NEWBURY PARK, CA (BRAIN)—Both laughter and tears were shared Friday afternoon at a memorial service for Russ Okawa.
The longtime industry icon passed away unexpectedly on January 4 following heart surgery. He was 59 years old. More than 200 friends and family members celebrated Russ' life, gathering to share memories at the Cornerstone Community Church in Simi Valley, California.
Russ' sister, Diane Okawa Nelson, recounted memories of growing up with her big brother who was nearly 16 years older and who was, she said, “…like a second dad to me in many ways.” Many of those seated in the church nodded in agreement when she said, “One character trait that stands out in Russ was his quiet generosity. He was an incredibly thoughtful and whole-hearted giver.” For several days following his surgery, Russ stayed with Diane, her husband, and three sons to recuperate. “It is so humbling to have had the privilege myself of caring for my big brother Russ in our home,” she said. “I can’t help but smile to know that Russ, in his last days, was surrounded with hearts of love and kindness.”
Industry veteran and current Electra co-CEO Skip Hess called Russ, “the best of friends—the kind of friend who leaves a mark on your life.” Drawing on 30 years of friendship, Hess told the story of meeting Russ in the summer of 1980 when both were in their 20s and working for Mongoose. Russ’ role in creating and growing BMX racing was just beginning. “He drove a station wagon to work,” Hess said. “I thought, ‘what kind of single guy drives a station wagon?’” He continued, “The first weekend at the races solved the station wagon mystery. Here comes the wagon, bikes piled on the roof, all handlebars and pedals, the back full with coolers, riding gear, a Park stand, pit chairs, first-aid kit. Inside is what looks like a classroom full of kids—all arms and heads hanging out the windows and Russ behind the wheel…smiling.” Hess said, “From the moment the doors flung open Russ was photo-journalist, coach, mentor, mother, father, big brother, and always a best friend.”
Russ spent 10 years in the marketing department at Giant Bicycle where he handled dealer services. “Taking care of people is what Russ did best,” said co-worker Patrick VanHorn, Giant’s corporate communications manager. “Russ took care of Giant’s dealers, getting them marketing collateral, catalogs, photos, video. I would bet he knew each Giant dealer by face and name; they certainly all knew him. He’d take them to dinner, made sure they ate well.” Remembering that Russ was a fixture at countless events for Giant, VanHorn said, “Russ took care of everything: setting up tents, rolling out bikes for display, talking to consumers, staying all day, tearing it all down, doing it all again the next day. He took care of the other staff working those booths, too; he always brought coffee and homemade goodies to eat at set-up, and made sure there were drinks and snacks throughout the day. He cared for everyone.”
Russ’ prowess as a chef was a recurring theme among those speaking. “Several of Russ’ recipes are part of our family now,” Hess said. “His spinach dip, his cilantro chicken, his brisket. But it wasn’t always easy to get him to write them down. Russ was just as happy to be cleaning dishes and putting things away as he was with the apron on and a French knife in his hands. He just felt right in the kitchen. He shined in the kitchen and even more so when there were people to share with.”
A moving slideshow presentation, created by members of Russ’ family, showed dozens of photos depicting Russ at various stages of his life. “I pray we can all be encouraged to see evidence of life’s beauty as we remember—and will always remember—Russ,” said his sister, Diana, as she concluded her remarks. “And I thank God for giving us this dear friend, mentor, uncle, brother, son…this priceless gift in knowing Russ.”