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San José City College Centennial: The Nakaso Family

San José City College is celebrating its 100-year anniversary. We are bringing you stories of those who are a part of its long history. The Nakaso family has been a part of City College since the early 60’s when former City College athletic instructor, Sam Nakaso, brought his wife, former Admissions office employee, Hiko Nakaso, and their two children, Adaptive Media Technology Specialist, Joanne Nakaso, and Honolulu Star-Advertiser Capitol Bureau Chief, Dan Nakaso to San José for a new job.

The Nakaso Family: Dan, Hiko, Sam, and Joanne at Sam and Hiko’s 40th Wedding Anniversary

Sam and Hiroko, known as Hiko, were both born just after the depression to Japanese immigrants in the East Bay. They grew up living near one another and met as teenagers while in the Topaz Internment Camp in Utah. It’s where Alameda County Japanese were sent during World War II. After the war ended, Sam went to live with his oldest sister back east who was teaching Japanese to American intelligence officers at Yale. He went to Trinity College where he was a three-sport athlete in football, basketball, and track. He once played basketball against the Boston Celtics legendary guard, Bob Cousy and years later told his son that during the game “I deflected the ball!”

Hiko and her sister went to live in New York City after the war. She met up with Sam and they soon began dating. After Sam earned his master’s degree in education, they got married and slowly worked their way back to California via the South.

Sam’s first teaching job was in Missouri. It was in Fayette, Missouri, in the 1950’s, where their daughter Joanne was born. At that time, the census had three categories for race: White, Black, and Other. They were listed as the only three ‘Others’ in the town’s census. Since both of their families lived in the Bay Area, they moved back a few years later right before their son, Dan, was born in 1961 at Herrick Hospital in Berkeley, the same hospital where Hiko was born.

Sam got a job teaching athletics and remedial classes at City College soon after, moving the family to San José. He coached many different sports, such as men’s and women’s tennis, men’s water polo, and men’s soccer. Sam was at City College during the era where Jim Wheelehan was the football coach, Harley Dow was the golf coach, Sam Huerta was the wrestling coach, Pat Doherty was the basketball coach, and later in the mid 70’s, Arnold Salazar started his career as SJCC’s athletic trainer.

“I can easily say City College has had a profound influence on my life, both professionally and on my family.”

Dan Nakaso

Dan Nakaso recalled a story told to him by his parents. “When my parents went out to dinner and put their name in for a table, they would use Harley Dow’s name because nobody could pronounce their last name. Once night when the hostess called, “Dow, party of two,” my parents got up, and so did Sam Huerta and his wife. They both used Harley Dow’s name because nobody could pronounce Huerta’s last name either.”

In the mid-70’s, Proposition 13 brought a lot of cuts to the school systems, and a position needed to be eliminated in Physical Education. Joanne Nakaso explained how the PE department chose who was let go.

“Somehow or another,” recalls Joanne, “and I don’t know what was up with the union at the time, but those in the PE department literally drew straws to see who would be let go. My dad got the short straw and was let go. He worked at Overfelt High School for a year or two before they brought him back to City College where he worked as a coach and PE instructor until he retired in 1991.”

Not only did Sam train City College athletes, but during off seasons, he would help local professional teams at City College, like the Raiders, the San José Earthquakes, and the Golden State Warriors who ran a summer camp at City College, with Dan as the unofficial ball boy. Sam even took over for the Warrior’s regular trainer after the trainer had a heart attack the year the Warriors won the 1973 Championships.

The athletic department was a family, and the athletic coaches would frequently get together at each other’s houses bringing their families for barbecues and dinners. The wives became close friends and decided they wanted to see each other more. So, they decided to start working at the college. Both Ruby Wheelehan and Hiko started working in the Admissions office. Hiko worked there for almost twenty years.

Dan Nakaso remembers, “Everybody always loved my dad. He was old school and quite strict, but he was also charming and very personable. And my mom was very quiet and super sweet but had a wicked sense of humor.”

“She said, ‘I was able to pass with your help. Thank you very much! I then got my bachelor’s degree and went on to get my master’s degree.’ Then she said to me, ‘and guess what? Now I teach at City College!’”

Joanne Nakaso on a former student she tutored

Joanne and Dan both attended Leigh High School. Dan adds, “My sister was some kind of child prodigy genius. And I was not. She was a senior in high school when I was a freshman. They held honors banquets that were separate from the graduation ceremony. My sister went wearing sashes and tassels and whatnot. My mom turns to me and says, ‘Well, I guess this is last one of these things Dad and I have to go to.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry mom. I chose to be popular.’ That was my mom’s sense of humor.”

And both Joanne and Dan vividly remember growing up at City College. Joanne notes, “I always start my story by saying, it seems like San José City College is in my DNA,” who not only grew up there, but has worked there since the 80’s.

Since the family house was so close to the college, “I basically grew up there,” Dan says. “One of my biggest memories of being at City College was when I was five or six years old. I was a very small child for my age, around three-feet tall. I remember jumping off the 10-foot high dive. I think I tried to dive a couple times but ended up landing on my back. I was basically fearless.”

“I loved basketball,” continues Dan. “My dad was a tennis coach and thought I should play tennis, because I wouldn’t make it far in basketball being so short. I didn’t listen. Since the coach’s bullpen overlooked the indoor gym basketball court, I could turn on the lights and play full court basketball by myself while my dad kept an eye on me. I’d work on jump shots and make up imaginary games. Things like, ‘what a jump shot!’ or ‘he shoots, he scores!’ I would run miles back and forth.”

Both Sam and Hiko retired in the early 90s. They moved to the Villages, a retirement community, where they socialized with many friends and played a lot of golf.

Joanne Nakaso

After Joanne Nakaso graduated high school, she decided to go to Santa Clara University. First, she took a couple classes at City College and then decided to quit school. A few years later in ’86 or ’87, she came back to City College, because she didn’t like working as much as she was. She got a work-study job there, and then a part-time permanent position opened that came with benefits which she loved.

She eventually graduated from Santa Clara and took more classes at City College while she decided what to do next. Around the time she transferred to San José State to study math was around the time both her parents retired from City College.

This was the early 90s, and she moved over to Evergreen Valley College to take a slightly higher-paying job as a math tutor. Almost a decade later, she came back to City College in 2001 into the position she currently has as Adaptive Media Technology Specialist for Student Accessibility Services.

Her position has two major responsibilities. The first is working with alternate or alternative media. Most people, until recently, got much of their information in printed form: a book, a newspaper, a handout, or a magazine. But there are others who find it much more effective to get their media in a different form. These days, more people are using eBooks and similar formats more regularly than they used to.

“A lot of people really have such fond memories of City College that a lot of people come back in some capacity….while working at a college isn’t perfect, at the end of the day, you can say, ‘I did something positive. I was able to help somebody.’”

Joanne Nakaso

“It’s pretty obvious if you were blind why you would need something other than a regular textbook,’ explains Joanne. “For blind students, we would use Braille, which is the tactile type of language, or audio books. Fast forward almost 20 years, and it appears that a lot of people are getting a lot of benefit from computer files, audio files, and viewing them on the computer screen in different sizes, for example. My job has always been to procure that type of material, and if necessary, make it myself.

“The other part of my job is assistive technology. If I’m providing an audio book for a student, I have to make sure they know how to use it. It goes hand in hand. It’s amazing how many little things in the world seems to fall under assistive technology, including fixing the college front door if it gets jammed. So, I have a lot of experience doing what’s known as first line tech support.

“I came into this career totally by accident. The Americans with Disabilities Act created guidelines for what schools had to do around the year 2000, mandating some of these positions. They said, you can’t do it at the school unless you have somebody dedicated to doing such a thing.

“At that time, my whole technical expertise was I could read and write email and occasionally unjam the printer. Back then, they could open a position to existing employees first. I wanted to go back to City College, so I applied. The direct hiring supervisors didn’t really have that deep of an understanding of what the job was. They interviewed me, and one of their first questions was, ‘are you willing to learn some new stuff?’ Thinking of all the courses I’ve taken, I said, ‘of course I’m willing to learn new stuff!’ They said, ‘Okay, you’re hired!’

“In the beginning, it was all new, and I learned a lot about technical stuff along the way that didn’t have anything to do with my particular job. Then in the last five-plus years, it’s like technology has exploded. So, everything I knew up to then has changed and it’s happening so fast now. My story has always been that I’m probably going to be the last one to lock up the doors and throw away the key. Except since I’m getting older, I’ve decided to retire at the end of this year.

“…one of their first questions was, ‘are you willing to learn some new stuff?’ Thinking of all the courses I’ve taken, I said, ‘of course I’m willing to learn new stuff!’ They said, ‘Okay, you’re hired!’”

Joanne Nakaso on interviewing for her current position at City College

“In my current position, I have the type of behind-the-scenes job that doesn’t get a lot of attention. Even though I have done a fair amount of tutoring, I don’t get the same type of recognition that teachers get. I do things like allowing people to access their content, which I think most people don’t really think about how critical that is.

“In 2012, I bought a new car. I started noticing in the staff parking lot there was another car that was exactly the same model, color, and year to mine. It was just one of those funny things where you walk up to the wrong car, and you try to open it and it doesn’t open. This went on for a few weeks. One day, I saw the other car pulling into the parking lot. I run over to say hello, and the woman comes out and she’s laughing saying she’s done the same thing.

“She said to me, ‘wait a minute. Didn’t you used to work at Evergreen as the statistics tutor?’ By this time, I had been at City College for over 10 years. She said, ‘you helped me. Maybe you remember me, or maybe you don’t, but you helped me. And because you helped me, I was able to pass my four-year degree.’

“A lot of people who don’t like math put that off as the very last class, and it literally is life or death at that point. If they don’t pass this class, they don’t get their bachelor’s degree. She said, ‘I was able to pass with your help. Thank you very much! I then got my bachelor’s degree and went on to get my master’s degree.’ Then she said to me, ‘and guess what? Now I teach at City College!’

“A lot of people really have such fond memories of City College that a lot of people come back in some capacity. Not that your whole goal in life is to work at City College. But when I first took classes at City College, I worked for Bank of America. It was there I realized that while working at a college isn’t perfect, at the end of the day, you can say, ‘I did something positive. I was able to help somebody.’”

Dan Nakaso was on the newspaper staff in high school and just loved it. He thought he would be a sportswriter, but quickly realized athletes weren’t as much fun to talk with as they were to watch. After he broke a story about a high school campus fire being an arson, making the principal extremely upset, he realized how much more fun investigative reporting was over sports.

After graduating high school in ’79, he went to San José State to study journalism. Since Watergate, journalism schools became very impacted. He found out from his advisor he would only be on the college newspaper for one semester his senior year.

“I’m thinking, wait a minute,’ exclaims Dan, “I have to wait four years to see if I actually want to do this? So, I decided to simultaneously enroll at City College just to work on the newspaper. I spent one semester at the City College Times under Art Carey, the advisor. I don’t remember the selection process, but I was made the editor.

“You were required to do an internship at San José State. So, that summer, I got an internship through using my City College news clips with the defunct weekly English-language newsletter for Hispanic businesses called El Observador in East San José. That led to an internship at Fremont Argus, to the defunct Peninsula Times Tribune, to the Modesto Bee, to the Los Angeles Times.

“Everybody always loved my dad. He was old school and quite strict, but he was also charming and very personable. And my mom was very quiet and super sweet but had a wicked sense of humor.”

Dan Nakaso

“Then as a senior at San José State, I was finally on the staff of the Spartan Daily. I was chosen by the faculty to be the editor, and even before I graduated, the LA Times said they wanted me back that summer. Two weeks into my internship, the LA Times hired me full-time for their Orange County bureau.

“And I owe it all to City College. It reinforced that I really did love journalism. It was my entree to getting what became six internships. Because I’d done that first internship, it led to the LA Times and my first full-time job.

“The L.A. Times was great experience, but I realized I wanted to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. One of my instructors at San José State was the city editor at the Mercury News. I was in my mid-20’s by then with a newborn and my wife who worked with Reuters. From there, one of my editors at Mercury News became a deputy on the metro desk at the San Francisco Examiner and said I would be a good editor and hired me in the late 80’s.  

“Next, I got a position as deputy city editor in 1992 at the age of 32 at the Honolulu Advertiser soon after my son was born in Hayward. Two weeks later, I became a city editor. A few years later, I was one of the lucky 30 that got hired with the newly merged Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

“After my dad died, I moved back to California to take care of my mom whose health was declining. I rejoined the Mercury News after working there 25 years earlier. While I was there, a woman contacted me, and said, ‘I remember you worked for the Mercury News a long time ago. Your dad is Sam Nakaso, right?’”

“I like being in this business for the in-between stories of humanity. I’m constantly amazed, and I constantly feel privileged.”

Dan Nakaso on being in news reporting

“She said she was a student of his and told me a story about being in his class. One day my dad was called out of the classroom. When he came back in, he told the class that Kennedy had been shot. She said he was so gentle about it. He was ahead of his time. He was worried about their mental health. He said, ‘take your time. Be careful getting home. If you need somebody to drive you, call them.’ I was proud to hear that. I also thought you don’t hear about people in the 60s talking about stuff like that. She said he was really considerate, and his main concern was people getting home safely and making sure they were okay.

“My dad was always talking about retiring, but I know he loved it. To hear from his students about that softer, kinder side of him, especially during the Kennedy tragedy, showed he obviously loved the students. When my dad died in December 2004, he was notable enough that the San Francisco Chronicle and San José Mercury News posted story obituaries about him. My mom passed away in February 2013, and I moved back to O’ahu a year later. I came back to the Star Advertiser which is where I’ve been ever since.

“I like being in this business for the in-between stories of humanity. I’m constantly amazed, and I constantly feel privileged. It is a humbling job when you see all the greatness in people and, yes, the crappiness in people. It’s those good and positive stories that have kept me going on 40 years now.

“My daughter, Sarah, is a social worker with Veterans Administration, married and living on O’ahu with my newborn grandchild. And my son, Joey, is a nurse in Orange County who recently got engaged to his fiancée, Jenn.

“Looking back, it really was that City College Times experience that led to all of this, because I probably would not have had the patience to not write stories for four years. And you need clips to get newspaper jobs. It all began itself at City College. I probably would have switched majors if I had had to wait. Who knows what I would have done then.

“I can easily say City College has had a profound influence on my life, both professionally and on my family.”