About the only place you’d find the Palmer family name in the early 20th century was in the Latrobe phone book.
Now, 81 years, 92 professional victories and countless philanthropic endeavors later, the Palmer name is everywhere. It’s on the Latrobe airport and hospital, car dealerships, nature reserves, roads and library walls. As for the local phone book, not only is Arnold Palmer’s name still listed in it, his smiling picture featured on the cover of one recent issue.
In so many ways, Latrobe has become Arnold Palmer and the best parts of Arnold Palmer have become Latrobe. The two cannot be pried apart.
Maybe that’s why he’s never left the small western Pennsylvania town 40 miles east along U.S. Route 30 from Pittsburgh. Despite his fortune and access to palatial homes and posh property around the world, he still calls Latrobe, pop. 7,634, home.
Has this man, recognized world-wide, ever thought of leaving? “Never once,” he says. “And I never will.”
It is a golden autumn day when he sits down for this Kingdom interview. Soon the tartan leaves will lose their tug and it will be possible for Palmer to peek through bare branches across the street named in his honor to where he grew up, where he learned to play golf. It’s where he still golfs, still frolics and is still surrounded by admirers and loved ones.
Yet, this man with so much glory to look back upon still wakes up every day with his gaze firmly fixed on the future. Today, he and his Latrobe staff are busy preparing for a fall groundbreaking for a SpringHill Suites by Marriott that will serve as the destination hotel for Palmer pilgrims from around the world. “This is going to be really great,” he says. “We’re very excited about what this fine hotel will be bringing to guests.”
It’ll be a hotel where people can see for themselves the ample reasons why he’ll always call Latrobe home.
“This is the most beautiful place in the world,” he says. “It has everything. You have mountains, fresh water, four beautiful seasons and friendly people. I’ve been all over the world and have never found a place better than this. I live in Florida the rest of the time and I love Orlando. But if I were forced to choose one place over all the others, this would be it.”
Palmer’s been lavished with multi-million dollar fees to endorse Rolex, Cadillac and many other products that crave his association. But none has more reciprocal value than the one he bestowed for free. “It’s just like the MasterCard commercial filmed here in Latrobe,” observes Andy Stofan, president of the Latrobe Chamber of Commerce. “What Palmer brings to Latrobe just by calling it home is priceless.” Palmer’s had just three primary residences in his entire life and they’ve all been within 200 yards of the house in which he was born.
Always a proud little town, Latrobe would have been famous without Arnold Palmer and, yes, it’s likely Arnold Palmer would have been famous without Latrobe. Palmer had the swing, determination, grit, charisma and elegance, characteristics that were shaped by the tough little steel town. But who’s to say those same characteristics could not have been forged elsewhere? “I like to think I’d still have been a success if I’d grown up someplace else, but the people here were always very encouraging and helped me succeed.”
Now, Latrobe without Palmer can still do some bragging. The town along the banks of the scenic Loyalhanna Creek gave America and the world a beguiling mix of strong and tough, sweet and tender.
Latrobe is home to the Banana Split and a Palmer Cadillac dealership
It was here in 1904 that apprentice pharmacist David Evans Strickler began tinkering with ice creams and fruits. First a little vanilla here, a scoop of chocolate there, some strawberry, a host of other tasty confections all cradled by the monkey’s yellow mainstay and—voila!—you have the banana split. It happened in the old Tassel Pharmacy down on Ligonier Street. “I used to have a banana split every day at lunch down at the Valley Dairy,” Palmer says. “They’re delicious. I never knew they’d become world famous.”
No one familiar with his humble origins would have figured the same was destined for him, either. Gone is the old farm house where Deacon and Doris raised Arnold and sister Lois Jean Tilley (siblings Sandra Sarni and Jerry would be raised in a since-demolished home on the club’s 15th fairway some 15 years later). In its place is a tidy little putting green beside the creek locals call Nine Mile Run that scoots alongside the 5th hole at Latrobe Country Club where Deacon was head pro and superintendent until his death in 1976. Chainsaw artist Joe King was hired in the late 1990s to carve a statue of the proud old man from a stout stump of one of the many Scotch pines Deacon planted alongside the 18th fairway more than 70 years ago. Palmer’s attachment to the land and its memories is euphoric.
“The house where I was raised was really an old farm house from before they built the golf course,” Palmer says. “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 in 1971. He spent three years considering 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. 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.”
It would have made a dandy little tourist attraction and, if the cards had fallen the right way, given Latrobe a one-two punch that many larger cities would envy.
Because at one time and by all rights, the Pro Football Hall of Fame should be in Latrobe, not Canton, as many sport historians contend. Latrobe is the birthplace of professional football. It was September 3, 1895, not far from Memorial Stadium where the current Greater Latrobe High School Wildcats play their home games, that John Braillier accepted $10 from the Latrobe Athletic Association to play a home game versus a rival team from Jeannette.
It was money well spent. Latrobe beat Jeannette 12-0 Braillier, who became a local dentist, was selected in 1979 by the Pro Football Researchers Association as among the “Best Pros Not in the Hall of Fame.”
Old timers talk about how in 1963 Latrobe was a whisker away from being selected as the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but the votes went to Canton. By then, it hardly seemed to matter. A local golfer was in the midst of a historic string of championships that made losing a major sport’s HOF seem inconsequential.
And it wasn’t like Latrobe’s link to professional football snapped. Latrobe has for 45 years been the summer home of the Pittsburgh Steelers, six-time Super Bowl champions. Each August, tens of thousands of Steeler fans from all over the world make a pigskin pilgrimage to Latrobe to watch the Black ‘n’ Gold get ready for another fall campaign.
Then there is Latrobe’s other touchstone icon.
Oddly for a town so intent to tout its toughness, Latrobe also nurtured one of the most famously sweet men in American history. The appellation “Mister” is often bestowed out of trembling respect to prison guards or ill-tempered mob bosses. But in this instance it connotes a gentleness so benign it became legend. That’s Mister Rogers, Mr. Fred Rogers, that is, because you have to land at the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport if you want to visit the real Mister Rogers Neighborhood.
Arnold Palmer Regional Airport and Mister Rogers
The world knows Arnold Palmer is from Latrobe, but to be asolutely specific people in Latrobe know he’s from Youngstown, the tiny village of just 400 people a mile south across U.S. Route 30. So while it makes geographical sense to say Palmer is from Latrobe, Uncle Sam sends his mail to a PO Box in Youngstown.
How this one village produced such global icons confounds logic. Yet, today the ceremonial Arnold Palmer Drive leads right down Youngstown’s Main Street straight on to Fred Rogers Way.
Youngstown is dominated by a three-story building that housed the bar Deacon frequented. Formerly known as Amer’s Bar, it is now the Tin Lizzy and features fine dining in the Barnhouse Bistro, a place where the Palmers often dine. The delightful old inn has distinct bars on three floors. The Tin Lizzy is just across the street from a popular family restaurant, The Rainbow Inn, and a short stumble away from the Youngstown Volunteer Fireman’s Social Hall. Not only can locals brag that tiny Youngstown gave the world two famous icons, they can also boast it’s a town with one stop light and five liquor licenses, a convivial equation even places like New Orleans and Key West can’t match.
Growing up in the 1930s, it was a good place to be and a good place to be from. Unlike Palmer, Rogers’ family was well-off, particularly for the times, and the McFeeley-Rogers Foundation is, like Palmer, a beloved source of benevolent largesse for the community.
“Fred was a year older than I was,” Palmer says. “He took golf lessons from my Dad.”
Clearly, Deacon’s teaching abilities didn’t extend to even the most earnest students. But, as the world knows, Fred Rogers had a flair for other pursuits that continues to nurture generations of children around the world, seven years after his death.
He and Palmer were classmates at Latrobe High School, now an elementary school on Ligonier Street. Rogers became an ordained Presbyterian minister and the host and creative force behind one of the most successful children’s shows in television history. When he died at 74 in 2003, his gentle manner was mourned by generations. A man famous for working in sneakers and a sweater, Rogers left landmarks as indelible as the Hoover Dam. In 1969, he appeared before the U.S. Senate to explain why the government should give $20 million to public television when it was waging a costly war with Vietnam. Rogers spoke for six spellbinding minutes.
Cantankerous Sen. John O. Pastore, famous for his brusqueness, was unfamiliar with Rogers or his work. He said Rogers’ words and manner gave him goose bumps. Instead of the proposed cuts to children’s programming, Pastore’s subcommittee increased federal funding of PBS from $9 million to $22 million in a decision that made headlines around the world.
“I knew him pretty well,” Palmer says of Rogers. “We’d get together and talk about old Latrobe friends and about what we were each up to. He was a great guy.”
When Rogers and Palmer were graduating in 1946 and ’47 respectively, the men had nothing in common. All these years later, they share at least one uncommon distinction: both are recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Rogers from 2002, Palmer from 2004.
What could it be about Latrobe that simultaneously produced two such titans, each so revered, each so different? Must be something in the water. Ah, yes, the water. “From the glass-lined tanks of Old Latrobe we tender this premium beer for your enjoyment, as a tribute to your good taste. It comes from the mountain springs to you.” From 1939 to 2006, those 33 words were printed on the labels of the green bottles of Rolling Rock beer, brewed by Latrobe Brewing.
The Laurel Highlands beer was an American cult favorite until Anheuser-Busch bought it in 2006 and moved it to New Jersey. Before that, beer lovers would debate theories as to why the enigmatic “33” was stenciled on the bottom of the bottles of every beer. Was it because 1933 was the year hated Prohibition was repealed? No. Was it because, as rumor had it, a horse named Rolling Rock won the Kentucky Derby in 1933? No, that was Broker’s Tip ridden by Don Meade. The answer is on the label. The word count from hearty little welcome is 31. Add “Rolling Rock” and you have 33. That was written on the label so the printer would understand the precise word count to charge.
You don’t want to order a Rolling Rock in Latrobe anymore. You’d get the same reaction in town if in 1965 you rooted for Jack Nicklaus instead of Deacon’s kid.
Palmer was an unofficial ambassador to the beer. This from John P. May’s 1965 Golf Digest story about visiting the Palmer home: “The atmosphere was unhurried and unpretentious. It could have been the residence of a successful druggist or the high school principal. There was no indication that this was the home of the world’s busiest, most exciting, most successful golfer. Winnie offered to fix a salad lunch, and then Palmer had a suggestion of his own. ‘Let me get you a glass of Rolling Rock draft beer I keep here,’ he said. ‘I guarantee it’ll be the best you’ve ever tasted.’”
You won’t find him offering the brand anymore. Now, it’s Arnold Palmer Tee, the half tea/half lemonade brand inspired by Palmer. “It’s too bad Rolling Rock left town,” he says. “It really meant a lot to Latrobe.”
Other brewers scrambled to use the facility and Pittsburgh mainstays Duquesne and Iron City now brew their beers there. That’s not all. Palmer again played white knight and had Arnold Palmer Tee crafted in the glass-lined tanks that once made Rolling Rock. “I was happy to do that,” he says. “It helped a lot of our neighbors keep their jobs at the brewery.” Now, even more local people will turn to him for their paychecks with the new hotel likely creating nearly 100 jobs.
“That hotel will be a beacon for tourists,” says chamber president Stofan. “I know this summer Vince Gill and some band members from Rascal Flatts were here to golf at Latrobe Country Club.” He’s right. They were among nearly 1,000 names scribbled in the embossed guest book at Palmer’s office. Others from recent years include U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Donald Trump, Arizona Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt, Pittsburgh Steeler legend Jerome Bettis, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, and politicians Tom Ridge, John McCain and Pat Toomey. Stofan says the new hotel confirms a commitment to risk to succeed in Latrobe. “We have so much to be proud of in Latrobe,” Stofan says. “Communities all over the country would love to have just one of these landmark icons to celebrate.” Why does Palmer stay? Why not take the word of a California transplant who left the Golden State for the Laurel Highlands. “I came here and just fell in love with the area,” says Kit Gawthrop Palmer, who on January 26 celebrates her sixth anniversary with her dashing Latrobe spouse. “I thought it was going to be flat and midwestern looking. But the scenery is beautiful all year round. And the people are so welcoming.”
The golf course at Laurel Valley played host to the 1975 Ryder Cup (Patrick Drickey/stonehousegolf.com)
Besides Latrobe, there’s golf at Laurel Valley, a course with which Palmer’s been involved since 1959, the Omni Bedford Springs Resort and the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort & Spa, all within an hour of Latrobe. Other attractions include Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and Idlewild Park. For spiritual solace, visit the Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve, a 50-acre wilderness saved from development in 2007.
It was Palmer’s late wife’s wish that the scenic meadow fronting St. Vincent College be preserved from bulldozers and big box stores.
There’s fine dining and cigars at DiSalvo’s Station and friendly sports talk at taverns like The Pond run by the Carfang family since 1954. Owner Dave Carfang still beams about the time Palmer told him, “You know, my daughters were raised on Pond pizza.”
As for icons, rural southwestern Pennsylvania is bustling with them. Just 35 miles northeast of Latrobe is Indiana, birthplace of actor Jimmy Stewart. Genial on screen, it’s doubtful Stewart would have minded Palmer appropriating the title of one of his films to describe his own joyful existence.
It’s a wonderful life. And Arnold Palmer’s inviting you to come to Latrobe and see so for yourself.