'Voice of Arnie's Army': Chris Rodell's book gets to heart of golf legend Arnold Palmer
Arnold Palmer could come across as folksy and unassuming, but he possessed a sly wit and a boatload of confidence.
He was a philanthropist, a pilot and, of course, a legendary golfer, nicknamed "The King."
Palmer kept company with queens and presidents, yet was most comfortable at home, in Latrobe, with "his people."
Chris Rodell, his Youngstown neighbor, knew him as a man who once called him out for flattery, joking, "I can't tell you how much I enjoy you coming in here to blow so much sweet smoke up my (posterior)."
"I kept waiting for the day he'd ask me to pull his finger," Rodell writes in his new book profiling his famous friend.
A former Tribune-Review reporter, Rodell, 55, is a freelance writer and author of several books.
His most recent is "Arnold Palmer: Homespun Stories of The King," published by Triumph Books.
While covering the 2001 Pennsylvania Classic for "Golf" magazine, Rodell veers from his straight up query to several players, asking them to recall their first aces (holes in one).
Spying Palmer, he decides to have a little fun.
"Which do you remember more clearly: your first ace or your first kiss?" he asks.
"Oh, the first ace," Palmer answers without hesitation.
"It just meant so much more to me," he says, laughing.
That assignment was the first of many over the years, as Palmer's and Rodell's professional relationship evolved into a friendship.
In fact, Palmer wrote a cover endorsement for an earlier Rodell book, "Use All the Crayons!"
Amidst all the happy commotion about the Palmer book, I keep getting reminders about how much people love 'Use All The Crayons!' the story of how I've remained cheerful despite life's perpetual butt kicking. Stranger just bought 3 for graduation gifts #life #books pic.twitter.com/UEErEr1OIQ— Chris Rodell (@8Days2Amish) May 22, 2018
Rodell's office is above The Tin Lizzy, a Youngstown bar and restaurant Palmer frequented and sometimes jokingly offered to buy.
"I come here every day. I'm a social person in an anti-social job," he says.
Although he lives nearby, the structure of keeping "office hours" never left Rodell.
Neither did, he says, the ability to write on deadline.
"I only had five weeks to write this book," Rodell says.
The father of two daughters, ages 12 and 17, his freelance career is not always lucrative, he says, but has allowed him to be a present parent.
"I've really enjoyed my life and the time I spent with my kids," he says.
Savoring sources' stories
Following Palmer's 2016 death, a Palmer business associate he asked not to identify told Rodell he was the "voice of Arnie's Army."
"I would write these irreverent stories on my blog, just about what it was like to interview him, and people would ask, 'What's he really like?' ... I realized I do have a story to tell," he says.
Rodell approached numerous editors and agents, and dealt with a writer's nemesis — rejection — until he found a publisher that gave him a green light.
The book is full of anecdotes, shared by people who knew an Arnold Palmer fans who tagged along on the greens never did.
This is the man who once approached Rodell at a formal social event and "noogied me."
"He could have stifled the room with pretentiousness, but instead he chose to be playful and fun," he says.
Wanting to salute his friend and Latrobe, Rodell placed an ad in a local newspaper.
"I asked, just tell me your best Arnold Palmer stories. ... Then I just answered the phone and typed," he says, grinning.
Those stories include offers of letters of reference, unsolicited charitable donations, even a request that Palmer seek political office.
Along with anecdotes from locals, the book includes insights from Jim Nantz, Tom Ridge and Gary Player about what makes small Western Pennsylvania towns like Latrobe special enough to nurture global icons like Palmer and Fred Rogers.
Words of praise
Latrobe Mayor Rosie Wolford calls Rodell's book "phenomenal."
"I bought copies for my siblings and a couple of extras to share. I thought about using it as a marketing tool for Latrobe, but I haven't figured out how to do that yet," Wolford says.
Wolford says she found herself laughing aloud as she read the book about Palmer, whom she'd met socially.
"There are such cute, charming little stories in there," she says. "I'm 57. Arnie was in his prime when I was pretty young. ... I think Chris did a wonderful job."
Palmer's longtime assistant, "Doc" Giffin, agrees.
At Rodell's request, he says, he read the book prior to publication.
"I consider it a very well-done work. I've had a lot of people tell me they've read it and enjoyed the book. I think Arnie would be pleased with it," Giffin says.
Rodell is busy now with personal appearances and book signings, and continues to hear people's "Arnie" stories.
'Arnold Palmer plays the lottery,' a 56-second video of a story straight from the pages of my new book, 'Arnold Palmer: Homespun Stories of The King,' available @TriumphBooks , amazon, Barnes & Noble and most places quality books are sold ... https://t.co/ITS9WgQ4vi— Chris Rodell (@8Days2Amish) May 21, 2018
"I used to say I was friends with Arnold Palmer. Then I realized Arnold Palmer was friends with everyone," he says.
It's early in the book when Palmer makes his affection for his hometown crystal clear.
"This is the most beautiful place in the world," Palmer tells Rodell in a 2010 interview.
"It has everything. It has mountains, fresh water, four beautiful seasons and friendly people. I've been all over the world and have never found a place better than this. I live in Florida the rest of the time and I love Orlando, but if I were forced to choose one place over all the others, this would be it. I never once thought of leaving. And I never will."
Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5401 or email@example.com or via Twitter @MaryPickels.