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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.

Just what happened Wednesday when Anast went out in the bay with a student from school still was unclear, but Rubin said, “Whatever happened was not a simple thing because it wouldn’t have taken him down if it was.”

Marin County Sheriff’s Lt. Doug Pittman said that Anast and his 39-year-old companion — both wearing personal flotation devices at that point — launched separate kayaks at Nick’s Cove in Marshall on Wednesday and paddled out toward the mouth of Tomales Bay, a tricky area to maneuver, given the interaction of surf and waves coming around Tomales Point and the ebb tide that would have been draining the bay at that hour.

Dallas Smith, operations manager at Blue Waters Kayaking in Tomales Bay, said the company closed down its launches Wednesday because of forecast high winds, though they did not materialize as expected.

But Pittman said Anast and his friend turned around before reaching the mouth and were headed back to their cars when the survivor, paddling about seven boat lengths ahead, turned around and saw Anast was in the water.

Anast remained calm, and the other boater had turned around to assist him in recovering his boat when he realized Anast’s kayak was filling with water, he told authorities. The survivor was trying to help Anast aboard his own kayak when it capsized and they both ended up in dire straits, Pittman said.

Fishermen reported seeing two kayakers in distress at about 4:35 p.m., Pittman said.

Anast’s friend managed to swim to a rocky stretch of beach below a cliff and was rescued, with minor injuries, by a Coast Guard helicopter.

But when he turned back from shore to look for Anast, he could see no sign of him, Pittman said.

A crew aboard a news helicopter spotted Anast at about 6 p.m. in the water. When the Coast Guard crew reached him, Anast was dead and his life vest was gone, Pittman said.

Though SRJC is on spring break this week, colleagues in the tight-knit life sciences department came together on campus to mourn. Scores of students turned to Facebook and other online sources to express their grief, several contacting The Press Democrat, as well, to remember a man they said touched so many thousands of lives.

“There have been students around all morning with tears in their eyes,” Rubin said, “looking for some kind of answer that we can’t give them.

“I just don’t have words to describe the quality of the person (he was),” he added. “I just don’t have the words.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.