By John Sammon —
Eunice Sato was a progressive long before the term was commonly used, and in helping hundreds of people during decades of tireless work; also opened a big door for Asian-Americans in the 1980’s.
Sato became the first woman of Asian heritage to be elected mayor of a major American city, Long Beach.
“I think my mother will be remembered for her devotion to the city (Long Beach) and her hard work and integrity,” said her daughter Charlotte Sato. “People remember her for not being like a politician. She spoke her mind and was a public servant in the truest sense.”
Eunice Sato passed away at the age of 99 in a residential care home in Bixby Knolls (neighborhood in Long Beach) on Feb. 12.
Charlotte Sato, a retired attorney who lives in Elk Grove, recounted her mother’s remarkable career, which involved a life-long passion for involvement.
“Being a volunteer gave my mother the greatest happiness,” she said.
The family (her mother’s side) originated from the Shizuoka area of Japan near Mt. Fuji where Sato’s ancestors were silk worm farmers. Her grandmother Sawa Maeda was sent from Japan to the U.S. in 1910 as a “picture bride,” except for a photo sight unseen, to a husband Bunsaku Noda, a young man who had immigrated from Japan and was living in San Francisco.
The married couple moved to Salinas and then Livingston (Merced County) where they took up farming. There Eunice Sato was born in 1921.
“She (Eunice) was co-editor of the Livingston High School yearbook,” Charlotte Sato recalled. “She was really proud of that.”
Eunice attended Modesto Junior College and then San Jose State College finishing two quarters when World War II broke out.
In 1942 under the direction of President Franklin Roosevelt, the U.S. Government decided to lock up 120,000 mostly American citizens of Japanese descent in a dozen major concentration camps and smaller Dept. of Justice (DOJ) camps. The majority of the camps were scattered around remote parts of the desert Southwest.
People lost their jobs their livelihoods and their freedom in guarded barbed-wire-enclosed prisons.
Some including Sato’s family had been offered the chance to flee into the interior of the country if they had some place to go. They suffered too, losing almost everything they had.
“My mother and her parents were given 24 hours to evacuate their home,” Charlotte Sato said. “They left with only what they could carry in their old Pontiac (auto).”
The family moved to Longmont, Colorado, where a brother-in-law lived with Eunice’s sister, Rose.
During World War II her brothers Joe and Art served in the 442nd Infantry Regiment, one of the most highly decorated units of the U.S. Army. The unit saw combat against the Nazis in Italy and France and suffered heavy casualties.
It would take the Federal Government until the 1980’s after hearings were held to determine that Japanese Americans had been treated during the war with grave injustice. In 1988 then-President Ronald Reagan signed reparations payments for victims of the incarceration and the government issued a formal apology—46 years after the fact.
“My mother was a recipient of the reparations,” Charlotte Sato said.
Reparations checks weren’t sent in the mail to Eunice Sato until 1991 as she was 70 and the oldest survivors got their checks first. Many who were eligible had already passed away.
Eunice took her reparations payment of $20,000 and donated it to the National Japanese American Citizens’ League (JACL) Legacy Fund, to be used for educational purposes.
Just after World War II Eunice enrolled in the University of Northern Colorado where she achieved a B.A. Degree and then moved to the Columbia University Teacher’s College where she achieved a Master of Arts Degree in home management, family relations and child development.
She got a teaching credential and taught for a time junior high and high school classes in the small upper-Michigan town of Alpha.
A unique opportunity presented itself.
“Mom was offered an opportunity to become a missionary in Japan at the Ferris Seminary, a private school for young women in Yokohama,” Charlotte Sato said. “She taught there for four years, English and French language, also home economics.”
It was here in 1948 Eunice met her husband-to-be Thomas Takashi Sato. He was serving in the military occupation of Japan under General Douglas MacArthur. Sato wore a U.S. Army uniform, but was a civilian helping to retool Japan’s economy into a peacetime footing.
There was little Eunice wouldn’t try. While in Japan she learned to get around after mastering the stick shift on a U.S. Army jeep. She explored and gave lectures to Japanese students on “five ways to cook and serve a sweet potato,” one of the few available foods in a hungry post-war Japan.
“The Japanese people existed at the time on rations and the sweet potatoes they had were awful, bland-tasting,” Charlotte said. “Mom showed them how to make the potatoes taste better.”
In 1950 Eunice and Thomas Sato married. Charlotte was born in 1951. She had two brothers, Daniel and Douglas.
“My mother wanted to raise us in the United States and we came back in 1956,” Charlotte said.
The family moved to Long Beach where Eunice became involved in her local church the Silverado United Methodist Church. She was also active in the local Parent Teacher’s Association (PTA).
Through her work with church councils and schools Eunice Sato met and became known to a lot of people.
“She was always busy,” Charlotte said. “She was invited to participate on a City Commission on Human Relations in the 1970’s, and a (Long Beach) Police Commission. She did (volunteer) work for the Red Cross and United Way.”
In 1975 a vacancy on the Long Beach City Council in the 7th District resulted in a special election in which the entire city voted. There were 20 candidates including Eunice.
“Mom came out on top by a big margin,” Charlotte said.
The mayor in Long Beach was a rotating position, decided by the nine members of the City Council. In 1980 Eunice Sato was chosen for the post. She served a two-year term; the first time a woman of Asian ethnicity was given such a mayoral position.
“The city was in sad straights in the 1980’s financially,” Charlotte said. “The downtown had decayed. My mother participated in redeveloping Long Beach’s downtown.”
To spur redevelopment was a daunting task. Funding had to be acquired from state and federal sources, but in particular from private investors who saw promise and incentive in the project.
Charlotte said her mother was greatly helped in the effort by then-City Manager John Dever.
Major accomplishments during Sato’s tenure as mayor and later her participation on the City Council included the Japanese company Kajima Corp. investing in the 500-room Sheraton Hotel, also the completion in 1989 of the One World Trade Center, a 27-story office building on Ocean Boulevard in the western part of the city.
These projects were part of what was titled “Second Wind,” meaning artificial respiration for a dying downtown.
Eunice Sato became the first female honorary member of the Lion’s Club in Long Beach and journeyed with the service club to Australia. On another occasion she represented the United Methodist Church as part of a negotiating team in a high-profile multi-state lawsuit that was settled favorably for the church.
After her service with the City Council, she remained just as active, serving on three state commissions. In 1991 she was appointed by then-President H.W. Bush to serve on a National Advisory Council on Educational Research.
Eunice was a victim of robbery locally three times. But she refused to be cowed by these incidents and helped co-author a report to California Governor George Deukmejian as part of a 26-member State Self Esteem Task Force in 1990. Her work emphasized the social and responsibility components of self-esteem.
In 1996 the Government of Japan presented Sato with a special award recognizing her efforts to promote a positive relationship between Japan and the U.S.
She served trusteeships including one at St. Mary’s Medical Center Hospital (1980-1995) and the School of Theology in Claremont (1990-92).
Charlotte Sato said listening to people’s concerns, those of her constituents, and acting on them made her mother a special kind of representative.
“Eunice was very concerned about the revitalization of downtown Long Beach because of the importance of keeping the city economically healthy. She was just as concerned about constituent service and worked very hard on lower profile concerns such as property maintenance, noise from the Long Beach Airport, repairs needed in her district’s parks, excessive truck traffic going to the Port (Long Beach) and underground gas pipelines.
Eunice spent a great deal of time along with her conscientious assistant, Marynelle Huang, tending to constituent complaints. She felt she owed a duty to represent constituents in their problems with the city bureaucracy.
She was always trying to help someone,” Charlotte added.
Caption: Eunice was honored to meet with the former Emperor and Empress of Japan when they visited Los Angeles taken in 1997 with Eunice’s husband Tom, looking on. She was able to convey her appreciation for the Kunsho recognition (Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold Rays with Rosette) she received from the Japanese government in 1996 for fostering a positive relationship with Japan. Photo courtesy of Charlotte Sato.