Al Sugiyama, Seattle, Obituary

US | Jun 11
al sugiyama obit

My friend Al passed away on January 2, 2017. He passed away after a long and courageous battle with cancer here in Seattle.

Below, I share what was written about him by many. Before I do, I would like to share an email string you and I had before you left our world — to my surprise. I was late and so sad that I didn’t make it back in time.

(Late) Letter to Al Sugiyama

Hey Al,

Sadly, I’m writing to you a bit late.

For those who don’t know you as well as I did, let me share our last email.  

Before I share, however, I going to share what you thought was the biggest lesson you passed onto me.  You harped away at this and I never forgot.  I thought it was the biggest lesson…

You told me to “NEVER call someone by their last name. Don’t call them ‘Mr. Gates. Call them ‘Bill’ — their first name. We’re all humans. We don’t need to put someone above us or below us. We are all peers. I don’t care if you’re the President or the richest person on the planet. You’re still a human.

I’ve never forgotten.

Basically, people should call you”Al” and not Mr. Sugiyama – as you told me.

What mentors should teach their mentees: 

However, the bigger lesson that you taught me — you didn’t even realize.  However, it’s what mentors all over the world should know.  

Al, you were my mentor for many years. I was lucky to have you.

I was in Okinawa when I heard about your sad surprise.  I desperately searched to see if it was a mistake.  

We’ve been friends for over 20 years and we would always find a way to connect despite the time and the distance.  

Here’s what I said & what you said back:



I wish I could.  Thanks for the invite. 
I’m in Hong Kong now…but I will get in contact when I get back. 
How are you?  

Brandon Na Facebook: /brandonna | LinkedIn: /in/brandonna WeChat: brandonhongkong | WhatsApp: +852-66221588

Alan Sugiyama <asugiyama@comcast.net>

to me Your boy has cancer but I’ll beat it! I had to retire from work but I feel good. Hope to see you


️ soon.
Sent from my iPhone

Brandon <name@gmail.com>

to Alan Do beat it Al!  This world would definitely be a lot less fuller without you.  
I do hope to see you too!  
Take good care of yourself and keep me updated!
If I haven’t said it before, I love ya friend.  Be good, 

Alan Sugiyama <asugiyama@comcast.net>

to me I miss you and hope to see you. What are your plans? Do you plan to stay over seas for a while or will you return to Seattle? 
Sent from my iPhone

Brandon <name@gmail.com>

to Alan 

Sentiments are the same.  

I was also offered work in Beijing recently and I have a standing offer to continue where I am at now. 

So, it looks like I’ll be abroad for a bit.  My family (my parents in particular) are urging me to come home, but I may give this offer in Beijing a shot.  

How about you?  —

Alan Sugiyama <asugiyama@comcast.net>

Due to the cancer, I retired last February but I continue to volunteer with my last job and with the community. I have chemotherapy 3 days every other week. The chemo is working and the cancer continues to shrink so all is good. I expect to live into my 90’s! I’m 65 right now. Hang in there Byung


Sent from my iPhone

Brandon <name@gmail.com>

to Alan 

Thanks Al!  And I know you’ll beat it.  When we talk, you’ll have to share your secrets.  🙂  

Alan Sugiyama <asugiyama@comcast.net>9/1/15
to me No secrets, I just look at the positive side


I hope the best for you Byung. Keep me updated.
It’s so sad, but we never did end up meeting.  I had no idea the cancer was beating him. 

We met back in the 90’s when I applied for a mentorship for an organization that promoted mentorship for Asians.  From the moment we met, he treated me as an equal. 

Initially, I called him Mr. Sugiyama and he retorted,

There’s no need for the formalities.  You should call me Al.  We are on the same level.  Back when I was protesting against the Kingdome being built, one thing I realized is that there was no need to call the officials Mr. or Mrs. anything.  We were on the same level.  So, we called them by their first name.  We should all call each other by our first names.”  

I will never forget that story.  It wasn’t exactly what he said verbatim, but it was close.  Obviously, he believed we were all equals.  

He periodically invited me to events and more times than not, I was too busy.  Once in a while I would be able to meet and he would introduce me and take me out with his closest friends.  He treated me like family.  Even though we didn’t get to meet as often as I would have liked, he always made each time as precious as the next.  

When he reached out last, I was so glad I was at least able to say “I love you,” but I honestly didn’t realize it would be the one and only time I got to say that.  I really thought we would be meeting here next month.  After several years abroad, I finally made a decision to come back and he would have been one of the first people I would have reconnected with.  I was so sure he was beating it and he was just too young to leave our earth.  

As I said it in the email string, “This world would definitely be a lot less fuller without [Al].”  

Unfortunately, the world just lost one of its best.  

Rest in peace dear Al.  You will be sorely missed.  

Your friend, 


The Biggest Lesson Al Sugiyama Left Me

Al’s passion for life.  Al’s love for his daughters.  Al’s desire to honestly just pass on whatever he could to me before he passed.  

The lesson was no matter what you try and pass onto a mentee or whatever you try to do as a mentor, do it with as much passion and effort until you die.  I’m not articulating this the best, but frankly, it’s not even the individual lessons, but it’s the “love” you express through all your actions.  

Example of Passing it Forward Like you did Al

Update: 2/28/2023

I came back to this post today because I recently met up with these two younger Koreans who were visiting LA.  Despite being very busy and also in spite of it being a very long way — an hour during traffic, I decided to go meet them.  I decided to find the best restaurant I could get at the late hour (they hadn’t eaten dinner frankly because they were tired).  And I decided to buy them a nice meal.  On top of this all, I decided to drive them around to the places I would share with friends who visited LA for the first time.  I’m not as materialistic or focused on wealth as I might have been when I was younger, but “Beverly Hills” and “Bel Air” are 2 places people rarely are able to see up close.  So, I decided to drive them around late at night — even though I was tired.  I had no idea if they truly enjoyed until I saw this on one of their instagram feeds:


I guess I make dreams come true along with “miracles”.  LOL

Thank you Al for Teaching me this.  

Other kind words about Al:

Obituary written by his family

A lan Tsutomu Sugiyama passed away January 2, 2017 after a long and courageous battle with cancer. He will be remembered as a loving dad, doting grandfather, loyal and lifelong friend to many, activist, and inspiration to us all. A proud Seattle native, Alan was born on September 10, 1949 to Sansaku and Susan Sugiyama, the youngest of five children. Alan attended Bailey Gatzert Elementary, Washington Junior High, and Garfield High School, proud class of 1968. After high school, Alan went on to Seattle Central Community College and then the University of Washington. As a college student, Alan led and participated in many different protests and demonstrations to call attention to issues of inequity and racism against Asian Americans. Although Alan would talk about his trouble in school and was never the greatest speller even decades later, he, perhaps ironically, co-founded the Asian Family Affair (AFA) newspaper which is where he met his future wife, Kathy Tagawa. In 1973, Alan and Kathy were married and continued their roles in community activism and the AFA. From trips to Hawaii and Mexico, and road trips along the coast to California, Alan and Kathy loved traveling together. Both would fondly recall these trips as some of their most memorable vacations. Many of their adventures and travels included their nieces and nephews and after these “trial run” kids, Alan and Kathy welcomed daughter Mari in 1983 and daughter Alysa arrived in 1987. By this time, Alan was busy leading his own non-profit agency Center for Career Alternatives (CCA), founded in 1979, where he diligently served as executive director for thirty years. Raising the girls on Beacon Hill and after enrolling Mari in Seattle Public Schools, Alan decided to run for the school board. He was the first Asian American elected to the board in 1989 where he served two terms until 1997. To his daughters, Alan was coach, short order breakfast cook, BBQ extraordinaire, and career advisor. They happily remember the days when Alan would purchase cases of cookies to deliver to the schools in his region (with the girls getting the extras!) When Mari and Alysa embarked on career paths that led them to working in public schools, they were always proud to encounter people who still knew and recalled memories of their dad and his time on the school board. After leaving CCA in 2010, Alan spent a few years as a consultant, or as Kathy would clarify, “unemployed.” When Kathy fell ill in 2012 with her own bout of cancer, Alan’s “unemployment” allowed him to care for her in the last few months of her life. Just a few short months after Kathy’s passing, Alan was selected as the new executive director for the Executive Development Institute (EDI). As executive director, Alan truly enjoyed the new experiences with each EDI cohort. It seemed to be the perfect progression from his time at CCA and working with clients in need of basic job skills, to now working with professionals in pursuit of greater leadership development. Even when diagnosed with esophageal cancer, which spread to the pancreas, in September 2014, Alan continued in his position at EDI. After much thought and amidst intense chemotherapy sessions, Alan stepped down from his role in 2015, but maintained his involvement as executive director emeritus up until his passing. With his treatments being every other week and with his fighting spirit and positive outlook about how chemotherapy was keeping him alive, Alan was not one to deviate from the busy schedule he had maintained his entire life. He set up a number of meetings and gatherings on his “off weeks” from chemotherapy, so much so that it was sometimes difficult to track him down! During two years of chemotherapy, Alan remained fierce and upbeat. Typical of his “go get ‘em” attitude, numerous people recall Alan reaching out to them during their own cancer treatments and offering encouragement. Two years after his initial diagnosis, one which did not have a favorable prognosis, nor did it have statistics or typical treatment measures for doctors to refer to, Alan finally convinced himself, at the prodding of his daughters and oncologist Dr. Soma, to take a celebratory trip to Hawaii. On November 4th, as he was tying his shoes to go for an early morning run, Alan fell in his hotel room. In the Hilo Hospital, doctors found a large tumor in his brain, as well as two smaller tumors. Once home in Seattle, Alan was immediately admitted to Swedish Hospital Cherry Hill where he underwent two brain surgeries. The days and nights were long, recovery was difficult, and the usual indomitable spirit of Alan was starting to falter. Thankfully, family members and close friends stepped in to help provide comfort and assistance to Alan as he tackled each day. No one was more supportive or helpful than brother-in-law Eugene Tagawa. When things got especially tough for Alan, Eugene was his go-to guy who provided much strength and reassurance until the very end. In the last few months of Alan’s life, nieces Tracy and Annie flew up from California to help him in the hospital, and niece Sheri was a weekly helper dedicating many hours to being by her Uncle Al’s side during some of his most difficult moments. When he passed away, Alan was surrounded by family and dear friends. Alan is survived by daughters Mari (Adam Woolverton) and Alysa (Adam Kong); siblings Glenn (Corey), Steve (Carol), and Dick (Jan). He is also survived by granddaughter Kaia Woolverton whom he lovingly called “Hiya Kaia;” numerous nieces and nephews; and a large extended family. Alan was preceded in death by his parents; former wife Kathy; and sister Carole Burrus. Even after his passing, Alan’s impact on those around him was evident. While standing outside his hospital room, his nurses came by to offer sympathies to the family. They shared how much it was their pleasure and privilege to care for him and commented on how nice he was. Even in his weakened state, Alan still tried to call people by name and wanted to do what he could to listen to the nurses and their orders. Throughout this entire ordeal, the one person Alan relied on most was his oncologist, Dr. Soma, of the Swedish Cancer Institute. The calm resolve of Dr. Soma perfectly balanced Alan’s “take charge” attitude, even when fighting for his life. The family is grateful to Dr. Soma, nurse Carrie, and Gus for their care of Alan, as he always held them in high regard. Although we all wish we had just a little more time with Alan, one of his common phrases, in addition to “right on to the right on,” was “that’s just the way it goes.” We love you, Dad. A public memorial service is scheduled for Sunday, January 29th at 2pm at Fisher Pavilion, Seattle Center.

Seattle high school could be named after Al Sugiyama

Article written in the Northwest Asian Weekly for Al. Dec 19, 2019. By the staff.

The Seattle Public School District is considering renaming a school after the late Al Sugiyama. The school, currently called South Lake High School, would be renamed Alan T. Sugiyama High School at South Lake, if approved.

Al Sugiyama’s daughters, Mari and Alysa, wrote in an email that they have visited the school and “believe it is exactly the kind of school our dad would have been proud to be a part of. Student focused, strong social justice mission, able to help students find their individual pathways to success, much like all the great work that our dad led at the Center for Career Alternatives.”

Sugiyama, the first Asian American on the Seattle School Board in the 1990s, died after a battle with cancer almost three years ago.

Bob Watt, a Sugiyama family friend, wrote the following letter in support of the renaming to Seattle School Superintendent Denise Juneau.

I write to you to convey my complete, enthusiastic support for renaming South Lake High School to “the Alan T. Sugiyama High School at South Lake.”

Alan (Al) Sugiyama, a lifelong Seattleite, died on January 2, 2017. Al was the first Asian American elected to the Seattle School board, he was the first Asian American to serve as chair of that board and he devoted his life to helping secure justice for people from every background. Al played a critical role in the success of the first education summit hosted by Mayor Norman B. Rice. That success resulted in the passage of the first Families and Education Levy, a legacy that lives on today.

Al’s list of accomplishments is long, starting with his activism to call attention to the issues of racism and inequity affecting Asian Americans when he was a college student. He founded the Center for Career Alternatives in 1979 and led that organization for 30 years. During that time, he helped thousands of people, from every racial and economic background, gain the skills they needed to land a job so that they could contribute to their families. That work and his devotion to helping young people is why putting his name on South Lake High School is so right. Or as Al would say so “right on to the right on.”

The leadership team at South Lake is enthusiastic in their support for this renaming. $15,000 has already been raised and is sitting in an account at the Alliance for Education to help defray any costs associated with the name change and as the beginning of a fund to help support the staff and students at South Lake. In my many years of civic involvement in Seattle, I have never seen a better way to honor the life and legacy of such a remarkable man. I urge you to approve this name change as soon as possible. Thank you.

Bob Watt

The Sugiyama sisters are urging supporters to write more letters addressed to Juneau, and to email them directly to Dr. Joe Powell, the vice principal at South Lake. He will bundle up all the emails and letters and get them into the right hands at the district office. Powell’s email is jjpowell@seattleschools.org.

You may also make a financial contribution to this effort. Checks can be made out to the Alan T. Sugiyama School fund at the Alliance for Education, at 509 Olive Way Suite 500, Seattle, WA 98101. Online donations can be made at alliance4ed.org/connect-with-us/donate/school-account. Select “South Lake HS Renaming (Al Sugiyama) – 59102” in the “to Group” box and the gift will get to the right place at the Alliance for Education.

Staff can be reached at editor@nwasianweekly.com.

Seattle Times writes about Al Sugiyama

Jan 4, 2017 – Longtime community activist Al Sugiyama died from cancer. He was 67. By. Paige Cornwell. Seattle Times staff reporter.

Article is behind a paywall.

International Examiner Obituary Piece on Al (Sugiyama)

A South Seattle School could be renamed after late community activist, Al Sugiyama

By Patranya Bhoolsuwan -January 7, 2017

If you have driven by Nevada Street and 15th Avenue South in Beacon Hill, you may have noticed a stretch of road called “Alan Sugiyama Way”. The street was renamed in 2018 in honor of prominent Seattle community activist, Alan T. Sugiyama who passed away in 2017 following a battle with cancer. Sugiyama grew up in Beacon Hill and was a life long Seattleite. Now, his family and friends hope his name and legacy will also also extend beyond the street sign to embody a South Seattle high school with a mission that reflects Sugiyama’s life’s work.

“My dad would be extremely humbled by this effort,” said Mari Sugiyama, Alan’s eldest daughter. “I was overwhelmed with the thought and care of my dad’s friends who have put in so much time and effort to keep his memory alive since his passing.”

Mari is referring to the effort spearheaded by State Representative Sharon Tomiko Santos (D-37) and her father’s long time friend Bob Watt to get the Seattle School District to consider renaming Seattle’s South Lake High School as “Alan T. Sugiyama’s High School at South Lake.

“We have visited the school and believe it is exactly the kind of school our dad would have been proud to be a part of,” said Sugiyama. “Student focused, strong social justice mission with the ability to help students find their individual pathways to success, much like all the great work that our dad led at the Center for Career Alternatives.”

Al Sugiyama founded the non-profit, Center for Career Alternatives, in 1979. For more than three decades, the organization provided education and job training to more than 30,000 people of all races and backgrounds. Sugiyama was also the first Asian American to serve on the Seattle School Board. He was elected in 1989 and served two terms until 1997.

“Naming a school after him is just the right thing to do in my opinion,” said Bob Watt. Watt had been friends with Sugiyama since the 1970’s. “Al was a wonderful man, a funny man, a determined man, a great friend to all. And those facts mean that hundreds of people are excited about the chance to see his name on a school.”

The leadership team at South Lake High School told the International Examiner they are fully supportive of the renaming effort and the move will go a long way in giving this campus a positive visibility in the community.

“Our school is modeled behind the actions Mr. Sugiyama fought for,” said Vice Principal Joe Powell. “We believe in voice, choice and social justice. Mr. Sugiyama believed in building up young people. That represents what we are all about.”

Mari Sugiyama said so far, she’s seen a lot of excitement and support over the school renaming effort. She said the community response mirrors the spirit behind her father’s lifelong passion for activism and education.

“It wasn’t for the fame, recognition, or acknowledgement, as far as he was concerned,” said Sugiyama. “ It was always about what is right, how to help others, or how to use your own position and connections to lend a helping hand.”

The South Lake High School is currently gathering letters of support for the renaming effort and they will be hand delivering to Superintendent Denise Juneau.

The Sugiyama family is also asking the public for financial support to help bear the costs of renaming the school. $15,000 has already been raised in a fund set up at the Alliance for Education. Checks can be made out to the Alan T. Sugiyama School Fund. Their mailing address is 509 Olive Way Suite 500 Seattle WA 98101.

University of Washington Obituary for Al Sugiyama

OMA&D Mourns Passing of Alumnus & Community Leader Al Sugiyama

January 4, 2017

Alan Sugiyama, ’84, a longtime community leader and champion for diversity at the University of Washington, passed away on Jan. 2, at the age of 67 following a two-year battle with cancer.

He was a leader in the Asian Student Coalition when he attended the UW and continued to serve as an activist and advocate for diversity and equity throughout his lifetime.

“Al Sugiyama was a longtime friend and supporter of OMA&D,” said Rickey Hall, vice president for the Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity and chief diversity officer. “I had the pleasure of meeting him at the beginning of my tenure this past fall and was immediately inspired. It is clear to see the impact that Al’s commitment to social justice has made both on campus and the community ever since his days as a UW student in the early 1970’s. He will be greatly missed.”

Al Sugiyama (left) with fellow Odegaard Award recipients Vivian Lee and Judge Richard Jones at 2016 Celebration.

CHAMPIONS OF DIVERSITY: Al Sugiyama (left) with fellow Odegaard Award recipients Vivian Lee and Judge Richard A. Jones at OMA&D’s Celebration event on May 5, 2016.

Sugiyama received numerous local and national awards including the 2007 Charles E. Odegaard Award, an honor regarded as the highest achievement in diversity at the UW.  He also received the UW Alumni Association’s Multicultural Alumni Partnership (MAP) Distinguished Alumni Award and served on the UW President’s Minority Community Advisory Committee for several years.

Sugiyama founded the Center for Career Alternatives (CCA), a multi-ethnic job training program serving low-income residents in King and Snohomish Counties, and served as its executive director for over 30 years. Most recently he served as executive director of the Executive Development Institute, an organization that provides training and support to local Asian American leaders. He was the first Asian American on the Seattle School Board.

Sugiyama was remembered in this article in the International Examiner. Learn more about his story on the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project web site.

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