Dr. Henry “Hank” Oyama passed away on Tuesday.
The last time I saw Hank Oyama was about 2 years ago. I ran into him at an event Downtown and he asked me to walk him back to his car. It quickly became obvious that he really needed no particular help, but that he just wanted some company while he wandered around the heart of the city he loved to share some stories, and he was certainly someone who had more than a few stories to tell.
Hank was born and raised in Barrio El Hoyo. Though his parents were immigrants from Japan (via Mexico), Hank was Catholic and spoke plenty of Spanish growing up. He sometimes joked that he thought he was Mexican until the day in 1942 that he was sent, with his family, to a desolate internment camp for Japanese-Americans on the Colorado River.
Though such an injustice would be enough to sour most folks on the American experiment, it seems to have had an opposite effect on Hank. His great faith in his country drove him to work to make things better. He joined the Army toward the end of World War II, where he was assigned to the intelligence corps for his language skills, though, he joked that he thought at the time that this was due to some sort of misunderstanding as his Spanish was better than his Japanese. Eventually, he became an officer as the Army Air Corps was spun off into a military branch of its own. He remained in the Air Force Reserve until his retirement as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1985.
Having returned to Tucson to earn a degree at the University of Arizona, he became a teacher at Pueblo High School, where his students included numerous Tucson luminaries such as Art Eckstrom, former State Representative Phil Hubbard, and my mother. My mother tells me that at Pueblo, Hank told the largely Mexican-American student body that the language and culture that they learned at home was just as important and valuable as what they were learning in school. To a woman whose mouth had once been washed out with soap as punishment for the high crime of speaking Spanish on the playground, this sentiment was heartening.
(An ironic note here: The Tucson Unified School District named a school for Oyama in 2003. There is also a TUSD school named for the aforementioned teacher who punished my mother. Tucson is a complicated place.)
It was in this spirit that Hank worked with fellow Pueblo teachers Adalberto Guerrero and María Urquides to create what became one of the first bilingual education programs in the United States. Their revolutionary work became a national model, gave rise to an entire generation of Mexican-American leadership, and turned the public schools away from the idea that culture should be embraced and integrated rather than actively suppressed.
It was at about the same time that Hank got involved in another fight of national importance, though it seems now like it should have been a minor thing. In 1959, he tried to marry his college sweetheart, Mary Ann Jordan. It turned out that it was illegal in Arizona for a Japanese man to marry an Anglo woman, so they sued. They won in Pima County Superior Court, but the state was eager to appeal. The legislature, however, being a saner institution than it is now, was not eager for what promised to be a drawn-out battle that would likely lead to the law being declared invalid at the United States Supreme Court, repealed the statute. Had the legislature not been so ambivalent in this regard, Loving v. Virginia would have instead been Oyama v. Arizona and might have happened a few years earlier.
In 1970, Hank became an administrator at the infant Pima College, where he spent the remainder of his career. By the time he retired it was one of the largest and most well-regarded community colleges in the country.
Though Hank slowed down considerably over the last few years, he remained active and visible with regard to the causes he cared about, such as when he spoke out against the very misguided new admissions policy at Pima Community College. He always remained a humble, very principled man who was always available to dispense wisdom, encouragement, or a joke. In my own career in politics, I was always thankful for his support during difficult times (we shared a taste in guayabera shirts), and I know that I am not alone in this sentiment. He was a hero and example to me and many others.
Hank lived to see much of his work, perhaps too much, reversed in recent years. This did not seem to faze him, though it was clearly a disappointment. There are generations of Tucson leaders who are where they are because of the work he did, and this was his real legacy. I think he was quite happy with that, and that is why he always seemed to be smiling.