BY JULIE JOHNSON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
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.
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.