They called him Deke, which made sense as it was short for Deacon; though, no one really knows why they called him that. His Christian name was Milfred Jerome Palmer.
“He wasn’t really a Milfred or a Jerome,” said his oldest son, Arnold. “He was a Deacon.”
He was a tough man, say those who knew him. He was a gentle man, they say, too.
They have a lot to say about Deacon Palmer, those who knew him. How you viewed him depended on your relationship to him.
Says granddaughter Peggy Palmer Wears: “Quiet and stern, but very physically affectionate – but not showy in any way. Solid. He was solid.”
Says retired Latrobe (Pa.) police chief Charles Huska: “Deacon was one of the finest men I think I’ve ever known. He was a tough man. Whenever he was instructing Mr. Palmer (Arnold), he would be very adamant in what he wanted from Mr. Palmer as far as what his golf game produced. On the other side, Deacon treated me like a teddy bear. He’d laugh and joke. He’d kid around with the caddies. Play cards in the caddie yard. He was like your uncle. He was a wonderful man.”
Says daughter Lois Jean “Cheech” Tilley: “He was pretty hard on [Arnold]. I felt sorry for Arnie, but he wasn’t hard on me. He left my problems up to my mother and I was a good kid; I did all my schoolwork and I was an A student. Poor Arnie had a rough time with school work. He did more ordinary things than I ever did, so Daddy was tough on him.”
Says son Arnold: “Well, he was sort of a buddy; but I was scared of him and I was scared ’cause he was tough and he didn’t take a lot of sass or anything from me. He told me what to do and I did it as fast as I could get it done. That included playing golf.”
Deacon was born in 1904 with infantile paralysis and had a club left foot. It caused him to walk with a limp, which, as Arnold tells it, led to teasing, which led to fighting.
Deacon, who was "Mr. Palmer" long before Arnold, took a job with Latrobe Country Club in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, in 1921, eventually working his way to club pro. It’s how Arnold was introduced to the game.
Deacon said: “Hit it hard, boy. Go find it and hit it again.” And Arnold obliged.
Deacon said: “Put your hands here and here. Now look at that and remember it. Don’t ever change.” And Arnold obliged.
'In Play' Behind the Scenes: Arnold Palmer on his father
Deacon and Doris Palmer had four kids. In birth order: Arnold, Lois Jean, Jerry and Sandy.
Those who knew Doris have plenty to say about her, as well.
Say granddaughter Amy Palmer Saunders: “She was very dedicated to her children and that was real clear. I suppose that’s something I would say my father [Arnold] got from his mother, the fact that he is so loyal to his family, dedicated to them through thick and thin.”
Says daughter Lois Jean: “She was a good woman, went to church every Sunday. She made [Arnold] behave, and he loved her more than anything else in the world. … Anything Arnie wanted she did her best to get it for him and she was so proud of him. Daddy was, too; I’m not taking anything away from him, but mother showed him how proud she was.”
Says son Arnold: “My mother was a very friendly, forgiving person. She took very good care of my father and she was a great cook and she was a great mother. She mothered me, she took care of me because my father was a tough operator and he didn’t let me get away with much of anything.”
Pure mid-20th century Americana. A loving mother, clutching a cross with arthritic hands. A simple father living along complicated lines. A son who very much appreciated his mother’s affection, but wanted more desperately his father’s acceptance.
It reads like Tennessee Williams … perhaps more Herman Melville – a father’s appreciation his son’s white whale.
Adolescent Arnie to old Arnold fought that fight. Sometimes when the families would get together for dinner – after Arnold had kids of his own – the testing would intensify. A beer here, a bourbon there. Repressed feelings ready to explode past a weakened defense of self-control and … Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Arnold Palmer and mother Doris
Says Arnold’s daughter Amy: “I would describe it as loving, but volatile. I don’t think we ever got through a meal without some sort of argument. Sometimes it escalated into a very significant argument and we frequently left in tears, but that was kind of the status quo and it was part of their relationship. I think reflecting, they enjoyed it, it was sort of what their relationship was about and you know I think when you get older you get that; when you’re younger you take it a little more seriously than you should. But they had a great relationship and clearly there was a lot of respect there that my father had for his father, but at a certain point he was gonna challenge him.”
Arnold did so on his 16th birthday. He came home that night and Pap was lubricated, being verbally aggressive to Mother. When Arnold took exception, Pap, using that country strength, picked up Arnold by his shirt collar and threw him into the galvanized pipe of the wood stove.
Arnold ran away that night. Made it all the way to the Latrobe course, where he sat and thought for a while in peace. Before sunrise he was back in bed. Father and son moved on.
Deacon was heavy-handed with Arnold. That’s pretty well evidenced. Even after his kid won the 1954 U.S. Amateur, the best Pap could deliver was a squeeze on the shoulder and a “You did pretty good, boy.”
Says Arnold: “He was never one to lay a lot of accolades on people; he was a tough guy. He appreciated what I did, but he never talked a lot about it and particularly in front of me. He might if you said something bad about me –you might have a fight on your hands, but I never had the privilege of seeing all that happen. I just heard about them because he was a tough guy and if you didn’t like me he didn’t like that at all.”
Story goes that longtime Latrobe CC member J.R. Larson had some advice to improve young Arnie’s corkscrew swing. Pap wasn’t having any of that. “J.R.,” Mr. Palmer said, “you let me worry about the kid and you take care of your own game, all right?”
Then there was the time young Arnold closed the pro shop before Mr. Larson could retrieve his clubs. Larson found Deacon who found Arnold, who caught hell.
Deacon admonished his son for being unreliable to which Larson countered: “Tell you what, Deacon. Send him down to the steel mill to work. We’ll straighten him out fast.”
Mr. Larson had not learned his lesson. “Don’t tell me what to do with my kid!” Deacon said adamantly. “You take care of your business, Mr. Larson, and I’ll take care of mine!”
Arnold beamed. He overhead the conversation and knew his dad had defended him, if not his actions, – twice – against a man considered his professional superior.
“It made me feel proud that my dad stuck up for me,” Palmer said. “But he chewed my ass out after that. He really laid into me for not doing what I was supposed to be doing at the pro shop. But that was the way it was.”
The way it was for 46 years as father-son. That relationship, in its natural sense, ended Feb. 6, 1976, when Deacon, after playing 27 holes at Bay Hill, died from a massive heart attack.
Arnold was playing in the Bob Hope at the time. Devastated at the news, he flew home to Latrobe and had his father’s body flown there from Orlando, Fla. Deacon’s body was cremated and spread along a knoll just above the 18th green at Latrobe CC. It’s where Arnold wants his ashes spread, as well.
Doris died three years later. “When she died,” daughter Lois Jean said, “she didn’t die from the arthritis; she died from all the medication they gave her.”
Today Arnold is the patriarch, the 85-year-old Mr. Palmer. He heads the Palmer clan with his wife of 10 years, Kathleen “Kit” Gawthrop. Arnold’s first wife, Winnie, died of ovarian cancer in 1999. Their family tree branches out to two daughters, Peggy Palmer Wears and Amy Palmer Saunders. There are four granddaughters: Emily Schneider, Katherine Anne Spears, Anne James and Anna Flexer Wears; two grandsons, Samuel Palmer Saunders and William Gray Palmer Wears; and six great grandchildren: Charlotte Winifred, Grace Katherine and Hannah James Spears; Samuel James, Mackay Owen and Tucker Ray Schneider. Sam Saunders’ wife, Kelly, also has a son, Cohen, by a previous marriage. Kit has three children – son Al Gawthrop III and daughters Lynn Bouck and Blair Miller– and eight grandchildren.
And all of Arnold’s siblings are alive: Jerry, Lois Jean and Sandy.
Winnie, Peggy, Amy and Arnold Palmer
It’s a big, close-knit family, as it’s always been. And as was the case with the original Mr. Palmer, people have plenty to say on his successor, as well.
Says grandson Sam Saunders: “I went up to see him in Pennsylvania this past offseason because I was at the bottom. I had a bad year and I really needed somebody to help me. I went there and listened to him, everything he had to say. It’s tough. Sometimes he’s not always the nicest. He likes to be very upfront and blunt with you. I said, you know, give it to me. I can take it. It was the best advice I’ve ever gotten from anyone. He told me to talk less and listen more.”
The words stung, and they stuck. Saunders, for the first time in his professional career, will be a card-carrying member of the PGA Tour in 2014-15.
Says author Chris Roddell: “Let me tell the story about him never charging for autographs. That’s a lie; I do know of him one time charging for autographs; it was at Bay Hill. When the tournament was going on and his grandchildren were having a lemonade stand, people weren’t buying enough lemonade for the little kids and he was saddened by that. He said, ‘I’ll sell you some lemonade and everybody who buys a glass of lemonade gets an Arnold Palmer autograph.’ I guess the kids made like about a hundred and fifty bucks.”
Says brother Jerry: “I’m just proud. That’s one of those tear-jerkers. He did all the right things, in spite of the fact sometimes it didn’t seem that way.”
Says daughter Amy: "He did travel so much that when he was home there was always a period of time when you know everyone would gather, so we didn’t have that much of a chance to see him when he first got back. But over the course of days when he’d settle back in he was very demonstrative. I mean my father was always very affectionate, loving. There wasn’t a great deal of communication with his father, but there was never any question as to his love and interest in being part of the family when he was home.”
Says granddaughter Anna Wears: “He’s definitely funny; he’s fun to be around. He’s just kind of natural. He doesn’t talk a whole lot, but when he does talk it’s good to listen because he has a lot of good insight to things and he’s just kind of normal around us and that’s really nice.”
Arnold Daniel Palmer is not the same man as Milfred Jerome Palmer. But Arnie is who he is because of Deacon. His meteoric rise and taking the sport with him, his cosmic crashes, his attitude, his grip, his hitch, his defiance, his passion, his dedication, his loyalty – all foundations built in boyhood.
Arnold spent his life trying to make his dad proud: being aggressive, winning tournaments, capturing majors, making money, building a brand, transcending the sport.
Says Palmer’s daughter Peggy: “I think that he absolutely wanted to prove himself to his father and to himself, but yes he wanted his father to be proud. As I say, Poppa was a man of few words so I think he felt very compelled, it wasn’t a lot of praise there, and I think he knew that but it compelled him all the more to want to be successful and have his father be proud of what he accomplished.”
“You did pretty good, boy.” That and a pat on the back are worth a million memories to Arnold Palmer. It’s the closest thing to a grand gesture he ever received from his father.
Maybe it was just the times; adult males in the middle of the 20th century aren’t remembered for affection. Maybe it was just his way. Maybe he was scared. Scared to get too close to his son, afraid that such a bond would make Arnold lose his edge. If Arnold’s desire to succeed was fueled by trying to please his father; his father couldn’t let that fuel evaporate.
Complex relationships, fathers and sons. But Arnold has to know. Even without verbal authority, he has to know Deacon was proud of what his boy accomplished, and he did love his son.
His son has to know that. Right?
“Well,” today’s Mr. Palmer says, noticeably uncomfortable to be delving this personally, “I suppose I do.”