An Interview with My Father

Robert W. Palmer, MD
A Real American Hero

 About beliefs and actions: "If you want to know what a person believes, watch what he does with his life. That's what he believes, no matter what he professes."

About World War II: "It was exciting and interesting, and since I didn't get killed, I rather enjoyed it."

About priorities: "[In combat], whether you live or die is the main thing ... I got my priorities in order right there. When I went to college and medical school, I studied hard, but never spent any time worrying about grades. I had already faced the ultimate issue: whether I was going to live or die. Compared to that -- a test in biology? What the hell is that?"


I didn't know it growing up -- I'm not sure that my father knows it, even now -- but the name "Palmer" is actually an English title of nobility derived from the Crusades. Knights who distinguished themselves in battle were awarded the "Order of the Palm" -- similar to the Medal of Honor in the American armed forces. Over the years, the knights and their descendants became known as "Palmers." Most of the people currently named "Palmer" are descended from this small group of knights.

The Knights of the Palm could scarcely have hoped for a more worthy descendant than my father, Robert William Palmer. Born in the 1920s, then helping to support his family during the Great Depression, he joined the Army Air Corps in 1941 and flew almost 200 combat missions as a bomber pilot in the South Pacific, where he won the Distinguished Flying Cross and many other honors. On his return to the United States after the war, he completed college in three years, with honors, and enrolled in the University of Rochester Medical School. Since his graduation, he's devoted his life to helping the sick and serving his community.

As a doctor, he makes house calls, works on time, and actually listens to his patients. When I was a child, he often treated poorer patients without charge, or took payment in whatever they had: farm products, baked goods, and in one case, a puppy. In 1991, he was voted "Distinguished Physician of the Year" for his contributions to the medical profession and to the community.

I'm fortunate to be able to say something that some people can't: If by the end of my life, I achieve as much and become as good a man as my father, I will feel that my life has been well-spent.

Following is the transcript of an interview I did with my father on May 30, 1988, in which he discusses his life and beliefs.

Scott: I am Scott Palmer, the date is May 30, 1988. I am about to interview my father, Robert William Palmer, about his life and opinions ...

Dad: My life so far.

Scott: His life so far. Major achievements. Why don't we start out, Dad, with a little bit about your parents and early family life. Can you tell me a little about that?

Dad: My father was Roy A. Palmer -- Roy Almond Palmer. My mother's maiden name, before they shortened it, was O'Camic: her name was Cassie O'Camic. And through the years, I think they took off the "O" can called themselves "Camic." Both my mother and father were raised in northern Wisconsin, a rather primitive area.

My mother's people, as I understand -- and I'm sorry that I don't know more specifics about my ancestors -- were basically Irish, with some other strains mixed in. My father was a mixture of Dutch and Welsh and a few other things. And they both were well-educated people for their day. They were born in 1884, both of them, in different parts of Wisconsin. And they had high school education, one year of teacher's college -- it was called "normal school," then. And my Dad had 18 months in what was called a "seminary," in training for the ministry.

So for his day, he was a very well-educated man. In the first decade of this century, to have a high school education was unusual, and to have a year of college -- which was considered adequate to teach -- was remarkable. They were well-educated people. They valued education. We had books everywhere when I was a kid. We didn't have television or radio, we had a lot of books.

Scott: What kind of books?

Dad: Everything from philosophical things that my Dad liked to read, to children's books -- The Wizard of Oz was one that I read over and over when I was a kid. One of the books that I treasured when I was a little boy was written by Charles Lindbergh [first man to fly solo across the Atlantic] in 1927 after his flight across the Atlantic. It was called We, for him and his airplane. I read that book several times. Each of these small towns we lived in in Minnesota seemed to have a library, and I was an avid reader. I read just about everything I could get my hands on.

We were a reading family. We didn't have a lot of affluence, and we didn't have a lot of material possessions, but we had eyes and ears and brains, and could see, and we read.

Scott: And your father was employed as a minister?

Dad: He was a minister until 1929, when he quit. And during the decade of the 1930s, he was unemployed most of the time. We were very poor.

Scott: How did you survive?

Dad: Mostly, by one or another of us working from time to time. My family was too proud to accept any "relief," which was welfare, or charity. And I always seemed to have a job. Even when nobody else in the family had a job, I always seemed to have a job. There were times in the 1930s when I was the only one working, and I was just a little kid.

Scott: How did you manage to get employment when so many people were out of work?

Dad: I would work at anything, for anybody, for any fee. I worked for John Daywalt for 15 cents a day.

Scott: That was the drugstore?

Dad: No, that was a meat market. But I worked for 15 cents a day, and all the butt ends of lunch meat and stuff I could take home. And you couldn't sell liver in those days, and I used to take liver home every night. And we had a lot of liver.

But we were so poor that we would make modern poor people look affluent. Modern poor people don't know what "poor" is -- it's a federal definition, now. There were many days when we had nothing to eat. I don't mean that we didn't have enough to eat -- we didn't have anything to eat. And I can imagine the torture that my mother and father must have gone through, wondering how they were going to feed these kids. Because there were many days when we didn't know when our next meal would be.

Scott: How many brothers and sisters did you have?

Dad: I had five brothers and sisters: three brothers and two sisters. I was the fifth in this group. My oldest brother, Wayne Almond Palmer, was named after my Dad, was born in 1912; my mother and father were married in 1911. Wayne was born on November 7, 1912. My sister Kate was born on February 15, 1914, about a year and three months later. Russ, my second brother, was born on July 11, 1917. My sister Peg was born on July 16, 1919. I was born on June 21, 1922, and my kid brother, Dick, was born on May 31, 1928. He is almost six years younger than I am. In fact, his 60th birthday is tomorrow.

Scott: What were your parents like as people? Let's get back for a second -- your father quit the ministry. Was that for theological reasons?

Dad: For philosophical reasons. He was forced to stand up and say things that he just didn't believe. Philosophically, he was compromising his own honesty every time he opened his mouth. And his intellectual honesty was valuable to him, and he just wouldn't do it, anymore. He quit the ministry at a bad time: he didn't realize that that time [1929] was the beginning of the Depression, and that he would not get work again for years. And he tried to work at this, and tried to work at that.

My Dad was such an honest person; he tried to sell insurance, for example, and he would tell a person the good things about the insurance policy, and he'd tell him the bad things about it. He was scrupulously honest, almost to the point of being pathological. [laughs] He was such a nice person that he was almost too nice. My father was a kind and gentle soul, the epitome of kindness.


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