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Latrobe left with warmth of the benevolence of hometown hero Palmer

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REUTERS
Arnold Palmer of the U.S. waves to the crowd as he stands on the 18th green during the Champion Golfers' Challenge tournament ahead of the British Open golf championship on the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland on July 15, 2015.
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AFP/Getty Images
Honorary starter Arnold Palmer greets fans as he arrives to begin the first round of the 80th Masters on Thursday, April 7, 2016, at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga.
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This June 19, 1966, file photo shows Arnold Palmer in action during the U.S.Open Golf Championship at Olympic Country Club, San Francisco, Calif. Palmer, who made golf popular for the masses with his hard-charging style, incomparable charisma and a personal touch that made him known throughout the golf world as 'The King,' died Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016, in Pittsburgh. He was 87.
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Getty Images
Arnold Palmer during the par 3 competition at the 2001 Masters at the Augusta National Golf Club.
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In one of Bill Larkin's favorite photographs, Arnold Palmer walks up the 18th fairway in 1994 during his final U.S. Open appearance at Oakmont Country Club. WILLIAM T. LARKIN, staff photographer
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Brian F. Henry | Trib Total Media
Arnold Palmer shows his gratitude to the Greater Latrobe student body who sang 'Happy Birthday' to him on his 85th birthday during a dedication ceremony for Greater Latrobe's Arnold Palmer Field House on Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014.
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REUTERS
Former champion Arnold Palmer hits from a sand trap during the annual Masters Par 3 golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga., April 9, 2008.
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This April 9, 2004, file photo shows Arnold Palmer walking across the Hogan Bridge on the 12th fairway for the final time in Masters competition during the second round of the Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga. Palmer, who made golf popular for the masses with his hard-charging style, incomparable charisma and a personal touch that made him known throughout the golf world as 'The King,' died Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016, in Pittsburgh. He was 87.
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Arnold Palmer died Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016 at age 87.
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Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
TSA agent Barry Elder of Hempfield places a wreath at the feet of an Arnold Palmer statue at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Unity on Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. Arnold Palmer, 87, died Sunday night.
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Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
The Youngstown Volunteer Fire Department's social hall sign honors Arnold Pamer on Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. Arnold Palmer, 87, died Sunday night.
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Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Monica Lubanovic, originally of Ruffs Dale, poses for a picture with the Arnold Palmer statue at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Unity on Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. Arnold Palmer, 87, died Sunday night. Lubanovic, now resides in Fort Myers, Fla. 'I moved there to play golf.'
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Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Chairman of Arnold Palmer Enterprises Alastair Johnston and Arnold Palmer's grandson Samuel Saunders react during a press conference at Latrobe Country Club on Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. Arnold Palmer, 87, died Sunday night.
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Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Chairman of Arnold Palmer Enterprises Alastair Johnston reacts during a press conference at Latrobe Country Club on Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. Arnold Palmer, 87, died Sunday night.
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Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Arnold Palmer's grandson Sam Saunders reacts during a press conference at Latrobe Country Club on Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. Arnold Palmer, 87, died Sunday night.
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Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Albert Ghantous of Johnstown takes a photo of his friend Stan Oakes of Hooversville while sitting on Arnold Palmer's tractor at Latrobe Country Club on Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. Arnold Palmer, 87, died Sunday night.

The glow just seemed to rub off, and pro golf legend Arnold Palmer shared it generously.

An airport, a hospital, a cancer treatment center, a high school fieldhouse, a soft drink and golf courses across the country all bear the name of the Latrobe superstar who brought his sport to the masses.

Palmer died Sunday at 87 in a Pittsburgh hospital where he was being treated for heart disease.

News of his passing triggered a tsunami of tributes.

Gov. Tom Wolf ordered the flag at the state capitol flown at half-staff. Figures ranging from President Obama to Senior PGA Champion Rocco Mediate paused to salute Palmer Monday as local folks came to grips with the passing of a hometown hero.

Stu Hartman met Palmer just once. But at 8:30 a.m. Monday, the 68-year-old insurance agent from Greensburg was among the first to lay a bouquet of flowers at the base of a 7-foot-tall statue honoring Palmer at his namesake airport near Latrobe.

“I felt it is the least I could do,” Hartman said. “The name Arnold Palmer has broken a lot of ice for us throughout our lives.”

Growing up, Hartman said, his family moved across the country with his preacher father, a Youngwood native. No one ever knew where Westmoreland County was.

“But in Indiana, upstate New York, mention the name Arnold Palmer, and people knew he was from Latrobe — ‘Hey, I heard of him,’” Hartman said. “He did so much for this whole area his whole life. … We’ve been truly blessed to have him.”

The son of a groundskeeper at Latrobe Country Club, Palmer eventually bought the club where he learned the game and transformed it into a premier destination for golfing greats.

Family spokesman Alastair Johnston, chief executive of Arnold Palmer Enterprises, said Palmer entered UPMC Shadyside several days ago for pre-operative procedures in hopes of having surgery. But his health — it had been in decline for months — worsened.

“His wife, Kit, and two daughters, Amy and Peggy, were able to make it to the hospital to be with him,” Johnston said.

Samuel Palmer Saunders, 29, said he spoke with his grandfather by phone Sunday afternoon.

“I called him and was able to speak with him. … That will always be special to me, that I got to say goodbye,” said Saunders, a professional golfer. “In true Arnold Palmer fashion, we didn’t talk about him. He told me to take care of my own family. I told him I loved him, and he said he loved me back.”

Others across the region shared his loss.

“It’s a great void we’ll never be able to fill,” said Gabe Monzo, executive director of Arnold Palmer Regional Airport.

Monzo said Palmer, a licensed pilot who sat on the airport authority, could always put people at ease.

“You know that he’s sat down with kings and queens around the world, and many U.S. presidents, but around here, he treated us — coal miners, steelworkers, store clerks — just the same. That was a gift,” Monzo said.

The airport, named for Palmer in 1999, continues to profit from the golfer’s glow.

“Everything Arnie’s ever been associated with has been done first-class, so we always have to live up to that standard with his name always being part of this airport,” Monzo said.

Palmer became chairman of the Latrobe Area Hospital Charitable Foundation at its launch in 1996.

He contributed $4 million dollars from a series of golf tournament winnings and lent his name to various endeavors that raised more than $30 million, said Dr. Tom Gessner, the foundation’s president.

Those efforts helped underwrite a state-of-the-art emergency room, cutting-edge imaging equipment as well as community education programs. They culminated in the opening of the Arnold Palmer Cancer Treatment Center, a joint project between the local health system and the UPMC Cancer Center that brought advanced treatment options to Westmoreland County.

Although the golfer owned multiple homes and businesses around the globe, Palmer “never lost sight of the importance of his community, of Latrobe and what he could do to help,” Gessner said.

A 1947 graduate of Latrobe Area High School, Palmer remained involved with the school six decades later.

He occasionally dropped in to visit the schools and helped kick off a fundraising campaign that raised $5 million for the Greater Latrobe Partners in Education Foundation, said Jessica Golden, the foundation’s development director.

“From time to time, he’d stop by with friends to watch the football team practice or to talk with members of the golf team,” Golden said.

Barry Banker serves as fire chief in Youngstown Borough, the tiny community outside Latrobe where Palmer lived.

“It’s a big loss because he was one of the people who became loved by many, many people who really never even knew him. Here was literally ‘The King of Golf’ … and then, we’d see him in our own backyard coming down his driveway in his car or at the course or somewhere out, and you’d give him a wave, and he’d wave back,” said Banker, a retired radio newsman.

Palmer’s funeral will be private. A public memorial is planned for 11 a.m. Oct. 4 in St. Vincent Basilica near Latrobe, Johnston said.

He recommended that people wishing to grieve or honor Palmer’s memory do so at the Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve, located on 50 acres near the college campus. The reserve was created in memory of Palmer’s first wife.

Saunders said he hopes people will remember what a great life his grandfather had.

“I’m continuing to learn from him. His reputation grew from treating all people the way that he wanted to be treated,” Saunders said. “That’s what I learned from him.”

Indeed, the glow continues to rub off.

Debra Erdley and Paul Peirce are Tribune-Review staff writers. Reach them at [email protected] or [email protected].

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