Class of ’76: How Are Gardena High Grads Doing 35 Years Later?

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Originally published in the Graduation Issue, June 28, 2011

Detail of 1976 class photo. Front row: J.K. Yamamoto (second from left), Brian Oki (center) and Lance Izumi (right). Second row (from left): Diane Fujino and Pat Minatogawa.

The commencement ceremony for the Gardena High School Class of 1976 marked a parting of the ways for a group of students, mostly Nikkei, who had been together for six years in various college prep and advanced placement classes, starting at Peary Junior High School (now Peary Middle School) in 1970-71.

Many of these grads saw each other again for the first time at the GHS 30th anniversary reunion in 2006. Following a mixer at the Elks Lodge, we were given a tour of the campus by current students, whose team name is the Panthers rather than the politically incorrect name of our era, the Mohicans. We noticed a lot more fences and gates than when we were students.

U.S. history teacher Mas Okui in the mid-1970s. (From a video created by Ernie Muraoka and posted on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=9OddsoXgxRE)

In 2009, some of the former students held an appreciation luncheon at Cherrystones for their favorite teachers from Peary and GHS* (surprisingly, still up and around, although when we were kids they probably seemed older than they really were). And on July 9, some of us will have lunch with our seventh-grade English teacher, Mrs. Sasaki, 40 years after she taught us grammar and composition.

I don’t think any of us has become a household name, but many have made their mark:

• Arlene Fukai was second assistant director of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Star Trek: Voyager” and the movie “Star Trek: Generations,” and first assistant director of “Star Trek: Enterprise.”

• Lance Izumi is senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute and serves on the Board of Governors of the California Community Colleges. He has co-authored books on education, including “Free to Learn,” and appeared in the documentary “Waiting for Superman.”

• Ernie Muraoka is a senior editor/producer for CNN and has been a freelance editor for several TV stations, including L.A.’s KCAL, KTTV, KTLA, KNBC, KABC and KCOP. He has won several awards, including two Emmys.

• James Sakakura was a community health outreach worker for the Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team in Los Angeles and one of the few Asian Americans to talk openly about their HIV-positive status in the 1990s. APAIT named the James Sakakura Family Room in his memory.

Lance Izumi and Mas Okui at a 2009 teacher appreciation luncheon.

• Paul Tanaka is the mayor of Gardena and, as was recently reported in the Rafu, has just been named undersheriff of Los Angeles County, second-in-command to Sheriff Lee Baca. He was first elected to the Gardena City Council in 1999 and has been in law enforcement for 30 years.

• Terry Tang has served at the New York Times in such positions as editor of the op-ed page and editorial writer. She was also an editorial writer and columnist at the Seattle Times.

• Karen Watai is founder and president of KWA Leadership Consulting LLC in New York. During her 20 years in the investment banking and private equity industries, she was a vice president at Goldman Sachs and a partner in the Exeter Group of Funds.

A partial list of other professionals (thanks to Mary Ann Takemoto for this info):

Physicians — Neil Caliman, Christine Kuida, Ken Yonemura

Lawyers — Bridgette Berry, Helen Hayase, Ellen Matsumoto

Dentists — Steve Higashi, Julie Ito, the late Craig Kishiyama, Rob Otsu, Greg Sasaki, Roger Yamashiro

Optometrists — Kozie Kanemaru, Kent Nozaki, Randy Taketa

I thought I would ask some of my former classmates what their aspirations were back then, what they are doing now, and whether their goals or values changed along the way. Following are some responses.

— J.K. YAMAMOTO

JANE KOBAYASHI

The funny thing is when I left Gardena High, I went to UCLA as a pre-med student. In my junior year, I started to realize that while I enjoy the sciences and wanted to be a pediatrician, it wasn’t my passion.

Jane Kobayashi today.

I struggled with it for that year and asked my parents about changing majors to art. Of course, they weren’t too thrilled, but my dad said if I could get in the UCLA art program, I could change majors as long as I got my degree from UCLA. And that’s what I did. I graduated cum laude with a BA in design.

Then I went to the Art Center in Pasadena as a graphics/packaging major. They did not accept any of the UCLA art classes and you weren’t allowed to study for a master’s unless you got your BA from them — so I did another eight semesters, graduated magna cum laude with a BFA in graphics/packaging design, and got job offers from New York to San Francisco.

I chose to stay in Southern California and worked as a designer for a year and a half for Design West in Irvine, then as a senior designer for Morava & Oliver Design Office in Santa Monica for seven years. At MODO I was fortunate to work with some of the top photographers and talent in the country, which expanded my vision of what I could do with my career.

When I became pregnant with my daughter, I decided it was time to start my own business. My daughter, Daria, is now 19 and an art major at UCLA. Like me, 35 years ago, she is in the School of Art in Architecture but studying photography. My son, Aron, is 12 and will be an eighth-grader at Wildwood School in West Los Angeles.

I love what I do. It is my passion. I love marketing and branding strategies and designing everything from websites to showrooms to ads. I did a lot of work for the Japanese American National Museum from its first annual report (which won first place for design, out of all reports for national museums) to signage for the next 10 years. That was my “pet project.”

I loved working with Irene Hirano when she was the CEO, and all the others who started the museum, branding it and getting it to a national level. I loved being part of preserving the stories of the Issei and Nisei. It is such an important part of our past and future.

I am always amazed how different my life became because of my choice to switch from the sciences to the arts. In many ways, art and science are very similar, but the career choices, very different.

My analytical side enjoys learning the ins and outs of diverse businesses in the country, analyzing their marketing needs, and providing them with intelligent design solutions. There is nothing more satisfying than to see a business, a museum, or a nonprofit increase their value — economically, socially, and aesthetically — because of design.

I think our classmates have excelled in so many ways because of the work ethics we were taught by our parents, and growing up in a community of Sanseis.

PHEBE (NISHIMOTO) ARLEN

Phebe Nishimoto in 1976.

I graduated from USC in 1980 with a BM degree in music education, magna cum laude, with two departmental awards. I enjoyed student teaching during my last semester at an elementary school in East Los Angeles, and looked forward to continuing on for a fifth year to get my teaching credential and applying thereafter to the LAUSD for a job as a music teacher to K-6 students.

Then I found out how much they got paid, or more appropriately, how much they didn’t. The mercenary that I was, when I found out that the position of a one-stop music teacher for both the instrumental and choral sides to a music program — who would be the ONLY music teacher to an entire elementary school — would be paid a less-than-modest salary, with no guarantee of a job from year to year (depending on available funding), I decided to follow a Plan B that I hadn’t yet devised. Corporate America was looking pretty attractive.

Fast-forward some 30 years later. I am the executive assistant to the associate vice chancellor/controller at UCLA. I have had a successful career as an administrative professional, building from an eighth-grade typing class and my student work-study days as a general clerk at USC.

Judging by the current economic state of California, I had made a wise decision back then not to go into teaching. And only now, after being married for 21 years and having three children, I have figured out what I want to finally do (when I grow up), and have applied to the UCLA Anderson School of Management to begin a part-time MBA program in the fall. I’ll find out soon whether I get in or not.

Phebe Arlen today.

My family and I figured out that if I get into Anderson, a three-year program, by the time I graduate, I will be 55, and that same year, my son will graduate from college, and my older daughter will graduate from high school (my younger daughter will be in ninth grade). I had always wanted to go back for a master’s degree, but the timing wasn’t right until now.

Am I happy? You bet. Did I anticipate things to happen the way they did with my career path? Never.

I was inspired by a fellow staff member at UCLA who went to law school at age 47 just so she could do her job better. She made me realize that I have at least 15 good years ahead of me at UCLA (barring any unforeseen layoffs, I plan to retire there), and rather than “coast” between now and then, I would prefer to continue developing and challenging myself, and be able to contribute more than I am able to now.

My career is far from being over.

BRIAN OKI

Since I excelled in science and mathematics and shared the Science Departmental Award with a fellow student on graduation from Gardena High School in 1976, I knew I’d pursue something in science or math in college and would likely go on to graduate school or medical school.

But I didn’t yet have a clear idea of what exactly I wanted to study. I thought I might become a doctor or an orthodontist or even a researcher. But little did I know that I’d end up studying engineering and mathematics instead of pure science.

Four years later, in my senior year at UC Irvine, I graduated summa cum laude in computer science and was admitted to the doctoral program in three of the top five graduate schools in computer science (MIT, Carnegie-Mellon, and Cornell). Eight years and three advanced degrees later, I graduated from MIT with my Doctor of Philosophy in computer science. I had won the MIT EECS departmental teaching award for excellence in undergraduate teaching and was nominated twice by MIT faculty for promotion to “Instructor G.” I had published three papers in refereed conferences.

After roaming around Europe for seven weeks, I joined the Computer Science Laboratory of Xerox’s famed Palo Alto Research Center to do basic computer systems research and considered teaching part-time as an adjunct professor.

A few years later, I left research behind me to immerse myself in the 1990s dot-com craze in Silicon Valley, where computer science went mainstream, and saw the rise of the Web, the ubiquity of email, online shopping, and digital photography, and today the proliferation of cell phones, mobile devices, incredible computing power, and massive storage capacity.

I dabbled briefly in patent law, writing software patents, which combined my broad expertise in technology with writing ability, and recently returned to engineering.

My life today as an engineer is vastly different from what I dared to imagine as a senior at Gardena High School in 1976.

MARY ANN TAKEMOTO

Mary Ann Takemoto’s high school portrait.

Our Gardena High School Class of 1976 was the “Bicentennial Class.” Dressed in our red, white and blue robes at graduation, we were anxious to move beyond the boundaries of high school and our community. Eager and idealistic, we were unsure of what our futures would hold.

Classmates scattered to all parts of the country in pursuit of our education and our dreams. My journey would take me to New York City to discover a passion for psychology that would lead me to doctoral studies at Indiana University.

Fast-forward 35 years since our high school graduation — it is hard to believe that so much time has passed. As a  psychologist, I have often thought about the many success stories from our Class of ’76. We seemed to have an abundance of exceptional individuals who have gone on to excel and become leaders in their chosen fields.

This is remarkable considering that we came from a large high school where many of us were the first generation in our families to attend college. What factors contributed to these success stories?

When I think of the community that Gardena was in the ’60s and ’70s when we grew up, we were truly fortunate to have parents and family members who valued education and supported us in our academic pursuits. Although their lives and dreams were disrupted by World War ll and the internment camps, their commitment and support to us were unwavering. In some ways, many of us have had the opportunities that allowed us to live the dreams of our Nisei parents. We learned from them the values of hard work, integrity and resilience, values that have served us well over the years.

Mary Ann Takemoto today.

Gardena was a place where sports, community organizations and churches played an important role in the social fabric of the time. We had outstanding teachers and mentors who challenged and supported us, providing a strong educational foundation. Our peer group, most of whom we had known since junior high school, had a tremendous influence on us.

We worked together, played together, motivated each other, and took pride in our accomplishments. We developed deep and meaningful friendships that have stood the test of time over the past three decades. These friendships have helped to carry us through the high points and inevitable low points of life.

I have had the privilege of working in higher education for over 20 years, first at UCI and now at Cal State Long Beach (associate vice president, student services). It has been a most rewarding and satisfying career to contribute to the development of the next generation of students who were at the same place we were 35 years ago.

I can only hope to launch them on as successful a life path as my classmates and I have been fortunate enough to take.

* From GHS: Don Greathouse, advisor; Mas Okui, history; Warren Hockenbary, leadership; Lura Wallace, Latin; Ellen (Rodrigues) Pomella, English. From Peary: Arlene (Nakayama) Sakahara, Japanese; Mildred Shimabukuro, music; Alice Sasaki, English; Howard Lazar, history.

Former Peary Junior High School English teacher Alice Sasaki held a reunion with some of her former seventh-grade students (1970-71) on July 9. Standing, from left: Lori Nishimura, Jane Kobayashi, Mrs. Sasaki, Doug Tanji, Helen Hayase, Brian Oki, Bill Cooper. Seated, from left: Marlyn (Rikimaru) Braceros, Mary Ann Takemoto, Phebe (Nishimoto) Arlen, Paul Tanaka.

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