Mark McDermott

The boy and the pier: How Michael Greenberg transformed the loss of his son into a gift for the place that made him

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Michael Greenberg. Photo by Jessie Lee Cederblom

First of two parts

by Mark McDermott

Michael Greenberg was in England on business when the call came that every parent fears most.

It was April 7, 2015. His oldest son, 19-year-old Harrison Greenberg, was on the other side of the world. Harrison, heir to the family business, Skechers, was 90 days into a four month internship in China. He was traveling with his cousin Colton, and they’d taken a six day break to visit Thailand while en route to a work assignment in Vietnam.

The call was from Michael’s brother, Scott Greenberg. Hotel workers had found Harrison dead in his room. He and Colton had come back to the hotel together that night, and Harrison had ordered room service as Colton went to his own room to go to bed. Harrison apparently choked to death while eating his room service meal. Michael would later watch the hotel’s video surveillance footage to catch a last glimpse of his son alive, buoyantly getting off the elevator with his cousin, eager, as always, to keep on going.

Harrison had always been an unusual kid. He wasn’t a conventionally good student; he was diagnosed with ADD and was willfully independent to a sometimes maddening degree, his father would later recall. But he was extraordinarily good at self-educating, possessed a quick mind and broad curiosity, and had a nose for business, technology, and travel. He’d started learning on computers at the age of three, enthusiastically attended business conferences with his father throughout his boyhood, manufactured bitcoin at home while still in high school, and traveled extensively in Asia during his teenage years.

“One thing I’ll say about Harrison is that even though he passed early in life, he did a tremendous amount in a compressed amount of time,” his father recalled. “He traveled to Asia at least a half dozen times — China, Korea, all over… He’d go anywhere. He had a plane ticket, he had apps on language translations. ‘How are you going to..?’ ‘I got it dad.’”

On an Instagram post from the Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport in China two weeks before he died, Harrison combined two quotes generally attributed, separately, to Saint Augustine and the prophet Mohammed: “Don’t tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you traveled. Because the World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”

Michael immediately got on a plane to return from London. His other two kids, Chase, who was 16 at the time, and Mackenna, who was 13, were on spring break with their mother Wendy in the Cayman Islands.

“I had a long flight home to reflect on what was going on,” Greenberg said. “I was in shock. I think if I had to say what concerned me the most, it was worrying about his mother, and his siblings. Because he’s gone, so he’s pain free, but if you step back, you can imagine all the pain that was going to happen. I was 35,000 feet up in the sky knowing what I was going to encounter at home.”

Harrison Greenberg’s senior photo. Courtesy the Greenberg family

Home was Manhattan Beach, the town Greenberg had adopted as his hometown 25 years earlier —  before he had kids, before Skechers became the second largest shoe company in America, when he was 25 years old and just beginning to make his mark on the world. He’d moved around as a kid, from Boston to Florida and finally to the Valley to join his own father, Robert, with whom he helped build the shoe company LA Gear, and then Skechers out its ashes.

Robert, a joyously imaginative serial entrepreneur who’d launched a chain of hair salons, a wig company, and a roller skate company before entering the shoe industry, had always referred to Skechers as “a nice family business,” even as it became a billion dollar, international enterprise. He and most of his six kids lived in the Valley. Michael woke up one morning in his home in Woodland Hills and decided to move to the beach. A week later, to his family’s shock, he was living in Manhattan Beach. He became completely in thrall with the little town. Soon he headquartered the company there. He had an office on the 200 block of Manhattan Beach Boulevard with a view of the pier and the Roundhouse.

“I always refer to it as this enchanted village. It’s how I felt when I moved here,” Greenberg said.  “It’s like I’m always on vacation. It’s a special town….I feel really blessed to be able to be here. All those times I packed up my bags and moved — I have no intention of ever moving. I found it. I have lived over half my life here now, and it gave me everything. It gave me the life I have today. My kids were born and raised here; it was the only place they know. I knew so many places, from moving around. But who gets to live near the beach?”

What was more unusual was that even as Skechers grew into a $2 billion a year business, selling 200 million pairs of shoes worldwide annually, Greenberg chose to keep the company in Manhattan Beach.

“Setting up this company in a city that is two miles by two miles —  who would do that? There is no land,” he said. “They are not producing more Manhattan Beach. So, it took a lot of planning to keep a company that was growing, that needed space, inside of Manhattan Beach. It’s full; the houses are on top of one another. There is no farmland. There is no acreage. But it’s where I wanted to be.”

He’d always marvelled when coming home from business trips, as he came over the crest of the hill and looked down on the the red tile roof of the Roundhouse at the end of the pier. “This is where I get to live,” he thought.

But on that day in early April three years ago, Greenberg arrived bewildered. His first instinct was to immediately book another flight, to Thailand.

“I started to make flights to Thailand, because that is where he was,” he remembered. “But I was thinking, why am I going to Thailand? I’ve got to be with the kids and Harrison’s mother. There was a lot of support here.”

There is a confusingly beautiful thing that often happens at a time of such devastating loss —  an unreal and terrifying sense of absence is accompanied by profound feelings of love. It’s hard to fully grasp the enormity of a love a father has for a son, or a sibling for a sibling, until that person’s passing throws the feeling into sharp relief, creating a hole in a heart the size of this unfathomably large love. We often don’t know just how much we are capable of feeling until loss forces it upon us. That capacity is reflected back upon us as we rest in the love of those remaining.

The outpouring of love from the community floored Greenberg. And from around the world, donations quickly arrived. The Harrison Greenberg Foundation was immediately established; within days, a quarter million dollars had been donated to the Foundation.

Robin Curren, the executive director of the non-profit Skechers Foundation and a close family friend who’d known Harrison all his life, had an idea. Harrison had been a quintessential child of Manhattan Beach, sun-drenched with sand always on his feet. Perhaps his greatest passion had been for the ocean. What better way to honor his memory than by donating to the Roundhouse Aquarium, which was both an enduring symbol of Manhattan Beach and a working facility where generations of children had been taught about marine life?

Greenberg had arrived back on a Tuesday. By Saturday, he and Curren met with Lynne Gross, a board member for Oceanographic Teaching Stations, which operated the Roundhouse Aquarium.

“Knowing his love for the sea, for Catalina Island, for always being on the water or in the water, visiting the Roundhouse Aquarium all the time… it was a natural fit,” Greenberg said. “It was a beautiful idea.”

 

The boy

Harrison Greenberg at Catalina Island. Courtesy the Greenberg family

Harrison Greenberg grew up never far from the water. As a little boy, he was preternaturally drawn to the Pacific Ocean and all its teeming life.

His family moved a few times in his childhood, but always within Manhattan Beach, always within a quick march to the beach. In the thousands of photos that documented his early life, most have an ocean backdrop, a tussle-haired tanned boy building sandcastles, bodysurfing, fishing; the closer he was to the water, the bigger his mischievous smile.

He tooled down the pier a thousand times, ecstatic to run above the slap of the ocean, more alive than ever in the salt water air. He especially loved the Roundhouse, where he’d touch the animals in the touch tanks and gaze in wonder at the sharks in the big tanks.

Sometimes the ocean would come to him. One photo shows a party at his house when he was two years old. The OTS crew from the Roundhouse Aquarium brought some of their animals to the Greenbergs’ home. Harrison looks like he’s being reunited with old friends.

The first time he dove, on a family vacation to Hawaii, he hugged an octopus. For the rest of his short life he’d keep the habit he was taught on that first dive, holding his nose as he went under.

He was a boisterous kid, even bold, curious about the world, unafraid to go beyond his own limits and especially those others set for him. It was a trait that kept growing all his life.

“He was a lot of work,” said Michael Greenberg. “What I realized later was why —   a lot of it was because he was so creative, and determined. It took me a while to understand that he wanted to do things that a young boy his age just didn’t do. He wanted to travel, he wanted to work.”

Because Harrison grew up in affluence didn’t mean he was immune to the difficulties that beset childhood. He was chubby when he was young; as a grade schooler at Robinson Elementary, he was bullied for it. Rather than cower, however, the experience seemed to make him even more resolute, and it may have drawn him closer to the ocean —  on the water, all creatures are equally small relative to the immensity of the Pacific.

His father recalls his early penchant for voyaging. The family visited Catalina Island perhaps a dozen times a year, sometimes for a day, a weekend, or a few weeks at at time. They favored the Isthmus, which is simple and rustic, with a single hotel and restaurant, rather than the more touristy Avalon. By the time he was a teenager, Harrison would take the family fishing boat out alone.

“He was an avid fisherman,” Michael Greenberg said.  “This kid would fish for hours. We have a Grady White. he’d take it out and I wouldn’t see him for nine hours. He’d go on the backside of the island. And I was a little worried because they didn’t get reception; the radio on the boats, the antennas — there’s got to be line of sight.”

By this time he’d learned to trust his son, who each year seemed to grow more defined, physically and otherwise.

“He really started to understand who he was and have confidence,” Greenberg said. “He figured out who he was supposed to be.”

He’d always taken an interest in the family business. He’d grown up Skechers, as had all the kids; his brother, Chase, famously had his diapers changed by his mother on the boardroom table at the New York Stock Exchange the morning Skechers went public.

“I remember saying, ‘You can’t, we don’t have time,’ and she said, ‘I am changing him,’” Michael Greenberg said. “There is no telling a mother. She puts him on this iconic, world leaders’ conference table that is longer than my office; many dignitaries have sat around this. We are in this grand room and she plops him on that table. And the head of the exchange, [Richard] Grasso, he’s looking and he says, ‘Well, that’s never happened.’”

When Harrison was four, his father, playing the role of “shoe-ologist” by doing a little market research on his child, asked him if he liked the Skechers he was wearing.

“Yes, Daddy, I like them,” the boy said.

“Do you like Nike or Adidas?” his father asked.  

“What is that?” Harrison replied.

He had no idea other shoes existed. Nearly every trip the family took they’d stop at at least one Skechers store to check things out, and thus by means of osmosis the family business was being transferred to the next generation. As Harrison grew older, he formed strong opinions on the Skechers line —  he’d tell his dad what was cool, what wasn’t, and what was missing.

“The kids are all very opinionated,” Greenberg said. “They are not shy, and they are critics. Children are their parents’ biggest critics. You know, we are not cool. They forget I was 19 and I know all the shit you are doing. Maybe I invented some of the shit you are doing.”

Harrison had become a magnetic personality as he grew into a young man. He’d always been as comfortable speaking with adults as with kids; his eclectic circle of friends included the entrepreneur Rob Gough, a 32-year-old cancer survivor who’d launched a half dozen successful businesses, including Coupon.com and the DOPE apparel line.

“He was incredible,” Gough said. “He was a curious soul who loved to learn. To be honest, he would have been a monster in the business world. You could put him anywhere and he would survive and come out better than anyone else. He just had a talent for figuring things out and making things happen, but he also had just a massive heart for everyone.”

“He had gotten into bitcoins years ago,” Gough added. “I mean, he just had an innate understanding of how things worked. He was definitely a visionary.”

Several of his friends were equally ambitious, but in different ways —  such as future UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, and University of Washington basketball player K.J. Garrett, who grew up with Harrison in Manhattan Beach. His circle also included Luke Dam, David Hilton, Robert Shibuya, and Kayla Valiani.

“We surround ourselves with like-minded friends,” Garrett said. “We were all very ambitious. I mean, one of our friends is going to be a top pick in the NFL draft this year. We all loved where we grew up and wanted to stay in that community, and that’s not easy.”

But even among his friends, something about Harrison stood out.

“His ambition and passion just radiated,” Garrett said. “When you were around him, he had this energy —  I don’t know how to describe it, but people just wanted to be around him at all times, like a magnet. Anything he wanted, he’d just put his mind to it…He had skills, with technology and business, that I never had. It was admirable. And he just had so much love for me, I could never understand why. He’d just make me feel at home whenever I was with him.”

And so it was a natural progression when, at 19, he ventured out into the world. He enrolled at Loyola Marymount, but he had little patience for academic life and took the spring semester off to do a four month internship across the Pacific.

“He wanted to take over Skechers,” Robin Curren said. “He wanted to learn as much as he could and please his mom, his dad, and his grandfather. He really wanted to go far.”

His father tries not dwell on what could have been. But sometimes he can’t help himself.

“He was a very, very bright young man and had lots of ideas,” he said. “I don’t want to get emotional, but I will. You know, I think about what he could have done…”

But if the world is a book, as Harrison wrote on his last voyage, then he left behind a bookmark. Some day in the not very distant future a school bus is going to pull up at the foot of the Manhattan Beach pier. A group of kids, maybe from LA, or Compton, or Palos Verdes, will pour out and run down to the Roundhouse at the end of the pier. Their voyage will have just begun.

The future Roundhouse Aquarium. Courtesy Cambridge Seven Associates

 

Next month: the Roundhouse and pier, history and future. For more information on the project, and to donate, see harrisongreenbergmemorialfund.mydagsite.com/home. B

 

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