Diem Ly and the late Al Sugiyama at an EDI event. • Courtesy Photo

He never had a reason. He just wanted to spend time with me.

Like a moody teenager hearing their parent’s advice, I didn’t fully appreciate this at the time—nor realize how it would shape my approach to life.

Al Sugiyama loved dropping by the International Examiner newsroom during my tenure as the editor in chief. I was an ambitious and aggressive worker bee—but often stressed by the day-to-day responsibility.

Al would bounce into the office with a huge grin.

“Hey girlfriend!” he’d say with one hand on my shoulder. “How you doin’? You look stressed. How’s the paper? Do you need more advertisers? I know someone who should advertise. Hold on, let me call them.”

Fast forward, say, 5 minutes, and Al secured a half-page ad placement for the next edition.

“Have you eaten yet?” he asked next.

His station wagon, while modest, was kept spotless. And, it was always in transit from one rescue mission to the other.

We’ve shared lunch and dinner over many years; although reflecting back now, they were far too few.

Over the savory smell of fish sauce in a Vietnamese restaurant or the sound of slurping yakisoba in his dining room, we’d chat about the API community. What was the latest news? What can we do about the lack of mentors for the growing group of engaged, young people? And of course—settling in to hear his crazy, bold antics as an activist college student.

For those not familiar with Al’s life’s work over the decades—or who didn’t have the privilege to know and break bread with him—I suggest talking to those who did. They have great stories.

Al was a bold, I-don’t-care-who-you-are-you-are-going-to-hear-me-out kind of guy. Sometimes he was audacious. And I loved it.

While receiving a lifetime achievement award by a prominent nonprofit years ago, he took the opportunity during the acceptance speech to “call out” the organization for which he was earning the award from. I don’t recall the exact words—something about “out-of-touch” and “make your cause more relevant to young people and current issues today”—but I remember the feeling he left in the room. Heads turned. Eyebrows raised. I held my breath. Al returned to his seat.

“Al!” I whispered to him. “That was brave! And while receiving an award from them, too! But you had to say it. You spoke the truth.”

“Yeah!” He replied, crossing his arms. “It needed to be said! Shoooot.”

Al was larger than life to those who knew him. We can talk about his massive accomplishments, the organizations he led, the truly innumerable people whose lives he changed, even his love of the 3 F’s: food, family, and friends. But it was the small things he did that will ring loudest for me.

His legacy in my life can be summed up simply. Making time to help, support, and uplift others is always worth it, no matter how small a gesture, no matter any known return or recognition, ever.

The author Elton Trueblood wrote: “We have made at least a start in discovering the meaning in human life when we plant shade trees under which we know full well we will never sit.”

I’ll miss you, Al. Thank you. I promise I’ll remember.

I can even hear his reply.

“Right on, sister!”

A memorial service for Sugiyama will take place on Sunday, January 29, at 2:00 p.m. at Fisher Pavilion at Seattle Center.

If you would like to share your memories and appreciations of Al Sugiyama with the IE’s readers, please email [email protected].


Two-year battle with cancer ends for Seattle activist Alan Sugiyama

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