Three hours have never passed so fast.
The recent NVC Memorial Hall Open House opened up to the public part of the massive NVC archives and put on a powerful show of history that had many pleading for more.
It was promoted primarily as a “pop-up museum” and an event to view the new gym floor, plus take a tour of the Memorial Hall and the Memorial Wall, while enjoying live music by Deems Tsutakawa and a complimentary glass of wine.
Held from 1-4 p.m. on Saturday, March 9, I volunteered to “cover it” as a reporter and photographer. Figured I’d be in and out of there in a couple of hours. After all, I had already talked to the event’s head organizer, Geri Lynne Egeler, and got a sense of what to expect. It’s an “open house” right? Come and go as you please. Wrong.
I realized that as soon as I walked in the door and was greeted by an amazing display of historic photos and artifacts covering much of the gleaming new basketball court, with its strikingly bold NVC logo painted as the center circle.
I snapped a few pictures of that, spun around and got a shot of the “Wine bar” and table of home-baked brownies hosted by Denise and Les Inaba, Ted Tomita, Greg Egeler and Betty Kobayashi.
Nearby was Dale Watanabe with his daughter, Ren, and his mother, Matsue Watanabe, the legendary “Iron Lady” of senior triathlons I had heard about and read about and admired but had never met.
So, I got a group shot of them on the court and then ran into Ats Kiuchi, who told me about how he attended the original open house in 1938, when the building housed a kendo club. (The NVC bought the building in 1951.)
Wow. Someone who was here way back then? So I clicked on my recorder as Ats described the history of the building and neighborhood. But it was so loud in the gym that we moved into the hallway outside of the “Medal of Honor Room” (also known as the “War Room”), and I was in trouble.
At this point, I hadn’t had time to check out one display and already it was the best open house I had ever attended. And it would only get better. Here is my short report.
The event and its pop-up museum drew wide praise, especially for its focus on the lives of the Nisei and the challenges they faced when returning home after World War II. Previous exhibits were more focused on life before and during the war.
"Awesome!” was NVC Foundation President Warren Higa’s reaction. The key thing, he said, was the effect it can have on the younger generations. “Hopefully, they get a sense of who they are because of where they came from and the values that they were taught,” Higa said.
The postwar photos from the 1950s and 1960s made a connection with the youth. “Want to see a picture of my grandpa?” one was heard saying to a young friend. Another cried out, “That’s my uncle!”
NVC Commander Walt Tanimoto also applauded the work, calling it “a great success.”
Tanimoto went on to say that the open house “provided an opportunity for the NVC and the NVC Foundation to express our thanks to the members and the community for their support and donations to replace the gym floor. The exhibits also offered many people to relive fun and great moments in NVC history, and time to mix and mingle with each other while listening to music and eating home-cooked, tasty foods.”
John Okamoto, son of the late, great NVC stalwart Tosh Okamoto, took to social media, posting on Facebook two pictures he took of a front page of an old NVC Newsletter that was on display at the open house. A smiling young John was pictured sitting on the lap of a Santa Claus. One that made a deep impression on this happy, grateful kid.
John wrote on Facebook: “I found this picture today at an open house hosted by the NVC and NVC Foundation. In December 1961, I met a Japanese American Santa thanks to the Nisei Veterans Committee who hosted the annual Christmas party. Thank you all. Keep up the great work.”
That post went nearly viral, attracting more than 100 “Likes” and comments by the time this story was written a few days later.
Both President Higa and Commander Tanimoto saluted the work of the many volunteers and of the four event organizers: Geri Lynne Egeler, Denise Inaba, Ken Mochizuki, and Keith Yamaguchi.
Egeler in turn provided this list of volunteers to credit (in addition to those mentioned above), beginning with “Historian Louise Kashino.” The others are Karen Fleming, Susii Higa, Dean Hoshizaki, Bruce Inaba, Dale Kaku, Erin Kato, Derek Ishihara, Bev Kashino, Shelley Yee Kato, Ats Kiuchi, Zack Parkerson, Emma Pfohl, Chris Sketchley, Kerry Taniguchi, Janet Tomita, Doug Tsujii, Susan Uyeji, Bryce Vandenberg and MaryAnn Yamaguchi.
Earning “Special Thanks” was 92-year-old Matsue Watanabe, because as Egeler put it: “Matsue is always there without needing to be asked!”
Multi-purpose with a purpose
Even without the pop-up museum, the NVC Memorial Hall is full of museum-like historical displays, photos, proclamations, flags and plaques. A baseball uniform, pants and jersey, is framed at the end of a downstairs hallway, just past the restrooms. Wherever you look …
Other “Memorial Halls” that I’ve seen, by comparison, can appear sterile and soulless. That’s what makes the NVC Memorial Hall such a special place. It is a facility that is multi-purpose with a purpose.
It’s like a combination community center, basketball court, museum, library, dance hall, restaurant, landmark and above all, a place to honor the past and educate the future. A place to gaze at a Memorial Wall and pay your respects to the dearly departed. And then have a party!
In addition to serving as a pop-up museum, the gymnasium during the open house served as a concert hall as Deems Tsutakawa and his bandmates, sax player Gordon Uchima and conga drummer Michael Baruso, filled the two-story building with warm, jazzy music that gave the day a friendly, festive vibe.
The new gym floor looked great, felt solid. The old floor, placed on top of an older floor, had “soft spots.” As NVCF President Higa said: “You’d start dribbling, all of a sudden the ball doesn’t come up.”
There was no dribbling on open house day. The new floor had been taken over by the pop-up museum of old photos, newspaper clippings, and other mementos. Some were on tables, others were hung out like laundry, hanging from clothes pins on clothes lines.
That was one of the many creative displays created and built by Geri Lynne Egeler and Bruce Inaba. To give the pop-up museum a vintage touch, Egeler went to Goodwill, bought an old typewriter for $7, a typewriter ribbon online and typed up information about the photos on index cards.
Down the hall from the gym, visitors squeezed into the “Medal of Honor Room” also known as the “War Room” where Chris Sketchley held court amid displays of uniforms, medals and other memorabilia. A writer from Tacoma, Merilee Tanbara, took notes for possible use in a book she is working on about the history of Tacoma’s Japantown.
Downstairs in the “Go For Broke Room” (also known as the “Incarceration Room), tour guide Bruce Inaba stood in front of a re-creation of a barracks wall in a concentration camp that he had made. The view from the “window” was of a photo by famed photographer Ansel Adams, showing the desolate, bleak landscape that surrounded Manzanar.
The room also contains a big picture of a baseball game at the Manzanar concentration camp in California, just up the road from Death Valley. A large crowd of incarcerated Japanese Americans surround the field, watching their sports heroes in camp.
“When the Issei were sent to camp, they knew it was important to do activities to keep the morale up,” Inaba told the tour group of people gathered in the room. “With all the negative things going on in camp, they didn’t want that to affect the younger generation. So they built baseball fields,” Inaba said.
And in the process, they built up bonds between them that remain intact today. And thank goodness they didn’t toss their mementos and other memories of that time. They sure have been put to good use, thanks to the NVC and NVC Foundation.
After the event was over and people were still lingering downstairs more than an hour later, Geri Lynne Egeler didn’t seem weary after putting in countless hours organizing and gathering and getting ready for this day. She seemed energized by the whirlwind tour through NVC history and was hoping that regular “museum hours” could be established. To her and many others, this was just a beginning.
“Three hours is not enough time to sit down and really take it all in,” Egeler said. “This is just kind of the tip of the iceberg. It was hard to pick and choose, there is so much. It’s just amazing when you can take the time to go through it.”
[Bill Kossen is a life member of the NVC Foundation and a former newspaper reporter, photographer and editor. His father, Carl K. Kossen, was a life member of the NVC. His brick is on the Memorial Wall.]
-- Photos of the NVC Memorial Hall Open House can be found on the NVC Foundation Facebook.
-- To read more about the new gym floor, go to: