Sunday, February 1, 2015

Yolo County honors the forgotten

From page A1 | June 08, 2014 |


A friend of Cecil Wachholtz's checks out his name etched on the columbarium wall at the Knights Landing cemetery. Wachholtz died in 2012, but many came to remember him at Friday's Yolo County Memorial Service. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

KNIGHTS LANDING — There was a calmness, a peacefulness to the Knights Landing cemetery on Friday morning.

A late-spring breeze rustled the leaves overhead and the quiet was broken only by the occasional car passing by on County Road 102, a crop duster flying overhead and the goats that gathered at a fence dividing the cemetery from the adjacent grazing land.

It was a sort of peace that was likely rare in the lives of the 110 people who were remembered here on Friday.

For these were the people, who in death, came under the care of the county’s Public Guardian/Administrator Cass Sylvia in the last year — people who had no known loved ones to claim their remains, settle their affairs or provide some sort of memorial service; no one who could afford to; or, perhaps, no one willing.

Every year Sylvia and her staff honor their memories by gathering here and reading aloud the names of each and every one, ensuring that no matter how alone or unnoticed they may have been in life, none would depart the Earth without this simple acknowledgement that they once lived.

“Like all of us, and sometimes more than any of us can imagine, many of these people struggled and suffered,” said Davis resident and author Andrew Ward, who spoke at Friday’s service at Sylvia’s request.

“But this suffering and this memorial marks the end of their trouble and the end of their isolation,” Ward said, “and marks our recognition of their dignity and consequence in the world they have shared with us.

“Whatever misfortune may have added their names to this roll,” he said, “these are our people… our fellow human beings. … Whatever their beginnings and however much they may have cherished or shunned their fellow human beings in life, in death they are equals and united and at peace.”

In the 15 years that Sylvia has organized the Yolo County Memorial Service — and during the many years before that under her predecessor — many indigent, homeless or mentally ill individuals have been honored here and their ashes interred in the columbarium in the far corner of the cemetery, their names, birthdays and dates of death permanently etched there.

For many, as their names are said aloud, there is no one present for whom that name evokes a face or a smile or the sound of a laugh; no one with a shared lifetime of memories.

But that’s not always the case.

Occasionally there is someone like Michael Washington.

Better known in Davis as Michael Starchild, he was a well-known figure in the city’s bicycling community.

Nicknamed “Million-Mile Mike” for the number of miles he covered cycling the world, Starchild and his wife, Kim, started The Bike People, a bike repair and sales shop on L Street. But the two weren’t legally married — they held their own ceremony in the Arboretum and considered themselves husband-and-wife — and the absence of that little certificate is why Starchild’s name was one of those read aloud on Friday.

Having fled an abusive home life at the age of 15, he had lost contact with all family members, and without a legal spouse, Starchild had no one legally eligible to claim his remains and arrange his services when he died of interstitial lung disease on May 7 at the age of 73.

So he came under the care of Sylvia and her staff, and for that, Kim Starchild was grateful.

But she hopes the Knights Landing cemetery will not be her husband’s final resting place. Rather, what he would want, she said, is her goal: to take his ashes by bicycle to Lake Tahoe and spread them there.

With the help of attorney friends in Davis, she hopes that dream comes to fruition. In the meantime, there was this memorial for him and another in Davis planned for the following day.

Starchild had no idea what to expect when she arrived at the cemetery Friday morning, but quickly felt there was something magical about it — a sense of peacefulness, she said.

And when musician Mary Superak stood to sing the Kate Wolf song, “Give Yourself to Love,” Starchild knew for sure.

“It was the song he sang to me when we got married,” she said. “It made me look up … it made me think, ‘He is up there above us right now, riding his bike around in circles.’ ”

Then there was Cecil Wachholtz.

His name wasn’t read aloud on Friday — he died in 2012 and was honored at last year’s service. But this was the year many gathered to acknowledge his life and death because this was the year many first learned he was gone.

Wachholtz was another recognizable Davis figure at one time. Developmentally disabled, he got around Davis on his bicycle and never passed by anyone without greeting them, Sylvia said.

Richard Hill, owner of the Davis Bike Exchange, fixed Wachholtz’s bike for him for 35 years. When Wachholtz stopped coming around a few years ago, Hill thought he had died. He wasn’t the only one.

In fact, Wachholtz was alive, but living in horrible conditions.

He was discovered by emergency personnel responding to a 911 call from a trailer inside a Royal Oak mobile home. There they found a filthy home environment, where despite having a trust fund specifically for his care, Wachholtz slept on a bare and soiled mattress, was fed only soup and cereal and hadn’t received medical care for years.

He arrived at the Sutter Davis Hospital intensive-care unit weighing just 70 pounds, malnourished, dehydrated and covered with bedsores, authorities said.

An emergency conservatorship placed him under Sylvia’s care, but he survived only eight more days, she said Friday, and for those eight days, “he wasn’t really there.”

His death was ruled a homicide, one caused by caretaker neglect, and his caregiver, James Mattos, was found guilty of second-degree murder in April. It was through media coverage of the trial earlier this year that many first learned not just that Wachholtz was gone, but how he had lived his final years — isolated and more or less forgotten.

“I wish I’d known where he was,” Hill said. “I would have gone over there. I would have done something.”

A number of those who knew Wachholtz showed up on Friday to remember him, something Sylvia was very glad to see, but she also reminded those present of the importance of reaching out to the living while they’re still here and in need of help — a sentiment Ward shared as well.

“Because life can be so hard,” he said, “we must revere one another as we have come to do today. For our paths all lead to the same place… we must be neighborly, for neighbors we shall all become. No cosmetic or upholstered coffin or marbled monument or private cemetery can disguise the fact that all people are one people because we all have in common the knowledge that we share the same destiny.

“Today is not a day for judgment,” he said, “but for empathy; not for reckoning, but for opening our hearts.”

— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at [email protected] or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy



Anne Ternus-Bellamy

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