Editor’s note: America lost one of its most passionate civil and human rights advocates on June 1 with the passing of Mary Yuri Kochiyama at the age of 93 in Berkeley, Calif. While most people knew of Mary’s — and her late husband Bill’s — involvement in fighting for civil rights and human dignity, not as many knew about the aloha spirit by which they lived their lives.
I met Mary and Bill Kochiyama only once, in 1993, at a reception hosted by the 442nd Veterans Club in their honor. I was surprised to see Henry Isara there. I knew Henry from Okinawan community activities. He was in the line of people waiting to chat with Mary and Bill. He said he had met them while serving in the U.S. Coast Guard.
I didn’t realize how much of an impact Mary and Bill — and especially Mary — had had on Henry’s life. Shortly after news of her passing was announced, Henry emailed me, asking if I had an address for a family member because he wanted to send them a sympathy card. The Kochiyama children didn’t know Henry, but he wanted them to know what their parents had had meant to him. I asked Henry to share that story with our readers.
During the Korean War, I served in the U.S. Coast Guard and was stationed at the Coast Guard Station on Staten Island in New York City from 1952 to 1954.
Whenever we had liberty (days off), we would meet at the Roxy Bowling Alley, which was just across the street from Radio City Music Hall in Times Square. The bar in the bowling alley became a meeting place for Hawai‘i people stationed in New York City as well as for people from Hawai‘i who now lived in the Big Apple and new friends we had made.
The Roxy Bowling Alley became a regular meeting place for all of us. We invited anyone and everyone with Hawai‘i ties to meet us there.
At one of these gatherings, someone told us about a couple named Bill and Mary Kochiyama who welcomed servicemembers away from home to their apartment in a public housing project in Manhattan. One evening, some of us Coast Guard guys decided to go meet them.
I was impressed by Mary’s and Bill’s instant aloha for all of us. Mary would talk to each of us and find out as much as she could about us. She game me a nickname: “Easy.” We were far away from home and I was only 19 or 20 years old, but spending time with Mary and Bill made all of us feel comfortable because she genuinely cared about us. She wasn’t that much older than most of us, so we didn’t see her as a substitute mother — maybe more like an older sister.
Bill, who had served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and Mary hosted many 442nd veterans passing through New York City.
When I told Mary my name, she immediately asked if I was related to Max Isara, a 442nd veteran. Max was my cousin. I was impressed with her memory for names and faces. I later realized that it wasn’t so much her memory, but how she embraced each and every person she met in her heart.
At one of the functions some of us attended, each of us shared a talent of some kind. Being from Hawai‘i, I decided to do a hula I had learned as a young boy — “Manuwela Boy.” Mary never forgot it.
One evening, about a dozen of us decided to treat Bill and Mary to an evening at the famous Hotel Lexington Hawaiian Room. They had been so nice to us and we wanted to do something to express our appreciation. It was a gift from all of us, which made us all feel really happy.
I know that Mary and Bill were heavily involved in the civil and human rights movement. That doesn’t surprise me at all because they treated all of us equally special.
The last time I saw Mary and Bill was in 1993. I had read somewhere that the 442nd Veterans Club was holding a reception for them at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel as part of their 50th anniversary festivities. I rushed down to the hotel and joined the long line of people waiting to see them again. The line snaked around the Hawai‘i Ballroom, but I was determined to see them again, even if only for a few minutes.
When I finally reach the front of the line, Mary looked at me and immediately called me by the name she had given 40 years earlier — “Easy.”
I will never forget Mary — I never met anyone like her. Someone so kind and warm-hearted, an all-around wonderful person.
Mary and Bill . . . from all of us who were fortunate to have known you, mahalo for all the things you did for us. Whenever I think of you, Mary, I will see your smiling face.
You are in a beautiful place now — may you rest in peace.
Henry “Easy” Isara