit the heck out of a golf ball, and never talked down to anyone.
Many people have said that he was raised with “good manners”. In Western Pa. we have a patois usage of the word ‘ignorant’ for bad manners. A definition of “ignorant” in informal usage is “discourteous or rude.” My cousin who now lives in the competitive, political, and possibly immoral beltway of our Nation’s Capital has been asked, “Why does Arnold Palmer seem so nice?” His short answer is, “He’s from Western Pennsylvania.” That’s not to say all of us from this area have a special Spiritual Morality, it’s just that around here the worst thing anyone could say about you is that you’re “ignorant.”
Arnold was the opposite. My father died when I was fourteen. When I was fifteen years old, I was asked by some concerned fathers to attend a Father/Son breakfast at a local school at which Arnold Palmer was speaking. It was the spring of 1963. He had won three Masters and two British Opens by this time. He was “the man.” The fathers jumped at the chance to listen to Arnie tell them how to drop their golf scores, the sons were in awe to be in the room with a hero.
As much as the fathers wanted to help, I was still getting over my own loss and was not looking forward to wasting my Saturday morning listening to anyone talk about golf when I could stay home, watch cartoons on TV and feel sorry for myself. My mother made me go as she recognized the concern and grace of my friends and their fathers.
Arnold was great. He was at the top of his game. He started talking about golf. The fathers were entranced with his stories, but were looking forward to the end when they could ask the questions which would improve their game. I was now interested and glad I came as his manner was that of someone just “talking with the guys.”
He knew he was there to talk about golf, but he just couldn’t help himself. Little more than halfway through his talk, he started talking about flying. I was somewhat interested in planes as I had just graduated from my period of making models of WW II airplanes of all types. But, also, I was very interested in cars, so when he started talking about the Lycoming engine in his Aero Commander, I really “tuned in.”
The talk ended, the fathers walked out with their sons saying brief and courteous “Thank Yous” to Mr. Palmer, certain their golf scores would now drop. I followed the crowd, hoping the group would quickly disperse so I could ask Mr. Palmer a non-golf question.
Everyone had left except the two of us standing in an empty foyer, waiting for our rides. Only a few moments passed before I mounted the courage to ask him my question. “Mr. Palmer, could you tell me more about the Lycoming Reciprocating engine?”
With that, he beamed showing that big smile that melted his fans. Immediately the two of us started debating the pros and cons of engines. He extolled the virtues of the Lycoming Flat Six and I defended the merits of the Ferrari V 12 with single overhead camshafts. This went on for ten to fifteen minutes. He, the most famous athlete at the time, and I a fifteen year old kid became just two gearheads talking shop. Time became irrelevant.
Somewhere, in the midst of this now highly animated and serious discussion, I thought I noticed someone enter the room. Arnold turned and said something like “just wait a minute, George.” We were right in the middle of him establishing that early Lycomings were in Dusenbergs while I was talking about the Ferrari V 12 being based on the V 12 in Packards. We went on for only a few more minutes with George Love waiting impatiently. Arnold finally turned and said politely “it was great talking with you,” just as George said, "Come on Arnie, we have a tee time with Ike in twenty minutes.”
So there I was, a fifteen year old kid, talking cars and engines with this famous golfer who gave me five more minutes of time when one of the founders of Laurel Valley Golf Club wanted him to go play golf with a President. I would never forget it.
John & Sukey Jamison