Palo Alto gymnastics teacher drowns in Yosemite

Russell Wright, 57, taught gymnastics for a decade at Lucie Stern Community Center

A popular children's gymnastics teacher drowned in Yosemite National Park on Wednesday, Aug. 1, his family has confirmed.

Russell Wright, 57, taught Palo Alto children for a decade at Gym Fit for Little Ones at the Lucie Stern Community Center.

He was at a Merced River swimming hole with his daughter when currents carried him downstream. Wright's foot became caught between two boulders and he drowned, his sister, Moria Peters, said.

Wright's 20-year-old daughter, Monica, was with him for their annual trip. They loved to swim in rivers and often went snorkeling, Peters said.

On Wednesday they were alone in the spot near the entrance of Yosemite when the accident occurred. His daughter sustained minor injuries while trying to rescue Wright. After she realized she could not safely free him, she sought help, Peters said.

"It was a real ordeal. He was her best friend and her entire world. When they left here they drove out of here laughing. He was probably as happy as he ever was moments before he died," she said.

Four divers were brought in to free him. Park staff helped his daughter and provided her with a counselor until family arrived, Peters said.

"We're really grateful to all of the people involved in the rescue attempt," she said.

Wright taught toddlers and kids up to age 12 a creative, ever-changing gymnastics program that was meant to open them up to the joys of gymnastics and self-expression rather than turning them into professional athletes, she said.

"He was teaching children how to be children," she said. "Rusty always tried to draw out from everyone their highest creative potential. He had this ability to get people to open up to the natural world."

Wright's nieces remembered him as a fun-loving uncle who was always very careful about letting them into the water. On outings he would test any swimming holes for their safety before letting the children go in, they said. He never lost his childlike sense of play and still enjoyed rope swinging, his family said.

Peters said he was an "extraordinary father" to Monica and his eldest daughter, Rachelle Thomas, 28, of Springfield, Ore.

"His two girls both loved him so much," Peters said.

He attended Aragon High School and Walden School in San Mateo, where he had also taught rope swinging, she said.

Wright lived in San Mateo with his mother, Elsie Wright. She said his death is the hardest thing she's ever dealt with.

"Everybody that knew him was extremely fond of him. He had a personality that just seemed to mix with everybody," she said.

Wright loved music and was a well-known local guitarist for many years, filling the home's family room with instruments of all kinds, she said. He was a composer and guitar teacher who wrote and performed avant-garde improvisational jazz.

Peters said her brother was extremely bright, but he initially had trouble in school because of undiagnosed dyslexia. But his introduction to guitar at age 14 and his love of gymnastics opened up his world.

As a boy he loved to climb a large tree in their yard and walked along the top of the backyard fence. His remarkable agility earned him the nickname "Monkey Boy," she said.

Wright would hop the fence and sneak into the adjacent College of San Mateo gym. He taught himself gymnastics there, she said.

Steve Peters, his brother-in-law, said he has lost a brother and his best friend of the past 38 years. Wright was a consistent friend, not someone who comes and goes in life, he said.

Moria Peters said the kind of friend her brother was is reflected in his care for a friend who has had long-term cancer.

"Every Thursday Rusty would make sure he had that day free. He would cook him a big breakfast and play music or take him on a hike. His friend said that the energy he got from playing music that one day a week saved his life," she said.

Parents whose children took lessons from Wright also expressed sadness.

Gabrielle Conway said Wright's death is a huge loss for the children. Her daughter, Abigail Brown, was in his class.

"My daughter absolutely adored Russ. Russ was so amazing. A gentle giant. My daughter loved being free to do what she wanted in his class. It was a class full of joy," Conway said.

Personnel at Lucie Stern on Saturday expressed shock and sadness when they learned of his death.

Trudi Wallick-Horrocks, an ambassador for Friends of the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo and lunchtime-relief employee at the zoo, said she would stick her head in the door at the Stern Ballroom to watch Wright teaching the children. Wright was highly creative and had magic with the children, she said. He always came up with new designs and ways to rearrange equipment to give the children a new experience, she added.

"He was always like sunshine whenever you saw him. It was so much fun to watch. It is a huge loss. He had a special way with children, and you could see that he loved what he did. It was just seeing that spark and that smile. I wish my kids were young enough to attend. They would have enjoyed that thoroughly. The children will be crushed and their parents will be even more," she said.

Wright is survived by his mother, Elsie Wright, daughters Rachelle Thomas and Monica Wright, sister (Nancy) Moria Peters "and a large and loving extended family and many grieving friends," Peters said.

A memorial service and vegetarian potluck for Wright will take place Wednesday, Aug. 8, at 1 p.m. at Lucie Stern Community Center, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. It is open to the community. Anyone with stories or music to share is welcome to participate.


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Posted by Kristen Sheau
a resident of another community
on Aug 4, 2012 at 9:33 pm

We are deeply saddened to hear this news of a great loss to the Palo Alto community. Our 2yr-old's favorite day of the week is always "Teacher Russ Day." Our heartfelt condolences to the Wright family.

Like this comment
Posted by Peace
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 5, 2012 at 6:36 am

I'm sure I'm not speaking out of turn when I say to his family, that you have the support of the entire community. So sorry for your loss.

Like this comment
Posted by JSD
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 5, 2012 at 10:02 am

Rest in peace, Russ. Our family sends the Wright family our heartfelt condolences.

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Posted by daniel
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 5, 2012 at 10:03 am

Russel was one of those people who make you retain hope for the human race despite evidence to the contrary. What an awful tragedy to have happened to this wonderful person, his family and the entire community. Terribly sad.

Like this comment
Posted by Maya
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 5, 2012 at 11:47 am

Tragic. So sorry. Thoughts and prayers to the Wright family.

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Posted by Grateful parent
a resident of Stanford
on Aug 5, 2012 at 12:34 pm

So sorry to read this... Many feelings, but few words to express what teacher Russ meant to our family. His spirit and creativity in class were life-changing for my child. Russ was truly special and unique. His love of the outdoors was infectious. He will be deeply missed, but his essence will live on in the hearts of those who knew and loved him. To Russ' family and friends--our thoughts are with you; may you know peace.

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Posted by Joe
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 5, 2012 at 3:01 pm

That is terrible news. Russ was so soft-spoken and gentle. His gymnastics classes were always relaxing and peaceful and so much fun for the kids. I will always remember those days fondly as part of watching my kids grow up.

I remember many conversations with Russ about hiking all over the bay area, and I know how much he loved being outdoors, so while this is truly terrible, I'm glad he was out doing what he enjoyed.

To the Wright family, please know that "Teacher Russ" will be remembered by so many in this community. There won't ever be a replacement for him. I'm so sorry for your loss.

Like this comment
Posted by Parent
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 5, 2012 at 4:39 pm

I am saddened to hear this news. My child took his class when she was three and enjoyed it. Russ was a well-known and well-liked figure within the parenting community of Palo Alto and will be greatly missed!

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Posted by CC
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 5, 2012 at 8:26 pm

I am shocked and sad to hear this news. So very sorry for his family. He was a wonderful teacher. My kids loved his class. He was so looking forward to this trip with his daughter--he told us about it many times during class. My heart goes out to his daughters, especially the one who was with him on the trip.

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Posted by Sad
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 5, 2012 at 8:41 pm

Very sad news. Feel sorry for his family. RIP, Russ.

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Posted by Mom
a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 6, 2012 at 1:05 am

Russ made such a difference in our lives. This is heartbreaking. My deepest condolences to his family. Such a loss to the community.

Where can we send cards? Will there be a community memorial?

Like this comment
Posted by AP
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 6, 2012 at 10:39 am

We are so sad to hear the news. He was a favorite for our kids too despite their moving on to a bigger gym. Just last week, my younger one was peeking into the room looking for Teacher Russ while we were at the Lucie Stern Center. Our deepest condolences to his family.

1 person likes this
Posted by Friends
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 6, 2012 at 11:11 am

Class with Teacher Russ was a bright spot in the week for our entire family. His genuine joy and gift for opening up children to the wonders of life will never be forgotten, and his presence will always be a part of our lives. He changed everything for the better - truly a unique and wonderful individual. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family during this difficult time.

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Posted by Anne
a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 6, 2012 at 11:19 am

Monica, I'm sure you know this, but Russ was so incredibly proud of you. We took many classes when my son was younger, and it was obvious how close you were. We are so sad for your whole family. Russ's classes were truly a gift to the kids, and to us moms.

I know there is little I can say of comfort, but we know how athletic Russ was and how alert and safety minded. It was just a tragic circumstance. You did everything possible, you could not have done more. He loved you so much and wouldn't have wanted the tragedy to hurt you, too, even emotionally now.

Weekly, publish only if you see fit. I'm not good with words and don't want to add to Monca's pain. I just want her to know how loved and respected her father was, how obvious it was that he loved her, and not to second guess herself because we know there was nothing else that could be done and her father would want her to live to her potential.

Like this comment
Posted by Jamie
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 6, 2012 at 2:15 pm

It's been many years since my kids took gymnastics and sibnastics with Russ, but we loved those classes so much. Russ created a unique place where they could just play and be kids -- it was rare and lovely. His was the only activity they always looked forward to. To his children: I'm so sorry for your loss. Your dad made a big difference in so many lives -- no matter when he went, it would have been way too soon.

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Posted by A Palo Alto parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 6, 2012 at 2:22 pm

I had just thought of Russ yesterday, and also of Monica, even though it's been several years since my son took his gymnastics classes. What an amazing human being, gifted teacher, caring friend. He made a huge difference in my son's life, just by being himself. Thank you, Russ.

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Posted by Anwyn
a resident of Southgate
on Aug 6, 2012 at 2:26 pm

Russ was a treasure of a man, a kind and gentle soul and a very talented teacher. His open, relaxed nature was unequaled. Our two children have grown up with their weekly visits to Russ being one of their most beloved moments—he made so many people so happy. There are no words to express our deep, deep sadness, we'll keep Russ's family and loved ones in our hearts and minds.

Like this comment
Posted by Pip Reynolds
a resident of another community
on Aug 6, 2012 at 9:13 pm

wow Russ WE LOVE YOU!!!!
Our Community is at a loss for this man taught us incredible ways to be always positive,he was always soft spoken and healing,~ helping and healing us ,always giving an approving smile a word of encouragement or a good joke or a great song. I was blessed with making music with him on and off for 12 years and filled with Joy in knowing he never fought with anyone and most certainly though gone is still very close always. Now if I can be an example of his teachings,help his family or send a (((HUG))) to extended friends /family/tribe of Russ We will met up again,Russ!
God Bless you and Keep you! ~WE LOVE YOU!!! Pip,Jim,Kira & Ilya xoxo

Like this comment
Posted by Karen
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 7, 2012 at 10:51 am

Russ was a fantastic teacher for my kids. He was gentle, encouraging, fun and funny. He taught them to safely explore and learn. I enjoyed talking with him as well during the class and he did love to talk about his daughters. I'm so so sorry that this happened and send my deepest sympathy to his family.

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Posted by Loren Stein
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 7, 2012 at 2:47 pm

I am deeply saddened to learn of this tragedy. Russ was a kind, gentle and caring man to whom my young daughter felt an instant connection. She took two years of gym classes from Russ, who made the class and learning environment fun, challenging and alway safe. He played the best music for the children: eclectic and delightful—jazz, rock, world, classical—not your usual nursery rhymes, which I so appreciated. I talked with him frequently, enjoying our wide-ranging conversations. Our family had just vacationed in Yosemite right before his terrible accident, and we had just swam in the Merced River. I am so very sorry for his family's loss and for the loss to the community.

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Posted by Laura
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 7, 2012 at 9:07 pm

I am so sad to learn about Teacher Russ's death. Both my kids, now teenagers, took his class for years and years! My kids loved him and his classes because they were *fun* and low key. Even after they aged out of his classes, we used to always poke our heads in the ballroom to see if he was in there. He always had a big smile on his face for us. We will miss him.

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Posted by Clara
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 7, 2012 at 9:52 pm

I took Russ's class for many years when I was younger and he is the one who truly made me love gymnastics. I loved his motto about gymnastics being about self-expression and not doing gymnastics to make yourself a professional athlete. My experience with him with stay with me forever even though I only have vague memories of him. :(

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Posted by Sandy
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 8, 2012 at 12:40 am

Teacher Russ was such an important part of our children's early lives. Our children took class after class, nearly six years in total, with Teacher Russ. He helped them grow agile and strong. In his wonderful, gentle way, he encouraged my kids to try new and zany things (like the rope swing)!

They had so much delightful fun in his sweet classes.

We all miss Teacher Russ so deeply. He was a special teacher to our littlest ones. Our deepest condolences to the Wright Family.

Like this comment
Posted by Julie
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 8, 2012 at 11:56 am

Our best wishes and thoughts are with Russ and his family and friends. He was a loved teacher by our family. Teacher Russ' spirit will live on in the hearts of many families throughout the area. We miss you,

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Posted by allison
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 8, 2012 at 8:47 pm

teacher russ is one of a kind. our condolences to his family. such great times we had in his class - life time memories for my kids
russ in his tank tops and barefeet, stamps, ballons on the last class and ropes and tents. loved seeing him at the summer concerts and in the library slecting cds for his class
a great man!

Like this comment
Posted by Chitra Sharma
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 9, 2012 at 4:18 am

NO matter which Gym program we tried, my son Neel asked me if he could still go back to the Stern Center with his coach with a pony tail. "I like Russ and his hair style too, Mom!" Russ connected with the kids so much! Very sad to hear this news. Rest in Peace Russ.

Like this comment
Posted by Vivian
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 10, 2012 at 11:30 am

We're very sad to hear this. Teacher Russ brought so much fun and creativity to his toddler gym class. He would explain to 3 and 4-year-old why to jump on a trampoline with stright legs by throwing a man-sized hard block and a huge flexible object onto the trampoline and let the kids see for themselves which would bounce higher. He is a truly phenomenal gym teacher! Russ went out of his way to engage everyone in the class, got to know the parents and patiently showed us how to help the little ones safely do swing and jump and forward roll and have a blast at the same time. We love Russ' class! His gentleness and pony tail will be dearly missed by the community. Our heartfelt condolences to Teacher Russ' family.

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Posted by Diane
a resident of Professorville
on Aug 14, 2012 at 3:11 pm

We just heard the news about Teacher Russ after being out of town for a month. Needless to say, we are shocked and saddened that the community has lost such an extraordinary man.

My two sons took Russ's sibnastics class this past Spring, and absolutely loved it. He taught my elder son to be more confident in his abilities, and my younger son to be more patient. He was such a special man, and I so enjoyed speaking to him while the children explored the fascinating world that Russ brought to them weekly.

He made such a difference in so many lives, and will be sorely missed.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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