Carl Ooka, Community Builder
By Valerie Ooka Pang and Kathy Ooka, For The North American Post
Carl Masami Ooka was a community builder and generous soul. He is thought to be the first Japanese American elected to a public office in the state of Washington. He served as Kittitas County Commissioner for two terms, from 1972-1980. He implemented innovative ways to make the city of Ellensburg and surrounding Kittitas County a safe and just community. The county spans the I-90 corridor from Snoqualmie Pass to its crossing of the Columbia River at Vantage. It thus lies near the center of the state.
Mr. Ooka had many passions. In addition to working in politics, he devoted his time to the community as an advocate for people with disabilities, and supported college sports.
Carl Ooka was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1927. While attending elementary school, his teacher, unable to pronounce his given Japanese name, Masami, started calling him Carl. It was a common practice in Hawaii at the time, for teachers to give English names to children who had Japanese first names.
After graduating from Farrington High School, Carl joined the U.S. Army. After his honorable discharge, he moved to Seattle to attend Seattle University (SU) through the GI Bill.
Carl initially lived at the N.P. Hotel in Japantown, now known as the International District. From that modest Seattle beginning, he earned his bachelor’s degree in finance from the SU School of Commerce and Finance in 1951. During this time, he married Marie M. Horiuchi, daughter of Shigetoshi and Takeko Horiuchi of Seattle.
Initially, Carl worked for the Department of Agriculture in downtown Seattle. He also worked for Gentaro Takahashi, in his real estate business, in the building where Fuji Sushi is currently located. In Seattle, Carl and Marie had three daughters, Val, Debbie, and Kathy.
In 1956, Carl moved his young family to Ellensburg, Washington. He had discovered Ellensburg after taking several “Sunday drives” from Seattle and fell in love with its small-town atmosphere. It appealed to him that the area had four distinct seasons and a hot summer similar to Honolulu. In Ellensburg, he was hired by Darigold Farms as its business manager. In the early 1960s, he became a co-owner of a local restaurant, Webster’s Café and Smoke Shop, in downtown Ellensburg.
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Carl and his family were the only Japanese-American family in Ellensburg for about ten years. In this setting, he and his wife had four more daughters (Cheryl, Karen, Trish, and Naomi) and two sons (George and Patrick). Unfortunately, his sons died at birth. Cheryl, daughter number four, was the first JA baby born in Ellensburg with a recorded hospital-birth certificate.
Mr. and Mrs. Ooka instilled in each of their children the importance of acquiring a college degree. They were extremely proud when all seven daughters graduated from college.
Later in life, Carl loved having grandchildren and would spoil them with candy bars and other sweets. He and Marie often visited Seattle in their later years, treating their daughters and a dear friend, Dick Yamane, to lunch or dinner at Aya’s restaurant (Sixth and Main), or at Hong Kong restaurant. He and his wife would also always visit Star Tofu (Sixth and Weller), the Tsue Chong Noodle factory, and Uwajimaya on their outings.
Mr. Ooka believed in contributing to his community by volunteering. He served as chairman of the Kittitas County Red Cross and participated in activities at St. Andrew’s Catholic Church. In addition, he was a member of the Knights of Columbus, the Elks, Nisei Veterans Committee in Seattle, and the Japanese American Citizens League. Mr. Ooka’s efforts touched the lives of many people.
Freddie Dell: A Loving Friend Who Sparked a Deeper Interest in Community Service
In Ellensburg, the Ooka family lived on Pine Street, across the street from Tom and Isabelle (Izzy) Dell. The families were neighbors for over three decades. They became close friends, looking out for each other and for their children.
Carl talked with Tom and Izzy Dell often. They were about 20 years older and had several children who had grown up and moved away. Freddie, their youngest son, was born with Down’s Syndrome. He lived at home and always waved to Carl when he saw him. Tom and Izzy worried about where Freddie would go to school and where he would eventually live as an adult.
Carl, a compassionate person, shared the Dells’ concern about Freddie’s future. Their conversations led him to becoming active in Elmview, a local organization established to provide services for adults with developmental disabilities (elmview.org).
Carl eventually became president of the Elmview Board. He helped expand the mission of the organization to include housing for adults with developmental disabilities. Ultimately, Elmview focused on creating and expanding its educational and housing services; it now makes these amenities available in both Ellensburg and Yakima. Freddie eventually resided at an Elmview property and became a vital and contributing member of the community.
Kittitas County Commissioner
In 1971, Carl Ooka ran for the position of Kittitas County Commissioner. At the time, Kittitas County was a predominantly conservative, Caucasian community with just two other Japanese-American families living there. During the course of Carl’s political campaign, a few area citizens called him “Jap” to his face. Although this upset him, he patiently explained that using the word was derogatory and offensive. He suggested that they not use the term. Despite the limited racial diversity in the community, Carl won the election with his sincere and generous nature.
Starting in 1975, Carl served as Chairman of the Kittitas County Board of Commissioners. One of the responsibilities of the Commission was to oversee the county’s transportation infrastructure. Accordingly, Carl often drove throughout the area to ensure the safety of its roads.
As a finance major in college and a local business owner, Carl also understood the value of balancing the budget to ensure profitability for a small business. As County Commissioner, he carefully monitored the county’s operating budget. At the end of his second term, the county was no longer operating in the red and had a surplus of over a million dollars. He was proud of the part he played in making Kittitas County solvent again.
Central Washington State College University Booster
In the 1960s and early 1970s, Ellensburg was the home of Central Washington State College (CWSC, which became Central Washington University in 1977). Carl was a big booster of Central Washington’s sports teams. He personally knew many of the coaches, including the football coach, Tom Parry, and the basketball coach, Dean Nicholson. Carl loved interacting with the local college basketball players, treating them to meals when they stopped in at his cafe. He would hire college students to work in his restaurant and smoke shop as a way to support them. Two employees who worked extensively with Carl began as Central Washington students, Phil Fitterer and Tom Brown.
Carl enjoyed showing his support for local teams by attending their games with his two youngest children, Trisha and Naomi. Typically, they would sit in the bleachers on the east side of the gym. Trish and Naomi have fond memories of their dad buying them popcorn and soda, and running around the lobby of the gym during the games. Mr. Ooka often sat with three friends, local business owners, who were also great boosters of the CWSC basketball team.
One of the interesting facts about Carl is that he would advertise in the CWSC student newspaper, the “Campus Crier.” He once wrote a letter thanking the editor for covering local Ellensburg news items.
Washington Lottery Commission
The Washington State Lottery Commission was established in 1982 by the Washington State Legislature allowing the sale of lottery tickets to the general public. These funds were designated to cover the deficit of the general fund.
Carl Ooka was appointed to the three-member Lottery Commission in 1985 by then Governor Booth Gardner. Carl served two terms and voted on many new scratch-ticket products. At a Seattle Folklife Festival, he and his wife ran the booth for the Washington State Lottery; they engaged with the public and handed out Lottery merchandise. He was a member of the Commission until his death at age 64 in 1991 from stomach cancer.
Carl and Marie Ooka were active in the local Democratic Party for many years. They both were precinct captains and campaigned for local Democrats. They were firm believers in supporting struggling communities and disenfranchised populations, and in providing equity for all people.
Carl Ooka was a caring and action-oriented citizen of his community. As a Japanese American he was committed to contributing to the well-being of others. His love for family and state can be seen in his wide range of accomplishments. His most valuable legacy is his hard-working grandchildren who are also compassionate, community-minded individuals (Jenn Pang, Matt Pang [Kari], Ariana Swan [Demitri], Cameron Erwood, Connor Howard, Mirei Yasuda, Nicole Howard, and Sophia Hofman).