Smith: A gift from Sonoma State University alum grateful bullet didn’t kill him 30 years ago

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Almost 40 years ago, a student and a professor at what’s now called Sonoma State University became serious running and tennis buddies.

Paul Nussbaum, who played on the college’s tennis team, befriended professor Stashu Geurtsen after enrolling in his “Personal Awareness Through Sports” class. Geurtsen also went by the simplified, Stan Goertzen.

He and Nussbaum, who’d come to Sonoma State from Rolling Hills Estate in L.A. County, met often on the tennis courts and they took long runs together just about every day.

Nussbaum earned a degree in management at Sonoma State, and in 1982 returned home to greater L.A. and entered USC, pursuing a master’s degree in social work. He also chipped away at his finishing times in marathons.

On July 18, 1987, just weeks after he earned his degree, Nussbaum was driving along the right shoulder of the chronically jam-packed Costa Mesa Freeway. An intoxicated driver who carried a loaded .22-caliber derringer flipped out at the drivers passing on his right. He fired at Nussbaum’s 1980 Datsun station wagon.

The slug struck the 28- year-old college graduate and athlete in the neck, lodging in his spine. When he came to a hospital he was largely paralyzed.

When Sonoma State prof Geurtsen learned what happened to his friend and former student and tennis/running buddy, he and his wife, Karen, flew to Southern California. They spent a month at Nussbaum’s bedside.

The young man suffered horribly, both physically and emotionally. But with great effort, he regained much of his mobility. All throughout, his former prof and running partner encouraged him.

“I was in pretty bad shape, but he was there,” Nussbaum said not long ago.

He became a mental health professional and personal coach, and for years represented people with disabilities as a commissioner advising the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. He has done work, too, for the USC Alumni Association.

And now Nussbaum has presented a gift to SSU in gratitude for the support and encouragement he received at a very dark time in his life from professor Geurtsen, who died in 1999. Nussbaum and his family have presented $100,000 to the school’s Counseling and Psychology Services.

“This man was my lifelong friend,“ Nussbaum said upon presenting the donation in tribute to Geurtsen. “We were friends forever.“

At Sonoma State, Laura Williams, who directs counseling and psychology services, said, “I can’t think of a more fitting legacy than to support the mental health and well-being of future students.”


THE PARADISE FIRE was bearing down on his doomed home as Sonoma Valley High Class of 1953 alum Dave Hinton fled with a few prized possessions, among them his trumpet and flugelhorn.

Now living again in Sonoma, the retired Safeway manager dropped into Santa Rosa’s Stanroy Music Center to buy some of the music-related items that burned: A music stand, tuner, horn mutes, books of music.

He carried it all to the register, where employee Brian Mendelsohn blew his mind, telling him Stanroy owner Steve Shirrell takes care of musicians recovering from the fires. So there would be no charge.

You can contact columnist Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 and

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