Jim Pop was dying. We all knew it. No one talked about it. The big C was taking its course. His left leg was swelling and, despite his protestations to the contrary he was not going to beat IT. He'd just turned 71 in the Spring of '91. The question was would he make it to Christmas.
Jim Pop was different from thee and me. He was truly old school. He cared. He believed in heroes and symbols. He was a patriot and proud of it. He was loyal, true and proud. The only thing he was prouder of than being a Marine (if you don't count being married to Maggie) was that he was a Golden Bear. He loved his school. He loved all things Cal. He was the definition of "Loyal Old Blue".
But there was a gap. A hole he'd been unable to fill. And silently it ate at him. Oh, he was an accomplished student-dean's list--went on to Harvard Business School. He was a leader--president of his Fraternity House, Senior Hall of Fame; a member of all the prestigious clubs, Order of the Golden Bear, Skull & Keys, Beta Beta, among others that shall go unnamed.
And he had lettered in 5 sports. Freshman basketball, the Ramblers (JV football) and three years in rugby, where he was also the captain. But Rugby was considered a "Minor Sport". One received a Circle C for that-not the Holy Grail: A Big "C". (Big C's were awarded for Football, Baseball, Basketball, Tennis and Track. Everything else was considered a "minor" sport and received Little or circle C's).
Despite all his accomplishments, his heart was forever broken for he'd failed to be awarded a Varsity letter.
It was never a question of toughness. Rugby coaching legend Doc Hudson put on Jim Pop's application for the Marines "He'd tackle a Truck". But size, academics or student "orgs" always seemed to intercede when all he really wanted to do was to run out of that tunnel in memorial stadium with a leather helmet on his head.
By chance, I had heard a few years earlier that a friend of mine had been awarded and honorary Big C. One night, after hearing Jim Pop lament that his two greatest regrets were that he didn't receive a purple heart and that he hadn't won his Big C, it hit me.
Though over the years I had been tempted to graze his cheek with a thirty ought six, I realized that was probably ought of the question. At 71 it was too late for the Purple Heart.
So I called by friend "Boomer", a great defensive back and rugger from the early fifties and said, "Who do I have to sleep with to get Jim Pop an honorary Big C?"
Besides being an amazing bass player, Boomer had played Rugby into his early 50's and knew something about love of sports and love of Cal.
"No one deserves a Big C more than Jimmy", he said. "Let me make a couple of calls.
Each spring, the Big C Society has its annual banquet. Eventually, Boomer called back and said that a Surprise Honorary Big C letterman's sweater would await Jim Pop at their banquet at the Claremont Country Club. All I had to do was get Jim Pop down, without telling him why.
I concocted a story saying that Cal was going to name a crew boat after our friend Gary, who had done so much to endow the crew (as a sidebar, that actually happened later, but how was I to know?). Jim Pop demurred-too difficult-too tiring-but being a loyal Blue he felt he couldn't let Gary down.
As we drove down, I had to fight off tears as Jim Pop mentioned how a few years back, the Ricksen twins (Tennis and Basketball stars) had said they were working on getting Big C's awarded to anyone who lettered three years in a "minor" sport. Jim Pop would have qualified. "But it never happened", he said as he hung his head despairingly. Then talking to himself, "I really thought I had a chance". And he shook his head.
Barely able to see through the tears, I made it to the Claremont. The dining room was packed. Football head coach Bruce Snyder was awarded an honorary Big C. And then it happened.
Boomer read a citation, citing Jim Pop's athletic accomplishments, and like a housewife on Queen for a Day, Jim pop took the podium with tears streaming down his face. The kids, black, white, Asian and (unlike in his day) women, gave a standing ovation to this over the hill jock.
He put on his sweater with the 15 bumble bee stripes (representing the 15 positions on a rugby team) and wouldn't take it off.
We drove back to St. Helena. The next morning Jim Pop hobbled into the kitchen with his sweater on.
"Hop-a-long, I never slept. I wore my sweater to bed and stayed up all night long. I can't believe it. I've got a Big C."
He wore it every day of his life for the following six months. He made it to Christmas and wore it on Christmas day. January 13th he left us-the sweater next to his bed.
I attended a Big C executive board meeting last week. "Kids these days won't wear their sweaters", I was told. "It doesn't mean anything."