By Karen Rarey
Nicholas Castle's young life was cut short last week when he succumbed to an unknown illness while serving in the Peace Corps in China.
The Brentwood native was only 23, but he spent the majority of his life serving others, including as a volunteer tutor for local middle-schoolers.
"Nick didn't talk about what he was going to do -- he just did it," said his mom, Sue Castle. "He lived his dreams doing what he loved."
"Nicholas was an exemplary Peace Corps volunteer who demonstrated respect, patience and an eagerness to teach and learn from the members of his new Peace Corps community," Acting Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet said. "The entire Peace Corps community is deeply saddened by this tragic loss."
Fresh out of college, the UC Berkeley graduate embarked on a journey last August to teach university-level English in the remote Guizhou Province of the People's Republic of China.
"People talk about passion and desire to alleviate global poverty and inequality," said his dad, David Castle. "Nick didn't just talk about these things. He joined the Peace Corps and went to a remote part of the world to make a difference in other people's lives."
Nick's request for a remote location was a difficult one to obtain.
"Nick loved China and wanted to be in a remote location so he could assimilate into the culture and learn the language," his mother said. "The Peace Corps told me that they sent the strongest candidates to the remote locations."
She added that he lived in a city where few foreigners were and he enjoyed hanging out with his students.
"He loved teaching and immersing himself in another culture whether it was the food or playing Ping-Pong or being an 'expert' in judging the many competitions the Chinese would have," she said.
Despite moving on in life, Nick never lost contact with those from his past.
"I talked to him mid-January," said Stacy Stapleton, who had known Nick since middle school. "He called me and I was so excited to hear from him. He was just letting me know that he was in a bigger city (for training), because most of the time that he was in China he was in kind of like a rural area.
"It's just so devastating. I just wish more people could know him, like everyone should have hung out with him, he was so sweet," Stapleton said. "He had so much potential. I knew that he was going somewhere. I knew that he would end up being like a senator or in congress, like something amazing."
Stapleton added, "Everything that (Nick) did was so impressive and he did it with his heart. You knew that he was doing what he was doing because he cared, because he loved it and he loved to help people. He was just very inspiring to me."
Although a 2008 graduate of Liberty High School, Nick still reached out to former teachers for mentoring.
"My most recent contact with Nick was right after he had graduated (UC Berkeley); he sent me a note on Facebook asking me for pointers on effective teaching strategies for his assignment in China," said Paul Taylor, who taught Nick in a variety of social study classes at Liberty High. "It was humbling to have even been asked; I simply told Nick that he would be fine on his own and go and do his best."
Edna Hill Middle School teacher remembered Nick as someone "who loved life and he embraced every moment of it from middle school, to high school, to college and beyond."
"He gave 110 percent to everything he did and always had a smile on his face," she said. "Over the years Nick proved to be one of the brightest and best students we had ever had the opportunity to teach."
She also recalled a China newspaper he produced as a sixth-grader.
"It was the best I had ever had a student produce," she said. "Still to this day, when it is time to teach China, I pull out his newspaper and hang it on my wall for my students to see. It was hanging on my wall last Thursday when he passed away, and it still hangs there today."
While in high school, Nick volunteered as a tutor at Edna Hill Middle School, as well as Brentwood's A Place of Learning, which serves children with learning disabilities, those struggling with English as a second language, as well as others. He continued his volunteer work while at UC Berkeley at a tutoring center for non-English speaking adults.
"He really seemed to like helping the kids he was tutoring, he was patient with them," said fellow APOL volunteer Fran Bowman. "I am sure the kids he tutored were blessed by him in many ways."
"It did not surprise me a bit to learn that Nick went to China with the Peace Corps volunteers," said APOL Vice President Charles Reed. "In my work on four continents I met many like him, determined to learn the language and customs and then to actually help those he could with the skills he knew or could gain."
Nick also served his community as a member of the city of Brentwood Youth Commission.
"Nick served on the Brentwood Youth Commission, contributing his enthusiasm and energy in all that he did, whether volunteering at fundraisers or special events, recruiting new members to the commission, and developing a survey for local youth," said Barbie Gary, Youth Commission staff liaison.
Gary added, "In 2008, Nick also served as a student council member in the inaugural year of the Youth in Government program, which teaches students how government works at the local level."
Sue Castle said that her son spent his time doing more than just volunteering; he also played on the Liberty High water polo team all four years of high school, and was a member of the Liberty Film Alliance, California Scholarship Federation and the National Honor Society.
After high school Nick attended UC Berkeley where he received his bachelor's degree in political science and comparative politics in 2012. During his time at Berkeley, Nicholas worked as a resident assistant and participated in student government as the Projects and Programs director. He also spent a semester encouraging students to apply to the Peace Corps.
Aside from his commitment to volunteer work, Nick loved music, books and film. His favorite band was The Beatles and his favorite authors included Kurt Vonnegut, Tim O'Brien, Douglas Adams, J.D. Salinger and Ernest Hemingway. His love of movies and film inspired him to complete the American Film Institute's Top 100 films list.
"Nick was naturally inquisitive, always wanting to learn more about everything; we loved talking about films and music," Taylor said. "He loved the fascinating stories of how artists made their music, the depth of songs or impacts of major artists.
"To this day, I use Nick's project he submitted for his study of the 1960s -- he created a vinyl LP gatefold cover, which allowed for him to write a research paper on The Who, one of his favorite bands," Taylor added. "The project still serves as the example of excellence that students are to work toward (Nick) is one of the most remarkable young individuals I have ever taught in my 15 years in education."
Due to a delay in transportation from China to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where the Brentwood native will undergo an autopsy to determine the cause of death, services are being withheld until March.
Who: Nicholas Matthew Castle
Born: Jan. 10, 1990
Died: Feb. 7, 2013, in China
Survived by: Parents Dave and Sue Castle; brothers Chris, Matthew and Joe Castle; grandparents Arlene Ringue and Ray Flores; and aunts, uncles and cousins.
Services: Celebration of Life at 11 a.m. March 9 at the Brentwood Community Center, 35 Oak St. Services are open to the public.