Mary Otani was born in Berkeley to hardworking immigrant parents from Okinawa. One of six children, she was a good student, and loved to play basketball. As a student at UC Berkeley, Mary was already interested in social justice, and worked with other YWCA students to support fair housing legislation.
When World War II broke out and Japanese Americans were expelled from their homes and sent to camps, Mary’s family stayed in a horse stall at Tanforan race track, then were sent to an internment camp in Topaz, Utah. At camp there were no educational facilities for college students. A Quaker group, the Forum on Reconciliation, arranged for students to be placed in colleges away from the West Coast. Mary went to Boston University. There she met Bill, who was in the U.S. Army studying Japanese language at Harvard. They married before Bill went off to serve as a medic in Europe. In August, they celebrated their 61st anniversary.
Mary’s early interest in fair housing has been a lifelong concern. She worked in the office of the housing project where they lived to make sure the housing was racially integrated. She followed housing issues for years, most recently working on land trusts and renter’s rights.
Mary always put her family first. When her three children were young, she kept to their schedule by being the secretary to the elementary school principal. She organized volunteers in the school library, helped with PTA, Cub Scouts and Brownies. She worked for many years at the Consumer’s Cooperative grocery store’s Kiddie Corral, a unique service of quality child care while parents shopped. For years she arranged her schedule around fixing lunch every day for her elderly father.
Mary’s interest in the community extended to many areas. Whenever she saw a need, she found others who wanted to work on it and helped coordinate the effort to accomplish innovative solutions. At a time when the public schools did little to prepare students for world citizenship, Mary and others at the Unitarian Church organized a summer program that introduced children to the cultures of the world through positive experiences with language, food and customs.
Her involvement in the community touched many areas. She helped establish a senior center in Richmond Annex and supported saving land for parks in Richmond. For the League of Women Voters, she worked on many issues, monitoring the City Council and Port Commission. Each election, she worked on preparing the pros and cons stating the candidates’ positions on the issues.
Mary had a dedication to looking out for the well being of everyone, especially the less represented. When the U.S. government apologized to Japanese Americans who were interned and paid reparations, Mary and friends organized a scholarship fund with their money to provide scholarships to Southeast Asian immigrant students to help those who are the first in their families to go to college.
Cooperatives were another theme in Mary’s life that shows her belief in the power of people working together. She and Bill were early members of the Berkeley Coop grocery stores. (Bill even worked in the produce department for a short time.) Their children went to co-op pre-school and she organized a family cooperative swim group that rented the Albany pool and swam there for years. She worked on a co-op approach again with organizing a buying club for groceries, an effort to provide reasonably priced food to Richmond families that ultimately developed into the Richmond Farmer’s Market. Mary also served on a number of Richmond commissions and committees.
The Farmer’s Market represented Mary’s down to earth values. She believed in the power of people coming together to work for the common good. She was committed to improving everyone’s access to basic needs like food, shelter, education and health care. Lani Herrmann, a friend from the Farmer’s Market, has said that Mary was a kind of “glue” that quietly brought people together. Throughout her life she worked to build a community that was a better place for everyone.
Mary’s life will be celebrated Nov. 25 at 3 p.m. at Cragmont School Multipurpose Room, 830 Regal Road, Berkeley.
Tom Butt is a member of the Richmond City Council.