OBITUARY: Helen Kawagoe, Former JACL President and Longtime City Clerk of Carson

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Rafu Staff Report

Helen Sadako Kawagoe, former city clerk of Carson and former national president of the Japanese American Citizens League, passed away on April 6 in Gardena. She was 92.

A Nisei born to Sueso and Ayako Fukutaki, immigrants from Okayama Prefecture, Kawagoe grew up in Pasadena, where the Fukutakis and four other Japanese American families established Meiji Hand Laundry. During World War II, she was imprisoned at Tulare Assembly Center and Butte Camp, Gila River in Arizona along with her mother (her father died in 1941) and 12 siblings, but the family was later able to return to Pasadena.

She married Takeshi “Tak” Kawagoe in 1947 and they ran Carson Nursery from 1962 to 1971. She once said of her husband, who died in 1992, “He always made people laugh.”

Helen Kawagoe

Kawagoe worked as a public relations/marketing vice president of a local savings and loan association before she was first elected city clerk in 1974. She was re-elected in 2011 to that office for an unprecedented 10th term.

She was the second person to hold the position since Carson’s incorporation as a municipality in 1968, and is believed to be the first Japanese American woman elected to local office in the continental U.S. She was also a finalist for U.S. treasurer during the Carter Administration in 1977.

“I value customer service and appreciate the privilege to serve as the guardian of open government and compliance with the law,” she said when running for re-election in 2007. “I am proud of my accomplishments as Carson city clerk. For example, I have attained the level of master municipal clerk, succeeded in the passage of legislation to assist municipal clerks with elections, and continued to be a role model and mentor for municipal clerks … I respect and appreciate the opportunity to uphold the public trust.”

After 37 years of steadfast commitment to Carson and its residents, Kawagoe retired in December 2011 due to a massive stroke. She resided at South Bay Keiro Nursing Home, which later became Kei-Ai South Bay Healthcare Center.

“Mom remained mentally alert and responsive throughout the years,” said Sheryl Miyamoto, Kawagoe’s stepdaughter. “Although she was unable to speak or walk, she continued to communicate by tapping her feet and hands, nodding yes and no (appropriately) when asked questions, and opened her eyes to acknowledge visitors and staff. Mom passed away on April 6 from end-of-life causes, not COVID 19. Thankfully, it was quick and Mom was not in pain, and I was allowed to be with her.

“We are so grateful to our many friends, family, personal caregivers, Kaiser doctors and nurses in addition to the Keiro and Kei-Ai staff who helped sustain and maintain Mom’s quality of life throughout the years. We are forever grateful to the Helen’s Dream Coalition and the City of Carson for making her dream come true, renaming the Helen Kawagoe Council Chambers during her lifetime, when her eyes were open.”

Jim Dear, mayor pro tem and former mayor of Carson, posted on Facebook, “She served our residents first as a city commissioner, then as our elected city clerk for over 37 years, helping our community develop for the better in many ways. Her wisdom and love of life influenced many of our city leaders over the many years that she blessed our lives.”

Council Chambers

In June 2013, the renamed Helen Kawagoe Council Chambers were dedicated at Carson City Hall, with many well-wishers and Kawagoe herself in attendance. She seemed pleased, waving to and shaking hands with friends and colleagues.

Her supporters sought for years to have the Council Chambers named in her honor, but there was a split on the City Council. 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 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 2013, when challenger Albert Robles, a supporter of the coalition, was elected to the council, replacing Ruiz-Raber. After Robles was sworn in, the council voted unanimously to rename the chambers as soon as possible.

Miyamoto, noting that many relatives were present, 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 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.”

Helen Kawagoe and her supporters during a 2012 rally to have the Carson Council Chambers renamed in her honor. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

JACL Remembers

The second woman to be elected as JACL national president (after Lillian Kimura), Kawagoe ran unopposed at the San Jose Convention and served two terms from 1996-2000. Upon entering her presidency, she wanted to focus on re-engineering JACL. She accomplished this perhaps best through the influence she had on many younger JACLers who have now moved up to positions of leadership in the organization, including future chapter presidents and national presidents.

JACL’s immediate past president Gary Mayeda, who served as vice president of planning and development during Kawagoe’s tenure, stated, “Those four years taught me to see every day as a fun adventure. Making light of things didn’t mean you didn’t take it seriously. It just meant that you saw things in a positive way.

“She tasked me with working on the Japanese Latin American (JLA) redress effort. We worked with Bill Lann Lee, U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, paving the way for the JLAs to receive their long-deserved apology and redress in 1998. It was the best four years of my JACL career to serve under her leadership.”

Kenneth Inouye, JACL national president from 2004-2006, noted Kawagoe’s ability to draw in new leaders to JACL. “Helen Kawagoe was an inspiration to many people within the JACL. She always maintained a positive attitude and she encouraged many young people to become/stay involved with JACL. Her mentorship of young PSWD [Pacific Southwest District] youth such as the late Hiromi Ueha (past PSWD governor) and Nicole Inouye (past national youth rep and Mike Masaoka fellow), along with many others, helped to create a new generation of dedicated JACLers. Helen will be missed but her memory will remain with all of us who had the privilege of working with her.”

Also from PSWD, David Kawamoto, JACL president from 2010-2012, offered further praise for her leadership through service. “Helen Kawagoe was a true icon of the JACL and the PSW District as a [Gardena Valley] chapter president, PSW district governor and national president. I’m deeply saddened by the loss of this wonder lady. I was fortunate to have her as a friend and really miss her consistent presence at JACL events, contagious smile, and wonderful sense of humor. I always appreciated her energetic and enthusiastic support.

“One time, working on the PSW’s annual banquet, I asked her to contact some of her friends for donations to the event, which she did, but also got additional donations, including centerpieces for the banquet tables. It was so typical of her to go above and beyond. We will all miss her greatly.”

Floyd Mori, who succeeded Kawagoe as JACL president and later served as president and CEO for the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS), noted, “Helen Kawagoe was an inspiration to many as she was an early Asian American public official for the City of Carson, Calif. 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 National Board. Her caring personality will be missed by many.”

Nicole Inouye, who also served on the National Board with Kawagoe as national youth/student representative, offered an especially personal tribute. “Helen truly exemplified the strong Nisei woman. She had the ability to navigate being a self-identified ‘bulldog,’ exhibiting tenacity and a strong sense of what was right, while creating a sense of family on the board as ‘Mama’ Helen, exuding care and compassion for everyone.”

She was “a beloved member of the community and my JACL mom,” Inouye said.

Kawagoe was named JACLer of the Biennium in 1972. In 2012, the PSWD honored her as a JACL Living Legend for her leadership role in the organization since 1971.

“We mourn the loss of this strong and exemplary female leader and thank her for her dedication to our community,” JACL said in a statement. “While she may no longer be with us, her legacy lives on in the JACLers who she made an impact on, and on the people whose lives she changed through her tireless advocacy.”

Professional Involvement and Honors

During her tenure as city clerk, Kawagoe served as the elected state director (three two-year terms) for the City Clerks Department on the League of California Cities (LCC) Board of Directors; president of the City Clerks Department of the LCC in 1979-80; president of the International Institute of Municipal Clerks (IIMC) in 1986-87; and president of the Asian Pacific American Municipal Officials (APAMO) of the National League of Cities (NLC) in 1996; member of the NLC Advisory Council, 2004-11; and board member of NLC’s Women in Municipal Government.

She was appointed to the Steering Committee of the NLC Finance, Administration and Intergovernmental Relations (FAIR) Committee, the first city clerk to be so distinguished. She was also the first city clerk to be elected to the NLC Board of Directors and embarked on a two-year term on the 40-member National League of Cities board in 2002.

In 2016, the International Institute of Municipal Clerks (IIMC) inducted Kawagoe as one of its first Hall of Honor recipients for her outstanding record of service, which included traveling to Japan, Europe, Australia and Israel to promote exchanges among municipal clerks. She was on the first Board of Directors of the Municipal Clerks Education Foundation and helped to launch its first scholarship program.

Kawagoe was recognized as 2010 Citizen of the Year by the North Carson Lions Club; nominated for Woman of the Year by the late Assemblymember Jenny Oropeza in 2006; honored by the late U.S. Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald in 2005; commended for 30 years of outstanding service by the City of Carson in 2004; recognized for distinguished service by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 2002; and named one of six “Magnificent Women” by the Carson Coordinating Council in 2002.

In addition, she was nominated for Woman of the Year by the late State Sen. Ralph Dills in 1997; nominated for Woman of the Year by then-Assemblymember Millender-McDonald in 1996; and honored as an Outstanding Woman of Los Angeles County by Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke in 1994.

In 1993, the emperor of Japan conferred upon Kawagoe a Kunsho award, the Sacred Order of the Precious Crown, Apricot, for furthering business, political and cultural ties between the U.S. and Japan. In connection with that award, she was also recognized by U.S. Rep. Walter Rucker III and by Carson Mayor Michael Mitoma and the City Council.

Kawagoe served on the Board of Governors and Board of Directors of the Go For Broke National Educational Foundation; as secretary and vice president of the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation, which spearheaded the construction of a memorial in Washington, D.C.; on the Board of Governors of the Japanese American National Museum; on the CSU Dominguez Hills Foundation Board of Directors; and as a member of the President’s Ambassador Club and the Student Union Campaign Committee at CSUDH.

Kawagoe married Stanley H. Yanase in 2005. He passed away in 2007.

She is survived by her sisters, Margaret Koyama of Honolulu and Mary Ann (Sam) Ryono of Walnut; also survived by stepdaughter Sheryl Miyamoto, other stepchildren and their spouses; many nieces, nephews, and other relatives. A Celebration of Life service is pending.

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