NEWBURY PARK, CA (BRAIN)—Industry veteran Russ Okawa died in his sleep Monday night. He had been staying with his sister in Simi Valley, recovering from open heart surgery on December 22. He was 59 years old.
A memorial service is planned for January 21. More details will be announced once they become available.
Okawa handled dealer services at Giant Bicycle for 10 years before being let go last March as part of the company's restructuring.
Okawa’s first job as a teenager was at Canoga Cycle Center. From there he joined Mongoose when Service Cycle owned it. He later spent 10 years at Sachs, but left after SRAM bought the old-line European company. He joined Giant USA after a stint with KMC.
“That guy totally kept that place together," a Giant employee said at the time Okawa was let go. "He ran all the inner workings of Interbike; he started the coffee every morning before anybody got there. If anybody didn’t know anything, Russ knew it. He did all the Web site updates, any promotions, getting binders done. He was the guy that got literally everything done."
According to Giant communications manager Patrick VanHorn, Okawa began experiencing shortness of breath more than two months ago. Subsequent hospital stays revealed he had two valves in his heart which weren’t functioning properly, resulting in substantial fluid build-up around his heart and lungs.
"I saw Russ while he was in the hospital before and after his surgery," VanHorn said. "I can tell you the improvement in his health and appearance post-surgery was remarkable." He was discharged from the hospital on December 29.
Industry veteran and current Electra co-CEO Skipp Hess said he and Okawa started at Mongoose the same week in 1980. "A call to Russ was the very first call I made when I took over Giant in 1999," Hess said. "We have a long history."
Hess recalls attending many BMX events and tradeshows with Okawa—a man who was always in early, always in late, and where always "was never a problem," Hess said.
"I can't even count how many of us BMX babies owe our career paths to Russ," Hess said. "He was the beginning of BMX in so many ways—behind the lens, behind the scenes. Russ was family. To everyone who ever shared a story with him, or shared a late night that were so ordinary yet extraordinary. I miss him so already. I feel a very significant loss."
Industry veteran John Neugent first met Okawa in the early 1980s when both were at Service Cycle. Neugent described him as one of the best-known persons in the industry, particularly in the world of BMX. “A lot of people may not know this, but there’s a wall in Russ’s home that has every signature from almost every major BMX competitor,” he said.
“When I met him, I think in 1980, he was running the Mongoose BMX team. I was a rep and we were doing a tour of New England dealers,” he recalled, noting that it was Okawa who signed John Tomac to the Mongoose team.
Neugent laughed when recalling how both were later fired from Service Cycle at different points in their careers. Neugent went on to become president of Sachs USA before it was bought by SRAM. He immediately hired Okawa, who was unemployed at the time.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Neugent from his San Luis Obispo, California, office where he owns Neuvation Cycling, a mail-order company.
“Russ was living in Canoga Park. I invited him down to Anaheim Hills for dinner. I told him that I couldn’t pay him what he was worth, but offered him a job anyway. He took it immediately.
“For almost three years he commuted from his home to Paramount—a nearly two-hour drive one way. He’d leave home at 4 a.m., arrive by 5:30 or so and leave at 4 p.m. He’d put in a 10-hour day at work plus four hours of driving. When you hired Russ you really were hiring two guys,” Neugent said.
Those who knew Okawa also knew that he would willingly take on the “grunt” work. No task was too small. “He would do it all with smile. I never met anyone who would work as hard, and that’s why so many people liked him. You couldn’t push him to be a high level guy. He was just incredibly unassuming,” Neugent said.
SmartEtailing co-founder Mark Graff remembers scheduling his first phone meeting with Okawa.
"He asked me to call him at around 5," Graff recalled. "He meant 5 a.m. As a fellow early riser I surprised him back—and in the same way—when early one morning he called expecting to leave a voicemail. I answered with my usual 'thanks-for-calling-this-is-Mark' greeting and there was a long pause. Russ mistook my live voice for the recording and was waiting for the beep. Every time I think of Russ I always smile, just as I am right now and will forever."