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.”