Michael Raff’s Rose Parade memories go back as far as he remembers – sitting in his Arcadia, California home with his parents watching it on television.
On his birthday.
“I’m a New Year’s baby,” Raff said. “I was five or six and I remember I knew there was this big parade on my birthday and I’d joke about how they wanted to celebrate it by having the parade for me.”
The Rose Parade, a New Year’s Day tradition since 1890, travels through Pasadena, California and is viewed by hundreds of thousands that line its 5.5-mile route. It is seen by millions of people around the world both on television and through streaming services online.
The connection between Raff and the pageantry of the Rose Parade only grew as he got older, too. He was fascinated by the way the floats were built and had to adhere to specific restrictions on what materials could be used to construct them. He was taken in by the bands representing the colleges that would play later that day in the Rose Bowl marching in formation. The sheer scope of it all was mesmerizing.
By the time he got to high school, he knew he had to actually attend one in person.
“I was one of the guys that slept out on the route then,” he said. “I wasn’t very comfortable, though seeing it was a great experience. Still, after the third year of doing that, I remember at about 2 a.m. getting up and saying ‘I’m going to bed.’ I lived in the next town over, so it wasn’t that big of a deal.”
But the Rose Parade bug never left him.
The Amgen marketing and thought leader liaison, who has had two stints with the biotech company between 2001 and 2006 and then starting again this past year in January, said he remained a regular parade watcher until 1998. He decided then he wanted to actually volunteer and work on the Rose Parade.
“Our oldest daughter was born in November 1997 and I remember watching Dick Clark on New Year’s Eve and thought, I’m a New Year’s baby and I have a new baby and it might be time to try something else new. I like the Rose Parade and it’s brought all of these memories and I wanted to give back.”
In 1999, he did. Raff staffed as a volunteer on his first Rose Parade. He hasn’t looked back since.
But this year’s Rose Parade was especially distinct for him as well because Amgen also was a sponsor for one of the floats in the parade on New Year’s Day: The UCLA Health CORE Kidney Program float.
First Time Amgen Participated as a Sponsor of a Float in the Rose Parade
Raff has seen many floats in the 24 years he’s worked the parade. Some were especially memorable, including the 148,250-pound float that featured surfing dogs with a pool, one with Los Angeles Dodgers broadcasting legend Vin Scully riding with a 35-foot player rising near them to celebrate the team’s 50th year in Los Angeles and one that featured an actual working rollercoaster that referenced the Gold Rush.
But in all his years of volunteering with the Rose Parade, Raff had never seen his own company be involved as a sponsor of a float in the parade.
“I’ve taken a float down the street, been involved in float construction, been a liaison, Raff said, “but seeing my company participate in the parade in this way….was exciting.”
The path to Amgen being one of several sponsors of the CORE Kidney float in the 2024 Rose Parade was short and fast – an unusual process, Raff said.
He said parade entries are usually selected and work begins on the next year’s parade not long after that year’s parade ends.
In the late summer, Dr. Anjay Rastogi, a clinical chief of nephrology at UCLA Health and the director of UCLA Health CORE Kidney Program, said he had been thinking for a while about ways to raise awareness about kidney health – noting that 2024 would be Kidney Health Awareness year.
He said he had a big idea for CORE Kidney, a UCLA affiliated non-profit that draws attention to kidney disease and kidney health and provides resources for patients.
“What metrics count as success?” Rastogi asked. “If you can change or impact one life, that is success. The Rose Parade is seen by millions and millions around the world. And what better way to kick off 2024 as Kidney Health Awareness Year than by having a float in the Rose Parade?”
After Sherri Prettyman, a director of thought leader liaisons at Amgen, listened to Rastogi’s enthusiasm for the idea, and recognizing the alignment with Amgen’s mission and strategic objectives in support of kidney health, she wondered if Amgen could be one of the sponsors the initiative.
Prettyman thought it was a long shot, but she also found herself inspired by the thought of Amgen being involved with a float in the Rose Parade. She said she went to her manager and brand franchise head, Parth Shah, and pitched the idea.
“I remember I said, ‘This is going to be crazy so you may want to sit down,’” Prettyman said. “I want to float an idea for you. It’s a little wild, but what do you think about supporting the CORE Kidney float in the Rose Parade?”
Shah said when he heard the idea, it sounded big. But it also felt exciting and like a good fit for Amgen.
“I said, ‘Let’s keep the idea alive but pause for a quick dialogue in the organization,’” Shah said. “It was inspiring but at the same time like ‘It’s October – sometimes it’s challenging to start new initiatives before year’s end.’ But when we also took the mindset of, ‘Let’s see how it does align with Amgen’s mission, could we accelerate and do something very impactful here?’”
Rastogi said he was thrilled when Amgen, through our Advocacy Relations efforts, decided to support CORE Kidney as one of several sponsors of the float.
The Float: ‘Gift of Life’
The theme of the 2024 Rose Parade theme is “Celebrating a World of Music” and when the CORE Kidney float was being designed, it was required that be a component. Beyond that, it was up to the imagination of the float creators to design a float that put kidney health at the forefront.
Entitled “The Gift of Life: A Tune that Never Fades,” the front of the float featured a large hummingbird leading the way. According to CORE Kidney, the hummingbird was chosen because, in Native American culture, they are seen as spiritual guides who bring healing to the suffering.
Butterflies are also on the float and are meant to symbolize transformation and rebirth, with purple butterflies representing lupus nephritis. A green ribbon on the float symbolizes kidney health and refers to the Green Ribbon Campaign began in 2016 by CORE Kidney to raise awareness for kidney health.
The tree represents life and knowledge and Rastogi said he hopes people will take time to learn more about kidney health. The red roses symbolize kidney donors and the green roses represent kidney recipients.
The overall shape of the float was that of a kidney. And according to Rose Parade rules, the float must be covered with flowers or other natural materials such as seeds, leaves or bark.
Rastogi said because kidney disease can affect anyone, it was also important that the walkers and riders with the float represented a wide range of diversity featuring people from all walks of life.
Personal Stories Ride
Nanette Zumwalt was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease – an inherited ailment which, according to the Mayo Clinic, causes clusters of cysts in the kidneys which results in enlarged kidneys and a loss of function over time.
Rastogi, who was at the center of her treatment for the disease, said she received a life-altering kidney transplant in December 2022. He said she and her husband have been involved with CORE Kidney for more than a decade as a board member and lead ambassador.
But her connection with Rastogi also centers around her father, who was diagnosed by Rastogi this year with a type of ANCA-associated vasculitis after not being properly diagnosed at another hospital. Zumwalt said that her dad’s experience has made her mission to raise awareness about kidney disease even more imperative and she said she is grateful to Rastogi.
“He’s one of those rare doctors,” Zumwalt said. “He just has innate knowledge and a sense of people. It’s not just a diagnosis to him. There is something special about him.”
Zumwalt rode on the float with Rastogi and he said he was honored to be with her – along with all the other patients, advocates, donors and recipients.
He also had to pinch himself to believe he was in the Rose Parade on a float going down Colorado Boulevard. On New Year’s Day.
Like Raff, who he calls a friend, his memories of the Rose Parade stem from his childhood. But unlike Raff, he was a kid living across the ocean thousands of miles away.
Rastogi said his uncle came to the United States in 1960 from Jaipur, India to study engineering at the California Institute of Technology and would head out by Pasadena City College to watch the floats in the Rose Parade drift by while he snapped pictures. Rastogi said when his uncle would come back to India to visit, he’d show the pictures of the parade to him and his family.
“We were fascinated by it,” Rastogi said. “It looked like heaven.”
Rastogi’s uncle died this year and he thought about how his uncle would’ve enjoyed standing along the route and seeing his nephew in the same parade that had stamped such an indelible impression on him as a child.
He thinks his uncle would be proud of the reason why he was a part of the 135th annual Rose Parade.
And he is certain that his uncle is watching again – this time with a great view.