The Texas Longhorn

Posted in Cancer at 12:39 am by George Smith

“Hey George!”

That’s how I’ll always remember my friend Don Hunt’s voice. It had a slight Texas lilt to it whether picking up the phone or walking toward his car just before going on one of his guided walks in Pasadena.

In fact, I still find myself squelching the urge to call after reading something I thought he might be reading or seeing on tv only twelve days after his death. He’s gone and it brings a pang. But that was one of the patterns of friendship, the sudden brief chat to laugh and gossip about football or a political figure.

Of course, that’s not all we did.

Don Hunt showed me Pasadena in a way I’d never appreciated. In fifteen years here I’d never walked the neighborhood of the Rose Bowl and its playing fields. Don showed me the route from houses above, down into the ravine and back up as one of his favorite morning things.

There was the stroll of the Caltech campus, too, always ending at the turtle pond, regularly done at those times when the student body could be counted on to be away for the summer or on holiday. Perhaps we’d find a good taco truck, he’d say. We didn’t but that never stopped us from having a proper lunch afterward.

There were many trips into the Pasadena arroyo, my favorite being the time we went to a horse paddock for the swells, buried deep in it near the border of South Pasadena. I told him we needed to sneak in some sugar or carrots the next time.

One hot morning early last year Don decided we’d walk the upper-upper class district on Pasadena’s west edge. We somehow lost our bearings a little and wound up in Eagle Rock. At which point I asked if maybe we should take a taxi back so as not to wear him out or get to lunch too late.

Don laughed. A taxi was never a serious consideration although we had to ask for a directions from a lady jogger, one we’d seen an hour and a half earlier, thankfully spied circling back toward us. She laughed and told us what street to go up to get back where we belonged. This was after we’d seen peacocks at somebody’s mansion and been hailed by one of the local noblemen who was driving an old orange Volkswagen Thing.

The Thing-driving fellow had spied Don’s T-shirt, which advertised Brophy Brothers, a restaurant/bar on the Santa Barbara marina and come screeching to a halt. It was a place we’d been many times. Don liked it so much that, in addition to purchasing a T-shirt, he stole one of its menus so he had something to jog fond remembrances of fried clam and beer-boiled shrimp dishes past.

But at first I thought we were about to be questioned on what we were doing in the area. Interlopers! Pretenders! But no, the man only wanted to tell us how great it was to see another guy who loved Brophy Brothers and that he wished he was there that Saturday morning. He had judged the quality of character, and done rather well I might add, in eyeballing the nature of Don Hunt’s T-shirt.

Don Hunt liked food and drink with his friends. It was how you shared the day and fed the social animal. He convinced me I could grill anything and, as a consequence, for years — 9 months each, late afternoons on Monday or Sunday were reserved for cookouts in a backyard a few blocks north of Pasadena City College.

These do’s went on for a few hours with the grilling usually not taking place until just after sunset. Don always stood near the cooking meat. He loved being part of the action, smelling the smoke, and if a floodlamp had burned out and not yet been replaced he’d occasionally hold a flashlight so none of the beef was charred or went onto the ground. Important details!

In those months when cooking out wasn’t the best idea — believe me, it does occasionally get too cool for it in Pasadena — we’d be inside. At which point our friend Beth would take over most of the food preparation in the kitchen. And we’d stand around, in close proximity, just soaking in the bonhomie that comes from making a meal we’d enjoy together.

Don Hunt was born in Austin, TX, in 1944. He was over a decade older than me and apparently knew early on what he wanted in life, which was to be a journalist. He edited the high school newspaper, got an interview out of Carol Burnett through the Austin city newspapermen’s club and went on to the University of Texas.

From there, four years and he was off to West Palm Beach in Florida as a sportswriter. Then to Norfolk and the Virginia-Pilot and, finally, recruited to the Los Angeles Times.

I met Don late in his career. He was the weekend editor for Los Angeles city edition/front sections and was a friend of a friend who worked with him and whom I’d come to southern California with almost twenty years ago.

She invited Don to dinner. I have never made pals quickly or easily but I liked Don at once because of two things. Unlike many, he did not immediately talk too much. And he was never nosy. He was always a gentleman with a subtle and dry wit that flashed more as he got to know you.

Don was a veteran editor at the Los Angeles Times when I came to know him, very highly regarded by his colleagues. This was at the beginning of the newspaper’s long period of slow decline and an ever-changing cast of just bad and/or quixotic publishers from the world of corporate predation. Regular layoffs/mass firings and tricky acquisition ripoffs and divestiture business practices had become the rule.

Eventually, in 2008 he took a buyout and early retirement. It was time to leave the newspaper and get on with better matters. It left him free to enjoy travel and what everyone thought would be a great last long act. It was, almost.

You never really think about losing such a friend in a flash.

However, in August of last year Don had a sudden spell, first attributed to an adrenal insufficiency of some kind. There was testing. We thought the problem would eventually be solved, perhaps by a long regimen of supplemental pills.

But the testing went on, more scans were ordered. Suspicious-looking anomalies got more suspicious. Finally, one part of the disease — its origin in the esophagus — was photographed and biopsied.

It was a heavy blow. There had been no symptoms and Don was still quite strong.

But that’s how the disease presents. Too late to cure, spread throughout the body, the horses long gone from the barn.

That survival figures for Stage IV esophageal cancer are abominable. The choices one can make are few.

Don asked me to be his advocate, of sorts. I’d hear what the doctors said and ask questions and make requests for more information if he forgot important things to ask. Which happens when you’re getting a steady stream of bad news about your mortality.

I told Don that I figured he’d fight the disease, small battles and steps at a time. And when we got to a year we’d have a chance to reassess how it had gone.

Don didn’t have nearly that long. None of us knew it. Maybe the doctors did but they hadn’t quite plotted the entire slope of the life line in early September.

The important thing was to get into radiation therapy to get some tumors in the brain under control. The battle was joined and it was the only victory, for awhile. Don came through it. No neurological symptoms
showed. The cancer there was arrested leaving opportunity for the rest of it in the system to be hit with chemotherapy.

We still had time to enjoy some restaurants, to get to the Huntington with Beth on a sunny day, to think a little about a future when, maybe, the first rounds were behind him.

However, some cancers don’t respond to chemotherapy. In these cases your healthy bits are not at all spared from the poisons. And this was what happened.

Chemotherapy — platinum compounds, from the start, made Don way too ill. So sick, the coordinating doctor had to stop them after two rounds, the second greatly diminished in dose, just before Thanksgiving.

Well, wait, I’d say. Maybe some of your strength will come back and then they’ll give it another whack.

We could still make jokes.

Don had been losing weight at a constant rate, but not catastrophically, yet. He’d say, “My friends say I look good.” And “I could lose some, anyway.”

To which I replied: “You have my official permission to stop the diet.”

We laughed.

And there was the radiation doctor at the center. She had little or no patient skills. And if one didn’t actually have an appointment to see her she would not acknowledge your existence in the halls.

In fact, she’d quicken her step, perhaps to escape.

Don noticed and we’d smile as she scurried by. The woman was very short, too, and we starting saying, once out of earshot: “Next time we’ll ask ‘how’s the weather down there.'”

But the cancer advanced. Finally, there were no more treatments, no more tests. The bad effect from chemotherapy was a prognostic sign. The loss of five pounds a week, invariantly. The gradual diminution of appetite and always increasing weakness.

They were the mileage signposts, all bleak. There was nothing left to do except palliative care — hospice.

The cruelest thing was the taking of Don’s enjoyment of food.

This is common in cancer patients. Since social gatherings are linked by food and drink, not being able to do either, to be even sickened by it, is very depressing. As the amount of cancer increases the biochemistry of the body becomes deranged. Familiar tastes are suddenly nauseating. The person cannot eat because ill-defined neurochemical messages are giving the sensation of fullness, a deadly feeling which cannot be bypassed or ignored.

Doctors, the entire medical profession, know it happens to everyone. Great effort has been made to elucidate and treat this process, without any success.

Still, Don was very much himself. We could watch college and professional football (Texas beat the hated Aggies for the last time!), old movies and tv. Friends could be enjoyed and conversation had, even as the daily time in which he had strength grew shorter by increments.

This is how it would be, the doctors said.

Quality of the time left was important. There would be a period of slow decline but conditions would be stable. Eventually, though, there would be a dramatic change and the end would come.

And that is how it happened.

Don almost made it to the finish of the college football season. On the day of the Rose Bowl and parade, he was enthusiastic. It was glorious and sunny. Friends came by and we watched games together. He was even able to take in a little more nourishment than usual — awful liquid diet things called Ensures. (The refrigerator at his house in Sierra Madre is still full of them.)

The day after he needed a small refrigerator in the viewing room so he did not have to use the stairs. One was gotten in and set up. A fast fulfillment of a real need, a small win for control in the preservation of equilibrium, it was something that made everyone happy.

There were still a few more days of games. “You know, I’m really going to miss football,” Don told his friend, Carlos.

Technically, Don did make it to the end of the season.

He died on Tuesday, the tenth. The Alabama-LSU game had been Monday night. But he was so sick he missed it. It was lousy, anyway.

When it ended a few were there to bear witness and extend the heart, as much as each could in the final minutes. And it was OK.

Don Hunt didn’t beat the merciless statistics but he met them with courage. During the battles there was depression, great sorrow and lots of tears. But even through it there were times of joy and small happinesses. There were no regrets, no apparent anguish over a life not properly lived, of business left unfinished, of words left unsaid. Only the dismay that there wasn’t more time.

On Saturday, a memorial for Don was held at a friend’s house in South Pasadena. It had been raining in the morning but by the time I arrived the sun was shining brightly. At least fifty were there — brother and cousin in from Texas, close friends, career-long colleagues and neighbors. It was wonderful if frequently bittersweet.

We will all miss him so.

SoCal sunny days. Don Hunt, 1944-2012. Photo: Carlos Lozano


  1. Sandi said,

    January 24, 2012 at 8:19 am

    What a wonderful piece. I felt all along that Don was so lucky to have you by his side, and also that you, too, were lucky to be a participant in a deep friendship. All of our relationships end eventually, on one side or the other, in one way or another. The organic end of a good relationship, although tough to deal with, is so preferable to endings that occur because of human silliness.
    My great sympathy, and more importantly, empathy, at this time in your life. Your loss is a significant one.

  2. Jeanie Merl said,

    January 24, 2012 at 5:49 pm

    This is beautiful and obviously heartfelt. Don was lucky to have you for a friend. He would have been touched by your writing about him, much as he would have loved the gathering in his honor at Stephanie’s.

  3. Bobbi Backaric said,

    November 1, 2012 at 9:49 am

    I was so happy to find this wonderful tribute to Don Hunt. We grew up together in both school and church (bet your didn’t hear much about that) from junior high through UT taking school newspapers seriously. I was with him for the Carol Burnett interview and cherish the picture of the three of us in our senior year of high school. We met 1 or 2 times per year to catch up and visit friends and family. He attended our 40th high school reunion as did the journalism teacher, Jackie McGee, who taught us for 6 years. She and Don had a special relationship (read: her favorite) that lasted through the years of his career. Jackie was so proud of him and his accomplishments. She is still living here in Austin and the hardest thing I’ve had to do was tell her about Don’s passing. Thank you for the information about his journey and for being the contant and close friend during his ordeal.