Friends and colleagues of Mike Taugher remembered him Monday as a dogged, award-winning newspaper reporter, an authority on environmental issues, and someone who never expressed more pride than when talking about his kids.
Taugher, 50, of Benicia, a spokesman for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and a former award-winning reporter for the Contra Costa Times, died Saturday morning while snorkeling in Hawaii during a family vacation. He is survived by his wife, Kim, his son, Zack, and his daughter, Anna.
Taugher was found unresponsive in the water off Black Rock in Kaanapali, on the island of Maui, police in Hawaii said. He had been snorkeling with family members when he went missing. Lifeguards, firefighters and paramedics tried unsuccessfully to revive him. No foul play is suspected, a police spokesman in Hawaii said.
Former co-workers at the Contra Costa Times were stunned and saddened.
"Mike was a first-rate journalist and one of the foremost experts on the Delta and water in California," said Lisa Vorderbrueggen, who worked with Taugher at the Times. "He was pinpoint accurate, persistent and very professional. But more than anything else, I think of Mike as a man completely devoted to his wife and their children."
Malaika Fraley, a colleague of Taugher's at the Times, recalls the excitement with which he would talk about his kids.
"It was like he was in awe of them," she said, "as if he couldn't believe how lucky he was to have them. He was like that about his wife, too. He loved her so much."
A 1986 graduate of UC Santa Barbara, Taugher worked for the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza, Tahoe Daily Tribune (where he reported on the abduction of Jaycee Dugard in 1991), the Greeley (Colo.) Tribune and the Albuquerque Journal before coming to the Times in 2000. He wrote several stories about state water politics, becoming an authority on the perilous condition of the environment in the Delta.
"When it came to the animal life there, he'd come to me and we'd compare notes," said former Times wildlife expert Gary Bogue. "He wanted to make sure he got it right. After a while, I told him, 'I'm going to start coming to you.' He was a great guy to work with."
A versatile and thorough reporter, Taugher won a Society of Business Editors and Writers award for his coverage of PG&E's bankruptcy in 2001. He also covered the 2004 Kinder Morgan pipeline explosion in Walnut Creek. He won an East Bay Press Club award for a series he co-wrote about global warming.
He was best known for his important coverage of the Delta and won first place in a California Newspaper Publishers Association contest for both environmental reporting and investigative reporting. He also won third place in Best of the West.
"He was a tremendous investigative reporter," said Bay Area News Group East Bay metro editor Katherine Rowlands, Taugher's editor for eight years. "I loved working with him because he was meticulous in his research and dogged about pursuing watchdog stories."
A testament to Taugher's evenhanded reporting is the regard in which he was held by the elected officials who typically cross swords with journalists.
"I only knew Mike professionally, as he covered California water issues for the Contra Costa Times, the same issues that I work on as a member of Congress," Rep. George Miller said in a statement. "But I can say that Mike was unquestionably fair, knowledgeable, and deeply insightful about the issues he covered."
Contra Costa County Supervisor Mary Nejedly Piepho worked with Taugher on stories related to water delivery and Delta issues, as did her father, former state Sen. John Nejedly.
"The Delta discussion was very important to my father, as it is in my career," Piepho said. "Mike spent a lot of time researching issues and developing in-depth stories that the general reader could understand. He had the integrity and perseverance to bring a common understanding to extensive issues."
In May 2012, after a dozen years with the Times, Taugher was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife as assistant deputy director of communications, education and outreach. He quickly impressed co-workers in his new assignment.
"He was simply an exceptional man who brought a warmth and professionalism to his job," department director Charlton Bonham said in a statement. "He made our department a much better place and was all the things we as Californians hope to see in public servants."
The newspaper colleagues he left behind said the state's gain was their loss.
"It was a terrible loss to journalism when Mike left the Contra Costa Times and went to work for the state," Vorderbrueggen said. "But he did it for his family, and we all knew it and loved him more for it."
The loss to the newsroom went beyond Taugher's professional acumen. He was the kind of colleague, Vorderbrueggen said, who could "poke fun at you without hurting your feelings."
"He couldn't get over that I wore a tie to work every day," said investigative reporter Thomas Peele. "So he got a tie of his own, a horribly garish purple thing with a wolf on it. When he wanted to give me a bad time, he'd put it on and not take it off until I took my tie off."
Reporter and editor Matthias Gafni sat just a few feet from Taugher's desk in the Times newsroom.
"What I'll remember is our conversations about our wives and children," Gafni said. "He would do absolutely anything for them. I particularly enjoyed Little League season, when he'd talk about his son's struggles hitting the curve. 'But boy could he mash fastballs!' he would say, his eyes getting big with a pride reserved for fathers and sons."
Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him at Twitter.com/garyscribe.