Steve Crumley and his granddaughter in front of a pond Steve built at his Berkeley home. Courtesy: Lisa Chavez

Last week was a whirlwind of end-of-school year field trips, cupcake making, hair doing, class parties, and my daughter’s fifth-grade graduation. Suddenly, into the mix came the sad news of my father-in-law Steve Crumley’s death. We are grateful to know that he went peacefully in his sleep, all any of us can ask for. He was 85.

We’re all grieving. I feel it’s important to personally share something about him with the community he loved, and was such a vital part of.  I’m writing from memories of conversations we had and what I have learned about his life. This is not an official obituary by any means, just my homage. 

“We could never go far in Berkeley without it feeling like we were accompanying the mayor, due to all the salutations he  gave and received.”

Steve was one of the original five employees at Chez Panisse, most of them as senior maitre d’, and he was known to everyone who went there. We could never go far in Berkeley without it feeling like we were accompanying the mayor, due to all the salutations he  gave and received. Steve remembered everyone who came into the restaurant. He wasn’t elitist or judgmental, and could engage with anyone he met.

Steve was born at a very young age (family joke), Nov. 5, 1937. His father died when he was a little boy and his sister, Elizabeth, was a toddler. Afterwards he lived in the Allegheny Projects in Pittsburgh, PA, with his mother and sister

He was a somewhat racially ambiguous looking guy, easily mistaken for Berber or Seneca, especially in his youth. To me, it seemed he just fit in everywhere because of his looks.

Courtesy: Lisa Chavez

He learned typesetting in high school and then joined the Marines. After that he came to California to go to school in LA, where he got his Associate Degree. He said he was actually proudest of that first degree. He was the first person in his neighborhood to go to college. He then went to UC Berkeley and graduated with a degree in linguistics. He wrote poetry, which he read publicly.

During the 1960s, he married Donna Whyte. They went to Paris where he type-set for the International Edition of the New York Times. After their return to the US, their daughter, Thayer Abaigael, was born. Soon afterwards, they moved to Iran where he had a job as an English teacher at the University of Tehran for two years. The marriage ended there, after which Steve bought a van and spent many months traveling through the Middle East and Europe, winding his way slowly back the US.

Back in Berkeley he worked as a typesetter and printmaker, and then helped his friend Alice Waters, who, in 1971, opened a little place called Chez Panisse. He worked there as a bartender, a waiter in the restaurant, and then as the senior maitre d’ in the Chez Panisse Cafe. He also had his own business as an arborist. The famous Bunya-Bunya Pine outside the restaurant was his baby, as was the wisteria at the First Church of Christ, Scientist in Berkeley.

He met Cassandra Lewis, and they had Carlisle, my husband, in 1980. He later married his current wife, Patty Brink.

Steve worked at the famous restaurant for 46 years and only retired on his 80th birthday, in 2017.

Steve was a lover of nature, art, fashion, literature, comedy, language and music. A truly well-rounded renaissance man, from canning jam to having his finger on the pulse of the local hip-hop scene — and everything in between. He was a fervent activist and supporter of civil rights and social justice. 

I don’t know if his outlook was born of what his mother taught him, what he looked like, the poverty he grew up in, the people who surrounded him throughout his travels and life. But for all his foibles — and he had a few — nothing overshadowed what a forward-thinking, kind, and generous man he was, and, most importantly, what an incredible father he was to my husband, and grandfather to our children, Lita and Desi.  

Many of you who are reading this know that I hit the jackpot in the husband department, and I owe a deep sense of gratitude to the man who helped to make him. I am beyond lucky to have known and loved this spitfire. He had such an open, and profound love and respect for me as a person, who also happened to be his daughter-in-law, and mother to his two grandkids.

Thank you for letting me call you Pa, Steve. Happy trails.