Her hugs emanated warmth and love, her smile could light up a room and above all, friends recall, Sharon Chatman could motivate almost anyone to be a better person.
Chatman, a retired Santa Clara County judge and renowned former San Jose State University basketball coach, died in late December at home from complications due to a brain tumor. She was 73.
Her friends — and there were many — remembered Chatman as someone who always made them feel special.
Goddaughter Michelle Peterson grew up with Chatman as a sort of “second mom.” Her mother and Chatman were best friends.
“She was just full of life,” Peterson said. “You could be in a room with 100 people and she would make you feel like you were the only person in the room.”
Chatman was born and raised in Bakersfield and went to California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo, where she played point guard on the women’s basketball team. Chatman fell in love with the sport, which lead to two decades of coaching.
After graduation, Chatman first coached basketball at Andrew P. Hill High School in San Jose, then at De Anza College in Cupertino.
In 1976, she became the head women’s basketball coach at San Jose State University, where she coached until 1986, amassing a 142-121 winning record. Chatman was inducted into the SJSU Sports Hall of Fame in 2004.
Chatman retired from her basketball career to pursue her Juris Doctor at the University of California Hastings College of Law, and graduated in 1989. She was admitted to the California State Bar that December.
Gov. Gray Davis appointed Chatman to her post as Superior Court judge in 2000 — one of Davis’ first appointments.
Judge Erica Yew, who was appointed by Davis to the Santa Clara County Superior Court in 2001, remembers Chatman took her job seriously, but also knew when to have fun. And she wasn’t satisfied with just being a judge, Yew said.
“She wanted to change the situation that a lot of her defendants and victims found themselves in when they came into court,” Yew said. Soon, Chatman created a special court calendar for domestic violence offenders who also struggled with mental health.
As a condition of probation, offenders must complete a yearlong course without missing more than three classes. Chatman brought together multiple county departments to work with offenders so they could finish their requirements and not end up back in court.
As a regular part of her job, Chatman would preside over domestic violence cases and arraignments. But she had a way of making even that courtroom experience unique.
“She would have them raise their hand, and give them kudos, or sometimes a little prize if they got the answer right just to make sure that they were paying attention to her arraignment speech when they were being advised of their rights,” Yew said.
In 2004, Chatman established her nonprofit, Building Peaceful Families, which runs several events in the South Bay aimed at uplifting families impacted by the justice system.
Lori Collins, president of the nonprofit, remembers accepting an invite from Chatman to watch court proceedings shortly after they met.
“She made these amazing decisions and had these great, impactful conversations with everyone who came in,” Collins recalled.
One of Chatman’s favorite efforts was the annual Golden Grandmothers Recognition Luncheon, which celebrates grandmothers who sacrifice their retirement to take care of grandchildren who might otherwise end up in foster care.
Chatman wanted to ensure every woman there felt cherished and honored, her friends said. She would often recruit friends and colleagues to help make gifts for the grandmothers.
“You never say ‘no’ to Sharon,” Yew said. “I made earrings for 100 grandmothers (one year). They got toys for their grandkids, they got bubble bath and earrings and care packages. Everybody got something.”
One year, Rolanda Pierre Dixon, retired assistant district attorney for Santa Clara County, brought her mother-in-law to the luncheon. She had taken care of Dixon’s daughter for several years after she was born, while Dixon worked full time.
“I was able to stand up and look her right in the eye and say, ‘I have a grandmother to thank today,'” Dixon said. “I would have never had that opportunity … Sharon provided that platform for me to be able to thank her.”
Another project that came out of the Building Peaceful Families nonprofit was the Red Power Divas, a running and walking group that inspired people to be more active.
When Chatman became ill earlier this year, her goddaughter volunteered to take care of her full time. She also took charge of keeping track of Chatman’s social life, receiving 10 to 20 texts, phone calls and messages a day, along with many visitors.
“She had more friends than anyone I knew,” Peterson said. “She never married, never had children, but she was surrounded by so many friends.”
Peterson said that as heartbroken as she is to have lost her second mom, she considers it an honor to have taken care of her.
“I called her my 4’8″ giant,” Peterson said. “Because her heart was just huge.”