East Bay Residents Who Touched Our Lives
Teachers and leaders, scientists and artists, natives and transplants, these people left the East Bay poorer for their passing but a richer place for the memories, the works, and the legacies they left behind. We bid farewell to the friends and heroes we lost this year and remember the ways that they touched our lives.
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Peter Van Kleef, 65. The Godfather of Uptown. The proprietor of Cafe Van Kleef was one of the first people to recognize the potential of Uptown Oakland. When the Oakland native first opened his eponymous Cafe Van Kleef on lower Telegraph Avenue, the area was a wasteland of empty storefronts and abandoned side streets. But Peter Van Kleef had a vision for what it could be: a bustling nightspot for Oakland’s young and hip.
Cafe Van Kleef started life as an unsuccessful sandwich shop, but when friends suggested to Van Kleef that he rebrand as a bar and cafe, things started to change. Decorated with all manner of esoteric kitsch from taxidermy wildebeests to World War I helmets to coffeepots, boxing gloves, and old musical instruments, the cozy, cluttered bar immediately drew attention among the empty Uptown Oakland storefronts. But the bar’s success had even more to do with the gregarious Van Kleef himself, who proved to be a natural bartender—friendly to all, eager to lend a sympathetic ear, and as quick to tell a joke as to laugh at a good one told well.
His bar became a locus for Oakland’s Uptown renaissance, drawing regulars like former Mayor Jerry Brown and numerous city council members. Dubbed the “Godfather of Uptown” for his part in boosting Oakland’s Uptown reputation, Van Kleef eventually saw the area transformed into a hotspot for restaurants, clubs, and tap houses. Whether donating to the local arts scene or collecting clothes for Oakland’s homeless, Van Kleef showed his generous spirit and unbridled optimism in all he did.
Charles Hard Townes, 99. UC Berkeley Physics Professor Emeritus. A scientist with a passion for physics but also a broad curiosity about the world around him, Townes was a visionary thinker who invented the laser. He recalled that the idea—how to create a concentrated short-wavelength, high-frequency beam of light—came suddenly to him in 1951 while relaxing on a park bench. For his work, he shared the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics with fellow physicists Nikolay Basov and Aleksander Prokhorov.
Shannon Williams, 48. Advocate for Sex Workers. A former Berkeley high school teacher, Williams became an outspoken champion of sex workers’ rights after being arrested in 2003 for prostitution. Her case became a rallying point for the Bay Area Sex Workers Outreach Project, helping the project to open chapters nationwide.
Ernest Kuh, 86. Professor Emeritus UC Berkeley School of Engineering. Kuh chaired Berkeley’s Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences Department from 1968 to 1972. Later he served as dean of the university’s College of Engineering. During his tenure, Kuh laid the groundwork to eventually establish Berkeley’s Bechtel Engineering Center, but, on the research side, Kuh is most known for his theoretical work in active and passive circuit theory.
David Littlejohn, 78. UC Berkeley Journalism Professor and Arts Critic. An astute and insightful author, Littlejohn penned nearly 400 reviews and 14 books through his career. Colleagues remember him as a dedicated educator who pushed his students to the limits to produce their best work. Besides contributing to publications like The Times of London and The Wall Street Journal, he also served as San Francisco KQED-TV’s critic at large for 10 years.
Augusta Lee Collins, 69. Helped Pioneer the ‘Oakland Sound’. Augusta Lee Collins’ distinctive throaty warble was a familiar sound to East Bay residents who frequently heard the bluesman, an Alamedan, perform at outdoor concerts and farmers markets in Alameda. But few realized that Collins was a blues legend with a career spanning 50 years known for his iconic work as a session drummer with jazz legends like Herbie Hancock and Bobby Hutcherson.
Not only a singer and a drummer, he also was a guitarist. Collins never achieved mainstream fame, but his skill and perseverance earned him the respect of his fellow musicians and blues aficionados.
His love of music developed early. As a young boy growing up in Oakland, Collins would sneak out late at night to practice plucking his guitar. At 16, his mother gifted him his first drum set, and he began developing the skill that would one day bring him notoriety. His musical career began in earnest in the 1960s when Collins and his band, the Metropolitan Sound Company, were a staple of the Oakland jazz scene. In the ’70s, Collins changed his sound with the times, becoming part of the fresh new R&B trend known as “the Oakland sound.”
In the 1980s, Collins succumbed to drug addiction and homelessness, but overcame those dark times to emerge as one of the East Bay’s most highly regarded bluesmen. Locally, Collins performed at the UC Berkeley Jazz Festival, the Monterey Jazz Festival, and the African American Museum and Library at Oakland. In 2010, Collins was inducted into the West Coast Blues Hall of Fame.