Fresno City College President Tony Cantú, a longtime professor and administrator who became the school’s leader in 2012, died unexpectedly over the weekend.
State Center Community College officials notified staff in an email sent early Monday morning. Cantú, 64, called in sick last week, State Center Community College spokeswoman Lucy Ruiz said. On Tuesday, the campus held a memorial service and wreath-laying ceremony for Cantú in the Old Administration Building.
The news was a shock to those who knew him best, like Mendota City Council Member Joseph Riofrio. Cantú was raised in Mendota, the son of hardworking parents and brother to several siblings, Riofrio said. Cantú was 11 years older, but Riofrio said he grew up just down the block from the Cantú family and has long been close with Cantú’s brothers and nephews.
Youngsters who grew up on the Valley’s west side in Cantú’s time “respect their families, their parents, their backgrounds,” Riofrio said, adding that Cantú has long been the pride of the Mendota community and will truly be missed.
“We’re so proud of him,” Riofrio said. “It’s a huge loss. It’s a huge shock and it’s sad. Now we’re waiting for the next Cantú.”
Through tears on Monday night, Cantú’s nephew, Juan Cantú, called his uncle “amazing” and said he always looked out for their family. Cantú went to visit his 102-year-old mother at her nursing home every night before bedtime and would frequently have dinner with Juan Cantú’s family.
“He just was always the rock of our family and he was always a selfless person,” Juan Cantú said. “He took such good care of us.”
Juan Cantú said his uncle never complained of serious health problems. The family is waiting for the county coroner to confirm Cantú’s cause of death, Juan Cantú said.
The news also stunned those on campus, said Fresno City College spokeswoman Kathy Bonilla, a longtime friend of Cantú’s.
She said Cantú was known as “a no-nonsense kind of guy” who always had students’ best interests at heart.
“He told you exactly what he thought, but he was always very student oriented in everything that he did,” she said.
Cantú assumed the president post after serving in a string of administrative roles at Fresno City College and Reedley College. He was the dean of instruction at Reedley for two years and served as dean of humanities and vice president of instruction at Fresno City. Early in his career he worked as a professor and department chairman at the college.
When Fresno City College President Cynthia Azari resigned in 2011, Cantú was tapped as interim president and later applied for the job on a permanent basis.
Bonilla said Cantú was the kind of person who would say, “ ‘You need me, and I’ll go.’ He didn’t have the ambition to be a president, but the need was there and he answered the call.”
Those who knew him said he was a humble man who was always active in campus life. Deborah Ikeda, president of Clovis Community College Center, first got to know him when he was a professor in Fresno City’s English department and she was dean of counseling. Back then, she said, he was a spirited member of the faculty Academic Senate.
He continued that passionate approach in all his roles, she said. As president at Fresno City, he navigated tough budget years while juggling deep-rooted challenges such as chronically low graduation rates. He also pushed for programs he believed in, like funding services for students who performed at lower rates than their peers.
“He felt he could affect change that would really help all students,” Ikeda said.
Cantú made a big impression on those he met, said SCCCD Trustee Miguel Arias, who recently began working with Cantú on a project to support undocumented students. Cantú took Arias on a two-hour stroll of Fresno City last month, Arias said. The moments they spent together showed Cantú’s passion for his job and his willingness “to always keep students front and center in everything he did.”
“As we walked through the campus, at least five students ran into him,” Arias said. “Students spoke to him. He interacted with them as if it was a high school campus.”
School officials said they’ll hold a wreath-laying ceremony in Cantú’s memory at noon Tuesday inside the Old Administration Building auditorium.
Cheryl Sullivan, vice president for administrative services, will serve as the acting head administrator. No interim president has been named.
Cantú wasn’t married and does not have any children.
A memorial service is planned for 2 p.m. Friday at St. John’s Cathedral in downtown Fresno.