Remembering Lonny Kaneko

By Alan Chong Lau
IE Arts Editor

Lonny Kaneko, the poet, playwright, writer and long-time teacher at Highline College, passed away on March 30, 2017. He spent his early childhood at Minidoka internment camp where many Japanese Americans from the Northwest were incarcerated during WWII. This experience would shape his writing for years to come. He was Poet Laureate of Vashon Island where he lived for many years. Lonny was a friend to many and he influenced and touched people from all walks of life. His collected poems Coming Home From Camp and Other Poems (Endicott and High Books) was published in 2015. On the one-year anniversary of his death, we offer a mosaic of memories, an offering that points to the kind of man he was by friends, family and colleagues.  ■

Love to the man who caught fire and created light

By Tarisa A.M. Matsumoto

Almost two years ago to the day, I wrote about spying on him at Highline College. I wrote about how I knew his office routine, how I knew his smile in the mailroom, that twinkle. Since then, I knew he was sick, but there was his office, still lined with his posters, books still shelved to the ceiling. It was like he was still there. I could look down the hill of our campus, and on a good day, I could see Vashon reclining in the still water. His island, his home, like he was there walking on the beach, spying on campus, watching us beneath the cloud-ridden Seattle sky.

Lonny Kaneko.

A few months ago, I saw a light on in his office. I ran to our division secretary with amazement and nearly yelled, “Is Lonny here?” She looked at me with pity and told me that adjunct faculty were using his office for their office hours. I was angry. That was Lonny’s place. That office should only carry his footsteps. How dare someone else sit at his desk with all of his stuff still in there. Then I was sad again, knowing from my confidential conversations with some of his Highline friends that Lonny wouldn’t be back in that office again because of his health. So it’s fitting that today, as I sit across from his office writing up this difficult love letter to him, I look across and see that his office is dark. His posters of past art exhibitions stare back, a collage Lonny pieced together to block out most of the glass sliding doors and whatever is left inside.

And make no mistake – this is a love letter. Everyone who knew Lonny loved him. Everyone. For as stressful and disheartening the job of teaching can be, I never saw him angry or upset, dismayed or disillusioned. Never. Or maybe I met him at a time when he had turned the anger he had about his incarceration in Minidoka during World War II into something else. A power. Once, a teacher at Highline laughed at how Lonny would sit in meetings quietly, with a smile on his face. How everyone would talk and talk and talk and Lonny would just sit and listen. How after everyone had talked themselves silly, Lonny would finally speak up in a soothing way and say something that would just make more sense than anything that had been said before.

Since I got the news that he passed away, there have been many phone calls, texts, Facebook messages and emails among his colleagues at Highline College, both current ones and those who were mentored by Lonny and have taken their careers elsewhere. All of the messages are filled with sadness and good memories. No one has been at Highline as long as Lonny. No one has sat in those meetings listening as long as Lonny. No one has touched the lives of more students than Lonny has. He’s even mentored writers like our own state’s first poet laureate, Sam Green. Lonny is the holder of 50 years of our school’s history. If you wanted to know the background of some department or policy, Lonny knew it. In fact, Lonny changed the very face of Highline. Back in the day, when Lonny was the only Asian American tenured faculty at Highline, he pushed for hiring more faculty of color. He pushed so hard that today 30 percent of our full-time faculty are people of color. Even in our own English Department, part of the Arts and Humanities Division of which Lonny was chair for many years, half of us are people of color. It goes without saying that Highline wouldn’t even look the way it does were it not for Lonny.

But he also kept everything close to his vest. People keep telling me that I knew him well or that I was his friend. I like to think that I was his friend, but I don’t really know. When I told one of our extended Highline family about how Lonny didn’t want people knowing he was sick, she, another Japanese American, basically sighed in her text: JAs.

Yes, those Japanese Americans who sit and listen and don’t say much. I don’t know how much of a friend Lonny considered me, but I know when he became my source of comfort here at Highline. A couple of years after I started working at Highline, he asked where I was from. When I told him that I’m from a small Japanese American enclave in Southern California via a father from Hawai’i, his response was, “Oh, you’re one of those Japanese.” I was almost insulted, and then, in his mischievous smile, I understood. Yes, I was one of those Japanese. And that was it – he knew me and I knew him. No need to say more. He’s sansei; I’m yonsei. He’s from Seattle; I’m from Gardena. He was in the camps; I grew up with the camps as a mythic touchstone. But it didn’t matter. We understood each other, or at least he understood me. And that’s all I needed to feel at home at Highline, to think of him as a friend, as an extension of my Japanese American family.

He knew me, and it was like that for everyone at Highline. And honestly, there is no Highline without Lonny. So from now on, that will be his office and that will be his view down to the water and his island. He will be right here at the top of the hill, where the public art sculpture Celebration looms. It greets every student as they near the heart of campus, and as part of this sculpture, there is an open book with Lonny’s invitation:

Some struggle through

the dark.

Others reflect the world

around them.

A few catch fire and

create new light.

This is my love letter to you, Lonny, and to all the light you created here.  ■

Lonny Kaneko

By Roger Shimomura

Lonny was the first person to purchase a major painting of mine in the 70’s. For the next few decades he generously allowed the painting to be part of several exhibitions that travelled across the country months at a time. Of course, he humorously complained about the homely blank space on his wall. Lonny knew that loaning the work was helping me out and would have it no other way.
Amidst the turmoil of growing up Asian American in the 50’s and 60’s, Lonny was a “go to” friend that was always there for me. He was a caring and sensitive individual, devoid of ego and malice. He is someone that will be sorely missed and remembered with affection.  ■

Dancing With Different Partners

By Samuel Green

The following is an excerpt of an essay written by Samuel Green, Washington state’s first Poet Laureate. It was originally published in Washington State Kappan – A Journal for Research, Leadership And Practice in their Fall 2008 issue and is reprinted by permission of the author.

Some of us are lucky with teachers. And some of us are fortunate enough to figure out just how we’ve been lucky. I fall into that group.

For the sake of this little memoir, I want to mention just three who have had a tremendous effect on my life as a poet – and as a person – because each of them was very different in their approach. Each of them had that mystical skill of the best teacher who enters into a dance with a student, making them believe that they are, in fact, leading, when all the time, the teacher – who appears relaxed and happily following — is looking ahead, sending subtle signals, and pushing the dance where it needs to go. It takes far more energy than anyone can guess.

The first was Lonny Kaneko. In 1970, when I was a returning veteran, Lonny was teaching the creative writing courses at Highline Community College. I had been writing poems secretly, but thought it was time to find out what someone else thought about what I was doing, so I tried signing up for his course. It was full. I had to talk him into signing an overload slip, something I still tease him about. Lonny was the first person in the world to introduce me to the world of contemporary poetry.

One of the first poems I remember him reading aloud to us was Theodore Roethke’s great villanelle, “The Waking.” I was hooked. Once Lonny recognized the hunger in me, he made it his job to feed me. You could call it “the bread crumb method,” I suppose.

He knew where I needed to go, but he also recognized my need to discover things for myself, so he scattered clues to learning like crumbs along a trail, neatly disguising what he was up to. I followed along while he kept a close watch on me from the dark shadows of the path, or the overhanging trees, when the going was dense. He gave me everything he had, and more. He had a disarming way of keeping us off guard. One quarter, on the first day of class, he announced that he wanted to teach the course without grades getting in the way, so he told us we were going to begin with the final exam. He sent us off to find some place comfortable, instructed us to invent a form, and write a poem. We did. I began the course with an A. The rest of the quarter was sheer joy.

Only Lonny could have gotten away with that.  ■

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