Remembering the extraordinary people we lost in 2019 in Sonoma County

Twelve months ago, quite a number of our fellow Sonoma County habitants were unaware that 2019 would stand forever as the year behind their dash.

As observed in a poem by Linda Ellis, the dash is the double-hyphen - common to headstones and obituaries - that bridges the date of a person’s birth to the date of his or her birth: George Washington 1732-1799.

“That dash represents all the time they spent alive on eearth,” wrote Ellis, of Georgia. “And now only those who loved them know what that little line is worth.

“For it matters not, how much we own, the cars ... the house ... the cash. What matters is how we live and love and how we spend that dash.”

Following are remembrances of some of the people with whom we shared this extraordinary place and who passed in 2019 after making good use of their dash.


Youth advocate

Evelyn Cheatham was to her core a people -person, one who clicked resoundingly with teens and 20-somethings. She’d sometimes say, “I like the naughty ones.”

It seemed that to this woman, one of Sonoma County’s most esteemed chefs and champions of social justice, a naughty kid was one who’d dropped out or copped an attitude or got into some trouble, quite likely after having been relegated to the margins.

Cheatham would take such young souls into the kitchen of her cutting-edge culinary apprenticeship program in Santa Rosa. And she’d watch what transpired.

“When people work with food, they start to become tender,” she told The Press Democrat in 2007. “I’ve had members of opposing gangs stirring tomato sauce in the kitchen.”

All sorts of young people enlisted in Cheatham’s vocational, real-world boot camp at the nonprofit Worth Our Weight, or WOW. Until Cheatham closed the program a bit more than a year ago, it operated a café and catering kitchen near Montgomery Village.

New WOW Apprentices learned at once to address Cheatham as “Chef.” Many emerged from the training with a profound sense that they’d been touched by someone extraordinary, and with a heightened estimation of themselves and their prospects for finding their place in the world.

“Chef actually saved my life,” said Joe Lopez, a WOW graduate who now builds kitchens when he’s not cooking in one. “She was my family when I didn’t have one.”

Though food was Cheatham’s primary medium, she made great impacts as well through her advocacy work outside the kitchen.

Surrounded much of her life by people who bear the brunt of injustice, she shone on the Sonoma County Commission on Human Rights and in the quest for meaningful community oversight of the Ssheriff’s Ooffice.

In recognition of her leadership on the advisory committee of the watchdog Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, backers of a 2020 ballot initiative to increase the office’s budget and power have named the measure the Evelyn Cheatham Ordinance for an Effective IOLERO.

Cheatham had dealt with complications of an adrenal gland tumor when she died Halloween night. She was 66.


Civil rights fighter

Willie Garrett had taken enough.

Stung all of his life by institutional racism, Garrett decided in May of 1962 in Santa Rosa to take on a downtown tavern that served only whites.

He and several other men from the city’s small African -American community agreed on a plan. Then they walked together into the Silver Dollar Saloon on the block of Fourth Street that’s now in Railroad Square.

Knowing full well that they wouldn’t be served, Garrett and Platt Williams and Gilbert Gray and a few others took seats at the bar.

“I’m sorry, boys. You’ve had too much already,” the proprietor told them. But Garrett and the others kept up their sit-in until satisfied they’d made their point, and gathered their evidence.

They left the Silver Dollar and soon afterward filed the lawsuit that forced the establishment to integrate and moved the needle forward in the nation’s campaign for civil rights.

In 1964, Garrett he he became the first African American appointed to a city of Santa Rosa board or commission.

He taught schools run by the California Youth Authority, co-founded the ethnic studies program at Sonoma State University and for decades was a leader of the local ?NAACP chapter of the NAACP of the NAACP.

Garrett died Aug. 28 at the age of 90.

Herb Williams

Passionate ally

Anyone who viewed Herb Williams as merely a take-no-prisoners political campaign consultant and business strategist missed out on many other facets of the man.

Williams could be tough but often enough he moved people to action, sometimes to tears, as he advocated for the Boy Scouts of America, which he credited with saving him from an abusiveeded childhood, or for the Children’s Museum of Sonoma County, or the Family Justice Center, or the Santa Rosa-based Center for Climate Protection, or Sonoma Clean Power.

Williams was founder and chief of Delphi, a political and business consulting firm in Santa Rosa. He was a master at divining through polls and other research what it is that voters and consumers want, then tailoring campaigns and marketing accordingly.

He told The Press Democrat in 2005, “If I was a candidate and barking dogs were my issue and my poll showed only 0.2% of the people care about barking dogs, my chances of getting elected would be one in a million.

“But if I talk to them (the voters) about the top three issues they care about most and come up with solutions, I’d have a lot better chance.”

Williams was gleeful about the research-based political and marketing campaigns he ran, but there was much else that attracted his zeal.

Grateful to the Boy Scouts of America for creating a safe place for him after a nightmarish childhood, he beamed when his son, Jesse, earned his Eagle Scout Badge.

The elder Williams was crushed when U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Jesse Williams was killed in combat in Iraq in 2007, and he never missed an opportunity to honor his son and all others who serve and sacrifice for their country.

Williams elevated a number of community endeavors with his passion and his brilliance at figuring out how to craft a message that moves people.

The Tennessee native had lived with failing health for some time when he died June 27 at the age of 83.

Brian Elliott

Fire service leader

Career Sonoma County firefighter Brian Elliott needed a plus-size smile to keep scale with his push-broom mustache. He had one. And above it, an open, eager mind.

As Elliott evolved from a teenage reserve firefighter with the Roseland Fire District to a captain - at age 22 - with the Santa Rosa Fire Department and then to chief of the Cloverdale area’s fire company, he also pursued and mastered myriad personal interests.

He was a musician and a sound man, an artist, an outdoorsman and one of those guys who could do just about anything, and well. One thing the Santa Rosa native didn’t care about, as an exacting mentor to a generations of firefighters, was marijuana.

But after he and his wife, Rhonda, adopted their grandson, Matthew, they discovered that a cannabis-based medication helped the seizures triggered by the lad’s cerebral palsy. That change in Elliott’s perspective on cannabis led him to do something he’d done before upon venturing into a new area of interest or fascination.

Having retired as one of the region’s most respected fire-service leaders and mentors, he immersed himself in the challenges that confront cannabis entrepreneurs seeking to meet the safety-code requirements and other compliance demands placed before them. He became a consultant to the industry and soon was in great demand.

Elliott’s death March 28 from complications of diverticulitis, at age 65, was a harsh blow to many people, among them those who dug hearing him play the drums.

Ted ?Eliot

Sonoma peacemaker

Ted Eliot worked around the world as a peacemaker, then retired to Sonoma County and did all he could to preserve it as what he perceived to be the most gorgeous place anywhere, bar none.

Decades after the career Foreign Service officer pursued stability as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan - “a spectacular country,” he once said, “and a wonderful people for whom laughter lies right below the surface even in the direst poverty” - he and his wife, Pat, became central to the quest to preserve open space in Sonoma County.

The Eliots lived for about 30 years on Sonoma Mountain, their idea of paradise. While advocating for land preservation throughout the county, they placed a conservation and trail easement across their property above Sonoma Valley, then put their passion and persuasion to link it to what became the East Slope Sonoma Mountain Ridge Trail.

The Eliots focused tremendous energy, too, on their advocacy of a far-reaching conservation plan for the former Sonoma Developmental Center at Eldridge, near Glen Ellen.

Ted Eliot told the Sonoma Index-Tribune in 2017, “I think you’ll find that any time an issue crops up in the valley that has environmental implications, you’ll find me involved somehow.”

He continued, “I think the most important issue facing the valley today is the future of the Sonoma Developmental Center. It’s an amazing piece of property, which we hope will be preserved as open space in some way.”

The Eliots had been married for 65 years when Pat died in late 2016.

Ted Eliot died Aug. 8 at age 91.

Elinor Twohy

Nature preserver

Elinor Twohy did not create the ever-changing, natural wonderland that exists where the Russian River meets the Pacific. But Twohy, a gentle soul unless she was out to win at Scrabble, played a starring role in its preservation.

She fell in love with the spot in the early 1960s, when a house-for-sale ad in a San Francisco newspaper drew her and her husband, John Twohy, to a cozy cottage with a billion dollar, riverfront view in Jenner.

The couple lived in Palo Alto and savored the cottage as a second home until they made it their full-time residence nearly 50 years ago.

With the advent of proposals to commence gravel dredging at the river mouth, and to bring large-scale residential and commercial development to the area, Elinor Twohy morphed into a formidable conservationist.

The pioneer environmentalist was known also in Jenner as the town postmaster and the angel of the harbor seals that sojourn and pup where the river crosses or pools behind Goat Rock Beach.

Enthralled by the colony of seals, Twohy observed it closely and for nearly 30 years kept precise records of the pinipeds’ number and behavior - and of the menace posed by dogs and intruding humans.

Twohy was instrumental to the banning of dogs from the north end of Goat Rock Beach and to the founding of Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, whose volunteers stand post to protect and educate about the seals. The records Twohy compiled were invaluable to several scientific studies.

Praised by California Coastwalk chief Cea Higgins as “another great lady of Sonoma County,” Twohy died March 22 at the age of 97.

Lynda Angell

District historian

Anyone who strolls downtown Santa Rosa’s historic Railroad Square and is charmed by how inviting it is can thank Lynda Angell.

The Santa Rosa native was for decades a prime advocate and visionary of the district infamously separated from the heart of the city by Highway 101 and the Santa Rosa Plaza.

Born a Trombetta, Angell was proud of the former Italian quarter’s past and thrilled by its prospects.

“When you walk in Railroad Square,” she said in 2004, “you walk in history.”

Angell owned property in the old-town district, which first welcomed trains in the 1870s and in 2017 welcomed the passenger service begun by Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit. Angell was huge to the nonprofit Historic Railroad Square Association, serving 13 years as its president and leaving her fingerprints on virtually all of the improvements and special activities that came to the square.

Her caring and her community benevolence extended to her years of hosting the charitable Pro-Am golf tournament hosted by Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital.

She loved the attention attracted by her car’s personalized license plates: I(heart)RRSQ.”

Angell died from cancer on Jan. 25. She was 78.

Michaela Rock

Sister to the poor

Sister Michaela Rock, a nun with the countenance of a good-humored but brawling rugby coach, blew into Sonoma County in 1994 and commenced stirring things up.

Dispatched to Santa Rosa by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange to grow the social justice mission of Memorial Hospital, the former Catholic schools teacher and principal promptly summoned many of Sonoma County’s shakers and movers.

She thanked them for what they do for the those who are poor and voiceless, but put them on notice that much more needed to be done.

Sister Michaela sent community organizers into low-income neighborhoods to meet residents and help them improve their access to health care and to better lives. She and Memorial Hospital put a mobile clinic on the road and were key to the creation of the Southwest Community Health Center.

Fearless, straight-talking and incredibly funny, Sister Michaela shared once, “When I die and see God, I want him to say, ‘You did OK. Let’s talk.’”

She died June 7 at 80.

Burt Williams

Pinot Noir pioneer

When Burt Williams graduated from Sebastopol’s Analy High School six decades ago, he did not aspire to become a god of pinot noir.

Williams went into newspapering. The ink on his diploma was barely dry when he went to work as an apprentice printer for the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner.

But one who loved wine. Williams began making his own at home at just 24.

Through neighbors he met a fellow wine hobbyist, Ed Selyem. The two of them discovered pinot noir and set out together to see how tasty they could make it.

“I had no big plan,” Williams once said. “I wanted to buy grapes and turn them into good wine. We weren’t trying to conquer the world or make millions of dollars.

“We were trying to make the best wine we could and enjoy it ourselves. If enough was left over, we could sell it. We never imagined that we would become a cult winery capable of selling everything we made.”

Oh, what Williams-Selyem Winery of Healdsburg became. Its Russian River pinots are widely acclaimed as essential to the California renaissance of the hugely popular varietal.

The message to serious wine lovers hoping to get onto the members list of the Williams-Selyem wine club became: Be patient. Very patient.

Williams died Dec. 11 from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was 79.

Yale Abrams

Nonprofit warrior

Yale Abrams was an ace at business marketing who changed course after coming down with a bad case of the nonprofit bug.

Abrams was promoting the Windsor division of Ecodyne when the Canada-based company loaned him to United Way of Sonoma-Lake-Mendocino, now United Way of Wine Country.

Upon discovering the rewards and challenges of nonprofit community work, Abrams was changed.

In 1995, at the age of 54, the career salesman and marketing executive became chief of the regional United Way. He told The Press Democrat in early ’‘96, “I asked myself, ‘What do you really care about?’ And I decided that I’d rather spend my time working for my community than for myself.”

Abrams and his wife, Terry, immersed themselves in local cultural, philanthropic and volunteer endeavors. Abrams’ decades of volunteer leadership and vision were treasures to the Santa Rosa Symphony, KRCB, The Arts Council of Sonoma County, the county’s Workforce Investment Board, Sonoma County Family YMCA, Blood Bank of the Redwoods and other people-serving enterprises.

Abrams died of heart failure Aug. 20 at the age of 78.

And ?others

A year’s losses

Among the other Sonoma County residents who passed in 2019:

Ralph Metzner, a psychotherapist who as a Harvard graduate student, explored expanded consciousness alongside fellow pioneers of the psychedelic movement Timothy Leary and Richard “Ram Dass” Alpert.

Lilla Gilbrech Weinberger was the partner in Readers’ Books of Sonoma and also a political and social justice activist.

Bob Matteri, a longtime refuse company executive was a champion of the Sonoma County Fair and its junior livestock auction, and of people who live with disabilities.

Salli Rasberry, the west Sonoma County conservationist, author and artist who was sometimes called, “The Queen of the Hippies.”

Ed Poe, a World War II veteran who became one of the region’s most respected firefighters through his long career with the state agency now known as Cal Fire.

Lee Van Giesen, an all-in community volunteer whose work benefited the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County, the YMCA, Bouverie Preserve, the Santa Rosa Symphony League, the county Planning Commission and the regional Medical Association Alliance.

Col. Louis “Pete” Peterka, a decorated veteran of both the U.S. Marine Corps and the Army, he he coordinated the Sonoma County Sheriff’s search and rescue team before becoming director of emergency services.

Jim Doe, the Marine Corps veteran who grew up with little in Santa Rosa and became indispensable to Charles Schulz while for decades managing the “Peanuts” cartoonist’s Santa Rosa ice arena.

Spencer Nilson, a surfing architect who did much to protect and preserve the Sonoma Coast.

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