A Heart Bright and Bold

A selection of drugs used in chemotherapy to treat cancer. The needles used on me in the mid-1980s were somewhat larger…

A follow-up doctor’s visit means the nurse has to draw blood.  Small talk ensues:

“Sorry,” the nurse apologizes, as she sticks a needle into me.

“Oh, not a problem, I just wince and look away.  I’m a 27-year cancer survivor.  I’ve got a thing for needles ‘cuz of it.”


“Yeah, I had to do old school chemo, with large syringes the size of grande burritos, all shoved into my blood stream in about 15 minutes…”

“Oh my.”

“I just look away.  The needle bothers me but only when I look it”

I guess I’m the same way when it comes to reflecting back upon my time as a cancer patient.  Of my life’s memories, it’s the one I dwell upon the least.  It’s not that it wasn’t important, but my lymphoma was dealt with straight away, with little complications beyond the nausea and hair loss (which, given my hairline as it was, was not much of a loss) and as my life has progressed from that time, I don’t think of it as much as one might expect a cancer survivor to do.

Nevertheless, events at school periodically bring me back.  For instance, as I’m usually regularly reading aloud chapter books to my students, reading Cynthia Kadohata’s Newbury-winning Kira Kira is one instance of a reminder, given that the book’s narrator’s older sister dies of lymphoma nearly identical to my own.   This year, one of my students is, himself, a lymphoma survivor.  Finally, one of my current school site’s charity fundraisers, begun several years ago during my own time as one of the school’s Student Council advisers, was with the Leukemia-Lymphoma Society and their annual “Pennies for Patients”.   Essentially a simple act of collecting pennies (or other currency from students), our school has gradually increased its yearly donations (around $900-$1000 annually) to the charity, topping out this year at $1500+ (of which I need to credit my successor as Council adviser for motivating our school to reach a number my partner and I could only hope to collect…)

But what really took me back was reading the obituary of the Rev. Kenneth A. Coates in the alumni magazine of the California Alumni Association.  He passed away in the late summer of last year, but as the magazine comes out quarterly rather than monthly, and relies upon alumni notices in order to post class updates and obituaries, I was only now seeing the news.

A fellow Old Blue, himself the son of two Cal alumni, I first met Rev. Coates when he was pastor of the Bayshore Community Church in Long Beach, around the time I was involved in the Kiwanis International Sponsored Circle K Club while a grad student in the mid-1980s at Cal State Long Beach.

Rev. Coates, a member of the East Long Beach Kiwanis Club, served as our Kiwanis adviser.  As I was new to the club, I didn’t initially have the connection to the Kiwanians that my fellow club members had.  In addition, his laid-back personality was in marked contrast to some of the more larger-than-life members who formed the bulwark of that club’s membership at the time.  But I remember after I started to grow ill in the Fall of 1984 into early 1985, how much the Kiwanians encouraged me to stay strong with the treatment, even as I was forced to temporarily drop out of school.  My surgery in January of 1985, led to a week-long hospital stay for my initial round of chemotherapy.

I was down at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, right off of Pacific Coast Highway, mostly being kept company by friends from school, as well as family members.  I don’t have much in the way of a consistent narrative memory to my hospital stay.  I remember it being mostly overcast for much of my time at Hoag, and I remember the difficulty in dealing with the first dose of chemo, which did go to work immediately on the rapidly growing tumor which had been growing over my right eye.  I also remember the restless nights, as my body temperature was having a difficult time trying to work with the infections throughout my immune system.

But I also remember Rev. Coates coming to visit.  My entire family does, as a matter of fact.  I can’t recall exactly who was with me that day, besides my mom and dad, but I looked up, and there was Rev. Coates, holding his bike helmet in his hand, in his suit, bike clips on his pants legs.  He had peddled down PCH to Hoag, from Belmont Shore, specifically to see how I was doing and holding up.  He stayed for a bit, sharing conversation with my parents and me, making it a point of connecting our shared legacy of having been at Cal, albeit nearly 40 years apart, and how that meant something.

Obviously, it did, as I still remember that visit that day.  A small gesture, it gave me a glimpse into this man’s tremendously large heart.  More than anything else that went on in that hospital room during that week 27 years ago, his visit represented my single lasting memory that I managed to hang on from my chemically-addled experience of the week.

Thusly, to see his name in the “California” magazine, after all this time, took me back.

Kenneth A. Coates, July 17. Born in 1921 to two Cal alumni. Served churches in Hillsboro and Portland, OR, El Cerrito and Long Beach, as well as an international church in Kobe, Japan. He retired in 1986 to Pilgrim Place, Claremont, here he was active in Amnesty International, tutored in a local school, and for 15 years was volunteer chaplain at Peppermint Ridge, Corona, a home for the developmentally disabled.

A graduate of San Ramon High School, he set a track and field record at the 1935 California State Meet in Fresno at an incredible 9.6—only two tenths of a second off Jesse Owens’s world record of 9.4. He attended Cal on an athletic scholarship, and continued to compete in track. He was also a member of Alpha Delta Phi alumni. He spent four years in Europe during WWII as a First Lieutenant of an anti-aircraft battalion. Early in his career, he taught industrial arts at Oakland Tech High School. He later fell into real estate where he spent most of his career, first as a broker and later as a developer and investor. Robert is survived by his wife, Maria; children Juli, Anna, Alexandra ’92, and Robert Jr.; and two grandchildren.

He touched many lives during his time on this earth, and I am sure that with others who crossed his path over the years, they came to the same affirmative conclusions about Rev. Coates’ true character.  Even in my borderline-agnostic leanings these days, he truly represented what the notion of a minister should be.  I often joke to my students that I’m no role model–I’m an example.  All kidding aside, Rev. Coates was one of those examples that I would definitely point out as being worthy of emulation.   In the words of Cal’s Alma Mater, his was a “heart, bright and bold”.   Rest in Peace, Reverend.

(NOTE:  A more detailed obituary is here.)


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