The late Concord City Councilman Michael Chavez was a bear of a man whose big heart, gregarious style and slightly wicked sense of humor dwarfed his imposing stature.

The popular hairstylist and politician loved to hug his clients at the renowned "Salon to the Stars," the follicle fashion choice of many of Contra Costa's political movers and shakers. He had in his hands the hairstyles of dozens of Contra Costa's elected leaders throughout the years.

"As big as Michael was in person, he was bigger than life," said longtime client and friend Sunne Wright McPeak, a former county supervisor who served as a cabinet secretary under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. "He was genuine, the salt of the earth and a really good friend."

McPeak heard from him Friday when Chavez and his wife, Vikki, and their two children, Austin and Dallas, sang "Happy Birthday" to her, as they do every year. She still has the recording on her cell phone.

The next afternoon, 61-year-old Chavez' died unexpectedly of an apparent heart attack during a public hearing in Concord.

Chavez had been on the council just seven months. Friends and colleagues describe a man whose impact during his 27 years in the community far surpassed his short time in elected office.

Concord residents can thank Chavez, in part, for the absence of a massive bronze statue of a recliner in Todos Santos Park, an offensive tribute to suburbia once envisioned as part of a reconstruction of the park. Chavez served on the citizen committee that helped design what visitors enjoy today in the popular downtown gathering spot.

"Michael was instrumental in stopping the over-the-top design of the park," said longtime client and close friend Christine Callahan, a Concord attorney and political activist. "He would talk about the park constantly as he was cutting people's hair. He got the word out and a lot of his clients were some of the movers and shakers of the community."

Chavez moved from citizen activist to serve on the Markham Arboretum advisory committee and the city's parks and recreation and planning commissions. He also served on a board for the Cal State East Bay Contra Costa Campus. He was elected to the City Council in November.

Chavez hailed from humble beginnings. As the son of a gardener, he grew up in East Los Angeles with nine siblings and would later tell clients stories about his childhood.

He joined the Marines as a teenager and used his veterans benefits to pay for cosmetology school. After he graduated, he moved to San Francisco and quickly established himself in a high-profile salon in the city's financial district.

It was in the city where Chavez met and fell in love with the woman who would become his wife and lifelong business partner, Vikki.

The two hairstylists opened their own salon in San Francisco but opted to leave the city for Concord in the late the 1970s, when they opened Charisma Salon on Clayton Road.

In the 1990s, the couple set off on the arduous, but fulfilling, journey of adopting their son, Austin, and their daughter, Dallas, from Russian orphanages.

"Like everything Michael did, he was very committed to parenthood," said Mark Rudy of Alamo, who adopted a boy from the same orphanage. "He was so proud of his children."

Chavez was a master storyteller and the antics of his children were among his favorite subjects. Friends say he could turn an ordinary event into a riotous tale, and he was never afraid to poke fun at his own foibles either.

Like Mark Twain, Chavez never let the facts get in the way of a good story. His friend Callahan dubbed his penchant for embellishment as "Michael's Garden of Misinformation, a place frequently fertilized with potent manure."

He was also a wicked impersonator who could send his friends into gales of laughter with his renditions of local personalities.

"Michael would have us rolling on the floor," said Concord Councilwoman Helen Allen. "He was never mean, and it was all in good fun. But he was really funny, and people really enjoyed being around him"

Despite Chavez' outward charm and his well-earned reputation as a master of self-promotion, he was a shy man. He struggled as a candidate and fledgling city councilman to overcome his visible discomfort with public speaking and schmoozing.

Chavez had also joined the council at a time when it faced one controversy after another, including the Wal-Mart dispute, the Concord Naval Weapons Station planning, police union negotiations and unrest about where to park boats and RVs.

It was, as one friend described Chavez' entry into elected life, a baptism by fire.

Chavez' years working as a hairstylist taught him customer service, but it ill-prepared him for the often unforgiving nature of voters, said friend and former Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla of Pittsburg.

"In many respects, his desire to make people happy is what made him a good human being, good councilman, father and husband," Canciamilla said. "But I think he cared so much about the community and everyone's feelings that it made it very challenging for him to be in a role where you can't make people happy all the time."

But in the past few months before his death, friends say, Chavez was beginning to settle into his new role, and he was sporting a slightly thicker shell around the heart he wore on his sleeve. He was loving the job and reveled in the Fourth of July parade, where he rode with his children.

"I think Michael would have grown into the job, continued to be one of the city's best council members and would have become one of the best leaders the city has seen in a long time," Canciamilla said.

Lisa Vorderbrueggen covers politics. Reach her at 925-945-4773 or lvorderbrueggen@cctimes.com.

EPITAPH

MICHAEL CHAVEZ

  • BORN: Aug. 27, 1945, in East Los Angeles

  • DIED: Aug. 4, 2007, in Concord

  • SERVICES: Pending

  • SURVIVORS: Wife, Vikki; son, Austin, 15; and daughter, Dallas, 13

  • DONATIONS: In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the Chavez Memorial Trust Fund, a trust for Chavez' children, at the Mechanics Bank, 1170 Concord Ave., Suite 160, Concord, CA 94520