Popular Sonoma State prof dies in bike accident

He was an environmental scientist, an ace banjo picker, a poet and a Torah scholar. And when Steve Norwick succumbed to injuries sustained in a hit-and-run accident, the Sonoma State University, local bicycling and North Bay Jewish communities all lost a beloved friend and colleague.

While riding his bike on a country road the morning of June 8, Norwick was struck by a motorist who reportedly left the scene. He lay in a coma for 10 days before dying June 19 at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. He was 68.

The driver, Robert Cowart, has pled not guilty to one count of felony hit-and-run — charges that may stiffen now that Norwick has died — and is currently out on bond.

The story has gripped the Santa Rosa area, in part because Norwick was so beloved. While he was in the coma, people prayed and checked a Facebook page for updates on his condition, and on June 13, some 50 cyclists held a bike rally in support of him.

Steve Norwick

“It’s as if the fabric of our community has been [torn apart],” said his colleague and friend, Barbara Lesch McCaffry. “He touched hundreds of faculty and thousands of students.”

But the story also has gripped the area because of Cowart, 68, who has three prior drunken driving convictions, according to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. Also, Cowart had “obvious motor skill difficulties from a recent stroke” and “shuffled slowly down the hallway” when he appeared in court last week, according to Patch.com.

Moreover, according to prosecutor Victoria Shanahan, Cowart drove away and “continued with his day” after striking Norwick and sending him flying into a drainage ditch on Petaluma Hill Road in Penngrove. Police eventually tracked him down.

Norwick, a retired Sonoma State professor, “was a very good teacher and very dynamic,” said his daughter, Sara-Rozet Norwick of San Francisco. “He was very aware of the world, and anything could trigger a musing about a particular subject.”

Norwick taught courses on soil science, water technology and environmental literature for nearly 40 years.

Born in Philadelphia in 1943, Norwick grew up the son of two Jewish socialist immigrants. The family later moved to San Lorenzo, and he was an avid camper and hiker as a youth.

After earning a Ph.D. in geology from the University of Montana, he taught in Michigan and worked as a geologist in Chile and Boston. In 1974, he joined Sonoma State’s Environmental Studies and Planning Department.

“He was a scientist by training, but taught environmental studies and planning,” said his daughter, “and he was well versed in poetry and literature, and published both on scientific topics and in the liberal arts.”

Norwick was an active member of Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati. The synagogue’s spiritual leader, Irwin Keller, sent out an email note of sympathy this week, noting that while much attention will be paid to the trial of the driver in the coming weeks, “I believe we best honor what Steve stood for in life not through our anger, but through our love; engaging in caring acts that help heal the planet.”

Sara-Rozet Norwick said her father’s knowledge of Torah was “extraordinary.”

“Religion was more of an academic exercise for my father. [He] was great at leading the seder. When we did Jewish things, we often had non-Jews at the table. My father was always very welcoming and never exclusive.”

Norwick had only recently retired and still had not fully cleaned out his office when he was struck.

Steve Norwick is survived by his wife, Marthe Norwick of Rohnert Park; daughters Sara-Rozet Norwick of San Francisco and Rebecca Norwick of Windsor, and three grandchildren. Plans for a public memorial will be announced soon, according to Keller.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.