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Bill Caras is succinct.

“If you want to have a successful party,” he said, “have Terry Cromwell there.”

Caras, the long-time proprietor of Caras Nurseries, has seen Cromwell liven up parties for the better part of 35 years. He met him at one, hit it off with him, and has marveled at the effect Cromwell has on other people ever since.

“He just enjoyed talking to people and listening to and telling stories,” Caras said. “He’s funny, but also has this great quality of laughing at other people’s humor, too. It’s not all about him.

“I’ve often said he’s the greatest guy on earth.”

The Greatest Guy on Earth has two sons and one daughter with his wife, Mary-Glynn, and when one, David, trained for the Olympic backstroke by swimming against the Clark Fork current, you thought, “Why not?” That was Terry’s kid. It was a good story.

Here’s another one.

Several years ago Charlie Cromwell and his buddies Shane Wilson and Bob Hlynosky were headed to Portland before Cromwell, then a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, was to take his platoon to Germany.

“One last state-side hoo-rah,” said the younger Cromwell, who got the requisite warnings about winter driving from his dad, and then didn’t make it to Coeur d’Alene before he rolled his Ford Explorer.

Everyone was OK, and Charlie called home from the Fourth of July Pass.

“Be right there,” said Terry Cromwell, and Wilson remembers arriving in Coeur d’Alene, via police car, not long before Terry.

The elder Cromwell took a look at the totaled vehicle and then handed over the keys to his own Explorer.

“He’s like, ‘All right, guys, just drop me off at the bus station,’ ” Wilson said. “We’re like, ‘What?’ ”

But he was adamant: No need to come back to Missoula and explain to everyone why you’re not in Portland. Just go. Though maybe Charlie shouldn’t drive for a while …

“Classic Terry moment,” says Charlie Cromwell. “In an odd way, it kind of made sense. I never would have thought of doing that. But wow, that was a cool thing to do.”

It was, in Wilson’s words, “One of those selfless Dad acts that are pretty awesome.” It also made a good story better.

Terry Cromwell is still telling stories but he has to write them down, after a third major operation led to a brush with death and a bedside tracheotomy.

The patriarch of three Missoula Hellgate student athletes – David and Charlie were standout swimmers and daughter Lauren, who competed in crew on a nationally ranked team at UMass, played basketball and volleyball – has battled brain tumors for over two years.

First he was so sick he lost 60 pounds; then he lost his balance, and then his ability to speak.

Through it all he has battled. After his first operation – when he was warned he might not be able to walk at all, post-op – Terry Cromwell lunged out of bed, waiving away an overmatched orderly with a, “Yeah, yeah, I just need to find out if these feet still work.”

Before that, at his daughter’s wedding, he pulled himself together for that father-bride dance (“My brother and I were train wrecks,” Charlie said) because he couldn’t stand to miss it.

Now he rises each day and rides a bus to the university, where he puts pen to paper. Just to work.

“He’s really had to rewrite the script for the rest of his life,” said Charlie. “He has a love of writing. He’d gotten away from it (Cromwell was CEO of Internet kiosk company IKS Inc. when he fell ill), but for a while he was forced to write and it got him back into it. He’s been writing like a mad man.”

One chapter might be devoted to Thursday: Beginning at 5:30 p.m., a benefit is taking place at the Elks Club, at 112 N. Pattee St. It has been referred to as “The Tumorless Terry Fundraiser” and it’s a chance for the community to celebrate while helping the Cromwells defray their medical costs.

This is a change of course from the last two dozen months, when the family endured the operations and complications mostly in private. The shoe was on the other foot and didn’t feel right.

“They’ve always been such generous people, and to be on the other side of support and generosity has been a bit foreign to them,” Charlie said. “Irony of ironies.

“Missoula is such a great community, and people have been beating down my door asking, ‘What we can do?’ Now that dad is on the true road to recovery, we’re realizing it’s maybe time to open up, tell the story and celebrate the good news.”

A lot has changed in the last two years, which will surprise many who were used to that distinctive voice and laughter. Then again, how much really has changed? The Greatest Guy on Earth is still fighting, and Thursday’s party will no doubt be a success. Because Terry Cromwell will be there.

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Reporter Fritz Neighbor can be reached at (406) 523-5247 or at fneighbor@missoulian.com.

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