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.