Latrobe left with warmth of the benevolence of hometown hero Palmer
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.