The death Wednesday of an inspirational Santa Rosa Junior College professor sent a wave of shock and grief through the campus community Thursday, as students and colleagues mourned a loss felt throughout Sonoma County.
Life sciences instructor Nick Anast, who died while kayaking on Tomales Bay, was a source of both knowledge and encouragement to those who studied under him or interacted with him in any other arena of life, according to those who knew him well.
“He was gracious beyond belief, and his goodwill and smile just served so many well,” said fellow professor and best friend Robert Rubin.
“Nick was greatly beloved and respected,” Assistant SRJC Superintendent Mary Kay Rudolph said. “He’s a kind man, gentle, a great sense of humor … He gave lots and lots of time — way over what he was assigned.”
A tall, lanky, laid-back man who often wore his hair long and had a fondness for sandals and Hawaiian shirts, Anast, 55, taught human physiology, biology and anatomy at the junior college. He inspired curiosity, and was known for bringing in roadkill to dissect and examine, students said. They said he challenged them and held them to high standards, but gave freely of his time, even after they left the school.
Students and former students posting memories of him online remembered a well-respected, cherished instructor who impressed upon them the importance of balance and the linkage between healthy body and mind.
Nursing student Mike Frandsen said Anast would break from a lecture and have the class stand, breathe in fresh oxygen, stretch and relax.
“He was just the most caring, big heart I ever met,” Frandsen said.
As many of his students would move on to health care studies and nursing. Anast’s instruction, always, emphasized loving others as the most important way to heal, other students said.
He was, for many, a favorite.
“He was all about giving genuine feedback to people to build them up and encourage them,” said Rebecca Hildebrandt, a former student who visited with Anast earlier this week to thank him for donating to her upcoming health care trip to the Dominican Republic.
“It was how he showed his love. He did it with everybody he encountered,” she said.
A Sonoma Valley resident, Anast was raised in Southern California and attended SRJC and Sonoma State University before earning a master’s degree in public health at UC Berkeley.
He taught at Casa Grande High School in Petaluma and at Napa Valley College for many years before joining the faculty at SRJC in 2005.
A longtime martial arts devotee, Anast already was accomplished at kung fu when he started training at the Two Rock Aikido dojo outside Petaluma in the 1980s, where he continued to train and teach, according to friend and sensei Richard Strozzi-Heckler. He was a fourth-degree black belt Aikido master.
Anast was described as a generous mentor, friend and father to his 9-year-old son, Cooper.
He also was a world traveler, one who enjoyed being up close with the people and culture of whatever country he visited, often hitchhiking or even hopping freighters, Rubin said.
Around home, he loved to hike and climb and was an experienced kayaker, said Rubin, who often paddled with Anast locally, in Baja and at Tomales Bay.