Leap Day birthdays gave Palm brothers a taste of celebrity

John Kelly
Columnist February 28, 2012

Mike and Herb Palm could never get their mother, Lilian, to explain exactly how she did it, how she managed to give birth to Mike on Feb. 29, 1948, and then to Herb exactly four years later, on Feb. 29, 1952, a rare set of consecutive Leap Year siblings, both born at Doctors Hospital in Washington.

Well, they know how she did it — it involved their father, Mike Sr. — but the timing . . .

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

“Here’s something I’ve always wondered,” Herb said to me the other day. “My mother would never answer, but I always wondered if it was a C-section, which might be the only way you could get this to work. My mom took that secret to the grave.”

Would you put it past her, Herb, to have you cut out so just she could have not one, but two, Leap Day sons born.

“Absolutely not,” he said with a laugh. “My mom was one of the great self-promoters of all time.”


Herb Palm poses with a story from a 1956 Washington Post in Washington, DC on February 28, 2012. The story shows Herb, brother Mark and sister Patti. Herb and Mark were both born on Feb. 29. (John Kelly/THE WASHINGTON POST)

What mother isn’t?

“Diamond” Lil, some called her. She was a whisker above 5 feet tall, and she held court at Mike Palm’s, the restaurant the family ran for nearly 40 years at 231 Pennsylvania Ave. SE.

Her husband — the restaurant’s namesake — was a strapping, 6-2 former football star, an all-American at Penn State who played in the 1923 Rose Bowl and was a quarterback and coach for the New York Giants. Lil was a fourth-generation Washingtonian. Their saloon was popular with denizens of Capitol Hill: politicians and congressional staffers, newspaper men, cops — and bookies. Two — Sugar and Cagey — used pay phones in the basement to do whatever it is that bookies do.

For years, the family lived above the restaurant, before buying a townhouse around the corner. “At one point, my dad referred to that stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue as ‘Ptomaine Row,’ there were so many restaurants in those blocks,” Herb said.

It was pretty special when Mike was born on Leap Day in 1948. “The real novelty came when my brother came along,” Mike said. “That’s what got us into the newspapers.”

Here was a story a columnist could write without getting up from his bar stool: Lil with two Leap Year babies.

The family was in all the local papers. It was on the front page of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

“We really were notable around the neighborhood and at the local parochial school, St. Peter’s,” Herb said.

I looked at The Post archives and, like clockwork, there are stories about Mike and Herb every four years. Lil never left things to chance. She’d be sure to call newspapers as the day approached.

“That was a big part of her raising us, telling us that ‘you’re special, you’re unlike everybody else,’ ” Herb said. Not only were they locals in a town full of transplants, they shared a rare birthday.

“You’re not going to find anybody else with those birthdays,” Lil would say, “so you’re that much more special.”

Every four years, there’d be a big blowout party at the restaurant. In off years, the brothers would celebrate their birthday on Feb. 28. In 1955, their sister, Patti, was born — on the relatively pedestrian date of Sept. 8.

Lilian Palm died in 2009 at age 91. Mike Sr. died in 1974 at 74.

Today, Mike’s a management consultant and lives in Baltimore. Herb runs a facilities maintenance company and splits his time between the District and St. Michaels, Md. On Friday, the brothers and their wives will meet at the Palm (no relation) for a birthday lunch.

“It’s one of those things that’s a conversation piece,” Mike said of their natal date. “My granddaughter gets a big kick out of the fact that I’m only 16.”

Well into the 1980s, the Palm brothers were Leap Day staples in area newspapers. Their global fame dimmed rather, quickly, however. Mike said: “I seem to recall some woman in Ireland had twins on consecutive leap years so we got outdone.”

That would be Christine McDonnell, who gave birth in Dublin to James and Ann on Feb. 29, 1956, and to Robert and Patricia on Feb. 29, 1960. I sure hope some Irish columnist is doing a story about them.

kellyj@washpost.comkellyj@washpost.com

To read previous columns by John Kelly, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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