By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
CARSON — From now on, Carson city officials will conduct their meetings in the Helen Kawagoe Council Chambers.
The renaming ceremony on Tuesday, attended by family and friends of the former Carson city clerk, marked the end of a sometimes contentious campaign that lasted a year and a half.
Although unable to speak or smile, Kawagoe seemed pleased, waving to and shaking hands with well-wishers.
Kawagoe, who retired in December 2011 after suffering a massive stroke, served for more than 37 years and was known as the “mom” of Carson City Hall. She lives at South Bay Keiro Nursing Home in Gardena and will turn 86 on Aug. 30.
Her supporters sought to have the Council Chambers named in her honor, but there was a split on the City Council. The majority — Mayor Pro Tem Julie Ruiz-Raber, Councilmember Lula Davis-Holmes and Councilmember Mike Gipson — favored renaming the chambers posthumously, citing a city policy of not naming buildings or streets after living persons. Mayor Jim Dear and Councilmember Elito Santarina wanted the renaming to take place immediately.
The Helen’s Dream Coalition was formed to raise awareness of the issue and pressure the council into changing its vote. The turning point came in March, when challenger Albert Robles, a supporter of the coalition, was elected to the council and Ruiz-Raber lost her seat. After Robles was sworn in, the council voted unanimously to rename the chambers as soon as possible.
The naming issue remains a hot topic, with Davis-Holmes questioning a decision last month to name a street after Dear and a building after Santarina. But for one day, city leaders were united as they thanked Kawagoe for her service.
At the opening of Tuesday’s council meeting, Kawagoe’s stepdaughter, Sheryl Miyamoto, noted that many relatives were present and said, “On behalf of Helen and our family, we thank you, Mayor, and the Carson City Council members for the great honor of renaming the Council Chambers after her while she is still alive. This would not have been possible without the extraordinary support we received from the citizens of Carson, family and friends, newspapers and especially the Helen’s Dream Coalition. It was your persistence and tenacity that has helped to make Mom’s dream become a reality.
“The Carson City Hall is the heartbeat of the city and its residents, and where Helen spent most of her time. The Helen Kawagoe Council Chambers is the ultimate tribute to her legacy.”
Dear told the coalition members, “Many of you worked really hard together and dedicated your precious time and energy and talent to make sure that this message got across to the people of Carson and this dream never died.”
The mayor also thanked Miyamoto for being “a stalwart and reliable assistant to Helen. Just about every time I visited Helen, which is many, many times, Sheryl was there … You’re like a Rock of Gibraltar, helping Helen at every turn in her recovery, in her therapy.”
Dear told Kawagoe, “Helen, I love you, the people love you, and we respect you … Thank you, Helen, for all the service and everything you’ve done for the leadership, the staff and the people of the City of Carson.”
“Unlike my colleagues here, I did not personally get the opportunity to work with you,” Robles said, “but I’m very proud and honored to have been there to second the motion to name these City Hall chambers in your honor.”
Santarina, now mayor pro tem, and Davis-Holmes also offered their congratulations.
Gipson, who is also district director for State Board of Equalization Chairman Jerome Horton, said that his boss “has had a long relationship with Helen for so many years, both as a City Council member of Inglewood and as a member of the State Assembly … He wants to send well wishes on behalf of the 8.5 million residents he represents in the State of California.”
City Clerk Donesia Gause read a congratulatory message from Sharon Cassler, past president of the International Institute of Municipal Clerks.
Jan Schaefer, chair of the Helen’s Dream Coalition, stood with other coalition members, most wearing the group’s trademark yellow T-shirts. “The coalition worked very hard for this day to arrive,” she said. “We would like to thank the City Council and we want to thank everyone who has supported our efforts for the past year and a half. We are thrilled for Helen. We are honored and humbled to be able to honor Helen in this way, and we are grateful that we are able to give back to someone who has given so much for all of Carson.”
In addition to her name on the wall of the chambers, Kawagoe was recognized with a large plaque, bearing her photo, to be placed on the wall outside the chambers. The text reads, in part: “In honor of Helen S. Kawagoe … for her dedication to providing the highest caliber of professionalism and her outstanding ability to serve the needs of the people … Helen holds the prestigious title of master municipal clerk and is recognized for setting a high standard of honorable service and demonstrating outstanding devotion to Carson and its citizens by her colleagues and many local, state and nationally elected officials.
“Helen’s public career includes serving as president of the California City Clerks Association, International Institute of Municipal Clerks, and national president of the Japanese American Citizens League for two years. She is the first city clerk to serve on the Board of Directors for the League of California Cities and was also conferred the Kunsho Award of the Sacred Order of the Precious Crown from the emperor of Japan for 20 years of service to further the business, political and cultural ties between the United States and Japan.
“The Helen’s Dream Coalition presents this plaque to the city with their deepest gratitude for Helen S. Kawagoe’s distinguished career, countless accomplishments, and pride which she has brought to the Carson community.”
Myloc Dinh, senior consultant for Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance), presented Kawagoe with an Assembly proclamation. She noted that Kawagoe was JACL national president when Muratsuchi was JACL’s Pacific Southwest regional director.
Calling Kawagoe “one of my favorite people in the entire world,” Assistant Sheriff Todd Rogers, who is also vice mayor of Lakewood, said, “Growing up in Carson I had lots of stepmoms … Helen is one my stepmoms. She’s definitely known me since I was a little kid … and I couldn’t miss this for the world. This is such a great opportunity for us to recognize a true icon.”
Former Assemblymember Warren Furutani, now a member of the Los Angeles Board of Public Works, described Kawagoe, along with the late Mas Fukai of Gardena, as his mentors. “They have been the ones who have really opened the door for a lot of us that have been elected officials … I have to tell you, the first endorsement I ever won out of Carson always was Helen Kawagoe.”
Former Carson City Councilmember Lorelie Olaes, now a teacher with the Los Angeles Unified School District, said of Kawagoe, “I visited her and watched her exercise. I think that the most important thing about her is that she never gives up … I have a lot to learn from her.”
Consul Toshio Odagiri said, “On behalf of the government of Japan and the people of Japan and the Consulate General of Japan in Los Angeles, I would like to express our heartfelt gratitude to you for your dedication for the longtime friendship between the two countries.”
Among those taking part in the unveiling of the sign was Kawagoe’s brother, Bob Fukutaki, who recalled introducing his sister to his friend, Tak Kawagoe, who became her husband. The two were married from 1947 until Tak’s death in 1992.
“Sharp as a Tack”
During the retirement celebration at the Congresswoman Juanita Millender-McDonald Community Center, Miyamoto commented on her mother’s condition: “She is unable to swallow or speak but participates with daily activities in the nursing home, and her mind is still sharp as a tack. Mom is able to communicate by writing and thoroughly enjoys visitors and company. When she sees you, she may cry, but please note they are tears of joy and love and not because she is unhappy or upset.”
Dear emphasized, “Helen is very cognizant and aware of everything going on around her. She simply has a disability, a physical disability, of not being able to speak or swallow … Remember, she hears and understands everything that’s going on … She’s actually a good reader. She reads quite a bit.”
After speeches by Santarina and Robles, Kawagoe was presented with a proclamation from the City Council as well as the key to the city. “This is the key not to our city treasury, but … a key to the hearts of the people of Carson,” Dear said.
Gause remembered meeting Kawagoe while being interviewed for the deputy city clerk position in Compton at age 21. “The first thing she said to me was, ‘Do you know what you’re getting yourself into?’ … Helen gave me my first start in the city clerk profession and for that I’m very grateful to her … You leave me with big shoes to fill, and although I only wear a size 5, I give you my word that I will not let you or your office or your legacy as a city clerk down.”
Stephanie Nitahara, JACL PSW regional director, presented a resolution recognizing Kawagoe, “who as president of the Gardena Valley Chapter of JACL, and who as governor of the Pacific Southwest District of JACL, and who as national president of JACL, always actively, effectively and cheerfully worked to secure and maintain the civil rights of Japanese Americans and all others who are victimized by injustice and prejudice, and promoted the cultural values and preserved the heritage and legacy of the Japanese American community.”
Ron Smith, West Basin Municipal Water District board member, said, “From my first days of service in local service organizations, through committees and commissions, an finally as an elected official, she has been — like for many of you, I’m sure — just a tremendous help, a tremendous wealth of information, a tremendous guide, a tremendous example.”
Capt. Eddie Rivero, commander of the Carson Sheriff’s Station, noted that Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has been friends with Kawagoe since he was lieutenant at the Carson station when it opened in the mid-1970s.
“Helen used to work very long hours on some evenings, and she would call over to the station very politely and ask the watch commander for someone to be sent over to City Hall to escort her to her car,” Rivero recalled. “One night I was working as the watch commander and I got that phone call … I walked across the street, escorted her to her car … She never forgot that.
“When I was your acting captain for a year, she would always tell me that she was going to call ‘Lee’ … and tell him to promote me. Of course, I told her, ‘No, please, Helen, don’t do that.’ She said, ‘Why not? He’s my friend.’ I don’t know if she ever did or not, but the bottom line is she will always have a place in my heart because she’s a very, very special person.”
Lawndale City Councilmember Robert Pullen-Miles, who is also a field representative for State Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) and former field rep for the late Sen. Jenny Oropeza, said he could always rely on Kawagoe for advice. “She made my job as a councilmember so easy and as a staff member in the same way … I want to thank you, Helen, for that because it helped me develop and grow as a young professional … Even though I’m not from this community, she reached out … as if I was part of her family.”
Ron Fisher, field deputy for Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, recalled that Kawagoe even took calls on Sundays from people who needed to reserve city facilities for weddings and other special occasions. “That just shows what type of individual Helen is and what she’s left for all of us,” Fisher said, thanking her for her service “not only to the City of Carson but within the 2nd Supervisorial District.”
Long Beach City Councilmember Steven Neal also presented a proclamation.
Kawagoe posed for a photo with Dear and three former mayors of Carson: Mike Mitoma, Vera Robles DeWitt and Gil Smith. “We listened to her and followed directions from her,” Dear said.
Kawagoe is receiving visitors at South Bay Keiro Nursing Home, 15115 S. Vermont Ave. (at Marine), Gardena. Send all correspondence to P.O. Box 5487, Carson, CA 90749.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo