The longtime proprietor of a free-to-the-public, extra-hot hot tub behind a home on Essex Street in Berkeley was found dead by a hot tub patron over the weekend, and it appears he died doing what he loved, soaking in the tub.

The old-fashioned, four-foot deep wooden hot tub was an open secret for many East Bay residents over the decades, who kept close their passcodes to the locked gate that were all one needed to access it. Its owner was something of an enigma — an older hippie, people said, who maybe lived alone — though patrons came to recognize him when he would make his own afternoon visits to the tub where absolute silence was the rule.

His name, as the Chronicle now learns, was Deward Hastings. He was 78 years old, and a person visiting the hot tub Saturday reportedly found him deceased there. His death was confirmed by his estranged wife, Sippa Pardo.

To control crowds and maintain a safe space for women in the all-nude space, Hastings instituted a passcode system years ago based on phone numbers. Patrons would use their own phone numbers to gain entry, and access was limited only to women and the male guests they brought with them — though this rule was not always steadfastly enforced. And men could get their own codes if they were sponsored by a female guest and submitted a request.

Rumor had it, Hastings — or as he was known to most, "the hot tub guy" — would occasionally purge the roles or crack down on disrespectful patrons by disabling their codes.

In my personal experience, the place was never over-crowded, and the high temperature of the water — which was kept at 113.5 degrees — meant that no one could stay in for too long of a stretch. To cool off, there was a hammock nearby and another in the yard, as well as a few wooden platforms upon which people could do nude yoga.

Getting into the water the first time was always a struggle — previous experience still never quite prepared you for that shock of extreme heat, like you were volunteering yourself to be boiled alive. But once you got in, it was invigorating and calming all at once — a strong reset for even the worst of days.

Hastings didn't court publicity, and the Essex Street hot tub was always an IYKYK sort of novelty for college students, longtime residents, and aficionados of such quirky urban secrets that make Berkeley Berkeley. "It's on Essex Street where it dead-ends off Adeline." "You'll see the wooden gate."

In 2000, a then 55-year-old Hastings spoke to the Chronicle about his hot tub on condition of anonymity. He relayed how he had been an avid backpacker who loved seeking out hot springs in the 1960s, but in the early 70s, many of his favorites nearby were being closed to the public.

"The obvious solution was to build a hot spring," Hastings said. And he did, opening the backyard tub in 1975 when he was around 30 years old.

He told the Chronicle that while things stayed manageable for a few years, with the gate left unlocked on nights and weekends, word got around and in the 80s he had to do a bit too much policing. He described having to shoo off noisy, drunken people who would stream in after the bars would close, and the "Telegraph Avenue dregs of society" who started making too frequent appearances — and that's when the passcode system was put in place. As of that 2000 interview, Hastings said there were around 870 working combinations in circulations, and if one became too widely shared he would shut it off.

Hastings was the sole caretaker of this artificial hot spring in the middle of the Berkeley Flats, and with his departure, so will go this magical little place that is near to the hearts of the tens of thousands of people who soaked and relaxed there after long days of human toil, or as a brief escape from reality on a chilly Bay Area weekend.

As Rona Marech wrote about the no-talking rule in 2000, it "adds a hushed, dreamy quality to the experience. Naked strangers move in and out of the water and lie out on wooden platforms, all without a word. Especially at night, when the naked bodies flit by like wood nymphs in the moonlight, the woozy scene seems like something straight out of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.'"

Now someone else needs to take up this extinguished torch, and build a new one.

Photo: Google Street View