Board member’s unexpected death leaves ‘family’ devastated

Colleagues tearfully reminisce, honor Nejedly during Governing Board meeting

Denis Perez / The Advocate and Lorenzo Morotti / The Advocate


Christian Urrutia / The Advocate

District board Trustee John Marquez weeps after sharing a story about fellow Trustee John T. Nejedly during the district Governing Board meeting in Martinez on Oct. 12.

By Lorenzo Morotti, Associate Editor

MARTINEZ — With tears welling in their eyes, the four remaining Governing Board members sped through action items, discussions and reports. Uncharacteristically, the monthly meeting here at the District Office on Oct. 12 only lasted one hour.

The weight pressing on everyone in the room resonated from an empty chair, and how the man who sat in it for 22 years influenced the history of the district and the lives of his colleagues, friends and family.

“He was just a good guy. He loved life. He loved this district,” Contra Costa Community College District Chancellor Helen Benjamin said. “And just since Monday (Oct. 10), when his death became public, what I realized is that we were his family.”

Administrators, professors, district officials and students fought through the sorrow that gripped their hearts to honor the memory of Governing Board Trustee John T. Nejedly with words of respect, love and admiration.

“It was his turn — that’s the way I have to reason it for myself,” Dr. Benjamin said.

Nejedly, 52, died in his hotel room at the Hilton-Riverside on Oct. 9 while attending the annual Association of Community Colleges Trustees Convention in New Orleans, district officials said.

Benjamin said district Communications and Relations Director Tim Leong, Nejedly and herself were attending the ACCT leadership convention.

New Orleans Coroner’s Office Spokesperson Jason Melancon said the cause of Nejedly’s death remains under investigation.

Leong said because the news of Nejedly’s death came just two days before the Governing Board meeting, district officials postponed the public discussion about replacing the longest tenured board member.

A burning image

As a band in downtown New Orleans finished playing its set at D.B.A, a bar and music venue on Frenchman Street on Oct. 6, Leong said he noticed Nejedly, who had accompanied him to the show, had left it early.

Leong scanned the venue and sent two or three text messages about five minutes apart. “(Nejedly) didn’t respond,” Leong said. “So I sat at the bar and began answering emails and answering (Benjamin’s) texts as to why we didn’t ask her to come (out to the show),” he said.

After waiting a moment, he said he slowly walked back to his hotel, the Doubletree, while enjoying the night breeze and the smoky smells rising off the food vendors’ grills.

As Leong got closer to the source of the aroma, he said he knew he had found his friend.

There was Nejedly, laughing with a pair of food vendors while sitting in a lawn chair next to a grill full of different kinds of sausage and corn on the cob.

“Well, (Nejedly) had made himself at home. And if that’s not strange enough (he) was talking to these people as if he has known them for years.”

He said Nejedly was waiting for an alligator sausage he ordered.

Leong said they tried to go out again the next day, but the musical performance they wanted to attend had been canceled.

That autumn night was the last time he and Nejedly were at a music concert together.

Benjamin’s last memory of Nejedly was at a panel that she hosted the next day at the convention. She said as she set up preparing her event, she looked up and saw him sitting in the audience, and grinning.

“He was just smiling like ‘I bet you didn’t think I was coming.’ But he was there. He was always there. What I can say about him is that he supported me as an individual since he became a board member in 1994. Every job I’ve had (in the district), John has had something to do with me getting it.”

But just a few days later on Oct. 10, Benjamin had the duty of sending out a districtwide email informing the district of Nejedly’s death.

Leong said, “John (Nejedly) was really happy out there — he was having a great time. He was enjoying the experience of being in New Orleans.”

Working through tears

At the board meeting on Oct. 12, people who knew Nejedly gathered to honor his memory, but also to try to get the district’s work done through their tears.

Governing Board President Vicki Gordon led the meeting next to Nejedly’s empty chair, adjacent to the flowers that decorated his place at the Governing Board table.

“In his memory we have to try to keep the faith,” Gordon said, “and keep this meeting as quickly paced as possible.”

But midway through the constituency leader reports, only 15 minutes into the meeting, the swelling feeling of grief that suffocated the room couldn’t be contained.

“I had things to say today but I don’t feel like saying them,” United Faculty President Donna Wapner said to the board as she worked out the gravity of the loss while standing at the podium.

“I’m sorry. Not having John here makes me think of the relationships we build as way more than just constituency groups, and (sometimes) we forget about that,” she said. “Our real purpose is to serve students and the communities they come from, and he knew that..”

After the business meeting concluded, Gordon invited attendees to share their memories of Nejedly. One-by-one, people around the room shared anecdotes and thoughts about Nejedly’s strong, yet welcoming, character.

When it was Contra Costa College President Mojdeh Mehdizadeh’s turn to speak, a surge of emotion made her voice tremble. She said Nejedly had been the most stable figure on the board since she was hired at the district in 2001.

“What I really enjoyed about John is that he never took himself too seriously,” Mehdizadeh said. “He had an agenda, and his agenda was about our colleges and students. That was his sole focus. He was extremely respectful and kind. And when he had questions that appeared to be controversial in nature, it always came from good place.”

Governing Board Trustee John Marquez, who is now the longest-serving board member with six years of experience, struggled to find the right words to describe a man he had come to admire.

“I appreciated John’s friendship and what he stood for on the board. He was no pushover. If he had something to say, he would say it — whether you liked it or not,” Marquez said to those assembled as he wept. “When I heard about his passing I couldn’t believe it. It was like cold water on my face.”

On Oct. 10, in a phone interview just hours after hearing of Nejedly’s death, Gordon said figuring out how to replace him was the furthest thought from her mind.

“I’m still a little shaken up,” she said several hours after Benjamin sent the email blast. “But I have to admit, the process to replace him — I haven’t given that a second thought. I’d rather not talk about that.”

Not just a trustee

Benjamin said since she made the official announcement, scores of friends, colleagues, and clients from both Nejedly’s law firm and his construction company have shared their grief of his passing.

Mehdizadeh said she is amazed at how many people have been affected by Nejedly’s death.

“He was someone who was extremely well known. First and foremost, his passing has the greatest impact on his immediate family,” she said. “But the impact on the Contra Costa Community College District family is immeasurable.

“Because it was so sudden, and unexpected — there is a deep level of sadness.”

Nejedly, the son of former state Sen. John A. Nejedly, is one of three trustees to die since 2010. The other two are Sheila Grilli in 2013 and Jesse Reyes in 2011.

He is survived by his wife Katie, their three daughters and their son.

Leong said memorial services for Nejedly will be held on Oct. 27 at 11 a.m. at Saint Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Livermore.

He was a San Ramon resident.

Leong said his experience and community network is what makes his loss so devastating for the district. Nejedly’s influence was critical to the passage of all three recent bond measures — the 2002 Measure A bond, the 2006 Measure A bond and the 2014 Measure E bond.

Nejedly helped the district secure $856 million in funding to build and renovate facilities at the three district colleges — Diablo Valley in Pleasant Hill, Los Medanos in Pittsburg and CCC.

“He was the only person on the board who had a part in all three of the bond measures,” Leong said.

At the meeting on Oct. 12, Leong told those in attendance that Nejedly was one of the few people who would take the time to go to one of his gigs in the Bay Area, usually bringing his wife.

“I play music. And as a musician I play at a lot of nightclubs and events. And I know how grateful I feel when people come out to support me at my performance,” Leong said.

“They enjoyed the music. But I’m really grateful for that show of support that (Nejedly made) so well — and how he (did) it in so many different ways.”