Residents of Guerneville and many who no longer call it home are mourning the death of longtime educator Sam Pullaro, a community pillar whose kindness won the hearts of thousands of children and their families.

As a teacher and then principal and superintendent at Guerneville Elementary School for a combined 43 years, Pullaro once figured he'd had about 20,000 students come through campus before he retired in 1999.

Many of them are now sharing memories of a man whose support and encouragement not only brightened their days as youngsters but helped set them on paths toward stable and successful adult lives.

"He had a profound affect on people, especially at that time in our life," said Ken Solbakken, of Santa Rosa, who met Pullaro as a seventh grader and made him a lifelong friend.

"What a wonderful man," said friend and former Guerneville school board president Steve Pizzo. "It's not an exaggeration: He is the finest human being I ever knew."

Pullaro died March 23 after several years of declining health due to complications from diabetes and cardiac problems, said his wife, Opal Pullaro.

Though 80, he'd only recently begun to slow down, and even then remained as involved as possible in Rotary Club projects and community programs which he had long supported, close friend Herman Hernandez said.

In addition to his wide-ranging service as a school administrator -#8212; through which he tackled everything from campus flooding to staff contracts to ensuring all the kids had shoes -#8212; Pullaro was a longtime coach and recreational leader, as well as an active community volunteer "who just would not stop," Hernandez said.

"Wherever there was a need, he was there," Hernandez said.

Born in Pueblo, Colo., to parents whose Italian heritage he claimed proudly throughout his life, Pullaro attended junior college in his hometown.

Pursuing an interest in coaching, he moved to California to attend Sacramento State College, where he studied education and played baseball, earning honors as Best Athlete of the Year two years running, his family said. He graduated in 1956 and earned a master's degree in education at San Francisco State in 1962.

By then, Pullaro was a fixture in the Russian River town of Guerneville, drawn there in 1956 by something he'd heard in the voice of the school's principal -#8212; something that suggested an interest in the wellbeing of children above all else, he once told a reporter.

"That's what mattered most," he said.

It was Pullaro's first teaching job, and he started with the sixth grade, though he taught all the upper grades at the K-8 school, where he was known for his gentle, respectful manner and quick smile.

Pullaro, who was very proud of playing semi-pro baseball on the Healdsburg Prune Packers as a young man, brought his love of sports to the school. He coached football and basketball, often driving teams to games himself, friends recalled. He created a Saturday recreation program to give students "a healthy outlet," his wife said. He also served 22 years on the Russian River Recreation and Park District.

Pullaro was named Guerneville school principal in 1965 and then superintendent in 1972. He oversaw the phased replacement of a campus that flooded repeatedly over the years until all its clasrooms, offices and other facilities were rebuilt on higher ground.

It was a task accomplished only because of his relentless advocacy for the school and for student families who had endured destructive flooding and the mildew left behind, friends and school personnel said at the time.

Even as he took on additional administrative responsibilities, Pullaro remained close with his students, reading in kindergarten classrooms and often serving as a substitute teacher when staff members were absent, his wife said.

Friends and former students said he had a calm, non-judgmental way of connecting with students that permitted him to be a mentor and role model more often than a disciplinarian.

Pizzo remembered how Pullaro would greet students with a handshake, addressing them as "Mr." or "Miss" so-and-so.

Students said he had a way of remembering them long after they moved off to middle school.

And yet, his widow said, Pullaro's two sons and his wife never felt left out, in part because they were so much a part of his school and community life, Opal Pullaro said.

"He was always with us. He was always there," she said.

In addition to his wife, Pullaro is survived by sons Sam Pullaro Jr., of Salem, Ore., and Gino Pullaro, of Hilo, Hawaii; brother, Joseph Pullaro, of Pueblo, Colo.; two grandchildren and three step-grandchildren.

Family and friends will celebrate Pullaro's life from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, June 21, at Guerneville Elementary School's Jensen Hall.

Memorial donations may be made in Sam Pullaro's name to the HeartWorks cardiac rehabilitation center in Santa Rosa at HeartWorks, Attn: Cindy Pehlke, 3536 Mendocino Ave., Ste. 260, Santa Rosa, Calif. 95403, or to the Russian River Firefighters Association, P.O. Box 367, Guerneville, Calif. 95446.