Tales from Arnie's kingdom
Three longtime employees of Arnold Palmer Enterprises share their favorite stories about Mr. Palmer
September 10, 2016
- September 10, 2016
- The King, Arnold Palmer, turned 87 this weekend. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
This year, Donald “Doc” Giffin hit a significant anniversary working as Arnold Palmer’s personal assistant. The former sports writer and PGA of America press secretary has been a loyal aide and confidante to the World Golf Hall of Famer for 50 years, starting his job with Palmer in 1966.
Yet Giffin isn’t the only Western Pennsylvania native working in the understated, white, clapboard office that houses Arnold Palmer Enterprises located at 123 Legends Lane just off Arnold Palmer Drive in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
The only indication the building is the business office to one of the legends of the game is Palmer’s familiar, multi-colored umbrella logo attached to the front of the building, above the front door. Inside the office, among trophies, photographs, golf bags and other memorabilia celebrating Palmer’s 70-year-career, are three employees who perform various jobs handling Palmer’s business interests. Debbie Messich (33 years), Bob Demangone (28 years) and Gina Varrone (28 years) may not have Giffin’s longevity working for the man they all refer to as “Mr. Palmer,” but they do have a key component – loyalty -- to go with their collective 89 years’ worth of experience.
The three have each had a unique perspective for more than a quarter century, and as Palmer celebrates his 87th birthday September 10, Messich, Demangone and Varrone -- like their boss -- have stories to share.
LEGENDS OF THE GAME: Relive Arnold Palmer's career
Debbie Messich stuffs envelopes with memorabilia at Arnold Palmer Inc. headquarters in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. (Fred Vuich/PGA TOUR)
By Debbie Messich
Just about 33 years ago I started a new job. My boss was Arnold Palmer.
I had been working as a secretary in the steel industry here in Latrobe when there was an economic downturn, and I lost my job. At that time, my friend, who I have known from grade school, was leaving her position with Arnold Palmer Enterprises. She knew I was looking for employment and suggested I interview with Mr. Palmer. She convinced me to apply, so I came up to the office, interviewed and got the job, starting on October 3, 1983.
It’s funny, but I had actually met Mr. Palmer years before that job interview. His younger sister Sandy and I had gone to high school together, and I met him at a pre-prom party during my junior year when Sandy invited a few friends over to the house.
The job was a bit intimidating at first because I knew very little about golf, and I kept thinking, ‘Am I really going to learn all of this?’ I’m still learning after all these years but have come to realize this has been a job experience envied by many.
Of course Mr. Palmer has one thing that sets him apart: it’s how much he enjoys signing autographs for his fans. It is one of my duties at the office to coordinate those requests, one of the greatest players in golf history signing hundreds of photos each month along with pin flags, books, hats . . . you name it. We also sign many items that Mr. Palmer graciously donates for benefits throughout the year. He usually likes to sign with a black Sharpie marker, but for official documents and letters he will use a fountain pen.
One thing I can tell you is that Mr. Palmer signs everything, taking special care to make sure his signature is legible. He does not scribble, ever. We do have a few restrictions these days avoiding signing golf towels and shirts. These are difficult to sign because of certain materials and fabrics.
Sometimes the requests can be a bit unusual. I remember getting a request in the mail to have a pair of his socks signed. I had asked Winnie Palmer (his late wife) to bring a pair to the office, and when I handed the socks to him, he raised his eyebrows a little, smiled and got out the Sharpie to sign. My very favorite request, a year or so after I started working, was a letter from a 10-year-old boy. He wanted to have signatures of his two favorite people—Arnold Palmer and the Pope!
Most items people ask to have signed are the ones Mr. Palmer has worn or used, especially golf gloves. They were the most popular request when Mr. Palmer was actively playing. I think it provided fans making the request with a “real” connection.I remember getting a request in the mail to have a pair of his socks signed. I had asked Winnie Palmer (his late wife) to bring a pair to the office, and when I handed the socks to him, he raised his eyebrows a little, smiled and got out the Sharpie to sign.
Years back he would sign three or four times a week, usually first thing in the morning. He would sign for hours. These days it is a little later in the day and only about once a week. Mr. Palmer, however, is in the office every day.
As most people know, the Palmers divide their time between Latrobe and Orlando, where Bay Hill is located. Latrobe is the business office so most of the personal mail, autograph requests, etc., get mailed here. When he’s he Florida, I prepare the items as I do here and send them to Bay Hill for his signature. It all works.
Today, Mr Palmer isn’t as visible as he once was, and he has not played competitive golf for years. Yet the requests have really never let up. He loves signing autographs for his fans, and they are very important to him. No matter where I go in Latrobe, people don’t ask about me, they want to know how is Arnold Palmer?
When I return home each night, I see the autographed Masters flag and golf club in my family room. Believe it or not, I was able to squeeze in a few signed items for myself!
Bob Demangone at Latrobe Country Club, across from Arnold Palmer Inc. headquarters. (Fred Vuich/PGA TOUR)
By Bob Demangone
In the summer of 1988, I was living in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and looking for a part-time summer job that I could do between high school and college. Prior to enrolling at nearby Saint Vincent College for my freshman year, Jerry Palmer, at the time the superintendent at Latrobe Country Club, hired me on the course’s grounds’ crew.
When I took that job at Latrobe Country Club fresh out of high school, my intention was to work through the summer and start college that fall after saving some money. And that would be the end of the job.
Sometimes – thankfully -- things don’t always go according to plan.
My career has been in Latrobe since, but Jerry is no longer my boss. These days, I answer to Jerry’s older brother, Arnold.
Back when I was still a teenager, though, Jerry apparently liked my work ethic that first summer, and he told me he didn’t want to lose me when I started college. With the golf course shut down for the winter, Jerry asked if I would go to Arnold and Winnie Palmer’s home and office area up the road from the golf course to do some caretaking during the winter months with Mr. and Mrs. Palmer away in Florida. So that’s what I did for all four years of college -- working on the golf course around my class schedule during the spring, summer and fall and caretaking for Mr. and Mrs. Palmer at their residence and the office when the course was closed once winter hit.
Over time I met Mr. Palmer and Winnie, and I suppose they took a liking to me. Right before I graduated from Saint Vincent, Mr. Palmer called me and asked if I wanted to come and work for him.
My immediate answer: “I would love to.”All I knew was I had landed a full-time position -- my first (and as it turns out only) job out of college. ... Today, I’m the vice president of Arnold Palmer Enterprises.
Although the job needed filling immediately, Mr. Palmer was willing to give me some time off after I graduated. But I told him I went to college to be ready to get into the workforce. He said, “OK, well I’ll see you Monday,” and that’s what happened. Saturday graduation. Monday, new job.
I didn’t know what kind of position I was accepting, I didn’t ask about salary or benefits or anything that normal people would have asked when they start a new job. All I knew was I had landed a full-time position -- my first (and as it turns out only) job out of college. I didn’t even submit a resume, although as a formality I did after I started just so there would be something in my file.
I look back on that experience now and I think, ‘Who in their right mind does anything like that?’
Well, I know of at least one guy.
Today, I’m the vice president of Arnold Palmer Enterprises. With 28 years of experience and being in a small, family-type office, I’ve been involved in and participated in just about anything and everything you could think of as it relates to golf and the business side of Mr. Palmer’s career.
There have been so many experiences during my 28 years, but one moment stands out, and it really had nothing to do with business. Instead, it was entirely a personal interaction with Mr. Palmer.
When Winnie passed away in November 1999, I drove to the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport with Mr. Palmer -- just the two of us in the car. We were to pick up the Palmers’ two daughters, Amy and Peg, after Mr. Palmer sent his airplane to pick them up. We had a quiet conversation about Winnie passing and how much he was going to miss his wife. I won’t go into the detail of our conversation as that was something private kept between the two of us; however I will say that I will always remember that as something special, even though the circumstances weren’t ideal or pleasant. It was nice that he was able to share a couple of thoughts with me and that maybe I was able to help him a little during that ride to the airport.
Over the years, I’ve worked on residential housing developments and hotel projects. I’ve worked extensively on the Winnie Palmer Nature Preserve, and in one capacity or another, I have been involved with almost all of Mr. Palmer’s personal and business endeavors.
But even with all of the experience and exposure to Mr. Palmer’s business over the years, it’s safe to say that this is a very family-oriented type of job. He has been around long enough that he doesn’t necessarily trust just anyone. So he has to maintain his own sort of inner circle of friends and advisors he trusts and has confidence in. Those of us in the office here in Latrobe are not the only people who would fit into that inner circle, but I think we are certainly part of it.
It’s been my great honor to spend my entire career with Mr. Palmer and his family, and I’ve concluded that we both have a mutual respect and confidence in each other, which is why I hope I have and can still add some type of value to him as he continues to move through his life and career.
Gina Varrone in her office at Arnold Palmer Inc. headquarters in Latrobe. (Fred Vuich/PGA TOUR)
By Gina Varrone
Some years ago, my boss walked into the office and asked me to get George H.W. Bush -- 41 -- on the phone. This was not an unusual request. My boss and President Bush are good friends. So I called the former President’s number, thinking I was calling his office and expecting his secretary to answer. To my surprise, I accidentally called his home number and President Bush answered the phone. Recognizing the President’s voice, I said, “President Bush, I’m so sorry, I thought I was calling your office. My name is Gina Varrone and I’m Arnold Palmer’s secretary.”
When President Bush heard that, he immediately responded “Well, aren’t you a lucky lady.”
President Bush, of course, is right. I’m very lucky that for the last 28 years, since February 22, 1988, I’ve been Mr. Palmer’s personal secretary.
Attempting to reach a former U.S. President by phone is just one of the many duties of my job. Along with taking dictation, making appointments and scheduling meetings, a unique and important part of this position is preparing the Phone Report. Basically, I log in every call that comes into the office and every call made from the office. At the end of the day, I type up that Phone Report and give it to Mr. Palmer. If he is out of town, he will still receive it at the end of the day. As it turns out, this is an excellent way for Mr. Palmer to be aware of everything that has occurred in his office, allowing him to take action accordingly.
I’ve also never been stumped when Mr. Palmer has come in asking me to get someone on the phone. Even if I don’t have that person’s phone number in my files, I know who to turn to for the number. My first go-to person is Doc Giffin, Mr. Palmer’s personal assistant for more than 50 years, the man who handles all of Mr. Palmer’s media requests. Doc is phenomenal. If I have a question about anything, anything at all, Doc will have the answer or will point me in the right direction.
I can also say that in the 28 years working for Arnold Palmer Enterprises, no two days have been alike. For instance, sometime back in the 1990s, Mr. Palmer came into the office one morning and told me he was going to take me to Florida with him. He was traveling from Latrobe to Orlando for the day on his plane, and I was to accompany him. I said, “Oh, Mr. Palmer, I can’t go. I have too much work to do, and this will be a good day for me to catch up on things while you’re in Orlando.” All he did was look at me and say, “Yes, you’re going.” So that’s what I did. He was going to Bay Hill on business and he wanted me there just so I could have lunch with my counterpart, Judy Furman, in the Orlando office. Mr. Palmer called her and said he was bringing a surprise, and I was the surprise. He just felt like it would be nice for us to get together for lunch since we did the same job, she in Orlando and me in Latrobe.I said, 'President Bush, I’m so sorry, I thought I was calling your office. My name is Gina Varrone and I’m Arnold Palmer’s secretary.' He immediately responded 'Well, aren’t you a lucky lady.'
I was also privileged to join Mr. Palmer at a special time in July 2000 when he decided to fly to Philadelphia. We flew in only for the day for a practice round of golf at TPC Jasna Polana in Princeton, New Jersey, where later that month he would play in The Instinet Classic, his 1,000th combined PGA TOUR-PGA TOUR Champions tournament.
A milestone tournament for Mr. Palmer and another special day for me.
There have been so many great memorable moments working here for Mr. Palmer. Another fun day was when Mr. Palmer and his good friend, Russ Meyer, arranged for private aircraft to make sure the office staff would be at the ceremony in Washington, D.C., when Mr. Palmer received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2012.
I know that I am most fortunate to have this position and always feel that I have to be better than just good at this job. I jokingly say I am sure there are a lot of people just waiting to sit in my chair, but that’s not going to happen anytime soon.
On occasion, I will give a tour of the office, and many times someone will say, “Do you play golf?” The answer is always “No, but I sure can type.”
After I was on the job for a couple of weeks, my brother asked, “So, Gina, how is it working for Arnold Palmer?” Without hesitation I said “You’ve heard of life in the fast lane? Well this is life in the jet lane.”
After 28 years, here I am sitting at my post in Arnold Palmer Enterprises, my desk right across from Mr. Palmer’s office. And I am loving every day of it.
President Bush isn’t the only one who knows what a lucky lady I am.