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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Bob Lombardi didn’t see it coming.

At the league track finals in 1978, the longtime track and cross country coach at Rancho Cotate High watched as one of his runners pulled off a whopper of a race.

Kevin Farrell, a senior, was a solid runner on Rancho Cotate’s cross country and track and field teams. More than that, he was a hard worker. Still, when Farrell toed the line in the half-mile at the last league meet of his career and pulled off the school’s all-time best — going away — the coach admits he was a little stunned.

“I’m supposed to know that it could be done and he just fooled everybody,” he said. “He shattered it.”

But Lombardi, who taught drafting and mechanical drawing classes at Rancho for decades, knew Farrell as more than a disciplined runner. He also knew him as a preternaturally focused student and a guy who, since the ninth grade, knew he wanted to be an architect. In his senior year, the same year he set the school’s half-mile record, Farrell took not one, not two, but three of Lombardi’s drawing classes at Rancho.

“He was very quiet, pretty much all business,” Lombardi, 73, said. “He was just amazing.”

Farrell took that work ethic to Cal Poly, where he studied to become, yep, an architect. With partner Shaun Faber, who died in October, Farrell opened Farrell-Faber & Associates in Santa Rosa in 1989.

Fast forward to October. Lombardi and fellow veteran Rancho coach Ed Conroy were packed and ready to head north on a fishing trip the morning of Oct. 9. Conroy was staying the night at Lombardi’s Sundown Trail home off of Riebli Road so that they could shove off early.

Then came the wind. And the fire.

“I have been here my whole life and I have never seen wind like that. Never,” Lombardi said.

A neighbor called once. Then he called two more times. The message was clear: Get out. Two neighbors on Sundown Trail, Suiko and Arthur Grant, died that night in their wine cellar.

For all that he lost, Lombardi considers he and his wife, Donna, lucky.

“We are doing fine,” he said.

The house that, in Lombardi’s words “disappeared” that night had been in his family since his dad built it in 1953. He wanted to rebuild. And he knew whom to call.

He dialed the office number of his old half-miler.

“He answered, ‘Kevin speaking,’ ” Lombardi said. “I said, ‘Kevin, of all the drafting teachers at Rancho Cotate, who was your favorite?’ Of course, I was his only drafting teacher.”

Farrell says he knew the voice instantly.

“My first response was, ‘It would be an honor to draw your house,’ ” he said.

In the weeks after the fires killed 24 people and destroyed nearly 5,300 homes in Sonoma County, Farrell saw his work weeks surge to 100 hours. Ninety-five percent of his current workload is fire-related, he said. But there was no doubt he’d take on his former coach and teacher’s assignment.

“He basically taught me to draw,” he said. “It is quite an honor to give something back to him.”

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Farrell remembers Lombardi as “very instrumental” in guiding him in class.

“He wasn’t your hard-ass kind of teacher,” he said. “He took me under his wing and just brought me along.”

And as a coach? He coaxed the best out of him.

“He just really wanted to help the kids,” Farrell said. “He wasn’t pushy, but he knew how to push you. He was somebody you just wanted to be around. You wanted to do well for him.”

Farrell still does. The fact that he’s using skills his teacher imparted so many years ago is not lost on him.

“He’s definitely on my mind,” he said. “When you look back on your career, there is always a small handful of people that have impacted you along the way. I would say he is one of them.

“It’s a real testament to teachers and the impact they can have on kids,” Farrell said. “You may not see the result of it for decades, but they are there.”

It’s been 40 years since Farrell was in Lombardi’s class, but he uses daily the tools his teacher gave him.

“The impact he’s having on me is coming full circle,” he said.

The results will be poignantly tangible for Lombardi: the bigger windows, the added pillars, the new front porch — all from the drawing board of his former student-athlete.

Lombardi recalls that about three weeks before the fires, he and his wife Donna were sitting in their backyard, sharing a seat on their swinging chair.

“I just remember saying, ‘It doesn’t get any better than this,’ ” he said.

That’s what Lombardi wants back. That’s what he asked his former student to give him.

“I must tell my wife every five minutes what a great guy Kevin is,” Lombardi said. “They don’t come any better.”

The Lombardis are scheduled to break ground on their home Monday.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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