They left us with memories, and much more

They left us this year, but not without first having left their imprint on Sacramento culture. They shaped food, fitness, the arts and even the way we watch TV advertising.

Here, Bee critics and reporters remember four men whose work affected them both professionally and personally.

Chi Cheng

Bassist for Deftones, 42, died April 13

The condolences came from across the globe and among the utmost in rock star royalty. That’s to say no Sacramento rock musician has been mourned quite like Chi Cheng.

Cheng was renowned internationally as the bassist for Deftones, the Sacramento homeboys-done-good who can count platinum albums and a Grammy Award among their credits. But the past five years had been harrowing for its fans, and especially for Cheng’s large extended family. Cheng was seriously injured in a 2008 car accident and spent the rest of his life in a semi-conscious state.

His colleagues in headbanging, meanwhile, raised money for Cheng’s mounting medical bills. A two-day benefit concert in 2009 in Hollywood included members of Metallica, Motley Crue, Linkin Park, Slayer and System of a Down. Deftones donated $1 per ticket during a 2010 tour to Cheng’s cause.

But Cheng wasn’t simply beloved for his rock star status. In a world of swanky tour buses, backstage catering and autograph seekers, he was known for humility and humbleness. He was a devout Buddhist who preferred writing poetry and listening to classical music during his downtime, a yin-yang balance to his onstage life of ferocious headbanging and beastly bass lines.

Remembered is his unyielding compassion, the guy who held poetry readings to benefit the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He took homeless kids under his wing at the Wind Center, jammed with them and even supplied new instruments. Cheng simply believed in living selflessly.

So, it was no surprise that Cesar Chavez Plaza hosted a spontaneous candlelight vigil for Cheng as news of his death spread. Members of Duran Duran, Cypress Hill, No Doubt and other A-list acts meanwhile took to social media to share their tributes and condolences.

Deftones, meanwhile, soldier on, with bassist Sergio Vega, eyeing a festival tour of Australia with Pearl Jam, Snoop Dogg, Primus and others in January. Cheng will meanwhile be remembered as a beloved Sacramento musician, a guy who toured the world but always believed in his hometown.

– Chris Macias

Eppie Johnson

Restaurateur, triathlete, 85, died Sept. 15

To Sacramento, Eppie didn’t need a last name. But over the past four decades, the restaurateur-turned-triathlon pioneer changed the meaning of “Eppie’s.”

Eppaminondas G. Johnson, known to everyone as simply Eppie, died in his sleep two months after the 40th Eppie’s Great Race. Considered the world’s oldest (and perhaps most unconventional) triathlon, the community event attracts thousands of participants and spectators to the American River Parkway each July. This summer, its fundraising efforts surpassed $1 million for the Sacramento County Therapeutic Recreation Services, which provides activities for people with developmental disabilities.

Johnson loved kayaking and saw a race as a way to promote both that sport and Eppie’s coffee shops. In his Great Race, a 6.35-mile kayak leg replaces the swim of most modern triathlons. A 5.52-mile run and 12.5-mile bike ride complete the race.

“The race is important to me, but it has also become part of the fabric of the community,” he told The Bee in July. “It’s hard to put into words. Maybe it’s my legacy.”

Tall and gregarious with a shock of white hair, Johnson was instantly recognizable. “He has a lot of showmanship and a tremendous ability to talk people into doing things they never would have done before,” former Sacramento County Supervisor Illa Collin told The Bee before this year’s race.

Johnson opened the first of his restaurants in 1965 at N and 30th streets in Sacramento. Eventually, he owned 16 all-night coffee shops plus more upscale restaurants, ranging from San Francisco to Las Vegas. His business expanded into hotels and a racquet club.

Colorful and charismatic, Johnson starred in his own commercials, skiing on water or snow while balancing plates of food. Eppie’s eateries hit rough times as tastes in restaurants changed. Johnson sold them out of bankruptcy in 1998.

But Eppie’s Great Race continues to keep his name alive in the community he loved.

“I thought I’d be known as Eppie, a good restaurant owner,” he told The Bee in 2003, “and now I hope I’m remembered as the race founder.”

– Debbie Arrington

José Montoya

Poet, artist, and teacher, 81, died, Sept. 25

José Montoya was always a man who was so much more than his parts. A former Sacramento poet laureate, Montoya was born in New Mexico and raised in California’s Central Valley. He was an original founder of the the Rebel Chicano Art Front, which later became the Royal Chicano Air Force.

Montoya became a nationally significant activist artist celebrating Chicano culture with politically based paintings, drawings poetry and performances. The work was infused with funk, humor, anger, history and compassion fueled by Montoya’s art education and cultural heritage.

Montoya created the term “la locura cura,” which means “craziness heals,” to describe the unconventional methods and results of the RCAF. In the early ’70s he became enmeshed in the struggle to gain rights for migrant farm workers with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union, using his art to gain awareness for the movement.

Montoya joined the Navy during the Korean War and then went to San Diego City College on the GI Bill and the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. He later taught art at Wheatland High School and Yuba Community College before joining California State University, Sacramento, where he was professor of art, photography and education for 27 years.

For those who crossed his path in midtown Sacramento where he lived for decades, Montoya always carried a powerful grace and profound sense of humorous irony in the life around him.

At 6 p.m. Jan. 23, his children will host a free public celebration and memorial, “¡La Locura Cura!” at the Crest Theater (1013 K St., Sacramento) in commemoration of the artist’s life. There will be tributes by the legendary Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America; writer-director Luis Valdez, founder of El Teatro Campesino and director of the films “Zoot Suit” and “La Bamba”; and Academy Award-nominated and Emmy Award-winning actor Edward James Olmos.

– Marcus Crowder

Cal Worthington

Car salesman, 92, died Sept. 8

To generations of Californians who watched his TV commercials, Cal Worthington was a carny-style car salesman in a cowboy hat whose pitch was so homespun you could almost taste the sorghum. More over-the-top than his image was his running joke about appearing on camera with “my dog Spot” – never a dog but perhaps a tiger, elephant or duck. It was deliberately silly, and also one of television’s longest-running ad campaigns.

Behind that persona, however, was a World War II B-17 bomber pilot and holder of the Distinguished Flying Cross, an uneducated man who came from the poverty of Dust Bowl-era Oklahoma to become a multimillionaire. Using grit, daring and determination – and a touch of cornpone humor – he shrewdly helped revolutionize the way car dealerships across the country did business. His slogan “Go see Cal” joined the pop vocabulary of the 1970s.

Calvin Coolidge Worthington returned from the war with plans to become an airline pilot, and was insulted to be told no. “They told me I didn’t have a college education,” he told The Bee in an interview in May.

That was the springboard to much bigger things. Worthington bought a gas station in Corpus Christi, Texas, and then a used-car dealership. Seeking broader opportunity, he moved to Southern California in 1950 to open Worthington Motors in Huntington Park. “People liked me,” he told The Bee. “I wasn’t pushy, and I answered their questions. All I knew was I could really sell cars.” At one time he had 26 dealerships, and estimated he had sold more than 1 million cars over a 65-year career.

In 1976, Worthington moved full-time to his 24,000-acre ranch in Orland. In recent years, he stayed in shape, tended his olive and almond groves, oversaw four remaining car dealerships, and visited his daughter in Granite Bay. He built a runway for his Learjet, which he piloted on business trips to destinations as far away as Alaska.

“I really like flying,” he told The Bee. “It’s so neat to get in the seat of the Learjet and push those throttles forward. Man, that thing will pin you back.”

– Allen Pierleoni