.Saying Goodbye to “Reb”

Eulogy for a Community Star

A memorial service for Rowland “Reb” Rebele (1930-2023) will be held this Saturday (Feb 17th) at Cabrillo College, beginning at 1 p.m. 

We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them. 

— T.S. Eliot

Late autumn—when the light changes and the frigidity of northern winds sweep down along the coast — is a time of darkness and death, and so it was for Rowland “Reb” Rebele, the beloved philanthropist and, truly, a community saint who passed away at the age of 93 on November 25 of last year.

It was a sudden and unexpected departure.  

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It certainly came as a shock to me. I had just spent several afternoons with him in recent months, interviewing him at Pacific Coast Manor in Capitola for a lengthy profile for Good Times.

My family and I were preparing to leave for Cuba, and I went to visit him one last time before our departure. He had been at the rehabilitation facility recovering from a back injury (aggravated by osteoporosis), and he assured me that he would soon return to his home at Dominican Oaks, where he would reunite with his beloved wife of nearly 70 years, Pat, whom he had described to me in our conversations as “the love of my life” and “my everything.” 

When I learned upon my arrival that he was no longer a patient there, I assumed he had recovered to the point where he had made his way home. Reb was nothing if not a salesman, a man whose will was forceful and indomitable, and I had every reason to believe that his recovery had been accomplished and that he was back with Pat.  I was so convinced that he must be better and on his feet that I smiled at his guts and invincible fortitude. Any alternate explanation never even occurred to me. 

A few hours later, as I was packing my bags to leave, I learned that he had died.

I was heartbroken and a bit numb. I fell into a dark, contemplative mood. 

Here is a secret about writing that Reb (an avid writer himself) would want me to share: Whenever you read a longer profile of someone, the person who has written it literally has lived inside their subject for a considerable amount of time. I had spent weeks researching his life in the back pages of newspapers and magazines, dating all the way back to the 1940s, had listened to interviews, and spoken to many of his friends and colleagues. 

It was largely a joyful process because everyone who I spoke with about Reb truly loved him (and Pat) and admired his work in the community — his tireless advocacy for those experiencing homelessness; his generous commitment to the arts, education, journalism and newspaper publishing; his relentless protection of First Amendment rights; his delight in political campaigns (win or lose); ad infinitum. Reb was seemingly everywhere at all times. Just tracking down the major threads of his life here (he moved to Santa Cruz County in 1980) was a remarkable journey. His passions were broad and his energies both enthusiastic and unyielding.

As I gazed out over the waters of the Florida Straights revising the profile, I thought of Reb and our nearly 40 years of friendship (he was a strong supporter of the old Santa Cruz Sun, for which I wrote in the 1980s) and how much I admired him throughout the years, even when we disagreed about local or national politics. He was a happy warrior; he delighted in the jousting. And he was always gracious afterwards, in both victory and defeat. 

I chuckled when I thought about his colorful language — he was a retired Navy man– and “bullshit” was a particular term he liked to invoke as a noun and transitive verb.  

When I returned to Santa Cruz, I learned that a miracle had happened, that the story had indeed been received by my editor, and though I hadn’t seen the story, virtually everyone I encountered wanted to talk to me about Reb’s life. I mean dozens and dozens of people brought him up. Everywhere. It was an absolutely inspiring community conversation. From all walks. Slowly, my darkness over his death lifted and his inimitable spirit came back to life.

I also received a perceptive email about Reb from Second District Supervisor Zach Friend. “I always [found] our conversations enlightening and always guided toward how a need can be solved by partnership,” Friend wrote me.  “Whether it was helping build skate parks for local youth or ensuring that the least fortunate are elevated in local government, Reb always quietly and effectively finds a way to make our community better for future generations.”

It was a perfect summation. Past and present tense alike. 

A memorial service will be held for Rowland K. “Reb” Rebele this Saturday (Feb. 17), at 1 p.m., at Cabrillo College’s Crocker Theater, 6500 Lower Perimeter Road, Aptos. Seating begins at 12:30. 

Rowland is survived by his wife Pat, their three children, Marianne, Andy and Chris, his daughter-in-law Jeanne, and five grandchildren: Lily, Jessica, Chantou, Pidor and Elodie. 

Donations may be made in Rebele’s honor to Housing Matters; Cabrillo College Journalism Department; or the Santa Cruz Symphony.

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