Santa Rosa civic leader, pastor and activist Curtis Byrd dies at 67 after long illness

His community service included his work as a member of the Santa Rosa Planning Commission and the Mayor’s Gang Task Force Policy Team.|

Longtime civic leader, activist and pastor Curtis Byrd died March 2 after a lengthy illness. He was 67.

Byrd was born in 1955 to one of Santa Rosa’s few Black families, one that stood for decades front-and-center in the quest for equal rights and opportunities.

An elite runner with Olympic aspirations as a student — he still holds or co-owns two track-and-field records at Cardinal Newman High School.

He went on to become an ordained minister and run his family’s Santa Rosa-based scholarship foundation.

“In my mind,” said Byrd’s sister, Pamela Grandy of Vallejo, “my brother was a superstar.”

Byrd’s community service included his work as a member of the Santa Rosa Planning Commission and the Mayor’s Gang Task Force Policy Team. In 2014, he ran for City Council and placed well in the election, but not well enough to win a seat.

The Press Democrat’s editorial board had endorsed him, writing, “Byrd has proven himself to be a steady, forward-thinking leader, ready to put the needs of the community ahead of any special interests or ideology.”

Just eight months ago, Byrd’s mother, the local civil rights stalwart Ann Gray Byrd, died. She’d been a longtime president of the Sonoma County branch of the NAACP, which was co-founded in 1953 by her father, Gilbert Gray.

Though a more private person than his more public and well-known mother and grandfather, Curtis Byrd also was a lifetime champion of fair and equal treatment of people of color.

Adding his voice to those demanding that the county Board of Supervisors act decisively following a deputy sheriff’s October 2013 fatal shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez, Byrd told supervisors, “The citizens of Sonoma County and now the world are watching to see if our local public officials take a stand for accountability, transparency, (and restoring) the public trust.”

For more than 20 years, he worked in various capacities for the Gray Foundation, created by Gilbert and Alice Gray to support minority youth who attend college. In 2007, Byrd succeeded his mother as the charitable foundation’s executive director.

Curtis Lee Byrd was born Oct. 5, 1955, to Curtis Handy and Ann Byrd in Santa Rosa. He was later adopted by his mother’s second husband, William Byrd. He attended public schools until high school, when he switched from Montgomery High to the private, Catholic, Cardinal Newman High.

He was a track star. To this day, his best time in the 400-yard dash at Cardinal Newman — 48.46 seconds — stands as the school record. He also was the star member of the school’s 4-by-400 relay team, which finished one race in 3:20.67 minutes, a time that also stands as the school record.

Santa Rosa attorney Kevin Konicek was a longtime friend of Byrd, and a member of his record-breaking relay running team. Byrd ran as the final runner, or anchor, and was counted on to take his team from behind to the winning position.

“He was as good as gold,” Konicek said. “We could be behind like half the track, and Curtis would make up for it, and win.”

Byrd’s sister recalled his family nickname.

“We called him ‘The Wind,’” Grandy said. “I didn’t know anybody who could run as fast. He was handsome, he had pretty teeth. He was funny. He was like an Adonis to me.”

For years, a favorite Byrd family road trip involved traveling to track-and-field events to see Curtis run.

“We used to follow him all over the United States,” his sister said. “Sometimes Mom would rent a Winnebago.”

After graduating from Cardinal Newman in 1973, Byrd ran at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, then at Oregon State. While at Cal Poly, he qualified for a spot on the All American college and track and field team.

He was running for Oregon State and preparing for the 1976 Olympics when he suffered a serious hamstring injury that abruptly ended his running career.

“He became a real introvert after that,” Grandy said.

After the injury, Byrd left Oregon State. He worked in several fields before resuming his education at Sonoma State University, where he earned a degree in communications and marketing.

He went to work for his family foundation in 2001 as a liaison to donors and the news media. A decade later, he put his media and marketing skills to work as a community relations specialist with the regional blood bank.

In 2014, Byrd earned a Master of Divinity degree from Golden Gate Theological Seminary. He and his mother, also an ordained minister, for a time served at Church of Religious Science in Petaluma and were visiting pastors to a number of churches, among them Santa Rosa’s Community Baptist Church.

Curtis Byrd’s life was seriously affected for decades by lupus, an immune system disorder, and other ailments. He underwent two kidney transplants and in recent years relied upon dialysis three times a week.

“He had dealt with a lot for a long time, and he was just tired,” Grandy said.

Byrd died at a nursing facility in Novato of complications from lupus and kidney failure.

He, like his mother before him, donated his body to the UCSF Willed Body Program. Grandy said his family would love for that donation to help produce a cure for lupus.

“That would be our hope, that would be our dream,” she said.

In addition to Grandy, Byrd is survived by his nephew, William Daye III, and his niece Elizabeth Daye, both of Santa Rosa, and by grand-nieces and -nephews Adrianna, Preston, Lillian and Semiyah.

Grandy said plans for a celebration of his life are pending.

Chris Smith is a retired Press Democrat reporter and columnist. You can contact him at

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