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Monday, February 2, 2015

Arnold Palmer's Latrobe, PA., a town fit for The King

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, an enormous healing wing of the hospital, on car dealerships, on sylvan nature reserves, roads, and walls devoted to gracious library benefactors.

As for the local phone book, not only is Arnold Palmer’s name still listed in it, his smiling picture is 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, welcome world-wide by both kings and peasants, ever thought of leaving?

“Never once,” he says. “And I never will.”

It is a golden autumn day when he sits down for this interview. Soon the tartan leaves will lose their tug and it will be possible for Palmer to peek through bare branches across the street now named in his honor to where he grew up, where he learned to play golf and where one day he says his mortal ashes will be sprinkled alongside those of his parents, Deacon and Doris.

It’s where he still golfs, still frolics and is still surrounded by admirers, loved ones and grown powerful adults who still tremble like children around Santa when they find themselves in his presence.

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 a host of other prestigious products that crave his association. But none may have more reciprocal value than the one he just bestowed for free.

“It’s just like the MasterCard commercial filmed here in Latrobe says ,” observes Andy Stofan, president of the Latrobe Chamber of Commerce. “What Arnold 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. Tell people a professional athlete resides there and they might conclude it was someone with the earning power of a Major Indoor Soccer league defender.

They make a snug little fit with the town they’re in.

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, the determination, the grit, the charisma and the elegance, characteristics that certainly 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 have grown up someplace else, but the people here were always very encouraging and helped me succeed in the ways I wanted.”

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.

It was here in 1904 that apprentice pharmacist David Evans Strickler took time away from his potions and 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 who knew of 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 since-demolished home on the club’s 15th fairway some 15 years later). In its place is a tidy little maintenance putting green beside the creek locals call Nine Mile Run that scoots alongside what is now the 5th hole at Latrobe Country Club where Deacon was head pro and superintendent until his death February 16, 1976. Renown 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 Palmer and Deacon planted alongside the 18th fairway more than 70 years ago.

Palmer’s attachment to the land and the 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 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 sixth 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 and all its property in 1971. He spent three years weighing 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 that it wasn’t worth it. 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 became a prominent local dentist and 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 six-time Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. 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 people like prison guards and ill-tempered mob bosses. Maybe only in this instance does it connote a gentleness so benign it became legend.

And 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.

For all the world knows Arnold Palmer as being from Latrobe, but the people in Latrobe know he’s, to be specific, from Youngstown, the tiny village of just 400 people one mile south across U.S. Route 30. It makes geographical sense to say Palmer’s from Latrobe, but Uncle Sam sends his mail to PO Box 52 in Youngstown.

How this one town village (Youngstown) produced such global icons confounds logic. Yet, today the ceremonial Arnold Palmer Drive leads right down Youngstown’s Main Street past the town’s only stoplight and straight onto Fred Rogers Way.

Town is dominated by a three-story building that used to house the bar Deacon frequented that used to be 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 popular Tin Lizzy is just across the street from the a popular family restaurant, The Rainbow Inn, and is just 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’s 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 down on Ligonier Street. Rogers would go on to become an ordained Presbyterian minister and along with Sesame Street, the host and creative force behind one of the most successful children’s show in television history.

Before his death at 74 in 2003, his gentle manner was beloved by generations. For a man famous for working in sneakers and a sweater, Rogers’s work left landmarks as indelible as the mighty Hoover Dam. In 1969, he was asked to appear 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 U.S. Sen. John O. Pastore, famous for his brusqueness, was unfamiliar with Rogers or his work. He said Rogers’s words and manner gave him goosebumps. 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 would seem to have absolutely 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 were 33 of the most famous words in suds. They were printed on the labels of the green bottles of Rolling Rock beer, brewed by Latrobe Brewing.

The niche brand beer was an American cult favorite until Anheuser-Busch bought it in 2006 and moved the hallmark Laurel Highlands brew to, egads, New Jersey. Before that, beer lovers from around the world would debate theories as to why the enigmatic “33” was stenciled on the bottoms 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 said you were rooting for Jack Nicklaus instead of Deacon’s kid.

Palmer and Rolling Rock, too, made quite a pair, Palmer being an unofficial ambassador to the beer whenever visiting reporters came to profile him at his Latrobe home. This from John P. May’s 1965 Golf Digest story about the Palmer at 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 chipped meat-lettuce tomato 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 visiting reporters that brand anymore. Now, it’s Arnold Palmer Tee, the popular 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 world-class brewery and now Pittsburgh mainstays Duquesne and Iron City brew their beers there. That’s not all.

In another indelible link to the town symmetry, Palmer again played white knight and had a portion of Arnold Palmer Tee crafted in the glass-lined tanks that once made Rolling Rock.

“I was really 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 be turning to Palmer for their paychecks. The new hotel will employ nearly 100 jobs who’ll be trained to pamper affluent guests who’ll spread tourist and expense account dollars on a region that, like much of the rest of the world, is struggling to find stable footing.

“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 the 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 esteemed politicians Tom Ridge, John McCain and Pat Toomey. 

Stofan says the new hotel confirms a commitment that people are willing to risk to succeed in Latrobe, something that could have applied to Palmer’s career before he won the pivotal U.S. Amateur Championship in 1954.

“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. We’re blessed with all of them.”

Why does Palmer stay?

Why don’t you see for yourself?

Better still, 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 will on January 26 celebrate 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 friendly and welcoming.”

Besides Latrobe Country Club, there’s splendid golf at renown Laurel Valley, a course with which Palmer’s been intimately involved since its 1959 inception. And there is championship golf at the Omni Bedford Springs Resort and the fabulous and Nemacolin Woodlands Resort & Spa, destinations within an hour of Latrobe and splendid enough to have hosted multiple presidents.

Other nearby attractions include Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and Idlewild Park, named by Amusement Today as the 2010 world’s best amusement park for kids.

For spiritual solace, visit the Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve, a lush 50-acre wilderness area saved from rapacious development in 2007. It was Palmer’s late wife’s wish that the scenic meadow fronting St. Vincent College not be ravaged by bulldozers and big box stores.

There’s fine dining and cigars at DiSalvo’s Station and friendly sports talk at friendly neighborhood taverns like The Pond run by the Carfang family since 1954, the same year Palmer began his own rise to prominence. 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 and home to the Jimmy Stewart Museum. Genial and good-natured on screen and in person, it’s doubtful Stewart would mind Palmer appropriating the title of a signature Stewart film 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.

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