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Shigeru Yabu: The Best of Man

With a legacy that includes fathering the Boys & Girls Club of Camarillo and writing a children’s book that puts a positive spin on his own childhood in a WWII Japanese internment camp, Shigeru Yabu has affected the lives of countless people

By Maxine Hurt

Photo by Benjamin F. Kuo.

 

n 1967, Shigeru “Shig” Yabu did two things that would affect the lives of hundreds of young people in Camarillo. Firstly, he accepted a position as executive director of the Boys Club of Camarillo. (Girls were formally admitted in 1976.) Secondly, he emptied his three sons’ savings accounts to transform a condemned house at 2825 Barry Street into a safe haven for boys.

Shig was the organization’s first ED, making the already challenging task of fundraising even more difficult. He received a relatively small grant from the Southern California Foundation, but the money quickly dwindled when faced with the overwhelming list of expenses needed to start a club from the ground up. “Everything was stacked against me when I first got here,” says Shig, who had worked as a volunteer and staff member at four other Boys Clubs—in San Diego, Los Angeles, and Santa Monica—before settling in Camarillo.

In addition to the necessities, Shig, an avid basketball player, wanted at least one luxury for the kids: “Every Boys Club executive director’s dream, especially if you love basketball, is to have a hardwood floor court. Most clubs have linoleum, which is bad on your legs.” Unfortunately, low funds guaranteed a linoleum floor court and bad knees. So Shig went back to the board and tested the waters with a simple appeal. “I asked for a broom, dust pan, and a mop,” he says, “but the board members rejected the request.” Now Shig knew he’d have to get creative. That’s when he dipped into his kids’ savings and the fundraising really began.

At the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming, temperatures dropped well below zero, yet Shigeru Yabu recalls warm memories of sharing ice skates and a code of helping one another.

Shig mobilized friends and community members and got the boys out raising money for their club. His efforts quickly paid off. When actor Joel McCrea donated land to the club, they sold it and used the profit to build the gymnasium. Lindsay Howard, the son of Seabiscuit owner Charles Howard, donated 10 acres of orange trees, which the boys harvested, selling the fruit. The club also raised money by starting the first Camarillo recycling program, and for months Shig spent his Saturdays hauling cans and bottles to the Port Hueneme Harbor. At the end of the day, the boys got a club with a hardwood floor gymnasium. And at age 75, Shig’s knees are still in pretty good condition.

In 1968, Shig was named Camarillo’s Young Man of the Year; in 1974, he was Man of the Year; and in 1986, Shig retired from the Boys & Girls Club. Just three years ago, he was named Father of the Boys and Girls Club of Camarillo. At the award ceremony, he and his wife, Irene, received a standing ovation.

“The old members, who are now in their early 50s, are coming back and thanking me,” he explains. “I don’t expect it, and what’s interesting are the things that they remember.” Shig himself remembers a lot. One cold, rainy night, he closed the club early and took the last two remaining boys to a Camarillo High School basketball game. When the game was over, one of the boys asked if they needed to start sweeping the court. Shig was happy to tell them, “Not tonight.”

It’s hard for Shig to express exactly why working with kids has been a central part of his life. But when you consider his childhood, particularly three crucial years between the ages of 10 and 13, the reason slowly materializes. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Shig and his mother were forced to leave their San Francisco home and spend three years in the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Park County, Wyoming. Ironically, Shig’s uncle was serving in the U.S. military at the time—in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, 100th Infantry Battalion—an Asian American unit of primarily Japanese Americans that became the most decorated unit in the history of the United States military.

Decades later in Camarillo, Yabu still shoots a mean one-hander with the California Cowboys and continues to benefit from, and share, the philosophy of acceptance he learned at “camp” in the mid-1940s.

For Shig, most memories of the internment camp are halcyon glimpses into a boyhood marked by camaraderie and innocent mischief. Although he and his friends missed home and often swapped stories about walking across the recently erected Golden Gate Bridge and watching the China Clipper ships land on Treasure Island, life at the internment camp felt something like summer camp.

The older kids joined the younger ones to watch movies, play football and basketball, swim, hike, and go ice skating. “We’d borrow each other’s skates and stuff the toe with cotton to make them fit,” says Shig. “Camp” held an unspoken code: the older kids always helped out the younger ones. “By just being accepted, we were being taught, whether we knew it or not,” he explains, pointing out a parallel between that concept and the Boys & Girls Club philosophy.

Shig’s exuberance, however, dims as he recalls the internment camp’s effect on the adults: “During lunch hour, there was this long line and they would run out of food. The mess hall would have to scramble and cook something else, and we would wait. A lot of the elderly people would be fainting.”

The brutal Wyoming winters proved unbearable for many internees, who had entered the camp with their summer clothes. One winter, the temperature dropped to 23 degrees below zero. Shig’s barrack, 14-1-C, consisted of a single light hanging from the ceiling, four beds with army blankets, and painfully thin tarpaper walls that wind easily passed through. “You could see steam coming out of our mouths,” says Shig. “We had a pot belly stove, but by the time morning came, the fire was out.”

For the kids, time at camp was rarely measured. No one wore watches or had clocks. Only the clang of the camp’s bell each morning, afternoon, and evening alerted them to the passing days. Eventually, Shig and his friends found a way to crawl underneath the camp’s barbed wire fence and left the facility to explore. Hunting with sling shots along the Shoshone River became another way to fill the days. On one of their adventures, Shig encountered the inspiration that would, 60 years later, develop into his children’s book, “Hello Maggie” (Yabitoon Books, $11.95).

“We started hitting this one magpie nest and it started shaking,” he recalls. “It hit the ground, rolled, and came to a stop. We looked inside and saw this baby magpie.” Believing the baby bird would be abandoned by its mother, a penitent Shig took the bird back to his barrack. He named it Maggie.

“I would go downstairs and yell at the bird, ‘Hello, Maggie,’ and one day it said to me ‘Hello, Maggie.’” This past year, Shig published “Hello Maggie,” a story about his experience in the internment camp and his friendship with a talking magpie. The book is illustrated by Willie Ito, a retired Walt Disney illustrator who spent WWII in an internment camp in Topaz, Utah.

Amazingly, most of Shig’s recollections of Heart Mountain are heartwarming—even joyful. He’s understanding rather than antagonistic, forgiving rather than accusatory. “Our country is very young. We’ve made mistakes in the past, and we will make mistakes in the future. We are still the greatest country in the world,” says Shig, who volunteered and served in the Navy during the Korean War. Today, he is a board member for the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation and has three sons—Dale, Brian, and Jerry—and two grandsons—Evan and Tyler.

Like the best of men, Shig built his legacy quietly, without premeditation, and with an unaffected pride that has impacted his community. When praised for his achievements, he shakes his head and says, “No. There were so many people that helped me.” One of those people was Hank Luisetti, a Stanford University basketball player who invented the running one-handed shot in the 1930s. Hank visited Shig’s high school and taught him and his classmates the signature move. At age 66, Shig won a gold medal at the Silicon Valley Senior Olympic Games for sinking 22 of 25 free throws. No doubt, somebody somewhere is winning—and this time it was Shig who helped.

02-01-2008

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