Popular TV weatherman Peter Colford struggles through the painful final days of terminal cancer
By Jim Kershner
Like all gardens, it began as a symbol of life and hope. Now, however, it is September. Winter approaches.
“My garden doesn’t give me as much pleasure as before, because I can’t work in it,” said Colford, known to viewers as a passionate gardener.
This is especially galling to a man who has “no patience at all for people who do things halfway.”
“I’ve been like this ever since I was a kid,” he said. “Send me to set up the lemonade stand. I’ll get it rolling.”
That kind of energy is gone now. He’s often in severe pain; he is dosed almost constantly with morphine; he has not eaten an actual meal since June; and he has lost 60 pounds. He has only a few lucid hours a day.
Yet Colford has spent the last few months savoring what he has in life, instead of cursing it.
“In December, we both agreed that there were two schools of thought,” said Pam, his wife of six years. “One is that, ‘Oh my God, this is a disease and it’s going to kill me, my death is pending,’ that sort of thing. Or you can simply look at the positive, and enjoy every day, which we all should do more of anyway. We decided it would be a tough and long road either way, but looking at the positive side of it will certainly make your life happier overall.”
“I look at other people and the crosses they have to bear and I see how fortunate I have been,” said Colford. “This is my primary concentration. I appreciate the day-to-day things in life more.”
And he also has been looking back at his life with pride, sometimes regret, but mostly with affection. After all, he had the two things he wanted the most – a career doing something creative, and the love of a woman.
Colford was born Sept. 12, 1954, in North Reading, Mass., near Boston. It didn’t take long for life to give him his first, hard slap.
“My mother walked out on me,” said Colford. “My mother walked out on me when I was 2 years old. My father chose to keep me and do the best he could as a single father with a male child.”
He grew up in complete ignorance of her.
“I was none the wiser for it,” said Colford. “He didn’t offer anything (about her), nor did she call, not until I was 12 years old, at which point I heard from her for the first time, over the phone, a call in the middle of the night.”
She called because she was ill, and because of “a little bit of guilt,” he said. The phone call did not go well, and he never heard from her again. She never said why she left.
However, he said he never found the absence of a mother to be particularly difficult.
“When you don’t have something, you don’t miss something,” said Colford. “I guess. That’s the answer I’ve always given. So, no problem.” She died in 1974, and neither he nor his father attended the funeral.
Son and father, a concert piano tuner, had a wonderful relationship. Colford attended a series of Catholic and public schools and he graduated from North Reading High School near Boston in 1972. He always threw himself completely and compassionately into whatever grabbed his interest, and in those boyhood days, it was stamp collecting, chess and the Boston Red Sox.
Then he went off to Salem State College, where he pursued his strongest passion – the theater. He earned both bachelor and master’s degrees in theater.
“It began in my junior year of high school, a play called ‘The Matchmaker,’ by Thornton Wilder,” said Colford. “I was Horace Vandergelder, the lead. Then I went on to be Tevye in ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ which preceded a big hit as Rolf in ‘The Sound of Music’ and the lead in ‘Man of La Mancha.’ You name ’em, I did ’em.”
So he headed to New York with dreams of becoming a Broadway star. He discovered the hard reality – you spend most of your time on the pavement, standing in line for auditions, collecting unemployment.
“I couldn’t do that,” he said. “That wasn’t me. I’d worked since I was 11 years old, in a restaurant, slinging pizzas. I was always self-supported, and I never had that lifestyle, the patience.
“So basically, I became the best waiter I knew how to be, and that was quite an accomplishment in New York,” said Colford. “I was as creative in the restaurant business as I was in my professional (TV) field, I think.”
He worked at places such as the Grand Hyatt, Trump’s, Castellano’s, and for one glorious stretch, at a bistro called Joanna. It was so popular, “you were 50 to 60 bucks deep in tips on booze, and it wasn’t even 5 o’clock yet.”
Castellano’s is the place where, in the space of five minutes, Colford suddenly discovered his life’s work.
Colford had always been interested in weather – it was one of the hobbies he threw himself passionately into. He had a reputation for doing weather reports for his fellow employees. One day, a customer at a table called him over and said, “Could you do some weather for me?”
“The bartender must have said something like, ‘You want to get that waiter going? Ask him something about the weather,’” said Colford.
So Colford did his weather report. The man at the table introduced himself as the station manager for WCBS in New York, and he informed Colford that he was officially a candidate for the station’s weatherman job. He told him to come by the next day for an appointment. After a long tryout process, it turned out he didn’t get the job – the competition just had too much experience. But it changed Colford’s life.
“That was the end of my days focusing on the restaurant business,” said Colford. “What do you do when the No. 1 station in the No. 1 city says to you, ‘You’ve got the No. 1 look, kid We want you on our station’?”
Here’s what Colford, the man of no half-measures did: He made a professional demo tape, and then he sent a cover letter and résumé to every TV station in the country. Even though he had no experience on TV, he knew he was made for the job.
“With TV, you just know whether you’ve got it or you don’t,” he said.
Those hundreds of résumés earned him a sheaf of rejection letters. But in 1984, it also earned him a job offer: at KMVT in Twin Falls, Idaho.
It wasn’t exactly WCBS in New York, but Colford took the job.
“I sucked it up and said, ‘You said you’d be willing to work wherever it took to be a success in this business, now live up to that goal, damn it.’ You can’t set these goals and not live up to them.”
He spent two years in Twin Falls, earning enough experience to land the main weather anchor job at KREM when it came open in June 1986.
When he left Twin Falls, he also came away with one other thing – the love of a woman. He met Pam, who was a partner in a Twin Falls hairdressing business, just before he was about to leave for the Spokane job.
“I used to say, ‘All I want is a woman not recently divorced with 10 children; not carrying a lot of emotional garbage; a woman who is beautiful, attractive and has a career in front of her,’” said Colford, laughing. “That’s all I want. And then she came along and I said, holy smoke, now what are you going to do? This is what you asked for and now you’re leaving town?”
He and Pam carried on their courtship long distance – meeting in Sun Valley, traveling to Boston together – over the next several months. Then, in 1987, they were married in an outdoor ceremony in Sun Valley, on a July day forecast for perfect weather.
“Except, when you’re marrying a weatherman, you know what happens,” said Pam. “It snowed. In July. It was about 42 degrees that day.”
Colford was an immediate success in Spokane. In his seven years at KREM he established himself as not just a popular weather anchor, but also a gung-ho gardener. In his first year on the air, he started doing brief segments with horticulture consultant Phyllis Stephens. The segments were so well received that by the second year, he expanded them. “Peter’s Garden” became the best-known garden in the city.
And Colford became, as former KREM news anchor Maureen O’Boyle said, “the centerpiece of our news team.”
“It was quickly obvious who the star of the show was,” said O’Boyle, who was there for three years before moving to New York as anchor of “A Current Affair.” “He made us all look better.”
Gardening and weather are only two of his passions. He is also passionate about books, the Civil War, wines and the geology of the Inland Northwest. And he has an uncanny talent for communicating those passions.
Paul Brandt, KREM news director and Colford’s boss, vividly recalls the first day he met Colford. Brandt had spent a long day at the station interviewing for the job, and Colford took pity on him and whisked him off to dinner.
“And then he drove me to High Drive, and he explained the entire Palouse to me, and the difference between winter and spring wheat,” said Brandt. “And then he took me on a 45-minute tour of his garden, which was probably one of the shortest tours he ever gave. He just absolutely loves to share his knowledge with anybody who is interested.”
Colford has “excellent” popularity numbers, according to the station’s research. Brandt said the station has sorely missed him, both personally and professionally, since he first left the air in December.
That was the month when Colford’s world changed forever.
He had been experiencing abdominal pain since October 1991. But it was not diagnosed until December 1992, when Colford went in for surgery. The surgery was delayed for hours, by a blizzard. “Weatherman’s luck,” said Pam, but that was just the beginning of the bad luck.
“That (following) night was the hardest night I ever spent,” said Pam. “Having Peter coming out of drugs, saying, ‘Did the doctor have a smile on his face? Did they get everything? Did they get what they wanted?’ It wasn’t the right time to say, ‘No sweetheart, they didn’t, it’s bad, you have cancer.’”
It was considered treatable at the time, and in fact, Colford was back at work by February. He worked hard in his garden that spring. By May, he felt good enough to roller-blade 12 miles on the Centennial Trail. That very night, however, the world came crashing in.
“I came home and Peter said, ‘I’m real sick,’ and the next day he was in excruciating pain,” said Pam.
He ended up in the hospital for more surgery, and that’s when they got the devastating news. They were told the illness was terminal.
“Peter asked him (the doctor), ‘Do I have a matter of years or just months?’ and he said, ‘Just months,’” said Pam.
Every case is different, and an exact prognosis is difficult. But they both understand that when it comes to the things that are important, now is no time to procrastinate.
“I had my friends and family come up from the East a couple of weeks ago,” said Colford. “I said, ‘Look, based on the latest doctor’s prognosis, I’ve just got to say to you guys, come out here when you can, because I don’t know how long I’ve got to go. I can only tell you, look, if you want to come see a retching vegetable and have that be your last memory of Peter, so be it. But if you want to come a little earlier, that would be OK, too.’”
O’Boyle is one of the friends who responded to the call. When Colford phoned her in New York, she dropped everything and got on a plane.
Not the next day, or the next week. That very day. Somebody else had to anchor “A Current Affair” that day, and for an entire week.
“I just told my bosses, I have to go see my friend,” said O’Boyle. “They understood. Peter is like a big brother to me. I’d give up everything I have to make Peter better.”
That outpouring of love and support has sustained Colford. He received “literally thousands” of cards and letters from viewers.
“That’s one of the major things I’ve learned,” said Colford. “It’s very easy in this business to be jaded against the lack of positive things in our society, because we deal with so much of the negative so much of the time. But you realize there are a whole lot of good people out there. One begins to learn, don’t ever forget them, because there’s a whole lot more of them than the bad guys.”
And both Pam and Peter have learned to treasure the time they have together. Although, in Peter’s condition, this can be frustrating.
“I’ll cry out in the middle of the night, ‘Honey, I need help, honey I don’t feel good,’” said Colford. “What kind of son of a bitch is that to deal with? But she’ll always be there.”
Pam, for her part, is just grateful to be able to do it. Yet there are inevitable moments of helplessness.
“You think about these last days, and you think you would be talking about your relationship and how much you mean to each other,” said Pam. “But that’s one of the most frustrating things. So often, he’s just not there.”
That’s because of the pain and the pain killers. But during these precious hours when he is there, Colford appreciates what he’s got, and deeply.
“I have this wonderful woman here who has turned out to be the mother I never had,” said Colford, squeezing Pam’s hand. “And when you think back on that, that is exactly true. She is the mother I never had. She didn’t walk out on me when times got going tough. She stuck right there.”
Sunday, September 19, 1993