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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Obama family chef dies while paddleboarding on Martha’s Vineyard

Emergency responders searching for Tafari Campbell on Monday morning after he disappeared while paddleboarding in Edgartown Great Pond.


A personal chef to the Obama family died over the weekend after he was seen struggling in the water while paddleboarding near the former first family’s home on Martha’s Vineyard, the Massachusetts State Police said earlier this week.

The body of the chef, Tafari Campbell, 45, of Dumfries, Virginia, who was visiting the Vineyard, was found just before 10 a.m. Monday about 100 feet from shore in Edgartown Great Pond in water about 8 feet deep by the Massachusetts Environmental Police. It had deployed sonar from a boat during an hourslong search that began Sunday night and involved several law enforcement agencies.

Former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama were not home at the time of the accident, the state police said. An investigation into the death of Campbell, who had worked as a sous chef when the Obamas were in the White House and stayed on with them afterward, is being conducted by the state police and the Edgartown Police Department.

Just before 8 p.m. Sunday, emergency services from Edgartown responded to Edgartown Great Pond near Turkeyland Cove, where the Obama family has a summer home, for a call of “a male paddleboarder who had gone into the water, appeared to briefly struggle to stay on the surface and then submerged and did not resurface,” the state police said in a statement.

Another paddleboarder was on the pond with him at the time and saw him go under water, police said. The state police, the U.S. Coast Guard and multiple local fire units, including divers, assisted in the search.

After several hours of searching Sunday night, “the operation was paused to allow dive teams, flight crews and other responders to reequip and assess next steps,” the state police said.

Chief Alex Schaeffer of the Edgartown Fire Department told The Vineyard Gazette that island police officers and firefighters had conducted door-to-door searches after Campbell was reported missing, and that firefighters had searched the pond’s shoreline by foot.

In a statement, Barack and Michelle Obama called Campbell “a truly wonderful man” and “a beloved part of our family.”

“When we first met him, he was a talented sous chef at the White House — creative and passionate about food, and its ability to bring people together,” they said. “In the years that followed, we got to know him as a warm, fun, extraordinarily kind person who made all of our lives a little brighter.”

The Obamas said they had asked Campbell to stay on with them as they were getting ready to leave the White House.

“He’s been part of our lives ever since,” they said. “Our hearts are broken that he’s gone.”

According to their statement, Campbell’s survivors include his wife, Sherise, and twin boys, Xavier and Savin.

The Obamas, longtime summer visitors to Martha’s Vineyard, purchased a secluded 30-acre property on the south shore in 2019 for $11.75 million. Their seven-bedroom, 6,900-square-foot-house fronts Edgartown Great Pond with views of a barrier beach and ocean. The still, brackish, coastal pond has multiple inlets that are popular among recreational boaters, especially among kayakers and paddleboarders hoping to take in a spectacular sunset.

The National Weather Service reported fair and clear conditions Sunday night, with a high temperature around 70 degrees.

Barack Obama has visited the Vineyard since his days as an Illinois senator and spent part of every August on the island for seven of the eight years he was in office, skipping 2012 during a reelection campaign.

This is not the first time a chef for a former U.S. president has died in a sudden manner. Walter Scheib, a former executive chef during the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, drowned accidentally in 2015 after

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