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Cotati council member dies of aorta tear


Robert Coleman-Senghor, Cotati city councilman and longtime professor of English at Sonoma State University died unexpectedly Saturday after suffering a tear in his aorta.

He was teaching a Thursday class when he began having chest pains and trouble breathing, said his wife of 17 years, Gabi Schmitz.

Robert Coleman-Senghor.

Students and a teaching assistant helped him walk outside and called for an ambulance. A campus security officer called his wife, who was about to board a plane for Europe.

Doctors discovered a tear in his aorta, the largest blood vessel in the body, on Saturday, shortly before his death, Schmitz said.

“It was instant. The nurses said he was telling a story about his students and then he was gone,” Schmitz said.

Coleman-Senghor, 70, was a tough professor who demanded impeccable work ethics from his students, his colleagues said. He founded the university’s California cultural studies program in 1990.

He was elected to the council in 2008 and in early 2009 took the helm as mayor during a storm of controversy.

“The city was in crisis: there was talk about Cotati going bankrupt, losing our police, being absorbed by Rohnert Park,” said fellow councilman Mark Landman. “Bob stepped up and steered the ship.”

He spent days knocking on doors to garner support among business owners for a half-cent sales tax much needed by the cash-strapped city, Landman said. Voters approved the increase, Measure A, in April 2010.

He took stands on controversial issues. He prompted the council’s vote to stop including a moment of silence at the start of meetings, a moment he believed was unfair to non-religious attendees.

“He had very strong convictions,” Schmitz said. “He wasn’t concerned with people liking him or disliking him. He was concerned about doing what was right.”

Coleman-Senghor was born in Amite, La. in 1940. His family moved to Alameda when he was a toddler. He spent most summers working alongside his father, who managed field crews in the Central Valley near Stockton.

He graduated a year early from Berkeley High School and enlisted in the Marines, his wife said. He was trained as a sharp-shooter and served from 1958 to 1962 in Hawaii and abroad in Lebanon and Africa.

He would later tell his sons that “he was very lucky that he never had to shoot at a person,” she said.

His experience in the military foreshadowed stands he would make against discrimination based on race and religion.

Coleman-Senghor, who was black, remembered being barred from eating at a restaurant with his all-white unit. He later left the military because of the obstacles to promotions that racial minorities faced at the time, Schmitz said.

“He was willing to put his life on the line and they still treated him as a second class citizen,” she said.

Coleman-Senghor enrolled in literature programs at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of San Francisco. He earned a bachelor’s degree and took a job at SSU in 1972. He later earned his masters at USF in 1978.

He was fascinated by California’s multi-cultural history and founded the cultural program because he felt “Californians don’t know much about California,” said his longtime colleague and friend, Gerry Haslam, who retired from teaching in 1997.

“You get him focused on something and he was a dynamo,” Haslam said.

Schmitz, who is from a town near Frankfurt, Germany, was an exchange student at SSU in 1990 when a teacher suggested she ask Coleman-Senghor, who spoke German, to be her advisor. They married in 1994.

Coleman-Senghor served on Cotati’s Design Review Committee and Planning Commission before he was elected to the council.

He took the helm as mayor during a controversial recall of Councilman George Barich. Barich was recalled after he posted a photograph of himself in blackface and an Afro wig in front of a city logo on his blog.

However the process led to bitter exchanges among residents and council members, including Coleman-Senghor and Barich.

“I’m in shock,” said the ousted councilman reached on his cell phone Sunday.

“Although I vehemently disagreed with Bob’s politics and his vision for Cotati, my heart goes out to his family,” Barich said.

In addition to his wife, Coleman-Senghor is survived by four sons: Kenya Senghor, 12, and Akai Senghor, 18, of Cotati, Michael Gora-Senghor, 22, of San Diego and Drew Jacoby-Senghor, 26, of Princeton, N.J.

A memorial service is pending.

8 Responses to “Cotati council member dies of aorta tear”

  1. Jack B Rochester says:

    Bob was a true man of the people who shared not just his wisdom but all of himself democratically with everyone around him. To me, he was an exemplar of the individual who gives his mind, his soul and his sense of social rectitude to his fellows in every way possible, without expectation of personal glory or reward. I loved the indelible spirit that compelled Bob to share himself with his family, his community [both Cotati and the college], his students and his colleagues. With him as my guide, I hope I can accomplish even a small amount of the good he did.

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  2. Phil Maher says:

    I can remember countless hours of sitting at Bob’s kitchen table, in his study- surrounded by stacks of term-papers, or even in the middle of the street, and discussing everything we could possibly think of together. But we allowed something as small and meaningless as politics to create a rift in our friendship that I no longer have the luxury of mending. It’s one of life’s greatest pieces of unfinished business that we all too often find ourselves forced to surrender to as we selfishly take it for granted that time will always wait for us. It makes me sad, and if we can pay any homage to Bob’s memory, it should be in the form of taking at least a moment to acknowledge what it is we like and respect about each other, instead of the insignificant ways in which we differ.

    Gabi, Drew, Michael, Kenya, Akai- I’m so very sorry for your loss. Your husband and father was a proud man who was even prouder of all of you.

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  3. bear says:

    My tears for this noble man. An educator who did not have to deal with the political BS of local government, but who CHOSE to do this.

    Condolences to family and friends.

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  4. Ken Coleman says:

    Cotati has lost a leader this past weekend. As a person whom I had great admiration regarding him standing up for the kids playing baseball in the park without gopher holes, he will be greatly missed by all. His demand for control on council startled many regarding previous councils that were frankly boring as watching a snail race in the summer. He gave an elightenment and control to the council. He will be greatly missed. I will dedicate the next pledge of allegience in honor to Mr. Coleman

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  5. I’m deeply saddened by the news. Often on the opposing end of debate, Councilman Colman-Senghor and I had a few moments before a budget meeting a couple of Monday’s ago. With a smile on his face he shared with me a recent trip he and his wife shared in Florida….

    Passionate about his political positions, as am I, I will take with me lessons of the human spirit….and although very brief, I’m grateful for the kind exchange between Councilman Colman-Senghor and myself.

    My heart goes out to his family and friends and especially to those who worked close with him in Cotati at the City Hall. This truly is a sad time in Cotati.

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  6. Richard says:

    He may have died needlessly. The condition he had can be detected with a routine screening and treated. Mobile health care screening is provided by a company called Health Fair. Their website is http://www.healthfair.com. I believe they will be in Santa Rosa on May 9 and 10 and you can schedule the modestly priced exams on line. However you decide to go about it get checked out and eliminate this source of sudden cardiac arrest.

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  7. Greg Karraker says:

    In the fire of debate, we create the steel of truth.

    Robert Coleman-Senghor was a tireless advocate for his beliefs. We debated each other often, and I hope some good resulted from these exchanges.

    My condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues. He will be greatly missed.

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  8. GAJ says:


    My deepest condolences to family and friends.

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