Celebration of life

Dr. Ahmed Essa

The late Dr. Ahmed Essa and his wife,  Dr. Eva Essa.

The late Dr. Ahmed Essa and his wife, Dr. Eva Essa.

The family asks that anyone wishing to make a donation in Dr. Essa’s name support UNICEF, Save the Children, Oxfam, or Doctors Without Borders.

A celebration of life ceremony was held in honor of Dr. Ahmed Essa at the Ranch House in Rancho San Rafael Park last Sunday. Family and friends came together to share stories and honor the memory of Dr. Essa who had, for more than 40 years, been a vibrant contributor to Reno and a founder of the local Muslim community. Essa passed away on June 15 of this year after enduring a two-year struggle with Alzheimer’s.

The main hall was filled beyond capacity with family, friends, colleagues and former students at the start of the celebration. People lined the walls and filled chairs in the adjoining room as Jim McCormick took the podium beside a large photo of Essa to welcome everyone before asking Eugene Essa to speak of his father. Eugene, a tall smiling man and former fighter pilot for the U.S. Air Force recalled the unique childhood he had thanks to his father. He appreciated his introduction to the cultures of the world, from King Tut, to the Alhambra in Spain and back to New Orleans or across the Grand Canyon. He recounted the struggles of a pacifist father hearing his son was joining the military, yet maintaining the respect and praise he always gave to his children. “We are all better people because of him,” Eugene concluded.

Former classmate Susie Wilson spoke of Essa’s keen interest in American culture when he arrived on a full scholarship to Ohio State University from South Africa during apartheid. “He was excited by ice cubes … puzzled by Jell-O,” Wilson said fondly. “He was always in search of the quintessential American experience. … He taught us all how to see things through different eyes.” At the end of college, Wilson received a book list from Essa instead of a goodbye, which became something of a signature move for Essa due to his love of books.

Rabbi Myra Soifer of the Temple Sinai spoke briefly on Essa’s accomplishments and the gallant friendship they shared. Essa was instrumental in the founding of the mosque in Northern Nevada and Soifer’s first Muslim friend, “He was Reno’s best rabbi, representing the highest standards with his wisdom, faith and kindness,” Soifer stated proudly.

Further speakers gave their praise to the memory of Essa. Mark Lord, Essa’s Tai Chi instructor played a trumpet solo composed by his wife, Jackie, to honor the occasion. Penny Royce-Rogers, a family friend who was married by Essa, spoke with determination of Essa’s love for family, faith, friends and flowers. She was followed by Fiona Essa reading a portion of her father’s autobiography from when he was in the third grade and told his teacher, “I’ve learned how to read. That is all you can teach me.”

Several more speakers came forward to appreciate Essa’s contributions to their lives. Professor Balda Vig relived an example of Essa’s appreciation for all cultures even without understanding the language. “Do you like the forest? Yes. Do you like the birds singing? Yes. Do you understand what they’re saying?”

Though the occasion was somber and there were many tears shed, the atmosphere was light, and the room was continually erupting in laughter. Dr. Eva Essa was the final speaker of the day. She told the gathering of the last words written by her husband, the UNR English professor, the photographer, the writer: “A quiet morning.”

The life celebration ceremony was brought to a close with Fiona Essa performing a Poi dance in her father’s memory. Every attendant received a book from Essa’s personal library at the conclusion of the celebration. This was the final book list from Dr. Ahmed Essa.