(Editor's note: Sept. 25, 2017 is the one-year anniversary of Arnold Palmer's death. In tribute to the King, we revisit this article from his memorial service on Oct. 4, 2016.)
LATROBE, Pa. – They say it’s the busiest day in the history of Arnold Palmer Regional Airport. One hundred and ten private jets, they say.
Only one person could draw such a crowd.
And what a crowd. So many who need but one name: Jack, Tom, Ernie, Annika, Nancy, Nick, Phil, Lee, Fuzzy, Curtis, Davis.
Rickie and Bubba brought Samuel Ryder’s trophy.
So many people. Upwards of 900 at Saint Vincent Basilica. Former players, current players, power players in the game. So much influence and fame gathered in one place.
In remembrance of one man. The man.
“This is the elite battalion of Arnie’s Army.” – Charlie Mechem, master of ceremony and former LPGA commissioner.
Andy Roskosh is there as well.
Andy Roskosh? There are lots of Andy Roskosh’s at Saint Vincent’s College on Tuesday. Some at Chuck Noll Field, sitting in the stands on this postcard perfect day and watching the memorial service on enlarged video monitors. Some in the Student Center. Some in the Performing Arts Center. Some in the gymnasium.
Some came from down the road. Some drove from neighboring states. One guy flew in from Hong Kong.
Roskosh, 20, played on the golf team at Hempfield High School in nearby Landisville. He said he met Mr. Palmer a couple of times. The first time unforgettable. The second time …
“He remembered my name,” Roskosh said. “He’s met millions of people and he still remembers your name. It just shocks you.
“People say they’ve met presidents, kings and queens, and no one makes them more nervous than meeting Arnold Palmer.”
That’s because presidents and kings and queens don’t care, and you know it. The King did, and you knew that, too.
“He had that other thing. The incredible ability to make you feel good – not just about him – but about yourself.” – Tim Finchem, PGA Tour commissioner, speaking during the service.
Saint Vincent Basilica Parish was formed in 1790. It is 230 feet from front to back, east to west. The back towers are 150 feet high. The front towers are 195 feet high. It’s a remarkable sight, with the 18 rose-colored granite columns and 27 stained glass windows. Christ on the cross hangs above an altar of Carrera marble.
Palmer had a long-standing relationship with Saint Vincent College, dating back to his boyhood days when he’d tag along with his father, Deacon, and play on the grounds. He attended concerts there, gave swing demonstrations and helped establish the 50-acre Winnie Palmer Natural Reserve.
Palmer gave the 150-year commencement speech there, telling graduates: “I appeal to you to try to restore a kinder, more gentle atmosphere to this world of ours. Only an all-out effort to get back to the basic values and virtues of humanity will give future generations the quality of life our forefathers worked and sacrificed for, to give us the standards of life we have enjoyed in our time.”
Palmer really did care about others. It wasn’t for show or something he did to market himself. This is why the airport tarmac is jammed and the parking lots are packed. This is why they have gathered from all corners to pay homage.
“I called him and he said, ‘Where are you?’ I said, ‘I’m at home. Where are you?’ ‘I’m with the president.’ [Pause] ‘The president of what?’” – Sam Saunders, Palmer’s grandson, speaking during the memorial service.
Imagine that. Sitting in the Oval Office with the president of the United States and answering your phone on the first ring.
“Why did you answer?” Saunders asked. “I wanted to talk to you,” his grandfather responded.
Saunders was brilliant on Monday. They were all great. Jim Nantz, Vince Gill, Peter Dawson, Jack Nicklaus, Annika Sorenstam, Finchem, Mechem, Archabbot Douglas R. Nowicki, O.S.B., and the rest.
On the orders of Mechem, they kept it positive. This was a celebration of Arnold Palmer’s life. There were lots of laughs and applause, but none could disguise their sorrow.
The last time Sam talked to Dumpy, the nickname given to Palmer when granddaughter Emily was trying to call him grumpy, was at 4:10 p.m. on Sept. 25. Palmer was getting prepped for surgery the next day and answered, again, on the first ring.
“He told me to take care of my babies,” Saunders said. “Take care of my children. Take care of my family. I told him I loved him and he told me he loved me back.”
Palmer died less than two hours later.
“I know it’s time, but I never wanted it to end.” – Nantz, speaking during the service, recalling what Palmer told him prior to his final round in the Masters.
There are remembrances everywhere in and around Latrobe. Billboards, makeshift tributes and lots and lots of signs. We Love You Arnie. We Miss You Arnie. Fly With The Angels Arnie.
It’s a chilly Monday night, some 15 hours before the memorial service begins. Downtown Latrobe looks stuck in time, an easier time, a time that could never imagine a handheld phone telling you its 59 degrees outside.
Nearby, down Arnold Palmer Drive, Latrobe Country Club is open for view. A road intersects fairways and you can make your way unimpeded toward the clubhouse. Palmer’s ashes were spread along the property last Thursday during a private ceremony, in the same area as his first wife Winnie.
There’s not much going on this evening. The most bustling place is Youngstown Tire Service, which is three cars deep in each of three bays, so there’s work to be done.
Maybe it’s just a stranger’s perspective, but there’s a peacefulness here, a simplicity. When you’re raised in a small town, surrounded by other small towns, you can love it or leave it, but you can never abandon it.
“We’ve all gone a lot of places since our days growing up here in Latrobe,” Palmer said at his 50-year high school reunion. “And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in all those years, it’s this: Your hometown is not where you’re from. It’s who you are.”
“Remember how Arnold Palmer touched your heart. How he touched your life. And please, don’t forget why.” – Jack Nicklaus, speaking during the memorial service.
You’ll have to picture this one in your mind. You should have plenty of images for references, given the thousands of people there with camera phones and proper cameras and video recorders and satellite trucks.
Picture this man in his black suit, standing outside the Holy Door. They have all come to pay respect to Arnold Palmer, and he is there to greet them. But it’s they who come to him. Each and every one. They shake his hand. They give him impassioned hugs. They embrace and squeeze with genuine emotion.
Cori Britt has been working for Palmer since he was 12 years old, first caddying in Palmer’s weekend foursome at Latrobe Country Club and then carrying the bag for Palmer himself.
Britt went to Saint Vincent College. He graduated on May 11, 1996, the day Palmer gave the commencement speech. He is now the vice president of Arnold Palmer Enterprises.
He spent time with Palmer for most of his days over the last 20 years. Palmer had two daughters, Amy and Peggy. Cori is like a son.
Among the crowd, on the top of the church steps, there is a pause. A second to himself. He folds his arms low across his waist. He looks to his right and then to his left. And for a moment, he is alone.
“There’s an old saying that there are no irreplaceable people. Whoever said that never met Arnold Palmer. There will never be another like you. … Rest easy, old pal.” – Mechem, closing comments at the memorial service.
When the service ends, everyone files out of the church and stands gathered. A bagpiper escorts the Palmer family, playing “Amazing Grace.”
Palmer’s private jet, captained by Pete the Pilot, races by and tilts, one wing down, one wing up.
A thumbs up from the sky.
It then circles around and takes a sharp ascent.
It flies into a sky a color blue only God could create.