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The curious bond between Arnold Palmer and Mister Rogers

January 31, 2020
Arnold Palmer

Evening Standard

Fred Rogers—“Mister Rogers” to us—grew up in a house 3.9 miles from Latrobe Country Club, where he learned to play golf by taking lessons from Deacon Palmer at the same time as the pro’s son. Fred and Arnie both attended Latrobe High School, a year apart, and went on to achieve worldwide fame while always remaining close to their hometown in Western Pennsylvania (pop. 8,338). “It’s with me wherever I am,” Fred once said; Arnie never left. Each became defined by their humility, warmth and empathy for others. Tom Hanks played one of them in the movies, but he could have played both.

LAY-trobe is the way the locals say it. Go into Arnie’s clubhouse and you’ve stepped back in time to his prime, the 1960s. It’s across the street from the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport, where the best Italian restaurant in town, DeNunzio’s, is on the second floor of the airport terminal. Down the road is Saint Vincent College, where Arnie’s memorial was held in 2016 at the Benedictine basilica on the hill. I hadn’t made the connection between these two American heroes until I attended the reception at the Fred Rogers Center on campus.

Inspired by Tom Hanks’ movie, I returned to look for Arnie among Fred’s archives at the center last fall and spent the day with their mutual friend, the Benedictine Archabbot Douglas Nowicki, who oversees the college. Nowicki used to consult on Rogers’ television show and was there in the New York City subway when a group of teenagers noticed Fred and spontaneously broke out singing his theme song, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” one of the real-life scenes depicted in the film.

The archabbot, a nongolfer, recalled the time Palmer asked him to play golf. He demurred, but Arnie insisted. On the first hole, he took a huge clump of a divot and left the ball on the tee. “Maybe you better just drive the cart,” Arnie said. The archabbot was also with him when he died. Palmer had called that morning and asked, “Hey, Doug, don’t preachers come see their clients anymore?” They visited for an hour that day, said the Lord’s Prayer together, and 10 minutes later, Arnie was gone. Both Palmer and Rogers were Presbyterians, which I guess is only a club-length from Catholics. (I’m a Catholic, but my closest preacher is a rabbi—we all hedge our bets.)

Fred’s father owned a couple of manufacturing companies, and his mother was a beloved philanthropist and socialite in town. They had a reputation for looking out for their employees and making loans they knew would never be repaid. Fred was a victim of bullying as a child and suffered from asthma, spending summers indoors when his parents bought one of the first window air-conditioners. He studied music, married a concert pianist and came to believe that the Arts more than anything else spoke to humanity and gave access to our inner feelings.

“He pioneered child psychology based on social emotional development as opposed to cognitive behavioral theory,” Nowicki said. “That’s ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ versus ‘Sesame Street.’ Fred taught that people are open to learning when they feel affirmed and loved.”

Palmer’s parents came from the other end of the economic spectrum, forged in sports. Arnie learned to use the service entrance to the club until one day he owned it all. “Growing up, my father and Fred didn’t hang out together,” Amy Palmer Saunders said. “But as adults, they had a mutual respect and were family friends. When I was young, our families had gatherings at Christmas time.” On the same campus as the Fred Rogers Center is the 50-acre Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve, disparate symbols of their two families.

What they had in common was profound. Fred liked to recall advice he received from the old actor Gabby Hayes: “When I’m on the air, I see just one little buckaroo out there.” That was the sense Fred gave through the television set to generations of children. It was also the sense that Arnie gave to everyone in his gallery as we thought he was looking only at us. Rogers focused his life on children; Palmer founded two children’s hospitals that bear his family name.

In the Rogers Center, among hundreds of boxes of Fred’s papers, the archivist Emily Uhrin showed me a handwritten speech about local people who inspired characters in his productions; he cited Deke Palmer for giving him “a feel of golf and was glad to be able to pass it on to the children of the next generation” (1976). There were also letters asking Arnie to be profiled on his show “Old Friends... New Friends” (1979)—but it never worked out—and later an elegantly penned note to Winnie and Arnie that was signed, “Love to you both, as always, Fred” (1992).

Fred and Arnie shared this careful penmanship and a remarkable dedication for writing back to every fan who wrote them a letter—tens of thousands over their lifetimes. Fred once responded to a 10-year-old boy, whose father then wrote to thank Fred, who then wrote back to thank the father. Each back and forth a sign of respect.

You can’t help but draw a larger message about Arnie and Fred in the turbulent times we live in. Two men from the same place, different as could be, found a common answer to today’s problems in the way they consistently treated people with kindness. One buckaroo at a time.