SPOKANE, Wash. – The Denny Yasuhara Middle School grand opening took place on June 2 with Yasuhara’s widow, Thelma, among dignitaries in attendance.
In May, Spokane Public Schools selected Yasuhara – a civil rights activist and teacher from Logan Elementary / Garry Middle School – as one of three names for the new colleges.
Pauline Flett, elder of the Spokane tribe, who wrote the first Spokane-English dictionary, and Carla Peperzak, member of the Dutch Resistance and Holocaust freedom fighter who moved to Spokane in 2004 were also chosen for this honor.
Yasuhara, who served as 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 has also served as President of the Spokane Chapter of JACL and Governor of the Pacific Northwest District of JACL.
“Thank you for the honor you have done my husband. He loved his students and he loved college, ”Thelma Yasuhara said during the announcement. “After he’s gone 18 now, and there are still some of his alumni who visited me every year, but they remembered him and they loved him.”
Denny Yasuhara was born in Seattle in 1928. His mother passed away as a baby, so he was adopted by family friends 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 moved to Spokane.
He played an important role in the Japanese-American community of Spokane, forming the Hifumi En, a program that provided low-income housing for the elderly. Hifumi En opened in 1973 and was the first project-based Section 8 community owned by the Spokane Housing Authority. Rent typically made up a quarter of income and was intended for people with physical disabilities, active in the military, or displaced in some way by natural disaster or relocated by the government after World War II.
Hifumi En’s Board of Directors has named a scholarship in honor of Denny and Thelma Yasuhara.
The couple also hosted 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 because of his efforts.
When a Spokane County Democratic Party official used a racial insult (“chink”) to describe Asians in 1993, Yasuhara filed a civil rights lawsuit and demanded a public apology. In 1995, County Democrats apologized for the insult and settled the federal lawsuit against Yasuhara and JACL. As part of the settlement, County Democrats created an internal complaints procedure for civil rights complaints and pledged to put in place an affirmative action plan.
Yasuhara also helped pass the 1988 Civil Liberties Act, which was enacted by President Ronald Reagan after a ten-year legislative campaign. He provided $ 20,000 each to survivors of war camps and a formal government apology. Administered by the Department of Justice, payments began in 1990, starting with the oldest survivors, many of whom were centenarians, and ended with the youngest, those born in the 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 as much as you want, but if you give them your time, it tells them so much without a word”, a- he said one day.
Joanne Ferris, a family friend, told KREM2: “He’s probably the best description of a servant leader. We have seen Denny fight for many years and it hasn’t always been easy.
“He can come in and really wants to make a difference. Some people can do that and end up with everyone who disagrees or no one is happy, and Denny could come in and with that passion make sure everyone has a seat at the table.
For his work for the betterment of Japanese Americans, Yasuhara was awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold and Silver Rays, from the Japanese government in 1994. He was also recognized as the Man of the year by Northwest Asia Weekly and received the Alumni Achievement Award from the WSU.
Located in northeast Spokane, Denny Yasuhara Middle School is slated to open in August 2022. It’s one of many projects Spokane voters have approved by passing a 2018 bond. District scale of $ 495.3 million includes construction of three new colleges; the replacement of three existing colleges; and the replacement of the Joe Albi stadium with a smaller multi-purpose stadium.