ACS Honoree Okum Shined in Shadow of 9/11

How fitting that the American Cancer Society chose the Rose Bowl as the site of its Hope Scores Gala this Saturday. One of the honorees at the event, Ron Okum, is as comfortable in that stadium as most men might be in the cozy den of their home. It also figured prominently in one of his greatest leadership triumphs.
Okum, a San Marino resident for nearly 50 years, is being honored as a community leader and a cancer survivor, according to Clay Campbell of the American Cancer Society. Okum has been involved with an extensive list of local organizations over the years.
But perhaps his most noteworthy service achievement occurred when he was president of the Tournament of Roses Association in 2001, overseeing preparations for the 2002 Rose Parade and Rose Bowl Game — the latter of which was to determine the national champion in the Bowl Championship Series.
On a Tuesday morning in September, Okum had a meeting scheduled to go over the lineup for the parade. Then the first plane struck the World Trade Center in New York.
America’s relative serenity and security were soon reduced to rubble, and in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the concept of a flower-festooned New Year’s parade and a national championship football game perhaps seemed trivial.
Okum and those with whom he worked quickly realized that some adjustments would need to be made, to solemnize the occasion, commemorate the victims of the attack and reaffirm America’s indomitable spirit.
“Our theme was ‘Good Times,’” Okum said last week in the office of his namesake insurance agency in Pasadena. “After 9/11 happened, someone sent me a quote of President Bush saying that they (al-Qaida) have had their times, now it’s time to have our times. We wove that into now it’s our turn to have our ‘Good Times.’ We made a positive out of that.”
By September, the particulars of the Rose Parade are usually beginning to firm up, but Okum knew that more had to be done.
He and other tournament officials seized on the idea of an opening ceremony before the parade. Something dignified, powerful and appropriate.
On a damp, chilly New Year’s morning, a flag was unfurled — so large that it required 32 people to bear it. The Marine Corps Band played the national anthem. Martina McBride sang “God Bless America,” and she delivered a masterful performance, at times soft and reverent, at other junctures bold and defiant. Her last note was followed by a flyover of the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, escorted by three fighters.
In the parade itself, New York City rescuers rode on the city of Los Angeles float.
Okum said he wanted the finish of the parade to be just as strong as the beginning. The drum and bugle corps from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point was secured as a last-minute entry. At 60 members, it was kind of small by Rose Parade standards, and Okum sought to pump up the numbers. The solution was inviting 100 cadets who were home in California for Christmas break to march in the parade behind the drum line. The unit provided an exclamation point at the end of the parade.
The BCS game was played in the Rose Bowl two days later, with Miami beating Nebraska, 37-14, for the national championship. Fireworks shot skyward during and after Yolanda Adams’ rendition of the national anthem, and the capacity crowd roared to the lyric “land of the free.” A squadron of four Navy jets soared over the stadium as the anthem ended.
These memories haven’t faded in the slightest for Okum, who was at midfield for the coin toss. He’s also been active in the Rose Bowl Legacy Foundation’s capital campaign in recent years, and said the presence of this particular American Cancer Society gala at the Rose Bowl “is fabulous.”
He was supporting the ACS well before he was diagnosed with prostate cancer nine years ago. It is one of dozens of causes with which he has been involved over the years.
“I don’t know too many people who have given back more than Ron has,” said Jeff Throop, who was Tournament of Roses president in 2010-11. “But he’s not just joining. In most cases, he became a leader in that group. He wants to be involved. He shares his leadership.”
The titles Okum has held reflect this: chairman of the parents’ associations at both USC and Loyola Marymount, and of the Almansor Center, an early education program in South Pasadena; regent at Loyola Marymount; board member for the American Heart Association and the Methodist Hospital Foundation. He was recently honored by the Police Activities League in Pasadena for his commitment to local youth.
And yet, “Ron avoids the fanfare as much as possible,” said Pasadena Police Chief Phillip Sanchez, who described him as “kind, funny and deeply devoted to our community.”
Throop added, “He just wants to be involved, with no credit or attention for doing so. ‘What can we do?’ ‘How can we make this better?’”
Okum says he honed his leadership traits and organizational skills at a young age — and pretty much by necessity. After he moved to Southern California from his hometown of Detroit in the early 1960s, money was tight, he said, and he needed to find ways to put himself through what is now Cal State Los Angeles.
Okum officiated at athletic events: football, basketball and baseball. Sometimes he’d umpire five baseball games on a Saturday, then take on two more on a Sunday. He remembers calling a USC baseball game during a tournament — he was probably no older than many of the players.
He also ran all of the intramural sports programs at Cal State L.A., and adds, “I learned more doing that about how to get things done.”
Taking a role in the Tournament of Roses was an obvious next step, and Okum joined at age 28, right about the time he and wife Nan were buying their first home in San Marino.
“What the tournament teaches you,” he said, “is dedication, timeliness, to think and to do things the right way.”
Okum found himself falling back on those imperatives when he received the prostate cancer diagnosis at age 66.
“You hear the word cancer and, ‘Do I have six months? A year?’” he said. “But we’ve done pretty well.”
Okum said he conducted extensive research and asked a lot of questions before agreeing to robotic surgery at City of Hope, where Dr. Timothy Wilson had performed 1,500 of the procedures. The surgery went well, Okum said, but he had some minor issues with the radiation treatments that followed, which he wryly called “not a perfect science.”
Now, he said, “you’ve got to be diligent, you’ve got to be strong and you just can’t let down.” Okum says he is scrupulous about showing up for treatments and taking medications on prescribed schedules, and with regular visits to the gym and the beach, “I’m pretty active for 75.”
“Ron has faced adversity and overcome it without complaint, fanfare or drama,” Sanchez said. “He encourages everyone to live their lives to the fullest.”
Just as he approached that parade and game 15 years ago.
“After the parade,” Okum said, “I was in Long Beach visiting some people. A lady heard I was the Tournament of Roses president and came up to me and said, ‘Thank you for having the parade open the year on such a positive note.’
“It got rid of the last year. So we just turned it into a positive.”

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