John McChesney, a longtime NPR reporter and co-founder of the Sonoma Speakers Series, died Tuesday night at his home on Sonoma Mountain, surrounded by family members. He was 78.
According to sources, he was diagnosed with leukemia late last year, and given a limited time to live even if he underwent chemotherapy. McChesney did undergo the treatment, but it didn’t improve his condition, said fellow NPR veteran Alex Chadwick, a 40-year friend and colleague.
On Sunday, June 4, the day prior to the most recent Sonoma Speaker Series event with Daniel Ellsberg, McChesney was taken to Kaiser Hospital with a high fever. He was released earlier this week for palliative care and hospice.
“My heart goes out to Wendy,” said friend and Sonoma Speaker Series cofounder Kathy Witkowicki.
Wendy von Wiederhold and McChesney joined Witkowicki and Chadwick in founding the speaker series in 2016.
Since 2016, the series has brought a number of increasingly high-profile guests to Sonoma for exclusive “conversations,” usually at the Hanna Boys Center. Recent speakers have included gay activist Cleve Jones, journalist Bill Keller, former intelligence officer James Clapper and, this past Monday, Daniel Ellsberg, the Nixon-era government insider who famously leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press.
The Speaker Series ability to attract national figures was in large measure because of the respect McChesney carried in journalism circles. “The genesis of it was that Sonoma doesn’t really have anything like this,” said McChesney at the time. “But there are a lot of people there who are smart, retired and interested in having something like this in their backyard.”
According to his biography on sonomaspeakerseries.com, McChesney did graduate work at Stanford and was an assistant professor of American Literature at Antioch College for six years. He joined NPR in 1979 as a news editor where he developed NPR’s first national desk and, later, the network’s first foreign desk, before he became a correspondent.
He reported on Silicon Valley and the rise of the Internet, agricultural technology and the organic revolution. Toward the end of his NPR career he covered the war in Iraq, being embedded with troops three times, and described the severe impact of the war on military families at home – and the CIA’s torture and killing of an Iraqi detainee at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison.
McChesney came to Sonoma in part because his grandfather had a home on Sonoma Mountain, where McChesney and his wife have lived for the past decade. The house burned in a fire in 2013, but they rebuilt. When the October fires came last year, they first fled to a friend’s home in Sonoma, then returned to their home to stand guard even though the evacuation order for Sonoma Mountain Road had not been lifted.
Valley resident Jennifer Gray Thompson said that her mother’s “best friend” was Wendy von Wiederhold, and when McChesney came into their lives it was “such a wonderful addition from the beginning.” McChesney and von Wiederhold were married in 2004.
Gray Thompson called McChesney “a lion.”
“He was so smart, I loved how passionate he was about journalism, integrity, so curious – a lot of my conversations with John were about how he wanted to know everything about the county,” said Gray Thompson, a former aide to Supervisor Susan Gorin and now executive director of the Rebuild North Bay Foundation.
“He was a dear old friend of mine,” said Chadwick, who met McChesney when he came to NPR in 1979. When asked if his seniority allowed him to lord it over McChesney, Chadwick replied, “You couldn’t really lord it over John.”
The family plans a private memorial service.
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