99: Winnie’s Barn

99: Winnie’s Barn

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tales of Golf and Sport

Winnie’s Barn

I was raking my yard on a warm autumn afternoon when Arnold Palmer phoned to say Winnie had passed away that morning (November 20, 1999). He said he wanted me to know before I heard the news on television or from someone else. I thanked him and asked if he was okay. He sighed, and his voice cracked. “I don’t know,” he said. “I feel like I just took 12 on the opening hole.”

Golf, to say nothing of life, would never be the same for anyone who knew Winnie Palmer, least of all her husband, Arnold.

Being invited to help Arnold Palmer craft his memoirs was a dream come true for me, because like millions of you, decades before I actually met the man, Palmer was my sports hero, my personal god in golf shoes. As the mortals of Greek mythology learned the hard way, though, mingling with gods and heroes comes with certain perils. The private great man is seldom as engaging as the public one and, at least in my professional experience, rarely as nice. The good news in Arnold’s case was that he turned out to be everything he appears to be and then some—as warm, thoughtful, open and honest as I dared to hope he might be, an autobiographer’s ace. The best thing I can say about my golf hero is that I liked him even better after I got to know him.

The unexpected bonus of the three-year project, however, was Winnie Palmer.

Almost from the moment we met, we became good friends and devoted allies in the task of putting Arnold’s oversized life on paper. It was really Winnie’s book, as I came to think of it, something she understood the golf world needed but Arnold would never seriously undertake on his own, and I quickly learned that the best way to convince Arnold Palmer to do anything was to get Winnie Palmer behind the idea.

A marriage, someone said, is like a medieval morality play. There are things you see on one level, currents you feel on another. After spending nearly eight hundred days slipping in and out of Arnold’s and Winnie’s lives, being granted poignant proximity to the ordinary ups and downs of the extraordinary Palmer family life, I began to understand what a unique and powerful partnership Arnold and Winnie really were. Their marriage had been tested in almost unfathomable ways, and perhaps because they’d been through so much together—the trials of fame and the dangers of fortune—they often appeared to cling together like shipwreck survivors on a beach.

You could see it in the way they instinctively clasped hands while moving through large crowds or relaxing with intimate groups of friends, you could feel its currency when Arnold affectionately called her “Lover” and teased her about running his life and bossing him about. Whatever else was true, when Winnie spoke about a subject that mattered, Arnold truly listened. The truth is, he relied on her opinions on just about everything for the simple reason that he would have been crazy not to. She was a crack judge of character, a no-nonsense advisor with an Ivy League brain, an unfaltering follower of the heart.

Besides Arnold’s memoir, the other great project Winnie had in mind, well over a year and a half before being diagnosed with cancer of the intestinal lining, was the restoration of an old barn adjacent to the golf course in Latrobe. She jokingly referred to it as her “mink coat” while Arnold simply called it “Winnie’s barn.”

One gorgeously flaring summer afternoon she drove me to the high hill above the barn, overlooking the golf course, and explained that someday she hoped to convince Arnie—that’s what she called him—to build a cozy “retirement” cottage up there for just the two of them, if and when he ever agreed to retire. The night before at dinner, out of the blue, Arnold had revealed his latest brainstorm: He was thinking of planting a vineyard and starting a winery on the hill adjacent to the barn. This was news to Winnie. She had looked at me and rolled her eyes with deep amusement as if to say, “Arnold the Dreamer at work again.”

Now, Arnold, who happened to be playing the par-5 14th with a group of visiting corporate bigwigs, spotted us and sped up the hill in a golf cart, grinning suspiciously. He asked what the devil we were doing up there, and she replied cheekily, “Why, just checking out the view from the living room of our retirement house.”

“Winifred, I’m going to build that house for you,” he bellowed good-naturedly at her. “Just you wait and see!”

“Right, Lover,” she teased gently. “Will that be before or after the winery?”

With that, she laughed that great laugh of hers, sounding every bit like the smoky, polished, dark-haired, underage beauty who kept her father Shube Walzer’s accounting books. She was studying to become an interior designer and dreamed of traveling the world when a handsome, smooth-talking, largely unsuccessful paint salesman from Cleveland, who happened to be the new National Amateur golf champion, reached beneath the dinner table at Shawnee-on-Delaware. He impulsively took her hand and audaciously suggested that she marry him, three days after their introduction.

Strong-willed as a spring colt, she said yes in a matter of hours, beginning golf’s most durable love story, and spent the next four decades shaping the views and interior life of the modern game’s most commanding figure.

By her own design, Winnie Palmer was one of golf’s most private people. Even at the height of Arnold’s fame, she walked outside the ropes and a few steps behind, never asking nor tolerating any special privilege, as comfortable among the caddies as the VIPs, often invisible but always watching. “Arnie’s the people person,” she would say. “I’m a person person.”

That was true. One-on-one, Winnie had a way of making everyone feel unique and deeply valued in her sphere. Her home was simple and unpretentious but as gorgeously made and richly hued as an Amish quilt, always dressed immaculately for the season.

There were private times with Winnie I will cherish most. Sometimes, after Arnold and I finished up one of our productive early-morning research sessions, he would jet away to fulfill an obligation, to film a commercial or appear at a function or charity tournament, at which point Winnie would take me under her wing for the balance of the day.

Several times after lunch we slipped out and took long drives with Prince, their retriever, through the countryside. One afternoon she drove me to see Unity Chapel, a two-hundred-year-old Presbyterian chapel sitting on a hill outside Latrobe. She told me its history and explained how the chapel had once fallen into disrepair but thanks to a number of people who loved the place, Unity Chapel had been restored to its simple grandeur.

I realized later that Winnie was one of those special people, but she wouldn’t have told me that in a million years. The fact is, she loved going to church—almost any church—and sometimes she took me with her. She enjoyed old hymns and a sermon that made you think. She worried about the world her grandchildren and yours and mine will inherit. She took her quiet faith very seriously but never herself overly so.

I took professional insight and personal wisdom from these moments of easy companionship when we roamed around, went to church, talked about everything—God, books, children, art, dogs, music, history, the passing scene or the passing landscape. Occasionally, we even talked about golf and Arnold. I learned she loved the paintings of Andrew Wyeth and David Armstrong, the piano of Doug Montgomery, Andy Rooney commentaries and a well-made Fitzgerald old-fashioned. The rest of the short list included her daughters and seven grandchildren, icebox cake, good manners, peonies, her brother Marty, London’s West End, Augusta galleries, cozy hotels, museums of any kind, early suppers, British golf writers and phone conversations with her partner-in-crime, Barbara Nicklaus.

Speaking of crime, the woman seemed to have read every other book published in the English language, especially mysteries. She was keen for a foggy night, a door left ajar, a crime unsolved. Somehow, she also found time to read half a dozen or so magazines and regularly corresponded with friends by way of handwritten notes packed with clipped articles she thought they should read. I used to kid her that if golf failed to pan out for Arnie, she could support them both by starting a journalism clipping service.

I loved her Moravian sense of economy and value. After my children and I lost our retrievers to old age, Winnie set out to help me find the right replacement. She introduced me to a woman she’d heard about who bred champion goldens. A month or so later the woman rang me up to say she had the “perfect” dog for us: a three-year-old spayed female, beautiful disposition, papers, the whole nine yards, and a real bargain at just eighteen hundred dollars. When I reported this news to Winnie, she thundered, “Don’t you dare buy that dog or I’ll reach into this phone and break your arm!”

Her funeral service at Unity Chapel, on a stunning Indian summer day, was a simple and beautiful affair. The music was Bach and Beethoven. A few prayers of thanksgiving were read, the Navy hymn sung. Her granddaughter Emily read a few passages from Proverbs. There was no eulogy under Winnie’s strict orders—but none was necessary because each of us sat there writing our own eulogies in our heads for the new patron saint of golf wives.

After a little while—Winnie hated services that went on too long—we all filed out and drove to Latrobe Country Club for lunch. In the din of conversation, I was pleased to see Arnold laughing again, gently needling Jack when he pulled out a cellular phone to see how Gary was doing at the PGA Tour Q School. A few minutes later, I saw him lead George and Barbara Bush out the grillroom door, and I knew exactly where he was taking them—to see Winnie’s barn, now fully restored, sitting in the autumnal sunlight like a David Armstrong original.

The truth is, some of us stood there worrying about how Arnold Palmer will fare without his Pennsylvania original, Winnie. I was lost in these thoughts, I confess, selfishly thinking how I was going to miss Arnold and Latrobe and most of all, my weekly phone conversations with Winnie, when a large, strong pair of hands suddenly settled on my shoulders. I turned around and it was Arnold, looking at me with what Winnie once called his “Deacon look.”

We hadn’t really spoken up to this point. Perhaps I’d even consciously evaded him a bit—and maybe him, me. He knew what I thought of his wife, how we were all a bit in awe and in love with pretty Winnie Walzer. He thanked me for coming, and I asked him for the second time in two days if he was okay. Arnold’s look softened. His eyes began to glisten.

“I’m okay for now,” golf’s most public man said softly of his most private loss. We both knew it would be the early mornings and evenings to come that would be toughest for him to get through, when Winnie’s presence filled their house with such warm abundance.

He cleared his throat and managed a smile. “The good news is, she left me good instructions on how to live the rest of my life,” he said, still squeezing my arm with those huge blacksmith hands of his, perhaps picturing Winnie that gorgeous summer day on the hill above the barn. Remembering her as I always will.

“Very firm instructions,” he said.

~James Dodson
Chicken Soup for the Golfer’s Soul, The 2nd Round

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