One of the most gripping images from the 1960s captures the slight figure of Dr. S.I. Hayakawa scrambling onto a sound truck parked in front of San Francisco State College amid campus unrest. Hayakawa had hoped to use this soapbox to address the assembled demonstrators, but instead he ended up ripping out speaker wires and halting an illegal campus demonstration — or denying First-Amendment rights to the crowd.
Who Hayakawa was depends on one’s perspective. This intimate and detailed biography draws on interviews with friends and family members, as well as Hayakawa’s own papers and journals, to bring this controversial and fascinating figure to life.
He was an enigma to both colleagues and adversaries — a Republican senator who consistently bucked his party’s ideals with his support of the women’s movement, abortion rights, and even Ronald Reagan’s search for a female running mate.
The son of Japanese immigrants, born and raised in Canada before moving to the U.S., Hayakawa emerges here as a complex and complicated figure. His blend of heritage, politics, artistic inclination, and intellectual achievement makes him quintessentially American, say the authors.
Novelist-historian Gerald Haslam, a Sonoma State professor emeritus and a native of Oildale in Kern County, was a student and later a friend of the noted semanticist, perhaps best known for his book “Language in Thought and Action.” Hayakawa died in 1992 at the age of 85. Haslam writes in Bakersfield.com:
“A few years ago, one of my ex-San Francisco State classmates told me that our old professor, S.I. ‘Don’ Hayakawa, hadn’t been interned during World War II because he’d darkened his skin to pass for black. Toward the end of his life, scurrilous stories about him proliferated. I checked and, in fact, the professor had been a Canadian citizen residing in Chicago then, where he and his wife helped some Japanese American families from the West Coast relocate.
“Don Hayakawa and his talented wife, Margedant Peters, were prominent in the Windy City’s cultural scene during the 1940s: He a best-selling author, columnist for the Chicago Defender, and editor of ETC: A Review of General Semantics; she a major figure on the co-op scene, an editor at Poetry magazine, a reviewer for the Chicago Sun, as well as the mother of three young children. They seemed rooted.
“By the 1950s, though, all was not well. Hayakawa had left his tenured position at Illinois Tech and was unhappy teaching only part-time for the University of Chicago. Then, his wife discovered that he was involved romantically with one of her associates at Poetry.
“Since he had a standing offer of a professorship at San Francisco State, and with his marriage possibly on the line, Hayakawa and family relocated in 1955, not long after he became a citizen of the USA.
“I met the famous professor in 1963. I was a first-semester graduate student seeking admission to his seminar on general semantics, so I stammered something and he, in a surprisingly soft voice, asked if I was a major. I said yes, then he signed my class-add slip.
“The course was based upon a reading of Alfred Korzybski’s daunting ‘Science and Sanity,’ which we then discussed in detail. The professor listened intently to students, then his comments revealed an extraordinarily broad base of knowledge.
“By 1967, I was teaching at nearby Sonoma State College and was part of a small group of faculty and students urging the college president to develop an ethnic studies program before one was demanded. A pragmatist, he agreed and told us to start planning and that he’d find funding. I consulted with Professor Hayakawa then and he offered considerable encouragement and advice on the course I was developing.
“That’s why I was shocked in 1968 when Hayakawa’s name was linked to an organization identified as opposing ethnic studies. When I asked him about that, he said no, he still much favored the development of ethnic studies, but he opposed the confrontational style of some students, and he also thought others were trying to destroy higher education so they could rebuild it according to their own visions.
“During the S.F. State strike of 1968-69, after he had become president of the college, ‘What’s happened to Don?’ was a question I heard from mutual friends. Sadly, in the face of the public’s overwhelming support of Hayakawa’s efforts, I never heard any striker or strike sympathizer ask the corollary, ‘What’s happened to us?’ Both questions, it seemed to me, needed consideration.
“When the strike finally ended, the immediate winner was Hayakawa, who would ride his popularity into the U.S. Senate. But the tide of history was on the side of the young; eventually they would be the establishment and many of their best ideas would be implemented while they outgrew their worst ones.
“During Hayakawa’s Senate run in 1976, however, he produced a discordant note when James D. and Jeanne Watkasuki Houston’s classic recounting of the World War II Japanese American internment, ‘Farewell to Manzanar,’ was produced as a film for television. In a TV Guide review, Hayakawa wrote that ‘Through the adventure of relocation, almost all Nisei and many Issei were thrown out of their ghettoized Japan-town existence into the mainstream of American life …’
“That was a frequently repeated opinion by a man who hadn’t been interned, and his use of the word ‘adventure’ grated many. The Houstons were my good friends, so I challenged Don on that opinion, and he responded that internment was a tragedy, ‘but a tragedy from which some good came.’ He survived the damage caused by controversy to win a Senate seat.
“I had once seen him fall asleep mid-conversation, and during his stint in Washington, an unacknowledged sleep disorder and a decision made by his staff undid Hayakawa’s image. Johnny Carson, whose ‘Tonight Show’ dominated late-night television, began joking about Don — What would S.I. Hayakawa’s personalized auto license plate be? ‘ZZZZZZ’ — but Carson also offered the senator an opportunity to appear on the show.
“Hayakawa’s aides ‘thought it would not be appropriate for (Hayakawa) to be going on “The Tonight Show” as a guest,’ so they didn’t tell him. The senator was a charming public speaker, so that lost opportunity may have been the most telling error his staff ever made.
“When Don’s Senate term ended, he acknowledged that it was not considered successful. Asked what he’d be remembered for, he told a Los Angeles Times reporter, ‘Sleeping, I guess.’ That abject concession suggests the news media’s ability to cast a limiting light on an otherwise varied, even distinguished, career.
“Hayakawa’s post-Senate activity as spokesman for U.S. English and its campaign to declare English the national language resonated only with a segment of the public, while his more important work as special adviser on Southeast Asian and Pacific Basin matters for Secretary of State George Schultz went largely unnoticed.
“In 1991, I was reading from a new collection of stories at the Depot bookstore in Mill Valley when I noticed the Hayakawas slip into the back of the room, Don pulling a small oxygen tank. Following the festivities, and with two of my old SFSC professors — Thurston Womack and John Dennis — both of whom had been strikers at San Francisco State, I greeted Don and Marge. That led to an invitation to their house, which we three accepted.
“Once there, Womack was startled when Don, who was clearly failing, looked up and asked, ‘Who are you, again?’ Thurston, once a close friend of Hayakawa’s, identified himself, then Don said, ‘Thurston, do you know I wasted six years of my life in the United States Senate?’
“That was the last time we ever saw him.”
To hear an interview with the author, go to: