In the past week, the JACL has been struck with the loss of two pillars in our community. On November 20, Wataru “Wat” Misaka passed away in his hometown of Ogden, Utah at the age of 95. Yesterday, one week later, on November 27, Greg Marutani of San Francisco, California passed at the age of 72. Both men were recognized at the 2019 JACL Convention in Salt Lake City.
Misaka is best known for his exploits on the basketball court. As a college student he led Weber Junior College to two ICAC junior college titles before enrolling at the University of Utah where he led the team to an NCAA title in 1944. Like many others at the time, Misaka interrupted his college career to serve in the United States Army for two years in the Military Intelligence Service before returning to school and again leading Utah to the NIT tournament championship over the heavily favored University of Kentucky. His success led to his being a first round draft pick of the New York Knicks in the Basketball Association of America, the predecessor of today’s National Basketball Association. Although he played in only three games for the Knicks, his place in history was set as the first person of color to play professional basketball, just months after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball.
Former JACL President and close friend of Misaka, Floyd Mori offered the following statement in remembrance: “Wat was a hero to me when I was a child and continued to be a hero to young JA people today. Young people were anxious to meet him at this year's National JACL Convention where he received the President's Award. He was humble and spoke of family love when I visited the day before his passing. He was very grateful for his friends as well. It was a great honor to be his friend. We've lost a true legend in many respects.”
As the longtime chair of JACL’s National Education Committee (NEC), Greg Marutani was instrumental in training hundreds of teachers on how to utilize the story of Japanese American incarceration in their lesson plans to teach civil rights. He emphasized that the Japanese American story was one not only one of egregious wrong, but also of how to do things the right way, to seek redress within the Constitution, and continue to fight injustice today. In addition to his role as a speaker and instructor, he championed key JACL initiatives such as the Power of Words, to reframe the incarceration experience in a more truthful nomenclature.
Marutani was not the type of person to take credit for his work, but was well loved and respected for his tireless involvement in the San Francisco Japantown. San Francisco Chapter President John Hayashi stated, “Greg Marutani was in many ways the ultimate volunteer. You knew whatever he was working on would be important to the community. His efforts were always focused and he got things done efficiently. He was always working on something for the good of others. I don’t ever recall him being idle.”
Marutani in accepting JACL’s highest service award the Ruby Pin, effused the modesty and humility that permeated his service in thanking the many educators he had worked with in his role as chair of the NEC. He was known for his work locally and nationally and will be fondly remembered by many. The national JACL staff and board will miss Greg’s regular presence in the office and at board meetings.
We mourn the loss of these two beloved men who dedicated their lives to making a difference in the world. We are grateful for the impact of their work and for the light they brought to our communities. Through their accomplishments future generations will continue to be inspired and for those who were lucky enough to have met them we are better people for having had them in our lives. While they might be gone, they will never be forgotten.