ALBANY -- Former city councilwoman and lifelong Albany resident Jewel Okawachi died on Sunday after a brief battle with lung cancer. She was 84.
"I call her the first lady of Albany," Albany Mayor Peggy Thomsen said. "She was one of a kind. She was just a very special person. She was a mentor. She was a person who wants to get a job done and didn't care about getting credit for it."
Okawachi served on the City Council from 2000-08. She also served on various commissions and boards around town. In 2009, Terrace Park was renamed Jewel Terrace Park in her honor.
However, as Thomsen said, she preferred to stay in the background and was uncomfortable with the honor.
"Absolutely not," said son Mark Okawachi when asked how his mother reacted to the name change. "She said, 'For me, growing up, that's always been Terrace Park, you're not naming it Jewel's Park.' She was very resistant."
Eventually, she relented.
Jewel Okawachi was born Oct. 31, 1928, in San Francisco. Her father was a dentist with a well-known practice in the city. That year, the family built a house in Albany, the same house that Okawachi owned and passed away in.
However, when the house was built, some neighbors complained because the family was Japanese, Okawachi explained in a talk at the Albany library in 2007 as reported by Albany Today. Okawachi said there were only five Asian families and one black family in Albany at the time and real estate agents tried to keep minorities out.
This was not the only battle with racism for Okawachi. Her family was sent to an internment camp when she was 14.
During the war, a brother fighting in Italy for the United States Army was killed, something that her father never recovered from.
Okawachi and the rest of her family were held at the Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona for nearly three years. Unlike many families, the Okawachis held on to their home.
"There was a neighbor next door who looked after the house for them when they were in camp," said Stan Okawachi, another son. "That was fortunate. The reason why (other families) sold their homes was they didn't know what to expect. They didn't know if they would come back. People were selling their homes for pennies on the dollar. My grandfather designed the house. I think they had that connection with the house and the community."
Recently, Okawachi reconnected with something that families did to pass the time in the camps.
"During the war, they wouldn't allow people to have sharp instruments or tools," Mark Okawachi said. "But they did arts and crafts carvings and paintings -- the art of Gaman, which means art of struggle. She had a pretty extensive collection of folk craft from during the war. They were in our basement. She didn't think they had any value."
Eventually, a woman came to the house and asked if Okawachi had any folk art from the camps.
"We don't really have any art, but we have this junk in the basement," Okawachi said.
That "junk" was carvings of birds, vases and other artifacts. A group acquired it and it is now part of exhibitions in museums, according to Mark Okawachi.
Jewel Okawachi was the first in her family to return to Albany after the war, taking a Greyhound bus back to San Francisco at age 16.
"We were still at war with Japan," she told the crowd at the library. "It was frightening to me. After a few days I returned, Japan surrendered. I came across the Bay, and asked people that were living at our house to leave.
"I think back at 16 I had a lot of nerve. I probably didn't know any better, "
Okawachi eventually started a family, having three boys, whom she ended up raising as a single mother. It was her involvement in her children's schools that eventually led her to volunteer for various commissions and eventually run for City Council.
She also owned DNS Composing, a typesetting shop, for more than 20 years.
"All of us went through Boy Scouts," Stan Okawachi said. "She served the function of mother and father. She was always at the Little League games we grew up playing. She was at the ball field when it was raining or sunny. She was extremely involved in PTA and organizations supporting school activities."
Mark Okawachi added that his grandfather was friends with a local judge and that association helped expose Jewel Okawachi to politics.
A 2009 City Council resolution, passed when Terrace Park was renamed, listed the various organizations Okawachi volunteered for:
The Albany Education Foundation, the Police Activities League, the Youth Task Force, the Prevention Council, the Drug and Alcohol Task Force, Albany Little League, the Boy Scouts, the first Teen Center, Albany High School Track & Field, Albany High Athletic Boosters, the Albany Community Foundation, the Albany Chamber of Commerce, the Solano Avenue Association, the Albany Historical Society, the Friends of the Albany Library, the Friends of the Albany Seniors, and Soroptimist International.
Okawachi is survived by sons David, Stan and Mark and grandchildren Natalie, Gregory, Logan and Satomi. She is also survived by a brother, Vernon.
The family asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Albany Community Foundation, The Albany Senior Center, The Albany Education Foundation or the Berkeley Humane Society. A gathering of family, friends and colleagues to celebrate her life will be announced shortly.