We Hate To See The Great Ones Go: Sue Kunitomi Embrey

Editor’s Note: As I was standing in front of the audience, relating my experiences with, and my deep admiration for, Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, at the July 17, 2011 event in which the Manzanar Committee honored her (see Manzanar Committee Lauds Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga With Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award On July 17, 2011), I could not help but think of former Manzanar Committee chair Sue Kunitomi Embrey, who passed away back in May 2006. The following is a piece I wrote about Sue that was published in the June 14, 2006 edition of the Rafu Shimpo.

LOS ANGELES — As many in the Los Angeles Japanese American community as well as most anyone who has been even remotely involved with Manzanar know, Sue Kunitomi Embrey, chair of the Manzanar Committee, passed away on May 15, 2006, at the age of 83. When I learned of the news, I was reminded of a comment made at a press conference a couple of months ago where Los Angeles Kings superstar left wing Luc Robitaille announced his retirement.

And before you think that I have gone off the deep end for bringing up ice hockey in a column about Embrey, please indulge me for a moment.

At that mid-April press conference, in his introductory remarks, Kings radio play-by-play announcer Nick Nickson said about Robitaille, “…we hate to see the great ones go.”

Fast forward back to the present and that comment about Robitaille clearly applies to Embrey as well, albeit in a different context.

I first met Embrey in 1986, back when I was an undergraduate at UCLA. I was heavily involved in the UCLA Nikkei Student Union (NSU) and the UCLA Asian Pacific Coalition at the time, and one evening, she came to an event on campus where Asian American women role models were honored.

As one of the honorees, Embrey told her story about how she was imprisoned at Manzanar as a young adult, how she became a community activist and how she and the Manzanar Committee were fighting to preserve Manzanar so that future generations would learn about the history and the injustice of the concentration camps so that no one else would suffer the same fate.

The fact that Embrey was one of the few Nisei who actually spoke openly of her experiences in camp left a big impression on me. She also talked about her work as a life-long educator, as a labor activist and as a social justice advocate.

I was so inspired by Embrey’s comments that night that I organized the first NSU trips to the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage from 1987-89. Moreover, except for one year when I had a cold, I have not missed a Pilgrimage since that time—it has become an annual tradition, even though no one in my immediate or distant family had been imprisoned, and I have Embrey and the Manzanar Committee to thank for that.

In 1991, when planning began for the year-long series of events here in Los Angeles and at UCLA to commemorate the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Japanese American Internment (1992), I got my first chance to work extensively with Sue (by this time, I knew her well enough to address her by her first name) and the Manzanar Committee. We spent many hours in planning meetings and in our work on what would be the largest Manzanar Pilgrimage ever in terms of attendance (over 2,000 people attended the 1992 Pilgrimage).

It was also during this time that Sue and the Manzanar Committee were working very hard to establish Manzanar as a National Historic Site. As I worked with her more and more, my admiration for her work, her fighting spirit, and her seemingly tireless dedication to the cause grew exponentially.

Shortly after the legislation to establish the Manzanar National Historic Site was enacted in March, 1992—our community could not have reached this great milestone without Sue—I joined the Manzanar Committee and later, I was honored to be appointed along with Sue to the Manzanar National Historic Site Advisory Commission, and I served with her for eight years.

During that time, Sue spent countless hours writing letters, talking on the telephone with National Park Service staff, lobbying members of Congress and so much more, all in our efforts to get the Manzanar National Historic Site up and running, despite an acute lack of funding in the first few years, not to mention initial opposition by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which was a real pain in the neck because they seemed to be concerned only about their water rights in the area.

During those early years of our time on the Advisory Commission, we worked with Ross Hopkins, the first Superintendent of the Manzanar National Historic Site. Ross was another person who deserves a lot of credit for Manzanar being what it is today, and his recent comments expressed what many people feel about Sue.

“In my 42 years of government service as a National Park Ranger, I never met or worked with anyone as selfless and as dedicated as Sue to the mission of ensuring in a positive way that what happened to people during this sad chapter of our country’s history would never be forgotten,” said Hopkins. “And hopefully, because of her efforts, never be repeated without an outcry from the American people.”

“It was a pleasure and a privilege to work with Sue, and I cannot think of anyone for whom I had more respect for her steadfastness of purpose, and admiration for her devotion to her cause,” added Hopkins. “She was truly an American.”

But even with the obstacles in our path in those early years of development, including lots of red tape created by the Federal bureaucracy, in her reserved, yet tough manner, Sue’s efforts were instrumental in getting us to where we are today—there is now a full-fledged Interpretive Center at Manzanar. And although there is still more work to be done, Sue’s dream of creating the Manzanar National Historic Site so that future generations can learn about the internment has been fulfilled.

Thankfully, Sue lived to see her dream become reality, and in her speech at the grand opening of the Interpretive Center on April 24, 2004, she talked about the importance of Manzanar.

“People ask me why it’s important to remember and keep Manzanar alive with this Interpretive Center,” said Embrey. “My answer is that stories like this need to be told, and too many of us have passed away without telling our stories.”

“The Interpretive Center is important because it needs to show to the world that America is strong as it makes amends for the wrongs it has committed, and that we will always remember Manzanar because of that.”

As I listened to her remarks, I could not help but think that Sue exemplified the same strength that she spoke of on that very hot April day at Manzanar. I hate to think about where our community would be without her fierce determination to make Manzanar a National Historic Site and to educate people about the internment.

“Because of her, hundreds of thousands of people have learned about the experiences of Japanese Americans during World War II,” said Alisa Lynch, Chief of Interpretation for the Manzanar National Historic Site. “As she helped us all understand, it is American history, not just Japanese American history. Sue left a legacy that will live for generations.”

Indeed, with the establishment of the Manzanar National Historic Site and its Interpretive Center, Sue’s legacy will live on. But that legacy will also live on in the hearts and minds of the many people whose lives she has touched, either directly or indirectly, because of the inspirational way she taught us all about the importance of educating others about the internment.

Sue, you will forever be one of the great ones, and for all you have done for our community, a belated thank you. You will be sorely missed.

The views expressed in this story are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.

LEAD PHOTO: Sue Kunitomi Embrey (center) listens intently during a small group session at the 2004 Manzanar At Dusk program, held at the American Legion Hall in Independence, California. Photo: Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee.

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