The following is an expanded version of a story about 2016 Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award recipient Bob Gracey that will appear in the printed program for the 47th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage on Saturday, April 30, 2016, at the Manzanar National Historic Site.
LOS ANGELES — For most people, even those who are familiar with the history behind the former Manzanar concentration camp becoming a National Historic Site, the name Robert W. “Bob” Gracey probably doesn’t ring a bell.
As one might guess, Gracey was not a former World War II incarceree. He wasn’t a community or civil rights activist, nor was he an academic type who researched Manzanar or the Japanese American Incarceration experience.
Despite that, Gracey played a critical role in the development of the Manzanar National Historic Site, and for his contributions, he has been named as the 2016 recipient of the Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award.
The award was named after the late chair of the Manzanar Committee who was one of the founders of the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, and was the driving force behind the creation of the Manzanar National Historic Site.
Gracey joins two other Owens Valley locals, Bill Michael, former Director of the Eastern California Museum, and the late Keith Bright, former member of the Inyo County Board of Supervisors, who were co-recipients of the award in 2010.
Gracey, 87, the youngest of nine children, was born on December 10, 1928, in Kearsarge, about five miles east of Independence, which is roughly eight miles north of Manzanar. His father ran the Southern Pacific Railroad station there until it closed in 1932.
Gracey’s father was then transferred to the Salt Lake line, and the family lived at stations between Reno, Nevada and Ogden, Utah until his father retired in 1939.
That year, Gracey and two of his younger sisters returned to the Owens Valley to live in Independence with other members of the family.
After graduating from Owens Valley High School in 1946, Gracey spent one year in Alaska, and also served in the military during the Korean War.
After his service in Korea, Gracey returned to the Owens Valley and worked for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) as a hydrographer. His duties included checking on LADWP wells at Manzanar,
But Gracey and his family had other reasons to go to Manzanar back then.
“We used to go out and gather the pears [and] the apples every year,” Gracey said in a 2002 oral history with the National Park Service. “There was also a place where we got wild asparagus. That was one thing that a lot of people did in the early 1950’s, and it was good fruit.”
Gracey went on to build a new store for his father-in-law in the late 1960’s, Austin’s General Store, in Independence. Gracey ran the store for more than twenty years before handing it down to his children (the family is no longer affiliated with Austin’s).
Gracey was elected in late 1992 to the Inyo County Board of Supervisors, representing the Fourth District, which includes the Manzanar National Historic Site. Almost immediately after taking office, he dove, head first, into work to establish and develop the site.
“After starting my time as Fourth District Supervisor in January 1993, my interest in Manzanar, and what my new job was all about, went into high gear,” Gracey said in a February 2016 interview. “Manzanar, to me, had a huge potential to be two things: Inyo County would have a new National Park site to complement Death Valley National Park. This site, in my mind, would be a great economic boost to Southern Inyo, and it would help ease the pain created by the act of the federal government which created the ‘need’ for the camp.”
“Congress passed the legislation to create the Manzanar National Historic Site in 1992,” he added. “I took a great interest in it. I saw the potential, and I did everything within my power as a Supervisor to promote it, further it, and get it on board, working with all parties.”
“When I was elected, it put me in a position to be a real force to continue the work [Gracey’s predecessor as Fourth District Supervisor] Keith Bright had started.”
Two critical projects that Gracey played a key role in were the hazardous materials cleanup of the former Manzanar High School auditorium (now the Visitors Center), which had been used by Inyo County as a maintenance facility for decades, and the land exchange that would allow the Manzanar National Historic Site to be expanded from its original 500 acres to its current 814 acres.
While these projects might seem to be fairly straightforward and routine, the exact opposite was true, primarily because there were so many governmental agencies involved.
“Someone once told me that it was like a three-dimensional chess game, and they were right, because we were faced up against LADWP, BLM, and the County,” said the first Superintendent of the Manzanar National Historic Site, Ross Hopkins, now retired. “This was far more complicated than anything else I had done in the National Park Service over a long period of time.”
“When you put the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and the County of Inyo at the same table, you have a set of circumstances that, had it not been for Congress creating the site and saying, ‘you will do it,’ it would’ve been very difficult to get those parties to agree,” said Gracey. “It was difficult enough to get them to agree.”
“You’re talking about some really high-powered players who are used to getting their own way, the two governmental agencies and LADWP,” added Gracey. “The County gets the crumbs that are leftover.”
Although both projects were in motion at the same time, the hazardous materials cleanup of the auditorium had to be completed before the National Park Service could take ownership of the land, and prior to any land exchange.
“Bob had his hands on the pulse of that project,” Hopkins recalled. “He would constantly come up with information that I didn’t know the County had.”
Gracey took the lead on the project for Inyo County, and was responsible for convincing the National Park Service to advance the County a portion of the money earmarked for construction of their new maintenance facility when the County ran out of money to complete the job.
“I worked diligently—weeks—getting the County, which owned the land where the auditorium now sits, to move,” Gracey recalled. “I worked weeks with the National Park Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, [Inyo County] Public Works, and [Inyo County] Environmental Health to get that site cleaned—environmentally squeaky clean—where it would meet Federal acceptance standards.”
“That was a chore, because we had petrochemical leakage out of a tank in the back that we had to dig up,” Gracey added. “We had untold things that we had to contend with. That building had been used by the County since 1952 as a maintenance shop, so oil and fuel had spilled on the floor. We had to buy a special chipping hammer to remove a layer of the concrete because it was contaminated before the Park Service would accept it.”
It took a lot of pushing and arm-twisting to get the necessary people to move, most notably, in the Inyo County Department of Public Works.
“Bob worked with the County Public Works Department,” said Hopkins. “He talked to the [head of that department] and things would just happen.”
“I had a standing meeting with Public Works every Monday at 8:00 AM to try to expedite cleanup,” Gracey recalled. “I had to push Public Works every week. They dragged their feet.”
Meanwhile, work on the land exchange was ongoing, with Gracey being involved in the negotiations and in drafting the final agreement.
“One of the major things that had to occur was the ownership of the property,” Gracey explained. “The property that was identified, and it started out as just the camp area, roughly 500 acres, that belonged to LADWP. It had been leased by the federal government to establish the camp. Since that time, it had been turned loose, and it was back in LADWP ownership.”
“I did a lot of work with [Representative] Jerry Lewis’ office in Washington,” Gracey elaborated. “At the outset of the creation of the park, the Board of Supervisors took a position that if the park is created, the County does not want to experience any loss of tax revenue. That is what brought about the exchange of property, which was a major undertaking.”
Five separate parcels, owned by the federal government and administered by BLM, were part of the package.
“In order to [gain ownership of the property], and meet the request of the County of Inyo, there had to be a land trade, so to speak,” said Gracey. “The trade involved several phases. 500 acres had to be given up by LADWP so the site could be established. In the process, some other stuff [archeological finds were discovered], so we want another 300 acres. The actual site is now 814 acres.”
“That became the site, but in order for the site to be put in control of the National Park Service, and to meet the requirement of Inyo County that there be no loss of property tax revenue, several things had to occur,” added Gracey. “They had to identify land away from Manzanar that might be suitable for the LADWP to acquire since they were giving up 814 acres at Manzanar.”
Gracey was never the flashy, flamboyant type, nor was he ever one to seek credit or fame. Nevertheless, he played a critical role in the success of both projects,
“Bob always had his finger on the pulse of the community and he worked behind the scenes to grease the skids for me to get things done with County officials,” Hopkins emphasized. “I was an unknown quantity in Inyo County, and when you come in as a federal employee in a rural area, they look askance at you until you prove yourself.”
“He wasn’t a federal employee,” Hopkins added. “He was a local guy. You can’t get any more local than living in Independence, and he had built relationships with other movers and shakers within other agencies, and at other levels of government.”
Gracey took on a leading role regarding Manzanar on behalf of Inyo County, but not only because the site was in his district. He also understood the importance of the Manzanar National Historic Site on all levels. During his oral history, he said that the Manzanar National Historic Site was a “national treasure,” and a “tremendous asset to the Eastern Sierra.”
“The bottom line is that it recognizes and attempts to correct a terrible mistake that was made in our past history,” he said. “That ticked me off [back in the war years]. I’m kind of an outspoken person, and if you start messing with my personal property rights, my individual rights, which are guaranteed, I get mad. They’re lucky that this group of individuals didn’t get angrier.”
“I hope it will educate a lot of people to the point that it can never happen again,” he added. “It would be really tragic if something like this ever happened again. It would prove to me that the United States has got it head in the sand, that we’re not paying attention.”
As alluded to earlier, Gracey is modest to a fault. During his work related to the Manzanar National Historic Site, he was unassuming and never drew attention to himself.
“I was fortunate to be part of the project,” he said. “I just happened to be in office from 1993-96, when all this occurred, and I had the skill to do what I had to do at my level to pull it off. When something needed to be done, I just did what was necessary to keep the project moving forward. I was totally committed to seeing the project completed.”
“The fact that I was in the right place at the right time to have been a part of this project makes me feel good,” he added. “In a lifetime, you are lucky to have an opportunity like Manzanar. I did, and I continue to enjoy the benefits.”
“I did an awful lot of work for the project. I’d do it again.”
As stated previously, Gracey’s work was done mostly behind-the-scenes. But his contributions loom large to this day.
“There are the people who get out in front, carrying the flag in the parade, and then there are those who are just on the fringes of the crowd, but are the ones who really got it done,” Hopkins observed. “In terms of his work on Manzanar, Bob was certainly one of those people.”
“I know it’s a cliché, but Bob is really an unsung hero,” said Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey. “Bob exemplified the ideal of public service. What he did was essential to making the dream of the Manzanar National Historic Site a reality. We truly are pleased to be able to thank Bob for his vision and honor him for all of his hard work on behalf of the Manzanar National Historic Site.”
Gann Matsuda, who writes from Culver City, California, is the Manzanar Committee’s Director, Communications and Social Media/Web Editor.
LEAD PHOTO: Robert W. “Bob” Gracey, shown here as a member of the Inyo County Board of Supervisors. Official Inyo County photo by Michael Cooke/Cooke’s Fine Photography.
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I felt extremely fortunate to attend this year’s Pilgrimage and see Bob Gracey receive the Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award. It was Gracey’s dedication in honoring Manzanar and fighting against big government agencies that allowed the Manzanar site to expand from 500 acres to its current 814 acres. I felt privileged to see Gann’s tribute and Bob Gracey receive the prestigious award.