Community rallies around ‘Petaluma Pete' in his wife's time of need

Petaluma is rallying around a beloved business owner diagnosed with a rare cancer.

Her name is Brenda Maher, but she's also known as "Mrs. Petaluma Pete", wife of a popular piano man who plays for free downtown and at community events.   

"We love him, he's part of the whole Petaluma scene, what makes Petaluma great," smiled Tracy Emerson as she watched Maher play showtunes and pop music on the sidewalk Wednesday evening.

Fans always gather. But this year, Brenda's presence and enthusiasm have been missed, as she battles a rare form of cancer.

Healthy all her life, what she had been told was a hemorrhoid was actually a tumor, and the cancer was advanced by the time a specialist diagnosed it. 

"They did the scan, and said okay, we're going to start right away on you, " recalled John, her husband of 44 years.

"We're going to go for the cure, they said."

Now, Brenda is regaining strength after months of grueling chemotherapy and radiation.

"It is the day before Thanksgiving, and I am getting hydration," Brenda said Wednesday, during a four hour treatment in Santa Rosa.

She remains weak and unable to get out much.

"But she's got that smile," said John, pausing with emotion, "she's unbelievable, she really is."

Cancer has changed everything, but not Brenda. 

"She was so strong and so gracious, right up to when we had to close the store, " recalled friend Marie McCusker, who is head of Petaluma's Downtown Association.

Brenda had a thriving antiques shop, French Hen Antiques, which she was forced to liquidate.

But supporters packed the store during its final days, knowing she was ill, and knowing their purchases would help. 

Maher's store won awards year after year, and Brenda was a leader in improving downtown. 

"Attitude is everything, and she's got plenty of hope," added McCusker, "and I hope that she beats this." 

Next door to her former store, another dealer remembers how he mentored him with advice and encouragement.

"I would give anything to have her be my neighbor again," said Sam Azlant, owner of Thrifty Hippie Antiques. 

"If I was having a tough day,I could go over and talk to her about it. She was always a gentle person, with a sweet heart."

Now the community is rallying to help the family, contributing to a GoFundMe account and organizing local events to help with mounting medical bills and make sure the Mahers can keep their home. A steady stream of cards, flowers, and even meals are often left on their porch.

"I am so grateful and I want to thank everyone," said Brenda, "because our community has such a huge heart."  

Petaluma was a late-life move for the couple, easing into retirement.

But it always felt like home, never more than now.

"Really we did belong here, because Petaluma, it's a community of people who really care," concluded John.

On Monday Dec. 5, Sauced Restaurant in Petaluma will host a fundraiser, with a portion of sales dedicated to the Mahers.