Remembering S.F. Japantown legend Yori Wada

Yori Wada. courtesy of the Wada Family

Nearly 20 years have passed since Yoritada “Yori” Wada passed away on Thanksgiving Day of 1997, but those who knew him still fondly remember the contributions the former executive director of the Buchanan YMCA made up until his death. The Buchanan YMCA inducted Wada into its Wall of Fame Oct. 21 in San Francisco during its annual fundraising dinner.

The most recent recognition followed years of research conducted by Rodney Chin, the Buchanan YMCA’s current executive director, to better understand his building’s history. “People would come in and tell me stories about Yori Wada and they would always start off, ‘Oh I remember Mr. Wada, he gave me my first job.’ Another story, ‘he got me out of jail.’ Another story, ‘I slept on his couch one night when I had nowhere to go,’” he said. “It was this constant theme.”

Wada’s son, Richard Wada, said his family’s role was to support their father and his work. He admitted, in giving thanks to the YMCA, that his father had spent more time at the YMCA than at home. “The Y wasn’t just a recreational center. It was running programs to deal with growing issues, particularly among the African American community,” he told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “The Y was a safe place, a safe haven so that people didn’t have to be concerned there was going to be any trouble.”

Yori Wada, who was executive director of the Buchanan YMCA from 1966 to 1982, often helped African American and Asian American youth find jobs. According to Jeff Mori, co-founder and former executive director of the Japanese Community Youth Council, Wada led the Western Addition Council of Youth Serving Agencies, which handled federal funding to help give summer jobs to youths through the local community service agencies.

Mori said he knew and worked with Wada from the early 1970s, shortly before he took the helm at the JCYC, until Wada’s death.

“We had a committee that went through recruitment, every organization within the council membership had a certain amount of jobs that we could select young people for and Yori would basically go through all the applications,” Mori said. “People would always go to Yori for different types of advice, on funding, support or recommendations.”

Mori said Wada wrote a letter of recommendation to help him get into San Francisco State College, and later wrote another letter that helped him attend graduate school at the University of San Francisco.

Not only was Wada active in the Western Addition, the Nisei administrator was also on the San Francisco Civil Service Commission, where he helped ease restrictions to allow more minorities and women to serve in the city’s police and fire departments.

Wada was also known for his vocal tenure as the first Asian American regent for the University of California, from 1977 to 1992. Mori noted that Wada was a firm supporter of affirmative action and the first regent to suggest the UC system divest from South Africa and was present for the ballot to reinvest in South Africa after Nelson Mandela became president.

Patrick Hayashi met Wada as an analyst in student services for UC Berkeley in the 1980s. “I met Yori when a friend suggested we drop by the Buchanan YMCA one Saturday morning to say hello,” Hayashi said in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly. “I thought that we couldn’t just drop by and visit a UC Regent without some kind of introduction and appointment. She laughed and said, ‘Yori isn’t like that.’ She, of course, was absolutely right. He greeted us warmly and invited us into his messy office and right away welcomed us by asking questions about our families and our lives.”

Hayashi, who would go on to become associate vice chancellor of admissions and enrollment for UC Berkeley in 1988 amid a bitter controversy over Asian American admissions, said Wada also worked with him on affirmative action. “My job was to change the way the campus did admissions to regain the trust of the Asian American community and to strengthen the campus’s strong affirmative action program aimed at reducing the underrepresentation of blacks, Hispanics and Filipinos,” Hayashi said in the e-mail. “These were issues that Yori felt passionately about and he would sometimes call to discuss strategies and ideas. At the time, Yori was chairperson of the regents, but, that position did not change him. He remained humble, respectful and determined to help the disadvantaged.”

Paul Osaki, executive director of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, wrote in an essay published in the now-defunct Hokubei Mainichi that Wada had led the 1980s campaign to raise the initial $3 million to build the center and recalled eating lunch with him after Osaki was hired as the center’s new executive director in 1989. “I was scared. I was only 28 years old and responsible for one of the largest projects the Japanese American community in San Francisco had ever undertaken,” he wrote.

“But he didn’t lecture me that day … he just asked me some questions and then we ate,” he said. “And in his silence, he said it all — that he approved of me taking the job despite my youth and that he would give his confidence to me and encourage me to be bold in my vision for the home he had helped build for this community.”

While it has been nearly 20 years since his passing, those who know firsthand of Wada’s contributions to the community continue to remember him fondly. “I think for those who knew him, and knew of his work or children, I think that (respect for him) has grown, but like most people, when you pass away, the memory of that person’s good deeds fade,” Richard Wada said. “It’s very nice that the Buchanan Y should honor him in this way.”

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