When professor Rae Robison first met Key'Maan Stringer during the orientation for incoming students in Humboldt State University's Department of Theatre, Film and Dance in August, the 19-year-old freshman immediately stood out.
"He came over and said, 'I just want to thank you. I'm so excited,' and he hugged me and I'm not a hugger," Robison recalled. "Then, every single time I saw him on campus, he would yell, 'Rae,' and he would give me a hug."
He was simply "a very sweet boy," she said, who made his way to college despite facing overwhelming obstacles, arriving in Humboldt County from Los Angeles to begin classes just 12 weeks ago.
"I have just never met anyone who was so joyful, every time you met him, in my life. Ever," Robison said. "It just breaks my heart."
The aspiring actor known for his bright smile and a bubbly personality that could light up a room is presumed to have drowned after being swept off the North Jetty on Oct. 29 while trying to free a fishing line that had become entangled in the rocks.
Now those left behind are grappling with the sudden loss of a young man who held so much promise — a first-generation college student who had endured homelessness and the foster care system, yet remained eternally optimistic and determined to chart a new course for his life.
Corliss Bennett, director of the university's Cultural Centers for Academic Excellence, was at the airport to pick up Stringer when he first arrived in town after one of her sorority sisters, who works as a transitional social worker in Los Angeles, let her know he was coming to attend Humboldt State.
Bennett remembers how Stringer looked at the bucolic fields as they drove down U.S. Highway 101 and exclaimed in amazement, "Wow, a cow," and how she laughed and replied back, "Welcome to Humboldt."
"We both just cracked up," Bennett said.
Immediately she took on the role of mom, helping Stringer move into his residence hall and taking him shopping at Target with money donated by members of her sorority and other close friends.
When he got his Humboldt State ID, she was there to record the moment as he beamed proudly for the camera, recalling how he turned to her, saying, "Look Ma, I'm a college student now."
These 12 weeks he spent on campus were some of the most stable in his life, she said, and Stringer would stop by her office at least three times a week — but always on Mondays when she worked late — to check in and say hello, leaving a note if he missed her.
On Oct. 29, she said she kept watching the clock, wondering where he was, when she got a call from the vice president of student affairs telling her he was gone.
"I just dropped the phone and screamed at the top of my lungs," said Bennett, who is still reeling from the fatal stabbing of David Josiah Lawson, who was killed last year on April 15, which happens to be Stringer's birthday.
Both, she said, died trying to help others.
As news spread on social media, those who knew him celebrated Stringer's "light and incredible spirit," describing him as the "most loving, kind and incredible person" who was "the life of the room with a contagious smile."
Just as Stringer made an immediate impression during his short time at Humboldt State, he also left an indelible imprint on those who knew him during high school, including his multimedia teacher Darryl McCane, who described him as "sunshine every day."
McCane, a film director, taught Stringer in a visual and performing arts program at Washington Preparatory Academy, along with several of his four siblings who also attended the school, including Stringer's identical twin brother from whom he was "inseparable."
"His brothers and sister just have to be inconsolable," McCane said, adding the family was "very, very close" and all of the siblings were incredibly helpful kids who worked hard to stay together.
While the fivesome moved to a different high school before Stringer graduated, McCane says the two of them stayed in touch and he last saw his former student at a track championship in May, where he and his twin placed in several events.
"He was there and he hugged me and he was so excited he was going to Humboldt State," McCane said. "I was just so proud of him. ... A lot of teachers at Washington are very, very hurt."
McCane, who integrates life lessons into his arts classes at the school located in Westmount, an unincorporated area of Los Angeles plagued by poverty and gangs, said he takes some solace in knowing Stringer's life wasn't taken in one of the senseless acts of violence too many of his students face but a tragic accident.
Stringer, he said, took those lessons to heart and had the inner drive to reach his full potential.
"He was going for it," McCane said. "He had a destiny and it was denied in that accident. ... It's just a lesson that life is short."
The U.S. Coast Guard scoured 160 square-nautical miles over 16 hours but the search was suspended the day after Stringer was swept into the water. A man who was at the jetty jumped in after him but was unable to reach Stringer in time.
Troy Nicolini of the National Weather Service said the jetty can unfortunately create a false sense of security about the size of the waves, likely leaving Stringer unaware of their true size until he was down lower on the rocks, where he was washed into the cold water.
He said the jetty is an "extremely tenuous place" to be between fall and spring and can be dangerous, saying no one should be out there during that six-month interval and anyone who does fish there should be wearing a lifejacket, no matter the time of year.
The region's coastline is notoriously treacherous. Some beaches — those that are flat and have easy access to higher ground — are less dangerous but the cold water at each makes survival difficult for anyone swept in.
Bennett said she knows Stringer wouldn't have thought twice about going to free that fishing line, not realizing the danger, because that was just the kind of kid he was, always ready to help someone.
"He genuinely cared for others," she said, adding it breaks her heart to think about the fear and pain Stringer must have felt in that moment when he got hit by the wave, suddenly powerless and alone.
"It's so tragic he won't be able graduate from college like he set out to do," Bennett said.
On Nov. 5, one week after the accident, she said she found herself overcome by the fact he wouldn't be walking through her office door, ready with a hug.
"I just sat there at my desk and stared at the staircase," Bennett said.
Just the other day, she found a note he'd left that she hadn't noticed before posted to one her books.
It read simply: "Key'Maan was here," with a heart drawn on the bottom.
Kimberly Wear is the assistant editor and a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 323, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wear.