Local Obituaries

Asian American trailblazer Jerry Enomoto to be remembered Saturday

Dorothy and Jerry Enomoto with the Martin Luther King Jr. community dinner on Jan. 6, 2006.
Dorothy and Jerry Enomoto with the Martin Luther King Jr. community dinner on Jan. 6, 2006. Sacramento Bee file

The life of Sacramento civil rights champion Jiro “Jerry” Enomoto will be celebrated Saturday at 1:30 p.m. in the Grand Ballroom at 1215 J St.

Enomoto, who was interned with other Japanese Americans during World War II, went on to become the first Asian American prison warden in the United States. He died Jan. 17 at age 89 in Fontana, where he and his wife, Dorothy, had moved from Sacramento’s Greenhaven neighborhood several years ago.

Enomoto began his 28-year career with the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation as a counselor at San Quentin, and went on to be appointed warden by Gov. Ronald Reagan. From 1975 to 1980 he served as director of the Department of Corrections under Gov. Jerry Brown – the first Asian American to run a state agency.

In 1994, Enomoto broke another barrier when President Bill Clinton appointed him the first Asian American U.S. marshal, overseeing 34 counties in the Eastern District of California. He and his staff managed the high profile Unabomber trial. He also served on the Greater Sacramento Hate Crimes Task Force.

Enomoto’s dedication to civil rights began at the Tule Lake incarceration camp, where he and his family were among the more than 100,000 Japanese Americans in California sent to remote camps for the duration of World War II.

Enomoto, who had been a student at Lowell High School in San Francisco, graduated as valedictorian of his class in Tule Lake. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of California, Berkeley, and went on to become the two-time president of the national Japanese American Citizens League.

He also served as a national chair of the Japanese American Redress movement, which in 1987 led to the Civil Liberties Act that authorized reparations and a national apology for the imprisonment of Japanese American citizens during the war.

He married an African American activist, Dorothy Stevens. The high-profile interracial couple helped launch the annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration in Sacramento in 1982. After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Enomoto often stood up for Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian Americans.

Though he dealt with some of the nation’s worst criminal offenders, he was an advocate for incarcerated youths and supported the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act, which would have provided for a review of life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders in California.

The memorial is sponsored by the Sacramento and Florin JACLs. Guests are welcome to bring finger foods, simple sushi, desserts and other refreshments to the event in keeping with Japanese American custom.

In keeping with another Japanese American custom, people may bring memorial donations (koden) to the event to help cover funeral costs. Checks should be made out to “Dorothy Enomoto.” They may also be mailed to “Dorothy Enomoto” c/o 15 Mark River Court, Sacramento, CA 95831. Those who plan to attend can RSVP to Janice Yamaoka Luszczak, President, Sacramento JACL, at Janice.Luszczak@gmail.com.

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @StephenMagagnini