Earl Sasser, a visionary businessman who transformed vacant land under an elevated Sacramento freeway into prime storage space and built a popular water amusement park at Cal Expo, died Saturday in Stockton. He was 83.
He was in failing health after a series of strokes in recent years, his family said.
A friendly, engaging man of ideas and ambition, Mr. Sasser left a successful career selling insurance to be an entrepreneur.
He pioneered commercial development of open space beneath the central city's freeways in 1974, when the State Highway Commission issued him a lease on a block bounded by 29th, 30th, P and Q streets.
With business partner Donald Redmond, he turned the barren space into a parking lot for storing recreational vehicles and boats. With easy freeway access and protection from the elements under twin ribbons of concrete, the lot filled quickly and the owners added more spaces and a mini-storage facility with developer Ron Vanderbeek.
"All we did was put in some blacktop and lighting, and I was renting spaces out of the back of a Hertz trailer," said Mr. Sasser's son Mark.
In 1981, Mr. Sasser led investors who developed Waterworld USA, an aquatic amusement park at Cal Expo. Opened during the California State Fair, the park's 6 1/2-story water slide drew huge crowds. After several years, however, financial problems led him to sell his stake in the business, which is now called Raging Waters Sacramento.
He went on to open Suds Stuff stores selling bar and beer miscellanea including neon signs and pool table lamps that he bought at auctions. When a vendor offered a supply of professional baseball caps, he changed to selling sports memorabilia and renamed his stores Fan Fever.
He opened about a dozen outlets in Northern California as Sacramento grew during the 1980s into a big sports market with the arrival of the Sacramento Kings. But competition also increased as department stores and other retailers added sports clothing and gear, and he retired in 1992.
Born in 1929 in Tracy, Earl Marion Sasser was one of 15 children born to farmers who left Kentucky for California. He attended Modesto Junior College and began selling insurance after marrying and starting a family.
After his marriage ended in divorce, he moved to Sacramento and went to work for New England Life Insurance Co., where he met Redmond. The two agents agreed to explore business ventures together as entrepreneurs.
"He always came up with ideas," Redmond said. "It was up to me as his partner to sift through them and help decide which ones were good."
Mr. Sasser is survived by his wife of 35 years, Molly. He had three children in his first marriage and two children from a second marriage that also ended in divorce.
After retiring, he split his time between homes in Palm Springs and Santa Cruz before settling two years ago in Stockton.
"He was a creative man who always had ideas," his son said. "The thing is, he'd go out and give them a shot. Whether it succeeded or failed, nothing ever got him down. He'd just get back up."
Born: Sept. 1, 1929
Died: March 9, 2013
Survived by: Wife, Molly of Stockton; children, Ken of Chester, Sharon Stone of Elk Grove, Mark of Antelope, and Laura and Stefani, both of Reno; stepchildren, Fred Sherwood of Tracy and Teresa Sherwood of Stockton; brothers, Art of Stockton and Martin of Tracy; sisters, Kitty Schwartz of Santa Cruz and Martha Bojetti and Dorothy Reedy, both of Modesto; 17 grandchildren; 28 great-grandchildren
Services: 1 p.m. Sunday at Fry Memorial Chapel, 550 S. Central Ave., Tracy Call The Bee's Robert D. Dávila, (916) 321-1077. Follow him on Twitter @bob_davila.