By Chris Rodell
The saucy old widow 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 in Arnold Palmers 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 dont do that kind of thing anymore."
She was Palmers seamstress, something Id never known in the 12 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 and my giddy reaction -- I dashed inside and phoned five friends who assumed my breathless tone meant Id just sired healthy quadruplets -- are sound indicators why Ill never fit in as a year-round resident of the birthplace of the venerable gent, who in 1955 won the Canadian Open, the first of 92 illustrious victories.
My father served his country as a U.S. Navy chaplains assistant. Its almost impossible to conjure a less perilous title -- Army pillow tester? -- for a World War II veteran. Thats why his stories as a foot soldier in Arnies 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 that is unsurpassed by statesmen, philanthropists and medical innovators.
But thats not why I moved to tiny Youngstown (me and the 391 other locals are always snobbishly informing strangers that Mr. Palmers Latrobe Country Club is actually in Youngstown, 15696, not Latrobe, 15650).
I was a newspaper reporter in a small Latrobe bureau office that was right next to a friendly tavern that served 50-cent Rolling Rock drafts. The buildings were a well-struck 3-wood from Latrobe Brewing Company. 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 served good, cheap beer.
But the real reason is the same as why Palmer still resides here and why hes still active with the club, Arnold Palmer Motors and the local airport that bears his name: Id grown fond of the folks. They are tough, no-nonsense people who work hard and play hard.
We moved into 505 Main Street and I began a career of freelance writing general feature stories for various national magazines. It wasnt until the local council changed my address to Arnold Palmer Drive that I began to concentrate on golf writing. Palmer isnt tiny Youngstowns 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 Palmers. In fact, I can leave my front door turn left and be on Arnold Palmer Drive or turn right and stroll down Fred Rogers Way.
Alas, my golf game tends to trend after Mister Rogers. Its gentle, unfailingly polite and is something grown up meanies make vicious fun of. But that hasnt stopped me from seizing the Palmer connection. "I may never be the best golf writer," I reason, "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 wouldnt know me from the Biblical Adam. Id slow the car to a crawl when Id see him teeing up on the clubs roadside 122-yard par 3 second hole -- hes aced it twice -- in the hopes Id 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 him 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 thats 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 Caseys fur. "Oh, you must have him come and meet our Prince! Please call. It will be so much fun!"
We promised we would. After shed skipped away, my wife asked the identity of the bubbly stranger.
"Thats Mrs. Winnie Walzer Palmer," I said. "She married young Arnold on December 20, 1958, 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, she responded the next few years with ones of her own."
I called a few weeks later, but was told she wasnt feeling well. It was 1998. We didnt know it, but she was suffering from the cancer that would defeat her in November 1999.
Im mystified by reporters who treat their frequent dealings with Palmer the way I used to treat the poor schlubs who were appointed to the local municipal authority board. I understand a certain professional detachment is necessary to cover a subject, but this isnt some politician seeking our dollars and votes. Its not some preening movie star posing as an action hero out to charm the ticket-buying public. This is Arnold Palmer.
Thus, Im terrified that someday Ill be called upon in a professional capacity to interview Mr. Palmer because I know my most pointed question will be along the lines of, "Whats it like to be so great? And, please, try be honest . . . unless you dont feel like it."
Im convinced my story would read, "Its 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."
Such gushing would earn widespread ridicule from industry colleagues. Id 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.
On the bright side, that would leave me with plenty of time to learn how to work a sewing machine. I understand the neighborhood could use another seamstress.