By RYOKO OHNISHI
RAFU STAFF WRITER
GARDENA — “My Dad had a green thumb. I hope the orchids will be presentable by the time of the show held in mid-February,” said Sandy Comer, 62, a retired teacher, as she looked at the flowering cymbidium buds at the greenhouse with her 93-year-old mother, Keiko.
Sandy’s father was Frank Akira Kageyama, a horticulturist who worked on the Manzanar Guayule Project during World War II. The project helped develop a new source of American rubber from the desert shrub called guayule for the war effort. Frank passed away on Dec. 7 last year at age 96.
Before the war, Frank and his four younger sisters lost their parents, so Frank had to quit school to work as a gardener to support his siblings. After the war broke out, Frank and his sisters were sent to the Manzanar. Frank was also known as a fisherman and is featured in Cory Shiozaki’s documentary film “The Manzanar Fishing Club,” which premiered in 2012. Frank met Keiko at Manzanar because they were in the same barrack, Number 29. Keiko was working at the hospital in Manzanar as an administrative assistant.
After the war, they got married and lived in Pasadena. “Akira first worked for Caltech to continue his Guayule Project, but he decided to return to his gardening job because it had much better conditions,” Keiko said.
Frank loved red and pink cymbidiums and he even pollinated and crossed these with different types and created his own strains, naming them after his wife and grandchild. Frank received the Bronze Award for his cymbidium named after his granddaughter, Jenna Lynn, in 2003 from the Cymbidium Society of America.
However, as he aged, he was not able to take care of the number of orchids that he used to, in particular, after he hurt his back in his late 80s.
Sandy says, “He would misplace the name labels after he repotted the orchids, so we did not know the name of the orchid until it bloomed. There are still some ‘strays’ in the greenhouse. My sister, Maria, and I worked together to help, developed a collection of photographs of the orchids. We try to identify the name of the orchid by the picture and write down the name on the labels. In the last few years, my father was not feeling well enough to take care of the orchids. I would go over and urge and help him repot his orchids to keep his interest up.”
After Sandy retired from Mountain View School District as a middle school physical education teacher in 2011, she started attending the GCC meetings with Frank and Keiko regularly to learn how to grow the orchids. “There is so much to learn and I just want to keep growing the orchids that my dad and my mom have cherished over the years,” she says.
This year, Sandy will be volunteering to be a monitor at the show and sit in the same spot where her father sat for many years during the show.
The GCC will host its 26th annual show on Feb. 16 and 17 at the Ken Nakaoka Community Center, 1670 W. 162nd St., Gardena. The show is free to the public and is sponsored by the City of Gardena Recreation Department. On Saturday, the exhibition will start at noon and the popular plant sale will begin at 10 a.m. The event will end at 5 p.m. on Saturday and 4 p.m. on Sunday.