As I said on Facebook last night, it is a sad, sad day in Deacland. Arnold Palmer, perhaps the most famous Wake Forest alumnus, passed away yesterday at age 87. Judging by the reaction of my Wake friends on social media, Mr. Palmer was universally loved, and is earnestly mourned, by all.
My late P’92 father was a huge Arnold Palmer fan. When he realized that the Commencement speaker in 2005 – when my niece graduated – was going to be Mr. Palmer, I thought my dad was going to leap with joy. Dad arrived on the Quad early, determined to get a great seat with a good visual line to the podium. He loved his speech (which you can read more about here).
Much will be written in the coming days from people who knew him well. As for me, I only had a few interactions with Mr. Palmer, but they were all memorable because they spoke to his character. About 10 years ago at a Wake Forest volunteer conference, Mr. Palmer was there to be the banquet speaker. There had been a golf tournament that afternoon, and Mr. Palmer gamely went out in a golf cart to each hole so he could see the Wake Foresters there (and, I’m sure, people could get their photo made with him). I am sure it was hot, and he could easily have stayed inside – but he went to see everyone, which had to be a highlight of their time at the conference.
I met him later that afternoon (I was helping run the banquet and we were walking him through the schedule). He didn’t know me from Adam, and I was far from being at the top of the org chart, but he treated me with absolute kindness, respect, and gentility. Despite his incredible fame, he was gracious to all.
We met in the lobby of the hotel, which had a grand great room. As I walked with him down the huge hallway, people realized who he was – and it was like there was a change in the air. People (not just hotel staff, guests too) snapped to attention and as he’d pass by they’d nod their heads and say “Mr. Palmer,” or “‘Afternoon, Mr. Palmer.” It felt like walking with a king – which he was in stature if not in title.
But what stuck in my mind was that toward the end of the hall, there were two little girls there with their parents. The girls were maybe 4 and 6 – adorable blondes with cute summer outfits on. Mr. Palmer stopped by them, knelt down to their level, and chatted with them for a moment. The girls had no idea who they were – I am sure he just looked like a kind, grandfatherly type – but I know their parents had to have been awestruck that Arnold Palmer was talking to their girls. He seemed utterly delighted and I imagine they might have reminded him of his own daughters or granddaughters. It was a sweet moment to witness.
That night at the reception, he was taking pictures with anyone who wanted one. My dad had already passed away, but I got a picture with Mr. Palmer just the same. Dad would have loved it.
Here are a few pictures of Mr. Palmer from our archives. I particularly like the one of him with our basketball greats, Chris Paul and Randolph Childress. And he was there at the Orange Bowl in 2006, coming out with Muhammad Ali. That was a moment to behold.
Rest in peace, Mr. Palmer.