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 death: George Washington 1732-1799.
“That dash represents all the time they spent alive on earth,” 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.
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 Sheriff’s Office.
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 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.
Garrett died Aug. 28 at the age of 90.
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 abusive 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.