By Sharon Yamato
There are some who aspire to greatness, and others born with it. The Honorable Robert M. Takasugi, who passed away on Aug. 4, quietly—but forcefully—exuded it. Much can be said about his tremendous professional achievement—first Japanese American appointed to the federal bench, a district court judge for 33 years, and mentor to thousands of law school graduates trying to pass the bar—but it was the person beneath the robe who was loved and respected by all who knew him not as “Your Honor,” but simply as Bob.
I had the privilege of meeting him through my criminal defense attorney friend Mona Soo Hoo, who spoke of him not just as a mentor, but as a father figure. She, like many other Asian American attorneys, was a regular at Bob’s annual picnic for former law clerks. Not only did she benefit from his guidance, but directed many of her struggling law student friends into his mentoring program.
“They would never have passed the bar without him,” she recalls.
When we joined the Soo Hoos and Takasugis for dim sum one Sunday afternoon, it struck me that this was one pretty great Asian American extended family. Dodie Takasugi was Bob’s ideal counterpart. If anyone who met them were to feel intimidated by her husband’s stature, Dodie made you feel immediately at home. It was her thoughtful caring and acute intelligence that sparkled through her gentle demeanor. Daughter and songstress Lee Takasugi (of the group Visiting Violette) and son Jon (now himself a Superior Court judge) were also there as charming extensions to their unpretentious parents. As we sat at the table, I remember thinking it must have meant a lot to Mona’s Nisei mom, Nancy (Kumasaki), to be so close with the man who, had he sat on the bench in 1942, would surely have overturned Roosevelt’s Executive Order.
When I discovered that Judge Takasugi was incarcerated at Tule Lake as a young boy of 11, I suggested him as a speaker for the Tule Lake Pilgrimage, not knowing if the venerable judge would consider schlepping all the way on a bus to Klamath Falls by way of Sacramento to sleep in a tiny dorm room on a holiday weekend. When he was asked, there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation. Getting to introduce him on the opening night of the 2003 Pilgrimage remains a highlight in my Sansei life—despite it being horribly intimidating. Here was the man who in 2002 overturned several indictments against a group of Iranian American and Iranian alleged terrorists in the midst of post-911 hysteria, arguing that the government had violated their due process of law (something that must have felt very familiar to him). Given the Patriot Act and public sentiment at the time, I could think of no more courageous act. I worried there wasn’t any way I could give him his due. Bob knew my trepidation when he insisted that I introduce him. He was guiding the way for me in the same way he did for all those he mentored and role modeled. He wanted me to stand up beside him, to overcome fear, and to speak. It was a life lesson.
Among those speakers at the memorial service, which included attorney Dale Minami, former Cal Poly President Robert Suzuki, and attorney Janice Fukai, the Bob Takasugi who was counselor, encourager and friend was fondly remembered. It was clear that he was deeply loved and profoundly respected from the nodding agreement of those in the room—which included hundreds of attorneys who appeared before him from both sides of the courtroom. His insistence on fairness, he once said, was a direct result of his years spent in camp.
But if you’re not an attorney, remembering the man came best in the form of the two tributes that closed the ceremony. Son Jon painted a loving portrait of his father as a regular guy—a man who loved the New York Yankees, Black Jack, and Frank Sinatra. Jon also knew his dad as a terrible driver, inept handyman and computer evader, but, appropriately, Jon lovingly recalled, this real-life Don Quixote managed to see “Man of La Mancha” 20 times.
The shining moment in the service for me, however, preceded Jon’s final remarks. With the voice of a nightingale, Lee Takasugi overcame her grief for a moment to spread her wings and sing her father’s favorite song. With new meaning and passion to her own familiar lyrics, Lee sang “On Mars,” sending her father off to the place he now holds in the sky—among the galaxies and the stars.
Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.