Most people in Statesboro and South Georgia know Tommy Palmer as one of the preeminent high school sports broadcasters in the state of Georgia, but Palmer got his start in radio spinning early rock and roll records
And in 1963, Palmer was about a year out of high school and working as a disc jockey in Waycross. In September of that year he received a promotional 45 record in the mail from the Swan record label. It was a song by a band that was becoming very popular in England and gaining notice in the U.S.
So, he popped “She Loves You” by The Beatles on the record player and gave it a listen.
“Back then, you would get lots of records unsolicited from all different labels,” Palmer said. “After listening, I said to myself, ‘That’s not a hit,’ and tossed it in the trash.”
Actually, She Loves You didn’t become a hit in the U.S. until January 1964 and, by that time, Palmer was a DJ at WFON in Marietta and was playing She Loves You in full rotation.
“I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice and we played that and a lot of Beatles records all the time,” he said. “I missed The Beatles bandwagon at first, but I got on quickly.”
From there, Palmer has gone on to have a long and successful career in radio and television broadcasting, but, for the past several years, Palmer has been battling cancer. Earlier this year, Palmer was told by his oncologist that treatment would no longer be effective and he was given several months to live.
“When both those doctors told me I had less than a one percent chance to live six more months, that hits home,” he said. “I think my family is shocked at how well I’m handling it so far. But I tell you if I were not a Christian, I wouldn’t be handling it. That’s the truth. I accepted the Lord as my personal savior when I was 7 and a half and then, like many Christians, rededicated my life many times at various stages, if you know what I mean. We are human and He knows that.”
A radio career begins
Palmer was born and raised in Daisy and during his senior year at Claxton High, he began working with WCLA radio in Claxton. He was working weekends, giving the weather forecast and cutting commercials, he said, and when he graduated, station owner Don Sports offered him a job.
“In 1962, I started at $75 a week, which was a lot of money,” Palmer said. “I was given the 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. time slot and I played rock and roll. My show was called ‘Jive ‘til 5.”
Three months later, Palmer was lured away by WVOV, a 5,000-watt station in Vidalia, for $90 a week. A few months after that, a Waycross station offered $15 more per week and he moved to even further southern Georgia.
Palmer, however, said he wasn’t very happy in Waycross and one day his brother called from Atlanta.
“He told me, ‘Why don’t you come on up to Atlanta. You’re good enough for this market.’ So off I went,” he said.
Palmer was hired at the first station he stopped at – WFON in Marietta.
“I was offered the midnight shift and I told the station manager I would take it if I could move to the first day shift when it came open,” Palmer said. “A few weeks later, they moved me to the afternoon drive slot and we went on down the road rockin’ and rollin.’”
But after a few weeks, his station manager told Palmer he had to make a change – his name.
“I said my name’s Tommy Palmer. And he said, ‘No it’s got too many syllables in it and people won’t remember your name.’ He asked me, ‘Who’s your favorite announcer?’ I said Bob Hale, from WLS in Chicago. So he said, ‘Welcome to WFON, Don Dale.’ Hale became Dale.”
Palmer had his first radio nickname — Don Dale.
Palmer said the station was No. 1 in its market and he not only loved it, he received a valuable education in the radio business. Yet … home was calling and the possibility of owning his own radio station.
“I made a decision to come back to South Georgia,” Palmer said. “I got offered a position that led me to believe that I would own part of the radio station in Claxton one day, but that never happened. I was making 140 bucks a week in Marietta and my dad was making $100 a week as chief of police in Claxton. My dad was furious at me!”
Palmer said he has some regrets about his decision to leave Marietta, but, ultimately, “I came back and had four wonderful children. And I wouldn’t change that for anything.”
Turning more to sports
Upon returning to Claxton and the Statesboro area, Palmer kept his DJ role, but he also started calling more high school football and other sports live on the radio. He said he developed a love of sports from playing three sports at Claxton High School.
“I played football, ran track and, I say humbly, I was an outstanding baseball pitcher,” Palmer said.
Twice, Palmer said, he came close to throwing no hitters.
The first one was against Southeast Bulloch when he gave up an infield hit to the first batter and then got everybody else out the rest of the game. The second one, Palmer said, hurt worse.
“We were playing Glennville and for 6 and two-third innings, I couldn’t miss,” he said. “With one out to go, my coach calls time out, comes out to the mound and asks me: ‘Are you OK?’ I said, “Good lord man, I know I’m throwing a no-hitter. You know I’m throwing a no-hitter. Everybody in the ballpark knows I’m throwing a no-hitter. I’m fine.’ As soon as he goes back to the dugout and sits down, Andy Perkins dropped a hit over second base.
“And 20 some years later, Andy told me, ‘I’m so sorry. You were perfect that day. I just stuck my bat out there and it flew over the second baseman’s head.’ That was right nice of him. I’ll never forget it.”
As Palmer started honing his craft and becoming one of the best known voices of high school football and other sports in the area, Palmer’s son Jay said some of his first memories stem from his dad’s profession.
“First time that I ever sat in a press box with dad was when I was 4,” Jay Palmer said. “I have vivid memories from when I was a young child. He was working, so my experience at a football game was different than almost everyone else. And I learned quickly that you didn’t go to the bathroom at halftime because your dad was doing a halftime show live on the air.”
Jay Palmer has followed somewhat in his father’s footsteps. After years of doing play-by-play and calling about 300 games, he now works for Flint Media in Bainbridge where he does a morning radio show. He also sells radio advertising and in the fall, he’s a volunteer coach with the Early County High School football team.
Jay actually started working with his father when he was 13.
“I remember the first time I did color and my dad and I were laughing about it recently. Bulloch Academy was having a Christmas tournament and I did color the first half of the Bulloch Academy girls’ game. The girls’ team was really good and they were beating the daylights out of whoever they were playing. We talked about the stats and the first half and then my dad says: ‘Now with the play-by-play story of the second half is my son Jay Palmer.’ And he got up and walked away. I had never done play-by-play before and I had to learn how to call play-by-play that day, live on the air. It was a petrifying experience, but a good learning experience, too.
“Dad taught me a lot. I always pretended that dad was listening to the games I called. He probably wasn’t, but I always pretended that he was and I was going to get a critique after the game.”
Only once, though, when both were radio and announcing professionals did Tommy and Jay Palmer have the opportunity to work together announcing a game.
“A few years back, Bainbridge had one of those weird Saturday afternoon games against Northside-Warner Robins and for some reason the normal play-by-play crew from Bainbridge couldn’t make it,” Jay Palmer said. “I told the station that I could make it to Warner Robins and I thought my dad could meet me there. So, we were able to do that. I did play-by-play and he did color. I will always remember that. It was a really cool experience to be able to do a game with dad. It was fun.”
Working with GPB
In 1985, Palmer became manager of a station in Blakely in Southwest Georgia and he continued building his career in radio and broadcasting high school sports. In 1991, he returned to Statesboro and teamed up with the late Nate Hirsch at WWNS and other stations in the area. In particular, he started up the Saturday Morning Quarterback Club program, where they would review all the results each week from the previous night’s games.
In 1997, Georgia Public Broadcasting started the Georgia High School Football Scoreboard Show on Friday nights and Palmer was asked by host and producer Edgar Treiguts in 1999 to be the show’s primary South Georgia correspondent.
Palmer also started regularly announcing semifinal and championship games for GPB’s television coverage of the high school playoffs in football and basketball.
In 2005, Palmer said GPB executives contacted him and asked if he wanted to take over the High School Football Scoreboard Show as its host and producer.
“It was a great opportunity and I was honored GPB asked me,” Palmer said. “High school football was always popular, but with the internet boom and then the introduction of smart phones, people were just looking for more and more football.”
So, from 2005 to 2019, every Friday night at 10 p.m., from late August to late November, Palmer came on the air for two hours on upwards of 70 radio stations at times all across Georgia to deliver every score of every high school football game played that night.
Palmer also wrote hundreds of blogs, participated in regular podcasts, was a regular guest expert on GBP sports panel shows, filmed dozens of video columns about high school football and cemented his reputation as the voice of high school football in South Georgia.
Jon Nelson, who has worked with Palmer at GPB since the early 2000s remembers well the first time he met Palmer in person.
“This is one of Tommy’s favorite stories,” Nelson said. “Lowndes was playing North Gwinnett and it was the last game at Martin Stadium at Lowndes High (in 2007) and it was the last time there were championship games at home sites before moving up to the Georgia Dome. Tommy was doing public address for that game. It was the first game Tommy and I met and it was during a downpour. It was wild that whole night and it was an open air press box. Rain and wind were flying through the press box all night. It was at the Lowndes-North Gwinnett championship game. Every couple of years, Tommy asks me — ‘Do you remember when … ?’”
Kevin Gerke came to GPB as a sports producer in 2010 after 20 years on WSB in Atlanta.
“When I came on board to reorganize our coverage of high school football and high school sports, the idea of using Tommy, with his connection to South Georgia sports, was a no-brainer,” Gerke said. “He would open up our coverage of high school championship games in football and basketball. His voice is just golden.
“Tommy is a perfect example of professionalism and how you run your business. He is a great ambassador for us. All the crews always loved him. When you’ve been around our business awhile you can tell who’s good and who’s not pretty quickly and Tommy’s spot on.”
The cancer diagnosis
Nelson said everyone who worked with Tommy at GPB was taken aback with the news of Palmer’s terminal cancer prognosis.
“It really hit us hard,” Nelson said. “Tommy is part of our football family, but he’s a lot more than that. He’s part of our hearts. He’s the perfect gentleman and great sports announcer. We will miss him.”
Palmer’s children and family are still digesting that the near future won’t hold their father’s infectious laugh.
For his daughter Julie, she said she will always hold a “song in her heart,” for her father.
“He instilled a love of music with me,” she said. “I can think of many times in the car with dad and him quizzing me on who was singing the song on the radio. Dad knows a lot about music and he made it a trivia game. I will always remember dad with music and song writing and words.”
Still, the news in May that her father had only a few more months to live was hard to deal with, she said.
“He’s Tommy Palmer to the community, but he’s ‘pops’ to us. He’s daddy and pops to us,” she said. “Having lost my sister (Ginger) last year to cancer, I already have an understanding of how brutal and random cancer can be. We’re dealing with it OK. We’re trying to pull together as a family and be there for one another and enjoy whatever time we do have.”
Jay Palmer also said the last few months have been difficult, but he knows his father will, ultimately, rest easy.
“He’s a tough old Daisy boy,” he said. “He’s handled it like I expected him to. He’s always been a tough guy.
“Faith is a great thing. And I don’t know how people who don’t have faith in Jesus make it through something like this. We’re all leaning on the fact that Jesus is our lord and savior. We have eternal life through Him and even though we will miss dad’s physical presence, we know we’re going to be reunited. So we have that hope and joy. And it’s still sad.”
Tommy Palmer said he’s certainly spent a lot of time reflecting on his life the past few weeks and months. But with no real regrets.
“(My daughter) Ginger passed away last year and that took a lot out of me,” he said. “Burying a child is devastating. Julie and Jarrett and Jay have just been wonderful. I couldn’t ask them to be any better than they have been.
“I’ve been blessed. I can say 99.9 percent of the mistakes I made were of my own making. I wouldn’t change anything to the family I have today. I can say I’m at peace.”