This week, Em Bohlka, who worked at the Berkeley location of Highwire Coffee Roasters, and Griffin Madden, a campus alumnus and the audience services associate for Cal Performances, were confirmed as victims of the Oakland warehouse fire that took place Friday.
Friends remember Em Bohlka as a kind and funny person, fond of practical jokes.
Bohlka, 33, worked as a barista at Berkeley’s Highwire Coffee Roasters and wrote poetry. She and her partner, Natalie Jahanbani, moved to Oakland in 2015.
“Em wanted everyone to laugh. She was one of the funniest human beings I think I’ve ever met on this planet, and she could change tears of sadness to tears of laugher in the blink of a one-liner,” said Bohlka’s longtime friend Kassidy Heal.
Jahanbani, as well as Bohlka’s friends Kellee Lyons and Kristin Lowrey Larson, each remembered times Bohlka comforted them with humor.
Bohlka was passionate about art. She held a B.A. in English from UC Riverside and a master’s degree in literature from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. She wrote poetry, took photographs and played upright bass and guitar.
Bohlka’s friend John Dodson, who met her in an English class at UC Riverside, said Bohlka was a perceptive student of literature.
“[Bohlka] encompassed the best part of a humanities department: that self-searching, fully realized, considerate, concerned, humanitarian perspective,” Dodson said.
She was also active in the punk scene, playing in bands and attending shows, Heal said.
In Oakland, Bohlka sought communities where she would feel comfortable, Bohlka’s friend Zackery Tyler said. Bohlka, a transgender woman, came out to a circle of family and friends shortly before her death.
“When we got the news that she had passed, her dad called me and told me that he wanted to make sure that the world knew that he had a beautiful daughter,” Heal said.
Bohlka was involved with the Pacific Center for Human Growth, a local LGBTQ+ center, Jahanbani said, adding that she wants to share Bohlka’s story for the sake of the trans community.
“So many trans people are left out and made invisible,” Jahanbani said. “Our goal is that Em won’t be misrepresented, and that every trans person who reads this story feels included and knows that allies are out there.”
Griffin Madden’s professors recall him as a lively and inquisitive student, always eager to learn more.
Madden, 23, majored in philosophy and Slavic languages and literature at UC Berkeley, graduating in 2015. Everyone within the small field of the Slavic department who knew Madden appreciated him, said Irina Kogel, who taught Madden in a campus Russian language class.
“Death, and especially of a young person, makes one suppress the less favorable memories, but in Griffin’s case, there is nothing to suppress,” said campus lecturer Anna Muza, who taught Madden in her advanced Russian sequence, in an email. “We all loved his exceptional character and his commitment to knowledge and learning.”
Multiple professors said Madden would come by outside of class to learn more and talk about subjects that interested him.
“Griffin was … one of the special ones, who make you feel lucky to be a teacher. He often came to office hours,” campus lecturer Lisa Little wrote in an email. “After he left, I would find myself smiling for the rest of the day.”
Madden worked at Cal Performances for five years and had recently been promoted. Madden was also a DJ and was active in CrossFit and climbing communities.
“He was an extraordinary young man with a rare funny and optimistic personality,” said Matías Tarnopolsky, the executive and artistic director of Cal Performances. “He had a real passion for the performing arts and for sharing that passion.”
Madden’s friend Jackie Hurley recalled a time Madden took some friends to a dance club. The dance floor was empty when they arrived, she wrote, but that didn’t stop Madden from dancing around like the Energizer bunny and pulling Hurley out onto the dance floor.
“He was always grabbing my hand from the sidelines and dragging me out into the vibrant light and sound that is being young in the Bay Area,” Hurley said in an email. “That’s how I will keep him with me, as the hand that pulls me into wild happiness.”