Deward Hastings took his time warming up to new people. The opposite can be said about his backyard Berkeley hot tub — precisely set at a scalding yet lively 113.5º using a laboratory-grade mercury thermometer.
The 78-year-old, a longtime Berkeley fixture known to many simply as “the Hot Tub Guy,” opened up the handcrafted redwood tub behind his Essex Street home as a sanctuary to the outside community — free of charge — for nearly 50 years.
This past Saturday, the storied hot tub is where a guest arrived to find Hastings lifeless taking a final soak. He was pronounced dead by emergency responders a half hour later. His death does not appear suspicious, according to Berkeley Police Officer Byron White.
But the sudden and unexpected loss has left Hastings’ closest friends reeling, trying to figure out how to honor his memory and preserve the magic of the space in his absence.
The tens of thousands of guests who slid into Hastings’ steaming tub during his lifetime have wildly different memories and first impressions of the man and his hidden oasis, which he started cobbling together as a thirtysomething in the 1970s.
In the days following Hastings’ death, hundreds of people on social media have offered words such as “unique,” “intelligent,” “generous” and a “bastion of Berkeley weirdos” to describe the hot tub and its surprisingly introverted owner.
He spent a lifetime wearing many hats. He studied engineering, chemistry and physics at UC Berkeley and operated a printing press during the Free Speech Movement. He ran beverage operations in local Renaissance Faires and worked as a stage manager for musical events, which lent itself to his all-black daily uniform. But Hastings mostly kept to himself, despite the hot tub sometimes used by upward of 60 to 100 guests a day.
But why would a shy, old hippie strive to create this silent yet communal mecca that was known to attract busloads of Grateful Dead fans whenever the band played in and around the Bay Area?
Greg Callahan, who first stumbled upon the tub in his 20s before moving in next door nearly three decades later, said it was Hastings’ way of using his physical resources and mechanical knowledge to create a safe, natural place for people to escape society’s troubles.
Hastings worked behind the scenes — almost like a stagehand hosting his own play — to give guests the experience of a natural hot spring as soon as they entered a personal code and stepped foot onto his property, encircled by towering redwood trees, a California-native ecosystem and a sturdy wooden fence.
Yes, clothing was optional under the moonlight, but Hastings’ closest friends and neighbors say the goal was to create a sanctuary that allowed skinny dipping, not a hookup spot.
Steam would rise into the air for 24 hours, six days a week. As smoke from freshly smudged sage lingered in the cool air, the only sound penetrating the silence was a constant stream of purified water circulating within the handcrafted redwood tub or the adjoining shower.
“It was one of the most impressive acts of generosity I’d ever seen on private property. I knew whoever was doing this is very special,” Callahan said. “The healing of this place is its existence. The real gift of this place for me was Deward — seeing a person commit themselves in this way.”
“He called himself a steward of the tub,” said Julia Tate, who lives with Callahan. “It was like the tub was its own entity, he just happened to be the one here.”
Two days after Hastings died, it was time for the hot tub’s “Monday maintenance.” While the Alameda County Coroner’s Office will determine his cause of death in the coming months, the tubs rituals will not stop until then.
Callahan and Tate are two of a handful of close friends and neighbors who have gathered weekly to clean the filters, drain the water and vacuum inside the redwood-plank structure, big enough to comfortably accommodate six adult bodies without too much concern of touching others’ toes.
Despite living in Emeryville, Shannon Jenkins was a frequent hot tub guest — including an hour on Saturday morning alongside Hastings. When she left to head to San Francisco, she said Hastings got out, too. He washed his hair — as usual — and went back inside as she left.
“You couldn’t just rock up here, come in and expect to have a full-on long conversation with him,” Jenkins said, reflecting on the 13 years she knew Hastings. “It took a while for him to see you, see how you behaved and then exchange a couple of gruff words.”
Julie Tereba, a friend who also lived as a tenant in Hastings’ home for several years, said he had his quirks, but they illustrated his humanity; he occasionally awoke in the mornings next to a Webster’s Dictionary in bed and tried to return as many shopping carts haphazardly strewn across Costco parking lots.
Tereba first heard about Hastings’ hot tub from a stranger during a trip to Thailand — eight years ago and 7,500 miles away. All this time later, she hasn’t left. After experiencing the serene silence first-hand, the now 38-year-old nurse was hooked.
“After an evening shift, I’d come home around midnight, park my bike and there would be a couple women in the hot tub. Some look familiar, some don’t,” Tereba said, explaining how those personal details are often a mystery because talking and phones are both against the rules. “I don’t know their names, I don’t know their stories, but it was just so comforting and sweet. You come here for the sanctuary, for a reset, for pause in a cement jungle.”
“And the hot water didn’t hurt,” Mark Lemaire chimed in. “If it was just a garden, it wouldn’t be the same.”
Lemaire knew Hastings for nearly two decades, and they often spent time working together as an audio engineer and stage manager, respectively. It was long enough to learn his friend’s rougher qualities, along with the endearing quirks.
“I think he would object to too much of a precious description,” Lemaire said. “He was very self-effacing. He would say, ‘Don’t talk that bullshit about me.’ He was a curmudgeon with a heart of gold.”