Mike Russell, 65, vice president of public affairs and press secretary for the American Trucking Assns. (ATA), died as a result of a whitewater rafting accident near Clear Creek, CO on June 15.

“This is a very tough loss to take,” Tim Lynch, ATA senior vp, told FleetOwner. “Mike was universally liked; he was just a great, great guy and a tenacious advocate for the trucking industry.”

Russell joined ATA in 1999 as director of media relations after holding a variety of political-public affairs slots, including director of public and consumer affairs for NHTSA and service with Vice President Al Gore's National Performance Review.

He also served as press secretary to U.S. Surgeon General M. Joycelyn Elders, and filled the same slot for Michigan's former U.S Senator Donald Riegle (D) and the late Congressman William Ford (D), following an extensive television news career in Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Lynch noted that Russell's career in broadcast journalism engendered what he called “strong support for the little guy against the high and mighty.”

“One of the reasons he was such a strong defender of the trucking industry's image is that he not only liked the people working in it — especially the drivers — but felt they constantly got an unfair and bum rap by most of the mainstream media,” Lynch said.

“That's why he never considered any of the work he did on trucking image campaigns as an ‘assignment.’ To him they were a labor of love.”

A graduate of Boston University's School of Public Communications, Russell's respect for truckers developed in part from his days as a corporal driving trucks in the U.S. Marine Corps.

His passion for trucking and the Marines led to a creative partnership with Maj. Rob Winchester of the USMC's recruiting command. They developed the idea of asking ATA's motor carrier members to turn truck trailers into rolling recruitment billboards for the Marines. Over 2,000 trailers were eventually wrapped with recruiting ads for the Marines.

“That was Mike — always looking to do different and positive things for this industry's image,” added Lynch.

Russell is survived by his wife, Rita, a daughter, Michele, and a grandchild.