They shared their family name, and so much more.
The extended Bainbridge community gathered Saturday at Sonoji Sakai Intermediate School to mark its 20th birthday and to celebrate the 100th birthday of Kay Sakai Nakao, the daughter of the school’s namesake and one whose presence has been synonymous with the school since its opening on January 5th, 2000.
Few families have done as much for Bainbridge public schools as the Sakai family. Sonoji and Yoshiko Sakai were strawberry farmers on Bainbridge, and Commodore Options School, the Bainbridge Island School District offices, and Woodward Middle School now sit on their former farmland.
Saturday’s celebration was two big birthdays rolled into one. A crowd of nearly 200 packed the school’s gym for a program that not only honored the Sakai family but those who helped build, open and staff the school for fifth- and sixth-graders.
“Sakai would not be what it is today without the Sakai family name. And Sakai would not be what it is today without Kay Sakai Nakao,” said Principal Jim Corsetti.
Kay Sakai Nakao, added Governor Jay Inslee, “is a national treasure.”
District Superintendent Peter Bang-Knudsen noted that all six of Sonoji and Yoshiko Sakai’s children attended and graduated from Bainbridge schools, and that daughter Kay graduated from Bainbridge High in 1938.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a birthday party without an embarrassing story from the past, so Bang-Knudsen recalled a horrifying incident for Kay when she was a 16-year-old at BHS, which back then was bordered by farms and forests.
It was a typical day in class.
“When all of a sudden, BOOM! There was a massive explosion that shook the halls of the building,” Bang-Knudsen said.
“And people said, ‘What’s going on?’ and it was Mr. Sakai clearing stumps from his property.”
When Kay herself shared the dynamite story, Bang-Knudsen said, “She said she was so embarrassed.”
Obviously, she overcame. The superintendent paused to read a passage from her senior yearbook, where each student was described by the annual’s editors.
“Here’s what they said about Kay: ‘Her cheery smile, her friendly personality have won her many friends,’” Bang-Knudsen said.
A century, however, hasn’t changed much there.
“She spreads joy wherever she goes,” Bang-Knudsen added. “Kay’s smile and grace makes everything feel better.”
When she was 22, the Sakai family was taken from Bainbridge as they joined others of Japanese descent, 227 in all, who were forcibly removed from the island at the start of World War II and placed in American concentration camps.
After the war, the family returned to Bainbridge and their farm. A few years followed, and the school district approached the family and asked if they would be willing to sell part of the farm at the corner of Madison Avenue and High School Road.
The Sakai family had a deep reverence for education, Bang-Knudsen recalled, and “according to Kay, her father’s advice was to be honest, to be a hard worker, and to be a good citizen.”
Sonoji Sakai sold their land to the school district for the original price they paid for the property — before it had been turned into a highly productive and lucrative strawberry farm.
“That was an amazing gift,” Bang-Knudsen said, “that your family provided to the school district and the community. And it helped establish a legacy for the Sakai family for the next 75 years.”
“I think the lesson we can all take from Kay is that no matter how hard times may be, we can always find the bright side,” he added. “We can smile at someone who needs a lift. We can share a personal story; we can sacrifice our time and we can build community.”
Bill Nakao — “Kay’s younger, better-looking son,” as he told the crowd to much laughter — shared the sights his mother had seen over her 100 years.
“Mom was born in 1919, and in 1929, she saw the start of the Great Depression. In 1939, she saw the beginning of World War II. By 1949 she had gone through the incarceration, in Manzanar, and Minidoka. She married her husband Sam, and she had three kids. By 1959, the Town & Country Market had opened, and she started to work there.
“Yes, I’m stretching this a little bit,” Bill Nakao admitted, “because it actually opened in 1957. But, bear with me.”
“Mom started working at the Town & Country, and at that point, she found her true position in life. Which was at Check Stand No. 1. For the next 25 years, she dispensed smiles all around.
“By 1969, she had seen man walk on the moon. Think about this; in her first 50 years, all the things she had experienced. I guess the last 50 years, things slowed down a little bit,” he added, and the audience again laughed heartily.
Molly Greist, the sculptor who created the stone pieces that adorn the school’s campus, presented the birthday guest with a special gift.
“A stone. Imagine!” Greist said with a laugh.
“But not just any stone; this stone is also from the very ground this building was built on. And this stone is expressive, Kay, of the love and the gratitude and humor and grace that you have given to each of us.”
Carved as a rain-catcher basin, the large stone — so big and heavy it had to be put on a stout cart to be rolled into the gym — featured the Sakai family crest on top.
“And, if I’m not mistaken, you have a special place in your garden for this stone. Where the rain comes down, and right now, you have a little can sitting there,” Greist said, prompting more laughter from the ample audience.
“From this land … and on behalf of all of us … particularly Sakai PTO, Kay, I promise you that delivery comes with it,” she added.