Click photo to enlarge
Cancer patient George Romero plays the piano and sings with Kathie Buttermore, right, and diane Hannigan in San Jose, Calif. on Friday, Aug. 27, 2010. Cal football coach Jeff Tedford heard about Romero and extended an act of incredible charity towards a huge Cal fan facing extremely difficult times. Buttermore ad Hannigan facilitated Romero and Tedford getting together. (Dan Honda/Staff)

It's no surprise that George Romero's favorite colors are blue and gold. He graduated from UC Berkeley in 1968, and he remains passionately loyal to his alma mater, including the Cal football team, while he fights for his life.

Romero, 64, has terminal brain cancer. But just as he's convinced that Cal can return to the Rose Bowl after 52 years, he truly thinks he can beat his medical condition despite ongoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

He lives in a San Jose residential care facility. In late July, he received a phone call at a Los Gatos nursing home, where he was staying after having surgery to remove a malignant brain tumor.

"Mr. Romero, this is Cal football coach Jeff Tedford."

Romero figured it was Roger Buttermore, an old Pioneer High School classmate, playing a trick on him.

"What the hell happened at that Oregon State game?" Romero asked.

The last-second defeat to Oregon State in 2007, which cost Cal a No. 1 national ranking, remains Tedford's most crushing defeat in his eight years at Cal.

"Well, Mr. Romero, we're going to try to not let that happen again," the voice on the other end said patiently.

Romero muttered, "Roger, is this you?"

"Mr. Romero," the voice said, "I know you're not going to believe this, but this is Jeff Tedford."

"Coach," an embarrassed Romero said, "this is the best get-well greeting that I could possibly have."


Advertisement

Their conversation took place during Cal's annual Women's Huddle at Memorial Stadium, where female fans sign up for a football clinic overseen by Tedford, his coaching staff and the entire team.

Tedford asked Romero about his favorite number, and he said "54," his football jersey at Pioneer High in San Jose.

Tedford said he would have a Cal jersey made up for Romero, and that he would leave two tickets in Romero's name for a Cal game this year -- which, given his iffy health, will be Saturday's season opener against UC Davis.

How Tedford became involved was the thoughtful work of Kathie Buttermore, another of Romero's Pioneer High classmates, and Roger's wife.

Kathie, a UC Berkeley graduate, was attending her second Women's Huddle with friend Diane Foster, onetime UC Berkeley graduate student and a Women's Huddle rookie. The two go to as many Cal football games as possible.

"It is a wonderful way to learn how to play the game," Kathie said of the Women's Huddle.

About 300 women participated. Kathie threw "a perfect spiral" to Cal quarterback Kevin Riley. Diane got into a three-point stance despite having "two metal knees."

Then Kathie saw Tedford standing by himself. Nervously, she approached the coach with her cell phone and asked if he had time to talk to Romero.

"Sure," Tedford said. Kathie quickly dialed Romero's room in Los Gatos. Only he wasn't there, and nurses went searching for him as Tedford waited.

He asked Kathie when she would next see Romero. The following day, she said, at noontime. Tedford wrote down his cell phone number on a sheet of paper, handed it to Kathie, and told her to have Romero call him at that time.

Before Tedford could get away, Romero came on the line. Kathie handed her phone to the coach, who then spoke with Romero for 10 minutes.

"He was a humanitarian and a real sportsman," Romero said Aug. 27 at the San Jose care facility, "especially after I was impudent to him."

Kathie and Diane had formed opinions of Tedford before July's phone call.

"He was a fantastic coach," Kathie said, "and how lucky we were to have him."

"My sense is that he's like an exec," added Diane, who owns a business that specializes in team building and executive coaching. "He's warm on the outside, but I thought he might be kind of cold -- with a boundary or a kind of a barrier that execs do have. You can only get so close."

Their opinions changed after the phone call.

"I was absolutely, emotionally shaken," said Kathie, a Walnut Creek resident. "It was such an extraordinary act of kindness that you don't find very often."

Diane, who lives in Alameda, now perceives Tedford as executive material.

"There are two legs of real leadership -- awareness and compassion," she noted. "He demonstrated both of those in the moment."

Romero isn't among the growing number of UC Berkeley alumni who grouse about Tedford's failure to get Cal to the Rose Bowl game. The squad hasn't played there since the 1958 season, and it doesn't figure to get there this season either.

Cal is fortunate to have Tedford, regardless. They were hibernating Bears before he arrived in 2002. Cal is 67-35 under him, 5-2 in bowl games. He also has improved the program academically. As a coach and also as a citizen, he represents the school well.

"He's a heckuva coach," Romero said. "I'm not like some of those Cal alums who think they have to be exhumed to see Cal at the Rose Bowl."

Romero, who has coached football himself, is a lifetime educator as a teacher, principal and superintendent. He served in the Peace Corps and competed on "Jeopardy" in 1985. He has two sons and is divorced.

When did he retire?

"It hasn't happened yet," he said. "I'm teaching history part time in a middle school. When I get well, I want to go back."

He learned in June about the cancer.

"My therapy is going well," he said. "I have all my hair, an appetite, no vertigo, no nausea. My weight's the same. I'm kicking butt, and I'm going to keep it up. Doctors say I'm one of the ones who can beat it."

He sat down at the portable piano keyboard in his care facility room and began playing everything that's blue -- "Blue Moon," "Blueberry Hill," "Rhapsody in Blue" -- plus the Cal fight song, the Cal drinking song, and "Hail to California."

Kathie sang along with Romero and his guests, but she looked perplexed.

"I'm walking around with Jeff Tedford's cell phone number," she said.

Dave Newhouse's columns appear Monday, Thursday and Sunday, usually on the Local page. Know any Good Neighbors? Phone 510-208-6466 or e-mail dnewhouse@bayareanewsgroup.com