Photo caption: Cheryl Chow after coming out and sharing she had brain cancer in August 2012. Photo credit: Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times.
After a difficult battle with brain cancer, Cheryl Chow, lifelong educator, administrator, former Seattle School Board and City Council member, passed away in her home Friday, March 29 at the age of 66.
Chow’s courage and unshakeable, lifelong commitment to Seattle’s children and the Chinese and Asian Pacific Islander community has spanned generations, advancing the lives of countless young people. Her tenacious spirit, humor and advocacy will be sorely missed by colleagues, friends, family and community members as they remember her legacy.
Gloria Wakayama, an attorney and community advocate, met Chow in the 1960s when she was 12. Wakayama was performing in the Seattle Chinese Community Girls Drill Team that Chow coached. Little did she know that this would mark the beginning of decades of friendship and camaraderie.
“We were very, very close friends, and she was always a role model and mentor to not only myself, but my daughter and thousands of other community members,” Wakayama says. “She was selfless — always a cheerleader for anyone.”
Chow gave Wakayama key guidance throughout her career and nominated her to be on the United Way of King County board of directors, where Wakayama currently serves as a member of the public policy council. Throughout her nearly five decades of coaching the drill team, Chow was a “straight shooter” who was forthright about her opinions, Wakayama says, going above and beyond for girls on the drill team.
Chow would hold annual sleepovers for all the drill team girls, advising them on how to pick the right path in life. In the 1970s before girls were allowed in the league, Chow also started the “Tasmanian Devils,” a Chinese girls basketball team of fifth-and-sixth graders.
“She really wanted to empower the young women,” says Wakayama, who eventually co-coached the drill team with Chow when she was a college student.
Growing up in South Seattle, Chow was reared into civic life as the daughter of community activists and restaurant owners Ping and Ruby Chow. She launched her education career as a teacher and principal at Sharples Junior High Shool (currently Aki Kurose Middle School).
Her mother Ruby Chow was a former King County Councilwoman whose seat Cheryl Chow would run for in 1985. Though she lost the campaign, this marked the beginning of a long and memorable career in public service.
Chow was elected to Seattle City Council in 1989, serving two terms before returning to Seattle Public Schools to serve as the principal of Franklin and Garfield high schools. In 2005, Chow was elected to the Seattle School Board where she spent two terms leading during Seattle Schools’ most recent round of school closures, one of the most challenging transitions in recent Seattle education history. During this time, Chow also served as the director of outreach for the Girl Scouts of Western Washington, where colleagues described her as a tenacious fighter and champion for children.
This last February, the Organization of Chinese Americans’ (OCA’s) Seattle chapter honored Chow with their Golden Circle Award at their annual Lunar New Year dinner.
Connie So, vice president of OCA-Seattle and senior lecturer of the University of Washington’s American ethnic studies program, is grateful for Chow’s remarkable contributions throughout her life.
“Cheryl Chow has always been a champion of students,” says So. “Her contributions to the City of Seattle live on through the thousands of people she coached, taught, mentored and championed throughout her diverse career. I’m proud of her for being a role model, not just for Chinese Americans, not just for women, but all people who want to live an honest, open life. She was a truly courageous woman.”
At the OCA dinner, Chow stood to receive her award despite her exhausting condition. Accompanied on stage by her partner Sarah Morningstar and daughter Liliana Morningstar-Chow, she gave an engaging acceptance speech to great applause. This was characterized by Chow’s signature sense of humor — one that was at once wry, self-deprecating and charming.
Her younger brother Brien Chow remembers growing up going on family vacations to Bend, Ore. with his sister. She would always make it a point to take him and other youth on fishing, bicycling and rafting adventures.
“She had very, very strong family values,” says her younger brother Brien Chow. “She always did what was best for the family.”
She was “a good auntie,” says Brien, often taking her two nephews — Brien’s sons — on many similar adventures. She would always joking with her brother that it was a shame he didn’t have any daughters to join her drill team.
“The drill team was her heart and soul,” says her brother.
Perhaps her most courageous act and crowning achievement was in the last chapter of her life.
Last July during the 60th anniversary of the Seattle Chinese Community Girls Drill Team, Chow announced to the team that she was gay and had a 10-yearlong partnership with Sarah Morningstar, an assistant principal.
“I wanted them to feel good about themselves and I wanted them to have a role model that wasn’t afraid to say anymore, ‘I’m gay and that’s okay,’” she told King 5 News last August. “If I can save one child from feeling bad or even committing suicide because they felt terrible because they were gay, then I would have succeeded in my last crusade.”
To honor Chow’s public service last year, the city officially deemed Sept. 17th “Cheryl Chow Day.”
Just a couple of weeks before she passed, Chow married her longtime partner, and she was also able to see their daughter, Liliana, turn 5 a few days before departing.
Chow is survived by her wife, Sarah, young daughter, Liliana and four brothers: Edward, Shelton, Brien and Mark Chow.
A public memorial for Cheryl Chow is being planned for April 20th at Town Hall in Seattle. More details are to be announced.