Veteran Contra Costa Community College District Trustee John T. Nejedly died over the weekend in New Orleans, where he was attending a national trustee conference, leaving the community reeling and an unexpected vacancy in the governing board.
Nejedly, who served on the governing board for 22 years, traveled to Louisiana with District Chancellor Helen Benjamin and District Director of Communications and Community relations Tim Leong, both of whom returned to California Saturday morning.
Benjamin delivered the devastating blow to the college community in an email Monday, Oct 10.
“We have lost one of our greatest champions,” said Benjamin. “Oh, how I will miss him!”
In separate phone interviews Tuesday, Benjamin and Leong confirmed they had scheduled to leave New Orleans at a different time than Nejedly, which was not unusual for that conference, and they had not been given specific details about what happened to him after they left.
“We still don’t know,” said Leong of what may have led to Nejedly’s death. “I mean, we have not heard or seen any kind of official statement in terms of when he passed away or what the causes were.”
Adria Washington, a public information officer in the New Orleans Police Department’s (NOPD) public affairs office, said she could not confirm Nejedly’s death because her department does not release names of victims who have died until the coroner’s office officially makes the announcement.
But, in response to questions regarding the circumstances of the discovery of Nejedly’s body, Washington said officers of NOPD’s eighth district responded to an unclassified death Oct. 9 at 9:13 p.m. at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside Hotel, where a victim was found unresponsive by hotel Security.
“The victim was pronounced dead on the scene,” said Washington.
At the time Washington commented, on Oct. 12, the Orleans Parish Coroner’s office had not yet released any information or responded for comment, but Thursday morning Oct. 13 coroner’s spokesman Jason Melancon confirmed through email that John Nejedly died Oct. 9, and although his death was still being investigated his remains were ready to be released to the family for funeral arrangements.
Before this information had been released, Leong said the district’s main concern was with Nejedly’s loved ones.
“We are trying to do whatever we can to assist the family in trying to bring the body back and for them to have final closure,” he said.
At just 52-years-old, Nejedly’s unexpected death seemed to rock the college district — especially those who worked closely with him — including Benjamin, who said she wasn’t ready for the news she received Sunday night.
“I was just shocked,” she said, and then paused for a moment before repeating, “I was shocked.”
While trying to cope with their grief, district members who worked with him agreed his more than two decades of serving as a trustee and the insight he acquired in that time will be hard to replace.
Leong said Nejedly had one of the longest tenures in the history of the governing board and, of the trustees currently serving, Ward I representative John Marquez currently has the most years under his belt — but only coming in at about a quarter of Nejedly’s experience.
“So, you’re dropping from 22 years of experience to six years of experience,” said Leong, adding that Nejedly’s historical and institutional knowledge are resources that will be missed.
District Governing Board Vice President Greg Enholm, who represents Ward V and President Vicki Gordon who represents Ward II, both said it seemed like the end of an era with the college district also losing other long-time members — like former Diablo Valley College President Pete Garcia who retired earlier this year, Benjamin who will retire in December and former trustee Sheila Grilli, who died three years ago after 15 years on the job.
“We’re now going into what can be I think called uncharted but not unknown territory,” said Enholm, who added that he wondered what direction the district will now go in.
Gordon echoed his sentiments and said, “It’s a little bit daunting for us newbies.”
But more than just his vast knowledge of the way the three-college district has worked and its decision-making history, Nejedly was described as an advocate for students and campus facilities and a valued co-worker.
“He is just a joy to work with,” said Benjamin. “He’s consistent, he’s rational, he’s caring, he’s supportive of the staff, he understands the role of the board member and has served in that role magnificently.”
Gordon, who noted that people are sometimes leery of the “new kid on the block,” said Nejedly responded in a different way.
“He not only opened the door but he put out the welcome mat and [was] always quick with a smile and a twinkle in his eye,” said Gordon, who brought 15 years of K-12 school board experience to the college district. She explained Nejedly had always valued her opinions and input and said she appreciated that.
Benjamin also characterized Nejedly as a “staunch supporter of students” and said he understood how important facilities were to student success and the district’s need to have a physical environment that showed it cared about them. She said Nejedly, who was a lawyer and a licensed general engineering contractor and real estate broker with a degree in construction mangement, played a major role in bond passages in recent years, which brought in money to the district for repairing old buildings and for funding the construction of new ones.
“Everything [students] see, in terms of physical changes that have taken in place in anyone of our colleges, he has been connected to that in a very strong way,” said Benjamin.
After sending out the announcement, Benjamin said there was a strong response from the community.
“The emails I received back since I sent that message out last night are a testimony to what he means and has meant to the district,” she said.
Enholm said the district will now look to finding a replacement for Nejedly, who represented the Ward IV cities of Blackhawk, Byron, Danville, Diablo, Discovery Bay, San Ramon, parts of Alamo, Antioch, Brentwood, Clayton and Concord.