Former planning commissioner and advocate for the disabled dies of pneumonia
Jonathan Studebaker, the former planning commissioner, Transit Board member, City Council candidate, TV personality, kicking coach for the Chico State University football team and advocate for the disabled, died April 3 of complications after a bout with pneumonia.
The 35-year-old Studebaker entered Enloe Medical Center March 23 after a visit to his doctor revealed his illness. Studebaker, who used a wheelchair most of his life, was born with a rare bone disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta (OI), or brittle bones.
Friends who talked with him March 24 said Studebaker was upbeat and jovial, though he sounded heavily congested. The next day he stopped breathing and was placed on a ventilator. Though he regained consciousness, he was hooked up to breathing tube and thus unable to talk, said his sister, Rebecca Downing, who came to town from Watsonville a few days after Studebaker entered the hospital.
“The doctors talked to him, and I think he understood what was happening to him,” she said. “He tried to talk, but I wouldn’t let him. The doctors wanted him to save his energy.”
A day later Studebaker slipped into a state of unconsciousness from which he never fully awoke. On March 31 he was placed on full life support, one day after showing some signs of improvement.
Respiratory ailments such as pneumonia are common for people with OI, doctors said.
Studebaker, who spent a good portion of his childhood in Shriners hospitals, was born in Indiana and lived in Hawaii, Michigan and San Mateo before moving to Chico in 1983 to attend college. He graduated from Chico State University in 1987 with a degree in communications.
Studebaker’s first love was football. He was a big fan of the Kansas City Chiefs, due to in no small part to his long-time friendship with former Chiefs Head Coach Paul Wiggins, whom he had met while living in the Bay Area when Wiggins coached Stanford. He also met and subsequently corresponded with college football coaching legend Paul “Bear” Bryant.
While at Chico State, Studebaker served as kicking coach for the Wildcat football team, first under Coach Dick Trimmer and later under Mike Bellotti. And, after graduating, Studebaker hosted a sports segment called “Chalk Talk” for Channel 24 in the late ‘80s.
He may well have also been, at the time of his death, the last fan of the upstart XFL left in America.
In 1994 Studebaker was named to the city Planning Commission on a nomination by former Mayor James Owens. He proved to be an outspoken and thoughtful commissioner who came to meetings well versed about matters on the agenda. In 1996 he ran for City Council, was endorsed by this paper and finished a respectable ninth in a field of 19 candidates.
But Studebaker’s moderate-to-progressive stance as a commissioner and refusal to vote to approve such big projects as Bidwell Ranch and Foothill Park proved part of his undoing on the commission. In 1998 a conservative majority, funded by local developers, was elected to the City Council, and Studebaker was purged from the Planning Commission in favor of more growth-oriented nominees.
He seemed to resign himself to his political fate—as well as the hand he was dealt in life—with a calm acceptance.
Once, when asked if he ever wondered “Why me?” he answered: “Yeah, sure I ask ‘Why?’ But I never ask ‘Why me?'”
“Obviously Jonathan was very active in this community and was a valued member,” said Chico City Manager Tom Lando. “He was someone who had a very strong point of view, but one he would make in a very gentle and humorous manner.”
“In a way it’s a relief,” said his sister Downing. “At least he’s finally out of pain.” Pain was a constant for Studebaker, who could break a rib simply by sneezing too hard and had suffered more than 100 breaks in his life.
Downing had arrived in Chico a few days after Studebaker entered the hospital and has since flown back to be with Studebaker’s parents, Henry and Cynthia, who live in Michigan. Studebaker also has a sister, Amy, and a brother, Alden.
Studebaker’s parents have announced that there will be a memorial service in Chico, with a date yet to be set. Memorial contributions can be made to The Shriners Hospitals for Crippled Children.