Progressive Councilmember Coleen Jarvis recalled for her compassion and energy
Coleen Jarvis, public servant, family law attorney and social activist, was as aggressive as she was progressive. Those who felt the wrath of Jarvis, and there were many, had no doubts as to where she stood. But they also knew her fury was grounded in the business of politics and advocacy and compassion for the downtrodden; it was nothing personal.
The impassioned Chico city councilmember, who was 46, died in the early hours of May 21, overcome at last by the ravages of cancer, first diagnosed two years ago, that had invaded her colon and brain, rendering her in the end unable to speak. Her last public appearance was at the May 4 City Council meeting, at which she stayed only a brief time. At the beginning of the meeting, when roll was taken and her name called, Jarvis hesitated, smiled and then clapped her hands to indicate her presence.
On the Monday before she died, what would become a week-long vigil began in Jarvis’ back yard, where friends, family, supporters and others gathered quietly to pray, meditate and recall Jarvis’ numerous accomplishments and the lives she affected.
Jarvis’s husband, Michael Stauffer, said she was sedated in the final days because consciousness was much too uncomfortable for her. He likened her awakened mental state to one of claustrophobia.
The couple was married the weekend before she died in a hurry-up ceremony to beat the inevitable. Their original wedding plans were to wed on Saturday, May 29. Now that date is set for a memorial to Jarvis, to be held at 10 a.m. in Chico State University’s Laxson Auditorium, followed by a Mass at 4 p.m. in the St. Thomas Aquinas Newman Catholic Center, ending with a reception.
Stauffer found himself helping to tie up all the loose ends of Jarvis’ busy life outside the couple’s home while trying to care for her inside the house. He had the help of hospice volunteers for the latter duty.
She died at 2:15 Friday morning. On Friday afternoon the flag at City Hall hung at half-staff. Across the street at Duffy’s Tavern, fellow progressives raised their glasses in toasts to Jarvis’ legacy, teary-eyed friends hugged, and the Irish band The Pub Scouts played a bittersweet melody in her honor.
At Moxie’s Café and Gallery, which in recent years has become the unofficial meeting place for liberals on election nights, a portrait of Jarvis sits on a table next to a hand-written note: “In loving memory of our dear Coleen Jarvis.”
Though her failing health was widely known among her friends and colleagues for some time, many are still trying to come to grips with Jarvis’ death.
“One of my favorite memories was riding my bike on a beautiful weekend afternoon to view a proposed development project that was on the council agenda later in the week,” recalled fellow councilmember and political ally Dan Nguyen-Tan. “Surprisingly, I happened to find Coleen already there on her bike as well. She was still recovering from cancer and yet was on her bike doing all the little things that councilors do—visiting proposed development sites, meeting with constituents and reading staff reports. Here we were, on our bikes, sharing a few laughs and balancing our personal lives with the always on-the-job demands of being a public servant.”
Jarvis, who moved to Chico in 1979, held a number of jobs in Chico, including at Do-It Leisure, which works with disabled children. Jarvis earned a degree in recreational therapy at Chico State.
In 1984, she began working for and then running Rape Crisis Intervention. She became coordinator in 1989 of the Chico Peace Center.
She also put herself through law school through a combination of work—at Legal Services of Northern California—and public assistance, which would later lead to her being labeled a welfare queen by conservative opponents during a particularly ugly political campaign in 1996, when Jarvis was first elected to council.
She had passed the bar exam two years earlier and ended up working for LSNC for 12 years, eventually becoming managing attorney. In 1996 she also began teaching political science at Chico State.
In a written statement, CSU professor Paul Persons called Jarvis an “inspiration.”
“Our students had the highest praise for Coleen’s teaching abilities, giving her some of the best student evaluations in the department,” Persons wrote.
Two years ago she was hired by the county as a juvenile dependency attorney.
As a councilmember, Jarvis was known as someone whose sensitivity to the problems of the poor was matched only by her determination to work on their behalf. She is widely credited with being the driving force on the council in support of creation of the Torres Community Shelter and a controversial new facility for the Esplanade House, both of which serve the homeless.
Councilmember Dan Herbert, a political opponent of Jarvis on most issues, recalled her fondly this week.
“We could sit and watch Chico State baseball games together and say to each other, ‘I hate your politics’ and then enjoy the game,” Herbert said.
“My last recollection of Coleen was when she showed up at the last meeting for one council item,” Herbert said. “She called me over—she was steadying herself—and we embraced each other.”
He said he had learned during their time on the council together not to take the occasional political flare-ups personally.
“You realize you have a relationship with a person as a human being first,” Herbert said.
City Manager Tom Lando remembered Jarvis as both “a friend” and “somebody who screamed at me quite a bit when we didn’t see eye to eye.”
Already there has been speculation about how to fill the seat Jarvis’ death opens on the council. Her second four-year term expires at the end of the year.
A press release from the family announcing Jarvis’ death also noted that, “With her blessing, Michael [Stauffer] has decided to seek the appointment to fill her seat in order to complete her term on the City Council.”
Herbert, who said he unfortunately will be forced to miss Jarvis’ memorial services because of a prior family commitment, said for him it was too early to speculate on politics in the wake of her death.
Nguyen-Tan, however, had a different take.
“I can think of no greater personal honor than to support appointing Coleen’s husband, Michael Stauffer, to fulfill her remaining council term,” he said in a written statement. “Appointing Michael is the right thing to do because it’s one more way for him—and for the community—to honor Coleen’s life.”
The council can either agree to appoint her replacement or call for a special election, which at the earliest would not be held until September. And it also could allow the seat to remain vacant until the November election.
Besides her husband, Jarvis leaves behind her two children from a previous marriage, Carli and Jeremiah, who just graduated from UC Davis.