By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Staff Writer
Rarely have two initials meant so much.
When someone was needed to help coordinate the Nisei Week Baby Show: JT.
When the concept of a night to celebrate the Japanese American community with the L.A. Clippers needed a point man to handle the details: JT.
When a driver was needed to pull the rickshaw in the Nisei Week Parade, despite his standing barely three feet tall: JT.
The local Japanese American community, no, strike that, the Los Angeles community at large, has lost a dedicated friend. John Tamaki, known in countless circle by those two initials, died suddenly on Nov. 1 of apparent sudden cardiac arrest. The man whose face was ubiquitous at community and social events was only 53.
“I am heartbroken,” said JT’s sister, Mary Tamaki-Green, who described her brother’s passing as very peaceful. She said that the family had gathered for their usual Sunday night dinner, and all was normal.
Relaxing and watching the World Series after the meal with Mary’s husband, Jay, JT took a short gasp and fell silent.
As the news spread, the disbelief gradually turned to sorrow that some have found difficult to express.
“For days, I’ve just been unable to say anything, to talk to anyone,” said longtime friend and fellow actor Rodney Kageyama. He and JT met years ago while working on TV shows like Mark Curry’s “Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper.”
“He called me Sunday morning because it was my birthday,” Kageyama said. “After that, I saw his mom and sister at church. Later, she called me in tears and I knew something was terribly wrong.”
It was for his tireless efforts in community events that JT is best known. His sister said he inherited his volunteer spirit from their father, Carl, a chief engineer at the L.A. Department of Water and Power who had learned the importance of community involvement from his uncle.
“JT and all of us admired our father to no end,” Tamaki-Green explained. “Unfortunately, our father passed away before any of us knew who we truly were or what our calling in life would be, but once JT got involved in organized community activities, he understood our father so much more.”
Among the more prominent duties taken on by JT was the coordination of the annual Nisei Week Baby Show. It is a day-long event that requires wrangling often uncooperative infants and their stressed parents, and managing all of it with a smile that became his trademark.
“He was an excellent example of what it means to give back, and he put a lot of heart and soul in whatever he did,” commented Helen Ota, longtime Nisei Week volunteer and director of development and marketing at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center.
“He loved the community so much and made sure that the spotlight shined brightly on the organizations he was involved with for many, many years. He was also really considerate of the volunteers he worked with and made sure they were taken care of and appreciated. I’ve witnessed and and experienced that myself many times,” Ota added.
In a tribute posted on the foundation’s website, president Terry Hara called his fellow Nisei Week board member “the consummate ambassador for us all.”
“He was passionate about and truly enjoyed being a part of the Nisei Week Hospitality Committee,” Hara wrote. “He served on this committee for many years, helping with numerous duties and activities to host the visiting court members. JT also truly adored children. This was clearly evident as he also enjoyed co-chairing the Nisei Week Baby Pageant for several years.”
Born Sept. 20, 1962, John Carl Tamaki grew up in the Windsor Hills neighborhood of the Crenshaw District. His sister said JT’s physical stature was never an issue for the family, but when he began schooling, he was sent to McBride School, a special education center for mostly physically handicapped students.
“It was there where he first showed a calling for caring and helping others,” Tamaki-Green said. “He had all his limbs, hearing, sight, vision – at the ripe old age of 5 he was a leader, helping his classmates with some very basic life skills.”
The one challenge JT was forced to confront had nothing to do with his height. A heavy lisp, combined with his size, made him the target of other kids’ taunts, a situation he largely ignored, but one that irritated his older sister immensely.
“When we’d go to a store and kids would snicker and point at him, I’d scream stupid, hateful things at them, but not JT. He would simply stand there, and laugh at them and say, ‘Hey, I’d rather be short than ugly,'” she recalled.
To get help with the lisp, JT’s mother, Anna Mae, enrolled him in private speech lessons at UCLA. It was there where she learned that young John didn’t need to be in a school for the handicapped; in fact he wasn’t handicapped at all. They transferred him to Pilgrim School, a private parochial school at the First Congregational Church in the Wilshire District, where he thrived.
While in high school at Westchester High, JT joined a bowling league at Holiday Bowl on Crenshaw Boulevard At the time, Holiday was a big social gathering spot where he found his niche and comfort within the JA community. In addition to the bowling there were local dances where he started to live what his sister called “the big life.”
“At the ripe old age of 19, he moved out of the house, moved into an apartment that our parents owned (I lived there as well) with a few close friends who loved to play cards, drink and go to dances,” she said. “JT was influenced by gambling at an early age, we spent so many holiday vacations in Tahoe and Vegas, where he learned to love gambling, and he was good at it.”
JT parlayed his love of sports into events that benefited and celebrated his community. He was the catalyst in establishing a relationship with the Los Angeles Clippers that led to the annual Japanese American Community Night. He also became a member of the team that organizes a similar yearly event at Dodger Stadium.
In his professional life, JT made his living in show business, taking on everything from bit TV parts to featured roles and – somewhat predictably – yearly turns as one of Santa’s elves.
His current job was that of a stand-in on the popular Nickelodeon sitcom “Nicky, Ricky, Dicky & Dawn.” His position was to help set the blocking for child actor Mace Coronel, who called JT “the man I look up to.”
Fellow stand-in Devron Conrad said the cast of mostly child actors was brought to tears when they heard the sad news.
“We are all shocked and saddened beyond belief,” Conrad told The Rafu. “JT was the nicest, warmest, most genuine and generous human being I’ve been privileged to know. His death dealt a huge blow to this set.”
Conrad reported that one in of the show’s sets, a sports restaurant, a jersey bearing the number 1 and the name Tamaki has been added to the wall of sports items.
In contrast to his very public persona, Kageyama knew JT as a deeply private and sensitive person whose love of family and his late dog, Lola, were always paramount.
“When we’d get together for Obon or other events, he always made sure to remember to pick up some dinner for his mom and family,” Kageyama said. “We became very close, and we’d talk and gripe over lunches. He was the only one I really felt I could spill my guts to.”
As he approached middle age, a physical ailments that often befalls little people began to take its toll on JT. He suffered mightily from back problems, but coiled at the thought of surgery. An epidural in recent weeks had little effect, he told Kageyama, but he was trying to put off any invasive medical procedure as long as possible.
“He wanted to get through this season of the show before he did anything like that,” Kageyama said.
On JT’s Facebook page, hundreds of tributes have been posted, along with photos and memories from friend and colleagues.
“I will miss our talks. I will miss hearing that ‘Oh… Hey!!’ I will miss seeing you at community events. I will miss the cigar and wine glass wielding Christmas card photos each year,” wrote former Nisei Week Queen Lauren Wong, adding, “You were a great man and you are leaving a huge hole in the heart of the JA community.”
KABC news anchor David Ono recalled how JT helped his then 2-year-old daughter overcome her shyness to joined the dancing at Obon. He said the girl loved JT deeply and that he was at a loss for how to deliver the bad news.
“I’m not sure how to begin to tell my little one that some of the most beautiful things in life can cause so much pain,” Ono wrote.
Funeral service for John “JT” Tamaki will be held at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 12, at Centenary United Methodist Church, 300 S. Central Ave. in Los Angeles. He is survived by his mother, Anna Mae; brother, Paul Frank; sister, Mary Ann; brother-in-law, Clint “Jay” Green; nephew, Ian Minoru; uncle, Dick Sakamoto; aunts, Noby Okamoto, Rose Uyeno, Molly (Bob) Nakasaki and Sue Fujino; and many cousins and other relatives.