Colleagues, students attend memorial for late professor

French professor Gabriel Essongo Ngoh died of heart failure Jan. 26 and was remembered by colleagues, students and family members as a great man in a memorial service Tuesday.

“I still don’t believe he’s gone,” said Evelyn Trujillo, colleague and chairperson for the Department of Foreign Languages. Trujillo went on to mention that although Essongo had given prior notice for a needed surgery, the news of his loss came to faculty members as a shock.

Students were also alarmed by the loss of their professor.

“I was really sad to hear the news,” said Ashlee Nichols, 21, a senior psychology student from Chicago. She said there was no indication that something was wrong.

Other students were also in shock. “It took a couple of weeks for it to set in,” said Natasha Graddick, 21, a third-year business administration student from Macon, Ga. 

Nichols said although she and other students were aware of Essongo’s planned surgery, he was reluctant to answer questions about it.

Others remembered Essongo for his qualities. Trujillo remembered Essongo as being a very private person.

“He wanted to reach out and touch us,” said Shelley Dickson, 21, an industrial engineer student from Miami. Graddick interjected, “We worked like other students to complete presentations, exams, and group assignments, but he made it enjoyable.”

Dickson said a few words in remembrance of Essongo at the memorial service. She mentioned how she and her fellow classmates shared a bond with the professor. “He was more than a teacher. He went out of his way for us, and we loved him,” Dickson said.

Antoine Spacagna is a French professor who will take over Essongo’s classes.

He was also an instructor and close friend of the former educator. Spacagna said he knew Essongo for about eight years.

“I worked with him at Florida State University when he pursued his doctorate’s degree in French,” Spacagna said.

He went on to mention how Essongo possessed “an aura of peace and happiness.” Spacagna mentioned a radiance that followed Essongo into a room. Similarly, Trujillo said he was a man that displayed a genuine concern for colleagues and students.

Colleagues described Essongo as having very strong qualities. Bob Sarvary, leader of a Tallahassee cub scout troupe of which Essongo’s stepson was involved, noted that he had a deep booming voice that made others want to listen.

Spacagna, who presented Essongo’s eulogy, said, “His height made me feel small but never threatened.” Instead, Essongo’s former instructor regarded him as his guardian angel.

Along with teaching, Essongo loved many other things. Sharon Nicholson, professor of meteorology at Florida State University, was Essongo’s wife of seven years. She mentioned his obvious love for helping others, but also his love for cooking. “Opening a restaurant was his lifelong dream,” she said. Essongo fulfilled that dream earlier in his life with the opening of ‘he Douala’ restaurant in Niamey, Niger.

holson said, “He overcame a great deal to open that restaurant, including the fact that it was a seafood restaurant near the Sahara Desert.”

Students such as Dickson recalled having “culture days” where other students and even Essongo would cook and bring in foods from different cultures.     

Nicholson, who said she knew Essongo for 20 years, mentioned his love for tennis.

“I was his tennis student,” she said. Essongo won 13 Niger national singles titles in tennis. He was also interested in sports such as soccer, basketball, handball and volleyball.

Furthermore, Essongo was also an English instructor at the International West African School of Meteorology and Civil Aviation, a health science teacher, a marketing representative and a translator. Essongo went on to serve as president of the local Alliance Francophone in Tallahassee, a French cultural organization.

Essongo was born in Kumba, Cameroon and traveled to various countries that included Benin, Nigeria, and several European countries. Along with French, he was fluent in English, Spanish and other African languages including his native tongue, Mbo.Essongo arrived in Tallahassee in 2000. Nicholson said he came to the United States for educational purposes. “He also loved Tallahassee,” she said.

Nicholson said approximately 200 people attended Essongo’s memorial. Students, such as Graddick, explained that they are still in the mourning process and need time to heal.

“Several students cried after finding out the news,” Spacagna said.

He went on to say that he is making an effort to be easy on students in regards to academic tasks and will not ask for too much right now. “I don’t know if I can compete with such a successful professor, but I will follow his trail,” he said. Nicholson said she would tell students, “Bon courage.” It is a French saying that translates to “stay strong or hang in there.” She said that Essongo wouldn’t want his students to be sad but to focus on the good memories.

Spacagna said students are welcome to contribute to Essongo’s burial services. Nicholson said any amount of money will help the family, as well as encouraging words. Contributions can be made to chairwoman Evelyn Trujillo.