Norden H. (Dan) Cheatham ’58 (1936 – 2019)
“Remember who you are and what you represent.”
That’s what Dan Cheatham told new Cal Band members during the Silent Walk, an initiation held the day after the first home game, where Cal Band newcomers receive a guided tour of important UC Berkeley campus landmarks.
During the Silent Walk, Cal Band officials stationed at each landmark talk about what it means to be a Cal Band member. Cheatham had a station.
“Remember who you are and what you represent.” It must have been Cheatham’s guiding motto, as he’s remembered as one of Cal’s most devoted, passionate, and involved alumni.
There will be a vacant spot on next year’s Silent Walk no other volunteer can replace. Cheatham died on May 22, 2019. His legacy includes chapters as a Cal Band drum major, photographer, historian, forester, and conservation officer. “His whole life has been Cal, from age ten until he passed,” says Philip Litts ’66, a past Cal Alumni Association (CAA) board member, active volunteer, and close personal friend of Cheatham.
Cheatham was an ambassador. He championed causes he believed in with action more than words, though he backed both with passion and confidence.
The “Best Damn Band in the Land”
Cheatham’s ties to Cal go back to 1946, age ten. His mother, a nurse, took a summer job at a boys’ camp, which allowed Cheatham to attend for free. A camp counselor, trombonist Bill Fay ’48, founder of the Cal Straw Hat Band, talked Cheatham into becoming water boy. Cheatham served as water boy every year until he graduated Berkeley High in 1954.
Attending college at Cal was an easy choice for Cheatham, having spent most of his childhood hanging around campus. His Cal Band friends encouraged him to try out. He couldn’t read music, couldn’t play an instrument, and considered himself tone deaf. What could he do?
Bass drum. He played bass drum for three years. During his senior year, he successfully tried out for drum major. It was an ideal role: Cheatham presumably knew how to keep time after three years pounding the bass drum, and holding the baton allowed his innate leadership skills to shine through.
Cheatham’s senior year, 1958, was a pivotal one for the Cal Band. The band represented the United States at the World’s Fair in Brussels, Belgium, where Cheatham shared the honor of leading Cal Band with Chapman Dix ’61. On New Year’s Day 1959, the band played in the Rose Bowl, where Cheatham marched as a bass drummer. Cal (the Cal Band included) hasn’t appeared at the Rose Bowl since.
Cheatham stayed involved with the band well after graduation. He became the official/unofficial photographer, a role he kept for many years. He also assumed the role of oral historian and interviewed more than one hundred individuals tied to Cal Band history.
Cheatham, a forestry graduate, enjoyed a rich career that started as a forester in Maui and continued at the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (Micronesia) where he served as a trust conservation officer. While stationed in Palau, Cheatham discovered a number of unknown plant species. Botanist F. R. Fosberg, of the Smithsonian, named one of them after Cheatham. It’s called Psychotria Cheathamiana.
Cheatham spent the majority of his career at the US Forest Service’s California Forest & Range Experiment Station, followed by the University of California Natural Land and Water Reserve System (now the UC Natural Reserve System). As a field representative, Cheatham identified land that needed protected access.
“If a property came to our attention that was a missing link in our plan, he’d visit and make a report,” says Bob Dering, who worked with Cheatham beginning in the late 1970s. “He had a gift for writing vivid reports that made sense, even to a non-scientist like me.”
The UC Natural Reserve System also tasked Cheatham with identifying California’s varied natural habitats. He teamed with Robert Haller of UC Santa Barbara to come up with a checklist. After brainstorming and traveling up and down the coast to study species, Cheatham and Haller published a vegetation and classification system that’s still cited today. “It’s a huge accomplishment that will live for many years to come,” says Dering.
An accomplished amateur photographer, Cheatham documented thousands of California flora. After he moved from Rossmoor to the University Retirement Community in Davis, Cheatham spent a good few years organizing his photos and slides, donating many.
Dan the Man
A private man, Cheatham probably felt more comfortable behind the camera and holding the tape recorder than speaking publicly. Litts met Cheatham in the early 2000s, when both of them got re-involved in Cal activities.
After Cheatham moved to Davis, Litts and Cheatham often rode into Berkeley together for Cal Spirit meetings, DeCal courses (they both taught), and other events. On those hour-long drives, Cheatham opened up to Litts about his life in ways that very few people have known.
In addition to his background (born in Hawaii, raised by a single mom, didn’t wear shoes until he came to California), Litts learned Cheatham was generous with his time and knowledge, but frugal with discretionary spending. “He started cutting his own hair in 1964!” says Litts.
Most likely, Cheatham wasn’t concerned with luxuries and “things.” He focused his energy on sharing what he loved about native plants, “the world’s greatest university,” and the “best damn band in the land.”
Dan Cheatham is survived by his sister, Nonna Cheatham, and dozens of friends and colleagues.
A celebration of life is being planned for August or September.
Heather R. Johnson is a writer based in Oakland who played clarinet in her high school band.