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Daily Pilot

Commentary: The day John Wayne called my mom

By John Garrity

11:43 AM PST, January 30, 2013

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In September of 1976 my mother was in the hospital for a mastectomy. Her long bout with cancer had methodically progressed so that surgery was the only answer.

I cannot recall a time when I saw my mother so tired, afraid and depressed. It is at these times when you hope, but realize there is not enough candy or flowers in the world to take your mind off the fact that you are about to lose part of your body and maybe your life. If only there was something I could do for her.

My mom had always been a big movie fan and John Wayne was one of her all-time favorites. I have been a peace officer in the Southern California area for many years and I just happened to know where Wayne lived. The thought of telling him about my mother's plight seemed crazy and impossible. Who was I to burden one of the biggest movie stars ever with my personal problems? Nevertheless, thoughts of my mother's condition compelled me to try; besides, what did I have to lose? All he could say was no.

The day before her surgery, I found myself at Wayne's doorstep. As I knocked on the door, thoughts of running away entered my mind.

His secretary answered the door. I identified myself with my badge and asked if I could speak to Wayne about a personal matter. She quickly responded that Wayne was quite busy at the moment opening his mail. With a look of dejection on my face, I apologized for the inconvenience and started to leave.

About half way down the walk way I heard her say, "Oh hell, he's not that busy. Come on in."

She showed me into a large room where Wayne was sitting. As he stood up and looked toward me, my heart seemed to stop as I stared directly into the face of my hero for the past 35 years. He was bigger than life.

Following a few moments of uncomfortable silence, I identified myself once again and briefly explained to Wayne the physical and emotional condition of my mother. It was only a few years before that Wayne apparently won his own personal battle with cancer.

I asked if he could take the time to give her a call before she went into surgery. His gracious response brought tears to my eyes as he assured me that he would call her and try to lift her spirits. He personally walked me out of the house and we said goodbye. As I drove away, I was trying to comprehend what had just taken place. Would John Wayne really call my mother?

I went straight to the hospital to visit my mother. I know I could not say one word about Wayne. As I walked down the hospital corridor, there seemed to be a great deal of commotion among the nurses and orderlies near the entrance of my mother's room. Considering her medical status, I immediately sensed a serious problem.

When I got to the door of her room, there was mom sitting up in her bed holding court for anyone who would listen, reciting every word Wayne had said on the phone. When she saw me, she wanted to know why I hadn't told her that John Wayne was going to call.

I have never seen my mom so excited, and for a few brief moments she forgot about all her fears and pain.

A few weeks later, I saw Wayne in front of his house. I stopped by and thanked him for the kindness he showed to my mother. She died just three years later, but she never tired of telling her John Wayne story. Thanks again, John Wayne, wherever you are — you are still my hero.

JOHN GARRITY is a Huntington Beach resident.