Thelma Yasuhara (second from left), widow of Denny Yasuhara, participates in a groundbreaking ceremony for a middle school in Spokane, Wash. that will be named in his honor, in recognition of his work in civil rights.

SPOKANE, Wash. — The groundbreaking for Denny Yasuhara Middle School wsa held June 2 with Yasuhara’s widow, Thelma, among the dignitaries in attendance.

In May, Spokane Public Schools selected Yasuhara — a civil rights activist and Logan Elementary/Garry Middle School teacher — as one of three names for new middle schools.

Also chosen for the honor were Spokane Tribe elder Pauline Flett, who wrote the first Spokane-English dictionary, and Carla Peperzak, a Dutch Resistance operative and Holocaust freedom fighter who moved to Spokane in 2004.

Yasuhara, who was national president of the Japanese American Citizens League from 1994 to 1996, died at his home in Spokane in 2002 at the age of 76. He also served as president of JACL’s Spokane Chapter and governor of JACL’s Pacific Northwest District.

“Thank you for the honor that you have given my husband. He loved his students and he loved middle school,” Thelma Yasuhara said when the the announcement was made. “After he has been gone 18 years now, and there are still some of his former pupils who went to me every year, but they remembered him and that they loved him.”

Denny Yasuhara was born in Seattle in 1928. His mother died when he was an infant, so he was adopted by friends of the family who lived in Bonners Ferry, Idaho. He avoided the camps that most Japanese Americans in the Pacific Northwest were sent to during World War II because he lived outside the West Coast exclusion zone. During the war, the family relocated to Spokane.

He played a significant role in Spokane’s Japanese American community, forming the Hifumi En, a program that provided low-income housing to the elderly. The Hifumi En opened in 1973 and was the first owned project-based Section 8 community for the Spokane Housing Authority. Rent was usually one-fourth of one’s income and designed for those who were physically handicapped, were active in the military, or were displaced in some way by natural disaster or relocated by the government after World War II.

The Hifumi En board named a scholarship in honor of Denny and Thelma Yasuhara.

The couple also organized the Oriental Food Booth at the Spokane Interstate Fair, which provided funds for various JACL activities and scholarships for 17 years.

As a civil rights advocate, Yasuhara challenged both Washington State University and the Washington Democratic Party for fair representation of Asian Americans. WSU founded an Asian American studies program due to his efforts.

Denny Yasuhara (second from left) with fellow JACL leaders June Masuda Goto, Grayce Uyehara and Cherry Kinoshita at the signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 at the Old Executive Building in Washington, D.C.

When an official from the Spokane County Democratic Party used a racial slur (“chink”) to describe Asians in 1993, Yasuhara filed a civil rights lawsuit and demanded a public apology. In 1995, county Democrats apologized for the slur and settled the federal lawsuit by Yasuhara and the JACL. As part of the settlement, county Democrats created an internal grievance procedure for civil-rights complaints and committed to an affirmative action plan.

Yasuhara also had a hand in the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan after a decade-long legislative campaign. It provided $20,000 each to the survivors of the wartime camps and a formal apology from the government. Administered by the Justice Department, the payments began in 1990, starting with the oldest survivors, including many centenarians, and ended with the youngest, those born in camp.

As a science and math teacher for more than two decades before his retirement in 1989, Yasuhara was known as “Mr. Yas” and challenged his students to become the best versions of themselves. He gave them what they needed most, his time. “You can tell them you love them all you want, but if you give them your time it tells them so many things without a word,” he once said.

Joanne Ferris, a family friend, told KREM2, “He’s probably the best description of a servant leader. We’ve watched Denny for many years fight the fight and it hasn’t always been easy.

“He can go in and really want to make a difference. Some people can do that and they end up with everybody not agreeing or nobody’s happy, and Denny could go in and with that passion make sure everyone had a seat at the table.”

For his work for the betterment of Japanese Americans, Yasuhara received the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold and Silver Rays, from the Japanese government in 1994. He was also recognized as Man of the Year by Northwest Asian Weekly and received the Alumni Achievement Award from WSU.

Located in northeast Spokane, Denny Yasuhara Middle School is scheduled to open in August 2022. It is one of many projects that Spokane voters approved by passing a 2018 bond. The $495.3 million district-wide plan includes building three new middle schools; replacements of three existing middle schools; and replacing Joe Albi Stadium with a smaller multi-use stadium.

The middle school is the second school to be named after a family member of Thelma Yasuhara. In 1990, the Los Angeles Board of Education voted unanimously to rename Riggin Elementary School in East L.A. as Morris K. Hamasaki Elementary School, making it the first school in the LAUSD to be named for an Asian American. Hamasaki, Yasuhara’s brother and a popular principal at the school for 11 years, had passed away the year before. He was remembered for raising student test scores, bringing a sense of community to the school, and inspiring the mostly Latino students to set ambitious goals.

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