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Alby Kass, Guerneville community leader, dies from coronavirus contracted at Hayward nursing home

Alby Kass, a longtime Guerneville resort owner, community leader and singer, has died of a coronavirus infection contracted at an East Bay nursing home overrun by the virus. He was 89.

Kass, a big-hearted man with strong baritone voice and a love of learning, died March 31, five days after he suddenly developed symptoms of COVID-19. Nine people have died during the outbreak at Gateway Care and Rehabilitation Center in Hayward, where Kass was recuperating from a fall that broke his hip. At least 66 patients and employees at the nursing home have been infected by the coronavirus, according to Alameda County health officials.

His last conversation with one of his sons, a telephone call on March 26, was punctuated by a dry cough, said Larry Kass of Berkeley. The facility had scheduled Alby Kass for a chest X-ray the following day. Instead, Kass developed a fever, wheezing and shortness of breath overnight and was dispatched to a San Leandro hospital emergency room, then placed under intensive care.

The day he died, nurses wearing full protective gear set up speakers in Kass’ room and used an old smartphone to play a recording made by his family. It featured singing by Larry Kass and his brother, Jonathon Kass of San Francisco, a granddaughter’s piano performance and Yiddish folk music.

Visiting their father was pointless, Larry Kass said, because they would have been unrecognizable to him in safety equipment covering their faces. Alby Kass was sedated, unable to speak with a breathing tube essential to his survival.

“He was absolutely thrilled to be on this planet and in this world, sharing his excitement with everybody who was up for it,” Larry Kass said.

Thanks to his father’s yen for discussing the natural world, Kass was one of few fourth-graders “who knew how many pounds of pressure the atmosphere exerts at sea level.”

Jonathan Kass recalled that he could set out on a walk with his father and two steps out the door Alby Kass would be extolling the beauty of the grass at his feet.

“He was an incredibly welcoming, social person ... happy to engage with anybody,” Kass said.

In a 2011 interview, Alby Kass noted the diversity of people who live in Guerneville or visit the river town for recreation.

“The point is, if things are not as they should be, you sit down with someone who has a different point of view and you talk about it,” Kass said.

Music was a thread throughout his life, from learning Yiddish folk songs from his mother to singing with the Guerneville-based River Choir and the Jubilee Klezmer Ensemble. He starred in at least four local productions of “Fiddler on the Roof,” playing Tevye, a poor Jewish milkman with five daughters who laments “If I Were a Rich Man.”

“I had never performed with a person who had so much joy in his heart and was able to share it with the people around him,” Mark Peabody, an ensemble member, wrote in a tribute to Kass.

Albert Irwin Kass, born in the Bronx borough of New York City amid the Great Depression, had to take care of the family’s small apartment at age 9 after his father died, while his mother and two older siblings worked to keep them all alive.

His first language was Yiddish and he sang in the synagogue choir, making 25 cents each time he sang the blessing at weddings.

Kass joined the Air Force at 18 and fell in love with California while stationed at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield. He fell in love with his wife, Wallie, in Los Angeles while earning a teaching credential at LA City College.

Kass taught sixth grade for 20 years in Los Angeles and at military bases around the world before he and Wallie settled in Guerneville, where they bought the Riverlane Resort along the Russian River in 1974. They operated the resort for 26 years, then turned management over to others, freeing themselves to travel while living in one of the cabins.

The couple helped start the Russian River Jewish Community in the mid-1980s and were among the early members of the River Choir formed by Sonia Tubridy, who also arrived in Guerneville in 1974.

“He was always willing to do things for people,” she said. “You could count on him for his participation and his love. When he was around, you knew he was there - in a wonderful way.”

Kass served on the Russian River Chamber of Commerce board of directors and the Cultural Arts Council of Sonoma County. He was a participant in a class-action lawsuit against Santa Rosa following a sewage release into the river in 1985.

Survivors, in addition to his two sons, are a sister, Sharon Silbert of Santa Monica; four grandchildren; and numerous nieces and nephews.

A celebration of Kass’ life will be held at a time when people can get together “at a place he loves, most likely outdoors,” Jonathon Kass said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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