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Helen Kawagoe, Two-Time JACL National President, Dies at 92

By April 24, 2020May 28th, 2020No Comments

Kawagoe also left a legacy with the City of Carson in California.

By P.C. Staff

Helen S. Kawagoe, whose years of association with the JACL included serving two terms as its national president from 1996-2000, died April 6 as a resident of the Kei-Ai South Bay Healthcare Center in Gardena, Calif. She was 92.

In addition to her stalwart support of JACL, Kawagoe was also known for her long and storied career as the city clerk of Carson, Calif. She was first elected to the position in 1974 and held it for 37 years until a stroke in 2011 necessitated her retirement. To honor her decades of commitment and service to the city in Los Angeles County’s South Bay, Carson’s City Council named its council chamber after her in 2013.

Sheryl Miyamoto, Kawagoe’s stepdaughter, said, “Mom had a very full life. Up until the end, she was sharp.” As news of Kawagoe’s death became known, those who knew and worked with her gave tributes acknowledging that “very full life.”

In a statement, Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance) said, “I am deeply saddened to hear that Helen Kawagoe passed away, but I see her smiling in heaven now. I remember Helen as my JACL mom, always so full of positive energy. She ‘adopted’ me, like so many others, when she was elected JACL national president in 1996 while I was working as the JACL Pacific Southwest regional director.

“Helen was part of the greatest generation in our community, and she will continue to inspire me and countless others who were blessed to know her,” Muratsuchi concluded.

Past JACL National President Gary Mayeda, who served on the JACL National Board with Kawagoe during her tenure as the organization’s leader, told the Pacific Citizen, “Twenty-four years ago, I had the pleasure to serve with Helen Kawagoe as the second female national president of JACL as one of her vice presidents for four years. In 1996, she brought fun to the National Board without sacrificing order and proper procedure.

“She brought much-needed funding, and during her tenure, new membership rose because of her delightful personality and experience with nonprofit organizations,” Mayeda continued. “Yes, she became my example of how to live with humbleness and purpose. She tasked me with working on the Japanese Latin American redress effort.

“She was always very supportive of many civil rights efforts. She called herself the ‘Bulldog’ as she fought for civil rights and showed her passion for JACL. My favorite memory of her was her nickname for me, ‘Junior Bulldog.’ She became one of my reasons for serving as a recent national president for JACL. Her spirit will live on in the many lives she touched,” Mayeda concluded.

Carson Mayor Albert Robles, who in 2013 was the first Carson City Councilmember who grew up Carson to be elected to the council, said, “Growing up here in the city, Helen Kawagoe was a fixture throughout my upbringing. There was one constant throughout my entire upbringing here, and that was Helen. No matter how tumultuous the politics may have gotten in Carson, Helen Kawagoe continued consistent, honest leadership with the highest of integrity.

“One of my greatest honors since being elected to the city council and now being mayor, the very first thing that happened when I got elected — the very, very first thing — it happened the day I was sworn in,” Robles continued. “I seconded a motion to name the city council chambers after Helen, and we voted, and it was one of the greatest honors I was able to do. … I remember, during my campaign, that was one of my campaign messages, that if elected, I would fight to name the council chambers and recognize Helen’s commitment to the community.

“I want to convey my sorrow in the passing of a pillar here in the city of Carson, that being City Clerk Helen S. Kawagoe,” said Carson Councilman Cedric L. Hicks Sr. “She was the second person in the history of the city to hold the post of city clerk. In hearing of her passing, we lost a great historical figure of our city. Knowing the beginnings of the city of Carson and how it has grown over the years with its motto: ‘Future Unlimited!’ she was an instrumental part of creating what we have today as a city. … She will be sorely missed in the City of Carson.”

Carson Mayor Pro Tem Jim Dear was also effusive in his praise of Kawagoe. “She was like a mother to me at city hall, a woman who was very wise, very experienced. Her advice was always good. We in Carson will miss her tremendously,” he said.

Noting that both she and her late first husband, Takeshi Kawagoe, were active in the community even before Carson became incorporated as a city in 1968, Dear also said Helen Kawagoe “served longer than any other elected official in our city” and added, “Helen was highly respected by everyone in Carson and far beyond our city limits.”

“Helen Kawagoe was an inspiration to many, as she was an early Asian American public official for the City of Carson, Calif.,” said Floyd Mori, a former California assemblyman, former JACL national executive director and himself a two-term JACL national president who served immediately following Kawagoe. “Her tenure as national president was the beginning of engaging a broader universe of funding for the JACL. She was a leader with compassion and empathy and influenced me to seek further involvement on the JACL National Board. Her caring personality will be missed by many.”

Alayne Yamamoto, who served as JACL’s Pacific Southwest District Council’s vice governor from 2003-05 and governor from 2005-09, remembers Kawagoe’s unwavering support for the district.

“She had been a longtime supporter of the district’s annual awards luncheons and dinners. The very first day we would announce the ‘save the date,’ she was always right there saying, ‘I’m buying a youth table. Fill it. They don’t need to pay, they just need to show up,’” said Yamamoto. “She helped us get centerpieces from a local nursery that she knew. She got loaves of bread for us to give out. She always did that personally for the district, which really was amazing. She was always active at the district level and attended all the district quarterly meetings and fundraisers. She was always there.”

Nicole Inouye, who served on the JACL National Board as the national youth/student representative during Kawagoe’s terms as JACL national president said, “She called us her JACL family, and she really did serve as our JACL mom. Like a lot of Nisei women, both in public service and privately, she was a force to be reckoned with,” Inouye laughed. “She was a strong Nisei woman who was determined, she was steadfast. She knew what she wanted, but I don’t think she ever strong-armed anyone into anything. She had a good way of working with others. She was someone who was really accomplished and was well-respected in multiple communities.”

Born in Pasadena, Calif., to Ayako and Sueso Fukutaki, Kawagoe was one of their 13 offspring. During World War II, the Fukutaki family was uprooted and incarcerated at the Gila River WRA Center’s Butte Camp in Arizona. After the war, the family returned to Pasadena.

Before getting involved in the politics of what would become the city of Carson, Kawagoe served as the public relations/marketing VP of a savings and loan association.

Among Kawagoe’s professional affiliations, titles and recognitions: three two-year terms as the elected state director for the City Clerks Department on the League of California Cities board of directors; president of the City Clerks Department of the LCC (1979-80); president of the International Institute of Municipal Clerks (1986-87); board of directors of the Municipal Clerks Education Foundation when it launched its first scholarship program; president of the Asian Pacific American Municipal Officials of the National League of Cities (1996); serving as the first city clerk on the Steering Committee of the NLC Finance, Administration and Intergovernmental Relations Committee; serving as the first city clerk to be elected to the NLC board of directors; and as a member of the NLC Advisory Council (2004-11).

Kawagoe was also named the 2010 Citizen of the Year by the North Carson Lions Club, the International Association of Lions Club, District 4-L3 and served as a board member of the NLC’s Women in Municipal Government.

She served on the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute’s emeritus board of directors; a member of the board of governors for the Japanese American National Museum’s President’s Circle; secretary and former VP of the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation; and served on the board of governors and board of directors of the Go for Broke National Education Center. She also was awarded Japan’s Sacred Order of the Precious Crown, Apricot.

Prior to serving as the JACL’s national president, she was a three-term president of the Gardena Valley JACL chapter, governor of the JACL’s Pacific Southwest District (1971-72) and was named JACLer of the Biennium (1972). In 2012, the PSWD honored Kawagoe as a JACL Living Legend.

Helen Sadako Kawagoe was predeceased by her husband, Takeshi, and her second husband, Stanley H. Yanase. She is survived by her sisters, Margaret Koyama and Mary Ann (Sam) Ryono; stepdaughter, Sheryl Miyamoto, other stepchildren, many nieces, nephews and other relatives.