College

Wednesday, Nov 21 2012 07:18 PM

Popular local doctor, BC legend dies at 98

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    By Photo courtesy of the family.

    Dr. Romain Clerou holds a portrait from his younger days.

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BY JASON KOTOWSKI, TONY LACAVA AND MIKE GRIFFITH Californian staff writers jkotowski@bakersfield.com; tlacava@bakersfield.com; mgriffith@bakersfield.com

During his near-century of life, Dr. Romain Clerou performed hundreds of major surgeries, stitched up busloads of football players as Bakersfield College's team doctor, and delivered many, many babies.

He was the definition of "old school," making house calls well into his 90s. He started smoking cigars during his time in the military, continuing after returning to Bakersfield. Those who worked with him always knew when he was around by the smell of cigar smoke.

A doctor who smokes? That wasn't the only contradiction of Clerou, who died Tuesday at age 98.

Longtime friend and former BC football coach Gerry Collis said Clerou was "kind but tough." It's a combination that's difficult to pull off, but at which Clerou shined.

"He was a marvelous guy, he's a legend," Collis said.

Whenever Collis ran into a former BC football player, that player always made it a point to ask how Clerou was doing, Collis said. Clerou left a tremendous impression on them.

Clerou spent his life in Bakersfield, living in the same house for the past 61 years and continuing to practice medicine because he had a strong sense of dedication and responsibility to the profession he chose, said Julie Riegel, one of Clerou's six children.

"Doctors are there to help people," Riegel said. "He believed that from the time he was 11 years old."

She described her father as Collis did -- kind and strong -- but also thoughtful, accepting, independent, a devoted father and husband and a great friend. She said he loved life and kept his own counsel.

Clerou was also an incredible athlete, Riegel said. He was a gymnast and football player and continued to play a golf foursome up until late February of this year.

"He was so good at his job and was such a good athlete," Riegel said. "Fun, he loved to have fun."

As recently as three weeks ago, Clerou took in a BC football practice from the comfort of a golf cart, said former BC football coach Carl Bowser.

"I'd always know when he came onto the sidelines, even when I was an assistant coach," said Bowser, "because when he showed up I could smell his cigar. I was always comfortable when he was around."

Bowser, who was the Renegades' head coach for nine years, an assistant for 21 more, and BC's athletic director for six years, knew Clerou for about a half century. He said he first knew Clerou when he played for Bakersfield High in the mid-1950s and Clerou was one of the Drillers' team doctors.

"His spirit was unbelievable," Bowser said. "He was so upbeat, and he was just a great communicator. When things weren't going well he could pick you up, and when things were going well, he would celebrate with you. He brought my son Larry into this world.

"He was just a great guy. He was not a guy that everybody liked, but a guy that everybody loved. ... He was an amazing doctor. My wife loved him, and my kids loved him. He was a great Bakersfield guy and a fantastic American."

Bowser said that as long as Clerou worked with the Renegades, he would never charge for his services. He was renowned for making house calls, and after-hours calls as well, for players and other patients he knew personally.

"He was an amazing doctor. I think he set examples for current BC doctors (Michael) Tivnon and (William) Baker," Bowser added. "We were very fortunate. A lot of times on road (games) he'd check on other team's players because they didn't have a doctor (in attendance)."

Jan Stuebbe, former athletic director at BC, said he was very close to Clerou, as were all the players. He described Clerou as someone who lived life to the fullest, and said his prayers go out to the family.

Clerou was so beloved at BC because he made it clear how much he loved the Renegades, Stuebbe said.

"They just threw away the mold (after) they made Doc," Stuebbe said. "He was a true Renegade.

"Even when I was AD and a kid needed a physical. I'd call (Clerou) and he'd say bring the kid to the back door. ... He treated all the Renegades."

Herb Loken, BC's athletic director from 1968 to 1988, called Clerou's death a "sad, sad loss," and said the doctor was a wonderful gentleman and good friend of the family.

"I saw him a month ago and held his hand," Loken said. "I know he was trying to get to 100. That was one of his goals."

Loken said when he first came to Bakersfield in 1956 his family doctor in Minnesota asked him to look up Clerou, a French doctor who wears a beret and smokes a cigar. Loken never expected to meet him.

His first day on campus Loken was looking for then-AD Gil Bishop.

"I go down to the locker room and Jim Turner is issuing football equipment and sitting next to his desk was Dr. Romain Clerou," Loken said. "I was so surprised."

Loken went to see Clerou about five or six years ago. Loken said he had a terrible rash under his arms, and, after hearing Loken didn't eat any seafood, Clerou determined Loken was overdoing it with his arthritis pills.

"He gave me a shot in the butt and said, 'If you're not better on Monday come and see me,'" Loken said. "Saturday morning I heard a rap on the back door and Dr. Clerou was there and said, 'Pull down your pants, I'm going to give you another shot.' What kind of doctor does that?"

In between all the activity were his twice-weekly meals at Wool Growers, where he'd meet with longtime friends for a hearty meal and a couple of drinks.

Ron Ruettgers, who joined Clerou often on the golf course and at Wool Growers, said Clerou did a lot to help his family and was a fine person. He didn't give an inch on the golf course, though.

"On the golf course he was competitive, that's what I'll say," Ruettgers said with a laugh.

Ruettgers also mentioned Clerou's love of cigars.

It was during Clerou's time in the Navy's 51st Seabees during World War II that he began smoking. In an article about a decade ago in The Californian, Clerou said he used to smoke Santa Fe Fairmonts before switching over to Garcia y Vegas, and spent about $10 a day on them.

"I've never inhaled," Clerou said in the article. "If I would have inhaled that first cigar, I would have quit right then."

Clerou delivered all three of Collis' children. Riegel said the family estimates her father delivered about 2,000 babies in all.

"When I came to Bakersfield in 1953 I thought that he had delivered about half the babies in the city," said former Californian sports editor Larry Press.

Press said he called Clerou soon after he came to town because he had a pain in his side and needed it checked out. Although it was 9 p.m., Press said Clerou told him to come to his office, where Clerou regaled him with stories of his round of golf that day as he examined him.

Clerou got Press over to the hospital and took care of him.

"He loved Bakersfield and he loved life and was just a great guy in the community," Press said.

Clerou is survived by daughters Michele McEvoy and her husband Larry, Julie Riegel, Suzette Clerou, Cecile Clerou, Claire Clerou, son Romain Clerou, five grandchildren and a great-granddaughter. He is pre-deceased by one grandson.

Services are pending.

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