Bright Truckee star dimmed tragically early
Stars shine brighter in Truckee, they say.
Had he not been so short-lived, Truckee resident Matt Rusanoff, who died Monday morning at the age of 35, would have surely been described as one of Truckee’s foremost shining stars.
“Matt’s energy level was insane,” said Nick Sonder, Matt’s business partner and friend of many years. “Sometimes his brain would be going so fast he’d get ahead of himself talking.”
Suzie Cooper, Brinn Wellise and Rusanoff’s fiance, Stephanie Rogerson, all said the same thing: Sometimes when Rusanoff was speaking, he was so brilliant, his mind moved so quickly, you just had to tell him to slow it down.
In life, Rusanoff inspired those around him with his abundant energy, selfless giving, bright intellect and love of Truckee. In death, he leaves a wake of heartbreak.
“Matt lived every day to its absolute fullest,” said longtime family friend Kevin Murphy. “He got more out of life at 35 than most people at 70.”
Losing him, Murphy said, is “like losing a brother.”
But Rusanoff’s death creates a loss, not only for close friends and family, but for the entire community in which he lived.
“Matt brought such a unique level of energy to our community that he made more changes . . . than just about anyone else I can think of” except maybe Breeze Cross, Murphy said.
Rusanoff demonstrated undying dedication to the Truckee community to which he was born. He served as a board member on the Truckee Donner Land Trust since the organization’s start, acted as the Truckee Noon Rotary president, sat on the town’s Historic Preservation Advisory Commission, compiled the Truckee Follies brochure artwork and designed some of the area’s most unique architecture.
“He had a wonderful sense of humor,” County Supervisor Ted Owens said.
But that was just one aspect of Matt’s dynamic personality.
“I used to tell him all the time that he reminded me of Amadeus Mozart,” Owens said. “His motor idled way too high. He was such a genius, so bright. He was far, far too young.”
Rusanoff was born at St. Mary’s hospital in Reno, his mother Kathy Van Gundy said, and for all but a few years he lived his life in Truckee.
In Rusanoff’s few years away he lived in Finland, visited Czechoslovakia and Russia, spent time traveling Europe and poking around Prague (doodling on the architecture), and attended Cal Poly, integrating the knowledge and diversity that surrounded him “-all with one predominant thought in mind. Rusanoff had known in high school that Truckee was where he wanted to be.
To those who worked with him in the architectural field, Rusanoff’s genius was admirable, his talent superb and his skills indispensable.
“He was so talented in so many ways,” said Craig Threshie, who employed Matt at Alpen Environs before Matt went into business with Sonder. “He was an outstanding communicator. His skills as a designer were certainly exceptional. He was amazing in his ability to create wonderful design and to communicate that design to others.”
Rusanoff’s computer skills were also remarkable, Threshie said, and his hand renderings were “beautiful” and “outstanding.”
“Matt was one of the most balanced professionals I’ve ever known,” Threshie said of Rusanoff’s design skills.
In other ways, however, friends agree Rusanoff was less than perfectly balanced. According to all reports, Rusanoff gave somewhere between 110 and 125 percent to everything he ever tackled.
“Unfortunately, Matt thought of himself last,” Billy McCullough of Dragonfly Restaurant said. “Service above self exemplifies what Matt’s all about.”
And that is the motto of Rotary International, an organization with which Rusanoff became involved in his 20s. At the age of 31, Rusanoff served as president of Truckee’s Noon Rotary, and was one of the youngest Rotary presidents to ever serve the international organization.
“Matt was so full of exuberance,” Threshie said of Rusanoff’s role as Rotary president. “To be able to tackle the job of president of Rotary at a time when it was tough in his career, having just recently started his business, he just did it with such enthusiasm.”
Above all else, Threshie said, Rusanoff recognized that the people of the Truckee community were outstanding. It’s those people who are now rallying around his parents, Nelson and Kathy Van Gundy; and his fiance, Stephanie Rogerson.
Wednesday at Matt and Stephanie’s house, friends and her parents were by Stephanie’s side, as they have been since Monday morning.
Wellise told of the time, when Rusanoff was Rotary president, that she had been laid up after surgery, confined to a hospital bed at home. Rusanoff arranged to have 30 days of dinners delivered to Wellise while she was laid up.
“He went overboard,” Wellise said. “Just like he did with everything.”
While serving on Truckee’s Historic Preservation Advisory Committee, which meets as often as three mornings per month, Rusanoff also demonstrated his enthusiasm for the town in which he was raised.
“What was really compelling and special about Matt,” said Truckee Town Manager Tony Lashbrook about Rusanoff’s service on HPAC, “was that he was born and raised in Truckee. Few people around here grew up here. He brought to HPAC a unique perspective about what Truckee was about … He stood out on HPAC not just because of his professional training, but because of his knowledge and love for this place.”
And any organization he chose to join benefited from Rusanoff’s enthusiasm, including the Truckee Donner Land Trust.
“He’s a real unsung hero as far as conservation goes in this area,” said land trust executive director Perry Norris. “He had a real passion to preserve what is real Truckee.”
As one of the land trust’s early directors, Matt “brought to conservation a number of major donors,” Norris said, helping the nonprofit during an “incredible evolution and period of growth.”
The donations Rusanoff brought in, were part of what enabled the land trust to take on some of its earliest big acquisitions, Norris said.
“His death is such a loss, a real loss.”
Rusanoff had woken Monday morning after a recent bout with the flu. He still didn’t feel well, and so called his partner Nick Sonder to say he would work from home that day. After shoveling snow for a while early Monday, Rusanoff came inside, complaining of a headache and the sense that he was feverish.
Within about 15 minutes, Rusanoff suffered a seizure of unknown origin. Though Rogerson tried to administer CPR, 911 was called and Rusanoff taken to the hospital. Within an hour, a dozen or so close friends were gathered.
“It was surreal,” McCullough said. “No one was talking, we were just giving hugs.”
Friends left shortly after Rusanoff’s parents arrived at the hospital, McCullough said. But not before their love and concern touched the heart of Rusanoff’s father, Nelson Van Gundy.
“The wonderful thing about Truckee is we are completely supported by hundreds of people,” Van Gundy said. “Getting from here to there is tough right now. But we do.”
As for his son, Van Gundy said he takes comfort in knowing that Matt “got more mileage out of life” than just about anyone.
Rogerson said just about the same.
“He lived a longer fuller life than most people ever will,” Rogerson said. “That’s what I’ll take to carry on with, to be able to go forward.”