Over 300 people crowded into the Blaine Memorial United Methodist Church auditorium on Sunday, September 13 to hear a parade of speakers pay tribute to Al Sugiyama, longtime social justice activist and former director of the Executive Development Institute (EDI).
Sugiyama, best known as the founding director of the now-defunct Center for Career Alternatives for 30 years and the first Asian American elected to the Seattle School Board, has been fighting an aggressive battle with cancer since last year.
In February, Sugiyama stepped down as head of EDI, a Bellevue-based agency providing training and support for local Asian American leaders, after being diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas and esophagus. He still serves EDI as emeritus executive director.
Sugiyama came onto the stage near the end of the program after over a dozen speakers—lifelong friends and former co-workers—shared personal stories of Sugiyama’s deep commitment to educational and job equality and his extraordinary fighting spirit. After the speeches, Chris Marr presented a samurai sword to Sugiyama, and Sugiyama, to the amusement of the crowd, stripped off his sports coat to reveal a Superman t-shirt he had been wearing underneath.
“I’m really not Superman,” Sugiyama said, “but I feel like it with all of you here.” He said “what is giving me super-strength” is the “collective” support of friends and community members, including the crew who drive him to and from his radiation treatments, those who bring him food, and those who have taken him to lunch and sent cards, prayers, and good wishes his way.
He spoke movingly about his fight against cancer, a fight he says he intends on winning: “I plan to live into my 90s. I’m not going anywhere.”
Sugiyama thanked his “excellent medical team,” especially the oncologists who have been “keeping me alive.” He said treatments have dramatically diminished the size of the cancers in his esophagus and pancreas. The pancreatic cancer “has gone down so far you can’t even see it,” he said.
Sugiyama asked if there were other cancer survivors in the audience. Dozens of hands shot up. “When you have love and support, cancer doesn’t stand a chance,” he said.
Sugiyama, noticing the huge crowd in attendance, recalled how difficult it had been to organize protests against the construction of the Kingdome in the early 1970s. Asian American activists had decried the siting of the stadium near the Chinatown-International District. At the time, he had asked Frank Irigon, a fellow organizer, how many people had been recruited to participate in one of the demonstrations. Irigon told Sugiyama there were only three: Irigon, Irigon’s wife and Sugiyama.
“I wish you all were here when we had the demonstrations,” he said.