HEADLINE: Gone But Not Forgotten
SUBHEAD: At 42, Bob Perks was claimed by the very disease he fought so hard to eliminate. But a new charity is allowing his legacy to live on.
BYLINE: Mark Brennan
It was Labor Day 2005, and the people around Bob Perks sensed the end approaching. He'd been fighting skin cancer for some years and found himself bedridden at home.
Two friends intended to visit that day. Former Penn State basketball coach Bruce Parkhill was set to stop by late in the morning. Jeff Tarman, a producer for the Penn State Sports Network, was due later, delaying his arrival so Perks had a buddy nearby most of the day.
Early in the afternoon, Tarman called Perks' wife, Doreen, to ask if he could bring anything for Bob.
No, Doreen said, he's gone.
Did Bruce take him somewhere? Tarman replied.
No, Bob's gone, she said.
Tarman's thoughts swirled, trying to comprehend a scenario that when viewed under less trying circumstances made perfect sense. But on the phone that day nothing fit. Where could someone in Perks' condition have gone?
Is he at the hospital? Tarman asked.
Jeff, Bob is gone, Doreen answered, the crack in her typically strong tone finally lending painful focus to the situation. Tarman felt sick to his stomach as the natural defense mechanism eased and his mind wrapped itself around the awful news.
At 42, Bob Perks, devoted husband to Doreen, loving dad to little Garrett and Ryan, dedicated son to his proud parents and valued friend to Tarman and so many others, was dead. He was a former Nittany Lion baseball player, a Penn State graduate, a prominent figure in the PSU basketball booster club and — in a cruel irony — an officer in the local chapter of Coaches vs. Cancer.
Knowing his passing was inevitable did little to mitigate the pain for those close to him. It was especially difficult for Parkhill, who in those final months made weekly visits to the Perks' home outside State College to spend time with Bob, often simply watching a ball game on TV.
We'd talk about sports and sometimes just sit there, Parkhill said. I just wanted to be with him. He even said to me, 'You know, there's no need to say anything. I'm just glad we're both here.' And there were some visits where we'd go a long time without saying anything.
Parkhill never got there on Labor Day, though. Shortly before he intended to leave for the visit, he received a call from Doreen saying Bob was struggling and not up for company. The next call Parkhill received was Doreen again, this time saying Bob was gone.
And to this day, it tears at his heart. Knowing that Perks spent his final moments just as he should have — with his immediate family — Parkhill understands why that last visit didn't happen. Yet he still feels guilty for not having made it.
It really hurts, he said. I just knew that it was getting close, and I wanted one more shot to tell him I loved him.
I still miss him. I miss him so much.
Progress at a Price
Unfortunately, Bob Perks' situation is not unique. According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 1.5 million new cancer cases will be diagnosed in the United States this year.
The same organization estimates that 560,000 Americans will die of cancer in 2007, or more than 1,500 per day. One of every four deaths in the United States this year will be linked to cancer.
On a more positive note, the most recent figures indicate that 66 percent of Americans diagnosed with cancer have a relative survival rate of five years or more. That is up 15 percent from the mid-1970s.
But the progress has come at a staggering price. The National Institutes of Health estimates that in 2006, the various forms of cancer cost Americans $206.3 billion for direct treatment and productivity losses associated with illness and death.
Which is why the American Cancer Society is searching for ways to eliminate cancer as a major health problem, via prevention, treatment and research aimed at finding cures. One partner of the ACS is Coaches vs. Cancer, an organization that uses the power of college and even high school basketball coaches (and their programs) to raise money for the fight against cancer.
And in State College, there is a new organization working hand in hand with Penn State's chapter of Coaches vs. Cancer to ensure that a portion of the money raised locally is used in Happy Valley.
The name of the new operation? The Bob Perks Cancer Assistance Fund (BPCAF).
So physically, Perks may in fact be gone. But thanks to Doreen, and the folks at BPCAF and Penn State Coaches vs. Cancer, he is still very much a player in the fight against the disease.
Bob was just that kind of person, Doreen said. He really cared about people, and this is a great way to do something to help.
The Story Behind the Man
Who is Bob Perks? Well, in terms of national publicity, he never received more exposure than he did in late December 1986. A graduate student at Penn State, he was interning in the school's sports information office.
The Nittany Lion football team was near the end of perhaps the greatest campaign in school history, having survived the regular season at 11-0 before preparing for an epic showdown with No. 1 Miami in the Jan. 2 Fiesta Bowl. Football coach Joe Paterno was at the height of his career, too. He was about to be named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated.
The magazine sent a writer and photographer to Happy Valley to do a story on Paterno and his program. So bent was SI on painting a particular image of the coach that it set up a photo of him walking down the university's mall surrounded by what appeared to be ordinary students.
But the photo that ran in the magazine was a sham. Penn State sports information interns and part-timers — including Perks and track standout Rob Boulware — were told to walk with Paterno for the shoot. If you look closely at the image, you can see a wide piece of paper on the ground, a mark at which the subjects of the photograph were told to flash their best smiles.
They were like, this is Joe Paterno walking, and of course he talks to anyone on campus who crosses his path, said Dale Grdnic, laughing at the notion two decades later. Now a free-lance writer living in Pittsburgh, Grdnic worked in the sports information office at the time. It was so contrived. They dragged together whoever was standing around the office. Bob thought it was the weirdest thing.
Indeed, that photo was about the only phony thing about Perks.
Bob was just a genuine, kind, good-hearted, highly principled person, said Jim Caltagirone, another one of the plants in the SI photo. He was the All-American athlete and person. Bob touched peoples' lives. I can't think of one example of someone who would have an unkind word to say about Bob over the 20 years I knew him. That's quite a tribute.
To say there were no discouraging words is a bit of a stretch, though. Perks, you see, was a standout baseball player at State College High in the late 1970s and early 1980s, leading the team to a state championship in 1979, and a varsity player at Penn State after that. In 84 career games for Shorty Stoner's club, most of them playing right field, Perks batted .290. His best season was as a junior in 1984, when he belted four homers and 28 RBIs while batting .325.
His proclivity for bashing line drives prompted teammates to tag him with the nickname Boomer. In his career at Penn State and later during a long, successful run in the Centre County Baseball League, opponents would often jokingly mock the nickname.
Throughout his life, people kidded Perks about his baseball skills, too. He graduated from Penn State with a degree in communications in 1985, then enrolled in graduate school at the university. He also began helping in the sports information office in the mid-1980s. Budd Thalman, then PSU's sports information director, loved to have fun with Perks.
You know who they put in right field, Perksy? Thalman would say, answering his own question before Perks could respond. The worst player on the team. Perks would shake his head and laugh.
Part of Perks' job with the sports information department was working on the statistics crew at men's basketball games. He continued doing computerized stats even after picking up his MBA in 1987 and taking a job with Trinity Investment Group in Bellefonte, Pa.
Those years spent working on press row in Rec Hall exposed him to all manner of people — athletes, coaches, administrators, journalists, boosters — and Perks' easygoing demeanor allowed him not only to mix with everyone, but to become longtime friends with folks from every group. And there was something to be said for that, considering that many of the personalities he dealt with were operating at serious cross purposes to one another.
These days, the antiseptic media room at the Bryce Jordan Center is a fractured environment before basketball games. Sports marketing interns sit together at one table. The scorers-table crew, all in their matching blue sweaters, sit together at another. Writers and photographers hunker down over their computers off to the side. There is very little interaction between different groups.
It wasn't like that at Rec Hall. Before games, maybe a dozen people gathered in the media room, a tiny nook off the track near the top of the building. The SID ordered a few pizzas. Everyone — regardless of affiliation — sat around and talked about everything and anything.
It was like going to an old diner where you knew everyone, as opposed to a fancy restaurant, said Frank Giardina, then a sports marketer at Penn State and color commentator for Nittany Lion basketball broadcasts.
And while Perks was rarely at the center of the conversation, he was always very much a part of it.
A True PSU Hoops Fan
As college basketball coaches go, Parkhill, who was the head man at Penn State from 1984-95, was as intense as they come, a perfectionist who beat himself up over even the slightest mistakes his team made.
We would go out and commiserate after wins, laughed Steve Greer, a longtime Parkhill friend who now heads the PSU basketball booster group, the Nittany Lion Hoops Club.
Many people were reluctant to approach Parkhill on a personal level, mistakenly viewing his professional intensity as a sign that he was aloof. But Perks rarely made such snap judgments. Through the years — thanks to his work with PSU sports information and later the basketball booster club — he developed a strong bond with the coach.
We just hit it off, Parkhill said. I liked him right from the get-go. And the more I knew him, the better I liked him. He became one of my very best friends.
Coaches vs. Cancer entered the picture in 1993, when the organization approached college basketball teams across the nation about implementing a program in which people and businesses would donate a certain amount of money for every 3-point basket their favorite team made.
Parkhill was all for it. My father is a cancer survivor, and my grandmother had cancer, he explained. Like most people, I can mention several family members and some very, very good friends who have been touched by the disease.
He needed help implementing the program and felt the most logical group to manage it was the basketball booster club. Because this was going beyond the club's usual tasks of organizing tailgates for football games and setting up the team's postseason banquet, he felt it would be necessary to reorganize.
So Perks, who was making a splash in the field of institutional investment at Trinity, moved up to president. Greer, a successful environmental engineer in State College, joined as an officer.
Bruce recruited both of us the same year, Greer said. Greer had lost many people to the disease, including his father, uncle, a sister and best friend. And Perks' father was a cancer survivor. Both accepted Parkhill's challenge.
The concept of raising money via 3-pointers never caught on, though, and it was scrapped after one season. A year after that, Parkhill retired and was replaced by Jerry Dunn. But Greer and Perks both remained heavily involved in the basketball booster club.
Bob did everything, Greer said. He spoke at every function, he did the newsletter. He probably did more than any other officer.
He immersed himself in Penn State basketball, Giardina added. He was one of the few people who was passionate about it.
In 1997, Dunn approached the booster club with the idea of staging a golf tournament to raise money for Coaches vs. Cancer. Having no idea what they were getting themselves into, Greer, Perks and the rest of the club decided to go for it.
The event raised $16,000 that year, and over the next decade methodically grew. The 2006 tournament and other events staged by Penn State Coaches vs. Cancer raised $140,000. This year — thanks in part to a pair of car auctions — Greer is shooting to generate $250,000.
Meanwhile, current PSU basketball coach Ed DeChellis, a cancer survivor himself, was named Coaches vs. Cancer National Man of the Year for his work at the local and national level in 2006.
It has grown from a single golf tournament formed by a grass-roots group of people to now, with students, we have 50 people, Greer said. We'll probably need 100 volunteers on the golf course this year because we are going to have two flights for the first time. We totaled about $750,000 in our first 10 years, so it's been great.
A Family Man
There were many good things about Bob Perks. But let it be known he was not above being sneaky to get what he wanted.
Just ask his wife. They met on what she described as a blind date that he knew about and I didn't in 1997. Then Doreen Delphus, she lived in Pittsburgh, and was invited to dinner in the area with her former Penn State sorority sister, Lisa McMurtry. McMurtry's husband, Sev, grew up with Perks in State College. It just so happened that Bob was coming to visit at the same time.
They strategized all of this, and it didn't really kick things off very well, Doreen recalled with a smile. He was expecting me to be a little more enamored, but I had no idea I was even supposed to meet him. But it obviously worked out OK. As it turned out, I ended up asking him out to dinner.
They were married in July 2000. In November 2001, Garrett was born. Eight months later, in the summer of 2002, Doreen noticed a new mole on Bob's back. Having very light skin, he was at a higher than normal risk to contract skin cancer, so Perks went to see a dermatologist twice a year just to be safe.
Nothing out of the ordinary ever showed up. But between the biannual examinations, this new mole surfaced.
The local dermatologist removed the mole the next day. Preliminary tests indicated it was cancerous. It was sent to a second lab that confirmed the diagnosis.
Perks had skin cancer.
Facts on Skin Cancer
The American Cancer Society reports that cancer of the skin is the most common form of cancer. The malignant form of the disease, melanoma, accounts for only 3 percent of skin cancer cases, but the vast majority of deaths attributed to skin cancer are caused by melanoma.
An estimated 60,000 Americans will be diagnosed with melanoma this year according to the ACS. Of those, more than 8,000 will die of the disease.
Exposure to ultraviolet radiation, either directly from the sun or from tanning booths, is thought to be the major cause of melanoma. People with fair skin and light hair are at the highest risk. People with a history of melanoma in their family are at greater risk of contracting the disease than those with no family history.
If caught in the early stages, melanoma is often curable. But of the different forms of cancer, it is one of the most likely to spread to other parts of the body and cause even greater problems.
The Battle Begins
Simply removing the mole and a small amount of noncancerous tissue near it often completely cures patients of melanoma. But doctors at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center also detected a problem with one of Perks' lymph nodes. To be safe, they put him on a 52-week biological therapy program. It involved four weeks of the drug interferon, which was administered intravenously, and then 48 weeks of interferon self-injections three times per week.
It seemed to work. In the summer of 2003, Perks was found to be cancer-free. He had checkups every three months for the next year to make sure the cancer did not return or spread, and each time the news was good.
In early 2004, Bob and Doreen decided to have a second child. A few months later, they bought a new home. In the summer of that year, with Doreen now five months pregnant and the family preparing to move into its new house, Bob felt a small lump under his arm.
He panicked, Doreen recalled. I said, 'Oh, it's probably nothing, let me feel it.' It felt like there was a little pea under his skin. I just knew the minute I felt it.
The cancer was back. Within days, Perks was at UPMC, having all of his lymph nodes removed. He was also put on a different drug, interleukin 2, and for the rest of that year appeared to be fine. Their second son, Ryan, was born in October.
I remember Bob saying he was praying to just get through the holidays without hearing anything else bad, Doreen said. Then in the beginning of January, they did a scan and found spots on his lungs. That's when things got really scary.
He had surgery to clean out one lung; the plan being to do the second lung about four weeks later. But before the second surgery occurred, a scan revealed cancer was back in the first lung. The cancer was spreading so quickly doctors could not keep up.
In March 2005, he began to experience severe back pain that prevented him from standing for more than 30 seconds at a time. He couldn't play with his boys. He'd spend the entire day in bed.
He was stuck in the bedroom, and he said to me, 'I'm going to die in this bed,' Doreen said.
His friends at Penn State Coaches vs. Cancer took action. They delivered a lift chair that allowed him to spend time in his living room, playing with the kids and visiting with friends like Parkhill and Tarman.
I know this sounds really silly, but that chair changed the last six months of his life, Doreen said. That chair was the best.
But it wasn't a cure. Although doctors tried all manner of experimental treatments, it was clear the effort to save Perks' life had become futile.
In early August of that year, knowing Perks would never be able to attend another Penn State Hoops Club tailgate party, Greer and company decided to bring a tailgate to him. They set up shop in his backyard, and while Perks could not leave the house, a constant stream of people came in to visit him, including former PSU basketball standouts Ed Fogell and Tom Hovasse, who traveled from Philadelphia and San Diego, respectively, just for the occasion.
It was amazing how many people came, Doreen said.
It turned out to be a fond farewell. Within a month, Bob Perks was dead, claimed by the very disease he dedicated so much of his life to fighting.
We bought into this thing, Greer said of Penn State Coaches vs. Cancer. But the one thing we didn't buy into was our own people dying. That's what Bob said to me on his death bed. He said, 'Steve, I didn't buy into this part of it.'
That is what really sucks, Greer added. Every year, we say we're gonna get bigger and better. And every year we bury somebody.
He paused for a moment to consider the statement.
I guess that's what drives us. But man, is it tough to deal with.
Still Making an Impact
It may sound ridiculous, given that he died at such a young age and left two boys and a wife behind, but in many ways Bob Perks was fortunate. Through hard work, sound investment, and strong health and life insurance policies, his family was able to maintain solid financial footing during his illness and even after his death.
The only thing the family required from Penn State Coaches vs. Cancer was the moral support of friends during those difficult times.
Many families in similar situations have trouble paying bills, and it is easy to see why. Doreen Perks worked in medical sales before starting a family with Bob, and once did a study on interferon treatments. She determined that the amount of the drug needed to treat a patient for one year cost about $300,000.
The bills for the surgeries Bob had would have added up to nearly $500,000 had the insurance companies not covered the costs. There is no telling what the experimental treatments would have come to.
Then there was the potential for losing income from not being able to work. Even things that seem relatively small can add up. A lift chair like the one that made Perks' life so much better in the summer of 2005 runs about $500.
That $500 was not an issue for the Perks family. But what of the family of a cancer patient who had not done so well financially and had not been in a position to purchase such comprehensive health and life insurance?
That is where the Bob Perks Cancer Assistance Fund comes into play. Before BPCAF, Penn State Coaches vs. Cancer was a typical branch charity, with the money raised going straight to the American Cancer Society. Whatever came back for local use was dictated by the national organization.
But Perks, Greer and everyone else at Penn State Coaches vs. Cancer always wanted to find a way to make sure even more of the money made in Happy Valley stayed in Happy Valley, to help cancer patients buy groceries or pay heating bills or make mortgage payments or buy lift chairs.
Truth be told, there were times when they were so moved by the issues local folks were having that they went ahead and gave them cash out of their own pockets.
Bob fought with me year in and year out, saying we've got to legitimize this, Greer said. It's the right thing to do and it's about his legacy.
At the time of this writing, BPCAF was on the verge of receiving 501(c)(3) status from the Internal Revenue Service, meaning, in layman's terms, it can officially accept tax-exempt charitable donations. Once that is in place, a deal will kick in with Penn State Coaches vs. Cancer and the national organization that allows a percentage of every dollar raised locally to go straight to BPCAF, which will distribute it to cancer patients and their families in the State College area.
Doreen Perks, who began working to establish BPCAF shortly after Bob's death, explained it best when she said, If there was just a Bob Perks Cancer Assistance Fund, we'd be helping a lot of people but nobody would ever get cured. So Coaches vs. Cancer will help local people struggling financially, but they'll also help through the American Cancer Society. ACS is the big picture. We're the small local picture.
A Fitting Tribute
Now 5 years old, Garrett Perks has so many questions. Where is his daddy now? When mommy's back hurts, does that mean she'll be leaving soon? Doreen struggles for answers when looking at a face that reminds her so much of Bob's. Ryan, now 2, is too young to have clear memories of his father. But they both can see him on video.
I had Bob's dad make all of our little video cassettes into DVDs, Doreen said. And sometimes we'll put in a DVD and the kids can watch daddy and he's playing with them. It's fun. I don't know if either of them will have long-term memories, but we can create memories.
Sometimes, if you watch the same movie enough times, you start to think these are your memories.
For those who knew Perks through the years, his legacy will live on through Coaches vs. Cancer and the new charity.
He wanted to help, and he wanted to take this local, Doreen said. He was a Penn State and State College guy, and he wanted to give back to his community. And I think all of this, not only CVC but now the BPCAF, is doing that.
Call it a positive ending to one man's life story.
But not necessarily a happy one.
I'll tell you, I would sit there and watch him look at his two young boys Parkhill said, his voice trailing off. This is hard so hard. Bob was the best. Just the best.