I had to wait a while to write about the death of Whit Palmer. He passed away at 90 on Jan. 1, 2020 after a long, full life lived almost exclusively in his beloved Ocala. Now there’s the tough reality that this community must go forward without his leadership, vision and his constant encouragement.
For those who have lived around Whit, it feels a little bit like we lost our starting quarterback and head coach all at once. Had I been writing a book on Whitfield McCrory Palmer Jr. it would be entitled “Whit Palmer: A Life Well Lived.” Or, “Hold My Beer While I Fix Everything.”
You could have tuned Whit Palmer in on a variety of life’s channels -- from business to education to healthcare to politics to charity to faith to Gator football. So many people knew him, admired him, counted on him and called him their friend. The biggest commonality was his kindness. We all felt like he was our personal guardian. And his loyalty was epic. Committed in service, financial backing and spirit to the University of Florida, Mr. Palmer is still the only Florida grad to have served as president of the UF Alumni Association and UF Foundation at the same time. Typically, he always did more than his share.
Whit would not like somebody canonizing him because he was a man of all people, regardless of station, race or class. He helped us all. For me it was the introduction and acceptance into his circle of prominent Gators, including introduction to them and a chance to make a few road trips together. That he would actually give credence to the thoughts, opinions and writings of this small town, twenty-something sportswriter was high privilege.
Nothing was more profound than his loyalty and love of the Florida Gators, as was noted in costume during his final services.
After stripping his priest attire to display his all orange-and-blue, Father Don Curran of Christ The King Anglican Church asked some 200 attendees at the funeral to “please stand if Whit Palmer ever did anything to affect your life in a positive way.” I swear, I think every last one of us rose to our feet. One of them who stood was Steve Spurrier, who had called me two days prior to get details on services because he wanted to drive over from Crescent Beach.
Often Whit roadtripped to see the Gators play. Once in 1965 he called me at the last minute to say he had a seat on a private plane for Florida-Ole Miss in Oxford, Miss. Our taxi driver in Oxford was a disgruntled Rebel fan who was still angry about Ole Miss losing by a point to Alabama. This was in the aftermath of Coach Johnny Vaught’s incredible run of six SEC titles a year or two prior.
“Well you only got beat by a point and to Alabama (No. 4 in the country),” Whit said, hoping to placate the Rebel fan. Instead, it riled him up.
“It don’t matter! A BEAT’S A BEAT!” he proclaimed. That afternoon Florida administered a 17-0 beat. That battle cry lived forever with Whit and -- we often exchanged it with a laugh. Whit knew about “beats,” having remembered the hapless, winless Golden Era team of the late 1940s. And when it came to Auburn-Florida, he watched or read about 34 straight “beats” at Auburn which was like the plague.
Back in the summer of 1973, Whit visited the Vatican and got the pope to bless a special medal, which he presented to Coach Doug Dickey as a hopeful antidote to the Auburn jinx. The Gators beat the Tigers 12-8 that year to snap the losing streak.
Once again, Whit always had the right connections. And his favorite tool was the phone. “I think Alexander Graham Bell had him in mind when he invented the telephone,” said Randy Klein, Whit’s son-in-law.
The connectivity with Whit is only a small part of it. Once he had you dialed in, you were on his Rolodex for Life, with people usually calling him to ask for help or advice or information. He always seemed to come through, or suggest a better way.
Or he was calling you with an idea – like the day he called to offer Spurrier a job at Dixie Lime & Stone. “When Coach (Doug) Dickey was fired I lost my job as quarterback coach, he was the only Gator to call me and offer a job. And that’s the reason I came here (to the funeral) today.”
Steve told Whit that day he wanted to continue seeking work as a coach, “but if I don’t get hired I might take you up on it,” said Spurrier. Oddly enough, Whit Palmer almost deterred Spurrier from eventually wining Florida’s first national championship.
Reflecting on his time as Gator quarterback coach, Steve said: “I was out of work for a month with three kids and a wife. If Coach Pepper Rodgers hadn’t hired me at Georgia Tech, I might have wound up working for Whit Palmer.”
Sitting across the room in the sanctuary sat Doug Dickey himself, who at age 85 had driven 100 miles from Jacksonville to also pay his respect.
Ever since he graduated from UF in 1952, Whit stayed connected to his alma mater as a contributor and a passionate football fan. Two key members of his staff were former Gator players in the winless “Golden Era” years under Bear Wolf and later Bob Woodruff – punter Fred Montesdeoca and tackle Red Mitchum, who became prominent Ocalans.
Among Whit Palmer’s other wonderful traits was his appreciation for good story and a sense of humor. For that he always had Mitchum on a tether and the tall redhead from Etowah County Alabama soon became a much-in-demand after-dinner speaker with his down-home, home spun material. I wrote a column on Red’s antics and won my first state writing award. Red’s popularity grew and he eventually became the only three-time emcee of the Gator Growl.
Montsdeoca, from Avon Park, was the serious one who could often be found behind a barbecue grill chomping on a stogey, all business, just like he was as an All-SEC punter for Woodruff’s team.
“Red and Fred were like brothers to me,” Whit once said. Red died in 2003. Fred about eight years later.
I shed no tears for Whit, whose 90 years were, as I said, well lived. But I am sad for Diane and his family – and for all of his friends whose lives were enriched by Whitfield McCrory Palmer Jr.’s kindness, sense of humor, pride in his community, integrity and bolstering of the human spirit. He was one our better angels, and we will miss him terribly.