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He Marches Right Up and Gives Them a Flu Shot

November 29, 2002|Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writer

"Boo-hoo-hoo!" cries the president of the Tournament of Roses, steeling himself for the needle of Dr. Ray George.

Soon, the flu vaccine has been delivered into the left shoulder of Gary Thomas, and he can relax.

"Ray," Thomas says, "you've hit this arm so many times you've got a target drawn on the side."

Indeed he does. George, 75, is the semiofficial physician to the Rose Parade, one of the most widely watched spectacles on Earth.The parade has two ironclad rules that would seem to contradict the laws of the universe.

* There will be no rain. (One parade executive is appointed "the weatherman" each year to ensure it.)

* No parade volunteer is allowed to be sick.

George enforces the second rule with a striking single-mindedness.

Born in Arkansas, George moved west with his parents, who worked as bookbinders, before he was 2. He went through the Pasadena schools, joined the Navy and served in the Pacific in World War II. He graduated from Pomona College and USC Medical School and eventually joined the staff of Huntington Hospital, where he was an internist for 40 years.

In 1963, he was admitted to the Tournament of Roses. At first, he was just another volunteer in a white suit. But in the early 1970s, three of the Rose Parade princesses caught the flu. They were too sick to attend the coronation of the queen.

The Rose Parade's director of public relations asked George if he could prevent such catastrophes in the future.

The next year, George administered flu shots to the entire court. A few years later, he began injecting the parade's small staff of employees, as well as the entire committee of volunteers that oversees the court.

For the last 15 years, George has offered flu shots to all parade volunteers and staff. To do so, he has had to secure large amounts of vaccine.

Some years, he managed to order early enough to get all he needed. In years when the vaccine was scarce, the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services helped out. (Dr. Alvin Nelson-El Amin, medical director for the county immunization program, says flu shots are appropriate for anyone who works with large crowds.)

Parade volunteers don't pay for the shots. For the last three years, the Tournament of Roses has picked up the tab; before that, George and other donors covered the cost.

The tournament so values George that he has been made an "honorary director," allowing him to continue his parade work beyond the usual retirement age of 65.

"We're grateful for Ray, even when he scolds us," says Bill Flinn, the tournament's chief operating officer. "My first year working here, I got so sick I couldn't function. So I never miss a shot."

At this time of year, George is a fixture at tournament headquarters on Orange Grove Boulevard, proselytizing like a flu shot missionary. He will approach grand marshals, visiting band directors, even reporters, and offer to "stick" them.

On two days each fall, the doctor, aided by his wife, Carol, holds forth in the tournament conference room, inoculating hundreds of volunteers -- he's done more than 300 of the 935 volunteers so far this fall.

He sets aside other days to travel to the float building companies, where he vaccinates employees and some volunteer decorators. He will administer shots up until a week before the parade.

This year, California Highway Patrol officers assigned to parade duty agreed to submit to the doctor's needle for the first time.

George will even go to the homes of parade officials if asked.

"I have a certain passion for flu shots," he says. "One year, the IRS started asking me questions. They couldn't believe I made that many house calls."

Over the years, George has earned a national reputation as a doctor to big events. For the last 11 years, the National Football League has employed him to monitor the health of security and transportation personnel at the Super Bowl. He did similar duty for the 1994 World Cup held at the Rose Bowl.

George's work extends beyond the medical. He serves as right-hand man to Jim Stivers, a legendary behind-the-scenes organizer in Pasadena who is the official liaison between the Tournament of Roses and the city government.

"Ray was my personal doctor for a number of years," Stivers says. "He is a quiet and sensitive guy who is just very fond of people and the parade. And he's tough enough to have given John Wayne a shot" when the late actor served as grand marshal.

During the months before the parade, Stivers and George oversee early Thursday morning meetings to iron out details of the parade, everything from the handling of horses to security measures.

George draws all the parade's maps -- detailing locations of everything from grandstands to portable commodes -- and often displays a deep and eclectic knowledge of the event. He recently warned against painting a red rose on the pavement because horses, which are colorblind, might mistake it for a gaping hole in the ground and rear up.

At one recent meeting, George was asked for an update on his medical activities.

"I just finished sticking the Pasadena police and fire [fighters] with their flu shots," he reported. "Pretty soon, I will have stuck them all."

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