Local Volunteer Helps Create Rose Parade Magic

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To help the annual Rose Parade come alive every year on New Year’s Day, officials rely on a team of dedicated volunteers, including several Newport Beach locals.

Greg Custer, longtime Newport resident and Executive Vice President of Whittier Trust in Newport Beach, is one of many volunteers that help create the magic that happens at the Tournament of Roses each year.

Greg Custer, longtime Newport resident and Executive Vice President of Whittier Trust in Newport Beach, poses for a photo alongside a Rose Parade float earlier this year as part of his responsibilities on the parade’s volunteer float construction committee.
— Photo courtesy Greg Custer

“It’s so much fun,” Custer said in a recent phone interview. “It’s an exciting opportunity to be part of the community, to do something that has an impact on so many people across the world, to share New Year’s with the rest of the country.”

Custer put on his first white suit 21 years ago, joining just over 900 other volunteers who help make the Rose Parade presented by Honda in Pasadena happen.

He has also been on the Board of Directors for the Tournament of Roses Parade and Rose Bowl Game since 1998.

There are more than 30 volunteer operating committees. Volunteers typically rotate through the “big three” areas of work: Operations, formation, and post-parade.

Custer’s first assignment was standing by the barricade in the float formation area helping control traffic and making sure area was secure.

Every other year volunteers switch operating committees, Custer explained. The first year in the new committee, they learn. The following year, they teach.

“Every year is fresh… It’s always new and different,” he said.

Custer has served on about 10 different committees over the years, including testing the float standards, organizing the viewing event that takes place after the parade, entertaining the athletes, parade operations, working with sports media, organizing the formation area where the floats line up, overseeing the parade contracts, and working with TV stations to facilitate every camera crews gets the shots they need.

Even on the less exciting, administrative committees, like overseeing the contracts with the various parade vendors (porta potties, barricades, fencing, etc.), is enjoyable.

“It’s much fun as you want to make it,” Custer said.

Working with a budget up to $1 million and overseeing 20 people can make it pretty exciting.

“It’s serious when you have five miles of parade route,” Custer said. “A lot of services to go along with that.”

This year, he’s managing the float construction committee. He works with professional inspectors and takes each float through a set of three tests to make sure they are at the standard the Rose Parade is looking for, he explained.

There is a very thick float manual, he pointed out, and it lists all the mechanical and safety requirements the float must abide by. For example, each float has to have two operators and both have to be able to operate the brakes, Custer explained.

They also make sure the animation is working correctly, the equipment inside is all running smoothly, check the stability of the frame, and more.

The first test is stationary, done inside a building, the other two are with the engine running and driving down the street.

There are often some last-minute adjustments that are made, but it’s rare for a float to fail the tests and miss their New Year’s Day debut. Float designers plan very thoroughly, he noted.

Another aspect of volunteer work includes promoting the big event.

Honda, the presenting sponsor of the parade, loans out more than 100 vehicles for committee chairs or other volunteers in leadership positions to borrow and drive around before the big day.

Between October and New Year’s, he’s driving around town in his white Tournament car with roses painted on the side to promote the event.

Custer said he gets at least a few people every day approaching him when he’s out driving the official Rose Parade Honda vehicle. People like to share stories about the parade, or comment on which team they are rooting for in the Rose Bowl football game, or ask about becoming a volunteer.

Greg Custer with the official Rose Parade Honda vehicle he drives in the months prior to promote the event. 
— Photo courtesy Greg Custer

Volunteers are required to live or work within 15 miles of Pasadena city hall at the time of application. They purchase the required white suit and pay annual dues.

Although there is a retirement age of 67, many applicants are in their 60s. If people retire out they can be involved with the auxiliary committee, he added.

Volunteers come from all walks of life, including attorneys, gas station attendants, stay at home parents, gardeners, doctors, business owners, and more.

“It runs the gambit,” Custer said.

Custer isn’t the only Whittier Trust employee to volunteer at the Rose Parade, others include: Maria Olson, who works in client advisory in Newport Beach; and Jonathan Guong, who works in the south Pasadena office in the tax group.

The company is very supportive in allowing flexibility in their schedule to participate, Custer noted.

Orange County’s Whittier Trust Company oversees more than $13 billion in assets, serving its high net worth families from six offices.

There is definitely some crossover between his professional work and his hobby. Managing money at Whittier Trust helps him manage his committee’s budget, sometimes as much as $1 million, and managing people, as few as 15 to upwards of 250.

It’s always a challenge to figure out how to motivate people who aren’t getting paid, he noted, but he’s found there is more to motivation than just salary.

“You get an incredible opportunity to make some great friends,” Custer said. It’s also an interesting hobby, “you do some really exciting stuff you’d never do otherwise.”

For more information, visit tournamentofroses.com

Newport Beach residnt Greg Custer walks alongside a Rose Parade float still under construction as part of his responsibilities on the parade’s volunteer float construction committee.
— Photo courtesy Greg Custer
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