By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor
A great cook, a natural leader, skillful with tools, a real MacGyver, adventurous, outgoing and cheerful: Conner Kurahashi made an impact on everyone who knew him. A diverse, wide community of friends, family and mentors mourn his tragic death at just 22 years old.
West High School in Torrance, where Kurahashi served as ASB student body president, will host his memorial service on Saturday, Feb. 19, at 10:30 a.m. at the West High School Performing Arts Center. The service will be presided over by Rev. Kory Quon of Venice Hongwanji Buddhist Temple. Kurahashi was a member of the Junior Young Buddhist Association at Gardena Buddhist Church, and every summer he went to Medaka no Gakko, a Japanese class in Parlier, a town south of Fresno.
Kurahashi died of injuries suffered in a car accident on Jan. 22 as he and friends were on their way to snowboard in Big Bear. The accident occurred on the northbound side of State Route 57, just north of the State Street overcrossing, according to Officer Rodrigo Jimenez of the California Highway Patrol’s Baldwin Park division. He said the accident occurred at 6:24 on the morning of Jan. 22, and the first 911 call was received at 6:27.
Jimenez said the accident investigation showed several pedestrians, including Kurahashi, were in the roadway, after they had gotten out of their Nissan Sentra to retrieve snowboarding equipment that had fallen off the car and was in freeway lanes.
The driver remained at the scene and was cooperative with investigators. Kurahashi was transported to Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center, where he passed away.
Jimenez stressed the importance of refraining from walking onto any freeway to gather items.
“If you drop any belongings, definitely do not try to retrieve them from the freeway,” he said. “Remain in your vehicle and call 911 immediately to report the hazard.
“Your property is not worth your life,” he urged.
Kurahashi was in his last year California Polytechnic University at Pomona, majoring in urban and regional planning and looking forward to graduating this spring. His passing has been devastating for his college friends, who were looking forward to spending their last days at Cal Poly together, an experience already altered by the pandemic.
“We’re fourth-year seniors. We were not going to take any days for granted. We’re not kids anymore, we should cherish each other, cherish the house. It’s been hard,” said roommate Blake Motoyasu.
“He had an amazing heart, always doing the most for people, super nice, always willing to drive, always planning everything. He was the ‘mom friend.’ He was the one planning, cleaning the house, cooking. He even picked up gardening during the pandemic.”
Motoyasu became friends with Kurahashi when they played basketball together as third graders in club ball, and later as members of the Tigers Dragons team.
Tigers Coach Robert Chang remembered Kurahashi for his speed and his hustle, on the court and off. Chang’s son Marcus was also a roommate at Cal Poly. The Dragons, named for the fact that most of the kids were born in 2000, the Year of the Dragon, were not considered one of the elite teams, but in their last year, they won at the Hollywood Dodgers tournament in Las Vegas.
Kurahashi was not the best player, but he had an ease and a willingness to work hard, which made him popular with athletes and coaches. His friends were recently playing basketball in an adult league at the Terasaki Budokan in Little Tokyo on Sundays.
Chang said: “One time I asked him, ‘Man, do you ever get tired?’ He said, ‘No.’ Later I found out he was running cross-country for high school. The kid never really got tired. He was constantly hustling, running and making plays.”
His best friend in high school, Hayley Jones, is a cadet playing forward at the Air Force Academy, a Division 1 team in the Mountain West Conference. She will be missing the Feb. 19 memorial service, because it is Senior Night for Air Force, who will be facing Utah State.
“Coach (Chris Gobrecht) and I talked it over, she said you don’t want to miss Senior Night. But I’ll fly out that night. Thinking about hosting a little brunch next morning for whoever wants to be there to have a moment to pause and grieve. He was like a brother,” Johnson said.
Jones and Kurahashi served on Student Council together for four years. She said Kurahashi was organized and would make sure their plans for service projects would come to fruition, including a Lip Dub video that showcased the accomplishments of West High students and involved the entire campus.
“Sue (Eriksen, ASB advisor) will tell you, we were a very good pair. What I forgot he would do, he would come behind me and figure out the X’s and O’s,” Jones said.
Eriksen said West High is preparing an outside area for overflow seating. COVID-19 safety protocols, including masks, will be observed. Attendees are asked to bring a vaccination card or a negative COVID test from within the past 48 hours.
The setting is fitting both for the large seating capacity and Kurahashi’s impact on the school. West High posted a tribute on their Instagram page, noting that he led the student body “fearlessly.”
“He was genuinely interested in making West High a better place,” Eriksen said. “Not just for his college apps. He had such good follow-through on his work ethic. Other kids have ideas; he also had amazing follow-through.”
The support has been tremendous for Kurahashi’s family, mom Gay, father Brian and sister Bailey. Many credied Brian, who owns an auto repair shop, for his son’s mechanical skills.
Rick Kane, owner of Hawaiian Sweet Islands, employed Kurahashi when he was in middle school, and even at that time the young man showed his curiosity and interest in fixing things, including carts used to transport the Hawaiian shave ice syrup.
“He was sharp. Everything he did he had a purpose. He loved to fix things and tinker around like his father,” Kane said.
Kurahashi’s friendliness and sense of community spirit came from his mom. Both Conner and Bailey played basketball and Gay was the team mom, organizing fundraisers, working snack bar shifts, taking pictures — anything to support the team. A wide circle of friends have stepped up to support the family. The OCO Crew led by Clay Sakurao will be cooking barbecue for the reception. Joyce Mebed, a friend of Gay’s, is on the OCO Board of Directors.
“We are overwhelmed with love,” Gay said.
Another gesture of support came from Little Tokyo. As they prepared for their son’s funeral, Kurahashi’s parents went to Bunkado in Little Tokyo to purchase o-juzu (Buddhist prayer beads). Dane Ishibashi helped them and when he found out what had happened, rushed to find the couple as they ate at Hachioji ramen to return their money.
“When pandemic hit, the community really supported Bunkado so it was important to pay that forward. It’s important to support each other, you know?” Ishibashi said.
On Saturday, a whole community will gather to mourn and share stories of Kurahashi’s life. He was just on the cusp of adulthood, ready to start looking for a job and a career.
Dad Brian recalled a family trip to Epcot in Florida. It was the first time he bought his son a beer and they talked about his future. Brian had discouraged his son from becoming a mechanic, a physical job that is hard on the body.
“He said, ‘You know if I can’t find a job right away, I don’t want to sit around after I graduate. I want to go to grad school.’ I asked, ‘Which one?’ He said, ‘USC, because it is a private school and they will help me find a job and I will make more money.’”
“It was that moment as we were laughing and drinking, I looked at him and said, ‘I am no dad anymore. He is my buddy and that’s what I will miss the most.’”
Kurahashi is survived by his parents, Brian and Gay (Koga) Kurahashi; sister, Bailey; grandmother, Kazuko Kurahashi; uncle, Robert Kurahashi; aunts, Pattie Johnson and Jan Koga; and many other relatives
Donations to West High School ASB in Kurahashi’s memory can be made at https://westhighasb.myschoolcentral.com.
Additional reporting by MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS