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A Cancer Challenged : Former UCI Chancellor Looks Ahead to Senior Olympics

November 27, 1987|Joseph N. Bell

There's a 60-year-old Finnish athlete named Jobbila who has the distinction of being the only senior citizen in the world to beat Daniel G. Aldrich Jr. in the discus throw. But Jobbila doesn't get the chance very often because he's nine years younger than Aldrich and thus competes in Dan's age division just once each decade.

"He really trimmed me in '78," recalls Aldrich admiringly, "but I'm looking forward to another shot at him."

He'll get it the first week in December, when he and Jobbila go head-to-head at the Senior Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. What Jobbila doesn't know--and probably won't find out unless he asks about the small bulge under Dan's shirt--is that the former UC Irvine chancellor will be competing while undergoing treatment for cancer. The bulge is a pump that is dripping medication into his system 24 hours a day.

Someday, the pharmaceutical industry will wise up and bottle Aldrich. Essence of Aldrich would sell like gangbusters--as long as it was combined with heavy doses of courage, impatience, determination, optimism, and a life style so unflaggingly healthy that whatever things cause cancer must have been taken aback when they moved in on him.

He was operated on May 13 in Santa Barbara for colon cancer. After his colon was removed, it was discovered that it had spread to his liver and that further treatment would be needed. In June, he was equipped with his pump. Two weeks later, he was on a golf course. And five months later, he is competing in the discus, shot put and hammer throw in the Senior Olympics.

People who know Aldrich aren't terribly surprised. "The biggest concession I've made to this," he says, frowning slightly at the invasion, "is that now I have to do things normally instead of attacking them."

He has found that approach has some advantages. He may be the only patient ever to make the medical textbooks because a treatment for cancer also cured his slice on the golf course. He explains it this way:

"I've got a catheter in here." He taps his chest. "They were going to put it on the upper right side of my chest, but I asked them to put it on the left side so it wouldn't restrict my arm movement when I'm throwing the discus. But it had another effect I didn't expect. It constrains my movement on the other side enough that I have to make an almost perfect follow-through. I'd never mastered that on a golf course. I just attacked the ball and almost always sliced it. Now I hit it straight down the middle."

Aldrich was the first chancellor--and for 22 years before his retirement in 1984 the only one--at UCI. He was and still is an international expert in his chosen field of agriculture. (Last week, in the cubbyhole office he maintains at UCI, he was putting the finishing touches on a study--done under the auspices of the National Academy of Science--on the role of agriculture in U.S. society.)

Aldrich steered the Irvine campus expertly through the shoals of puberty and the Vietnam War rumbles, somehow maintaining credibility with both ends of the political spectrum--a perilous balancing act in the Orange County of the 1960s.

In its early years, the university was looked upon with deep suspicion for its threatened infusion of liberals into the ultraconservative climate of the county. Aldrich, with his agricultural background, athletic prowess and straight-on delivery, was the ideal administrator to bridge this gap.

A few years later, he had to protect UCI's new credibility from the attacks of leftist students without sacrificing hard-won academic freedoms. He achieved both with the kind of dominating presence that now is staring down cancer.

He quelled one of the worst riots of the Vietnam period simply by showing up. He stood on a balcony above a chaotic scene on the UCI Commons and began to talk. It is doubtful whether anyone heard what he was saying, but his presence began to affect the crowd. Slowly the chaos dissipated, and the rioters began to drift off. Before he finished talking, the scene was quiet.

Without question, a large part of this presence is physical. Aldrich is a tall (6 feet, 4 inches), powerful man with massive hands and shoulders like the wingspan of a jet fighter. Although cancer has taken some toll, the changes were barely perceptible five months after his surgery. A tiny slope to the shoulders, a small weight loss, slightly discolored hands.

Until his surgery, retirement to Aldrich had simply meant a more varied menu of frenetic activity. In between racing about the world on international agricultural missions, he became the university's official surrogate chancellor, filling in at both the Riverside and Santa Barbara campuses when the chancellor's posts were vacated rather suddenly.

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