Posted by: N.S. Palmer | December 2, 2009

A Great Man Leaves Us

By N.S. Palmer

Robert W. Palmer, M.D.


I remember a lot of things about my father, who passed away on November 28.

When I was a child, Dad liked to watch “the Friday night fights” (professional boxing) on television. While he watched, he drank a beer or two: usually Budweiser, “the king of beers.” Occasionally he drank Wiedemann beer, though he later avowed that it was “awful stuff.”

Saturday mornings, I took charge of the television to watch “The Three Stooges,” a slapstick comedy team from the 1930s and 1940s whose antics I still enjoy on DVD. Dad was usually in the kitchen, adjacent to the TV room, cooking pancakes for the family. He enjoyed listening to the Three Stooges because of all the sound effects they made as they punched each other and poked each other in the eyes (don’t try that at home, kids).

Every Christmas, Dad dressed up as Santa to distribute presents to the children in the pediatrics ward of Methodist Hospital, where he was chief resident physician. Even though I wasn’t a patient in the hospital, I attended the big Christmas party where he gave out presents. I felt as if I was in on a big secret: The one handing out the presents wasn’t really Santa, he was my father.

On Christmas Eve, most children and their parents leave cookies and milk for Santa Claus in case he’s hungry when he visits. At my house, we left cookies and beer. Budweiser, the king of beers. I was starting to get suspicious about the Santa story.

When I played baseball in Little League and wanted to be a pitcher, Dad built a pitching mound for me in our backyard. On the side of the house, he painted a circle so that I could practice throwing accurately into the center of the circle. Dad had opened his own medical office by then, and his secretary was married to one of the players for the Indianapolis Indians baseball team. From the player, Dad got a major-league baseball bat that had been used in several games, and gave it to me. It was almost as big as I was, but it gave me extra confidence as I dragged it onto the Little League field to the awe of the other children. Dad was also a popular umpire for Little League games, partly because of his fairness, partly because of his knowledge of baseball, and partly because of his zany theatrics as an umpire.

Those are cherished memories, but they’re the kind of memories that many sons have of their fathers. I want to tell you about the man himself.

Aristotle recommended “moderation in all things.” The Buddha said that we should follow “the middle way.”

Neither of them ever met Dad. He was not a man of the middle way. His philosophy was more akin to that of Jesus, who said that if someone wanted our coat, we should give him our cloak as well; and if someone wanted us to go a mile, we should go two miles.

Whatever Dad did in life, he threw himself into it fully and without reservation. As a soldier, as a student, as a doctor, as a husband, father, and grandfather, as a civic leader, or just as a man, in baseball or golf or singing, he didn’t go just one mile. He didn’t go just two miles. He’d always go at least three, or four, or however many it took. And when he finally had to leave us, he did so on his own terms. As much as any man can be in control of his own destiny, he remained in control of his until the very end.

His total commitment applied to his moral beliefs and conduct as well. He wasn’t a perfect person: none of us is. He didn’t get everything right the first time. But whenever he became convinced that he’d been wrong about something — in belief, attitude, or action — he moved heaven and earth to do better and to get it right.

That’s part of the reason he was more than just a good man: he was a great man. His life and example continue to inspire us and enrich our community.

The night before Dad left us, I was at Starbucks writing an article — working, as Dad would have wanted — when my brother Dave called me on my cell phone. He told me that he had just come from Dad’s hospital room, and if I had anything else I wanted to say to Dad, now was the time to do it. I told Dave that Dad and I were lucky to have settled all our outstanding issues 10 years ago. I had been to the hospital every day for two weeks, including earlier that same day. We had said everything that needed to be said. And I went back to writing.

But then I stopped writing. I got up and drove to the hospital. There were two more things I needed to say to him.

I stood by his bedside and looked at the man who had taught me so much. And I said:

“I’m sorry that I am not a better man.”

I’m no worse than most people, and probably better than some. But no matter how long I live, and no matter how much I achieve, I know that I will never be the man my father was.

I took Dad’s hand. And I said:

“I will see you again someday.”

Community Hospital Annual Diagnosis Awards

Each year, the hospital gave an award to the doctor with the highest percentage of correct diagnoses. Dad won the award year after year, until the hospital finally declared him “permanent champion.”

What’s not in the official obituary:

  • As a doctor, Dad made house calls and charged $35.
  • He was almost never late. If you had an appointment with him at nine o’clock, you saw him at nine o’clock unless you were late.
  • He had only one examining room and saw only one patient at a time. As a result, he made less money than most doctors but gave his patients better care.
  • He was much in demand as a diagnostician. When other doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with a patient, they called Dad. He was like the TV doctor “House” except that he didn’t need a cane, he didn’t need a “team,” and he was always kind to patients.
  • When he was chief resident at Methodist Hospital, he dressed up each Christmas as Santa Claus to distribute presents to the children in the pediatrics ward.
  • Though he was a scientist, he believed in the personal and spiritual side of medical practice. He thought it was just as important to care for his patients as people as it was to give them the right drugs.
  • If he had a fault, it was that he believed all doctors (and all Republicans) were as dedicated, honest, and conscientious as he was.
  • He provided a moral example that I still struggle to follow.

Robert W. Palmer, M.D., born 1922, passed away after a brief illness.

Dad was born in the small town of Tyler, Minnesota in the United States, son of the Rev. Roy Palmer and Cassie O’Camic Palmer. He grew up in Waterville, Minnesota. He had three brothers and two sisters. As a youth, he was a talented athlete in football, baseball, and basketball, and a successful Golden Gloves boxer.

When the United States entered World War II, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and became a B-24 bomber pilot in the South Pacific. He flew 76 combat missions, became a squadron commander, rose to the rank of Major, and was decorated repeatedly for heroism.

After the war, he used the G.I. Bill to enroll in Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he graduated with honors three years later. While visiting a friend in upstate New York during his senior year, he made an impromptu Saturday morning visit to the University of Rochester Medical School. There, he encountered an elderly gentleman who gave him a tour and asked him questions about his background. After the tour, the man asked Dad if he wanted to enroll. When Dad said that he doubted he could gain admission, the man revealed that he was Dr. George Whipple, a Nobel prize-winning medical researcher and dean of the medical school. He told Dad that his application was accepted. Dad enrolled the next year and earned his M.D. in 1953.

He moved in 1956 to Indianapolis, Indiana. There, he became chief resident physician at Methodist Hospital, a post later held by one of my brothers, Steven. He entered private practice as an internist in 1960 and retired in 2003, though he continued to serve as staff physician for Meals on Wheels.  He was affiliated for most of his career with Community Hospital, where he served on the board of directors and established the family medicine residency program.  He was also assistant professor of clinical medicine for the Indiana University School of Medicine. He was elected to the Fellowship of Distinguished Physicians of Community Hospital in 1991.

Dad was active in many civic and charitable causes. He was president of the Lawrence Township School Board, president of All Souls Unitarian Church, and a founder of the World War II Roundtable. He was an active member of the Service Club of Indianapolis and the American Legion, as well as a volunteer at the Indiana State Museum and a driver for Meals on Wheels.

Link: A 1988 interview that I did with my father about his life.

Copyright 2009 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL ( are included.


  1. Scott, I’m very sorry you’ve lost your father. You always spoke so highly of him. I hope that as you grieve you will focus on his excellent example and influence, and will count as joy that which rubbed off on you.

    • Thank you, Jim.

      I prefer to think of him not as lost, but as temporarily misplaced. I look forward to seeing him again someday.

  2. My deepest sympathies on the passing of your father. May the path of character and excellence that he blazed be followed and extended by other. My prayers are with you and your family.

    • Thank you, Jet.

      Dad is a tough act to follow, but he would want us to persevere. We are all doing our best.

  3. Oh, NS, I’m really sorry. I came here to check in and my blood just ran cold when I saw. It sounds like your dad led an exemplary life, and I’m happy for you that he was someone you could be so proud of and feel so strongly about. He’ll keep on making the world a better place through the things you do.

  4. Thank you, LP.

    I know people who aren’t proud of their fathers. I’m lucky to have a father who I’ve always admired. It made me think of a poem that Lewis Campbell wrote in memory of the physicist James Clerk Maxwell:

    And so thou wast made perfect! Not a friend
    Might step between thee and the sore distress
    Which thou with strong and patient godliness
    Enduredst uncomplaining to the end.
    Heroic saint! Bright sufferer! Thou dost lend
    To science a new glory. Midst the press
    Of boasters, all thy meek-eyed fame confess,
    And worldlings thine unworldliness commend.

    Shine on, pure spirit! Though we see thee not,
    Even in thy passage thou hast purged away
    The fogs of earth-born doubt and sense-bound thought
    From hearts that followed thine all-piercing ray.

    And while thou soarest far from human view,
    Even thy faint image shall our strength renew.

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