Update 9/12/16 at 12:20 p.m.:
A memorial celebration for Ben and Ruth Woo is scheduled for Wednesday, September 14, 2016 from 5:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. at Wing Luke Museum. The brief program begins at about 6:00 p.m. Everyone is welcome. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/rememberingruthwoo.
Community leader and organizer Ruth Woo passed away on Wednesday, July 13 at the age of 89. Politically savvy and intuned, empathetic and effervescent, Woo’s legacy is highlighted by her gift of getting people of color—and particularly Asian Americans—involved in mainstream politics.
The Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs said in a statement: “Ruth Woo was a trailblazer who shaped our communities and state in more ways than anyone could ever know. Auntie Ruth did not seek recognition or the spotlight, but worked tirelessly behind the scenes mentoring and opening doors for aspiring civic leaders from school board directors to county executives and to governors, particularly among the Asian American community.
“Auntie Ruth fought to achieve racial equality and justice in her own unique way, and reliably asked those who sought her advice about their commitment to diversity at the top and passion for serving the public. The Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs would not have been a reality without her counsel to Governor Dan Evans as a member of his staff in the 1970s. The Commission broke new ground as our nation’s first state commission dedicated to improving the well-being of Asian Pacific Americans within the office of the governor. Auntie Ruth’s impact will continue to be a positive force in our state for generations to come. We will miss her dearly.”
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said in a statement: “Ruth Woo was a legend in the community, and I’ll always remember our many breakfasts together at AJs over the years. Her legacy will be the dozens, no hundreds of us, whom she mentored as we embarked on our careers. Look around, from Olympia, to DC, to the City and nonprofits, every part of our region’s public life have people who leaned on her for advice and support. To all of us, today and forever, she will always be ‘Auntie Ruth.’”
King County Executive Dow Constantine said in a statement: “Ruth Woo helped shape the leaders who shaped our region, pushing our city, county and state toward justice and inclusion. For generations of local elected officials, she was a mentor, a trusted leader of the Asian Pacific Islander community, and a driving force for social change.
“She was motivated not by fame or access to power, but by a contagious belief that we could always do more to make this a better place to live. She had a remarkable ability to create and connect communities, a talent that helped advance the cause of civil rights.
“Ruth was a warm, generous and inspiring figure in Washington politics, one who will be missed by generations of politicians, myself included, who appreciated her wry smile and her wise counsel.”
The following is an excerpt by Gary Iwamoto from the International Examiner’s 1997 Community Voice Awards event program, which honored Ruth Woo and Ben Woo.
Ruth Oya was born in White Fish, Montana, where her father worked in the railroads. When Ruth was still a child, her father died. Mrs. Oya moved the family to Seattle, where she supported her children by working as a seamstress. As a young girl, Ruth, like most Japanese Americans on the West Coast, was incarcerated at Tule Lake and Minidoka.
From the camps, Ruth went to Chicago. In 1948, Ruth married Hiro Yoneyama. Ruth had known Hiro from before the war, when their families lived across the street from each other. Hiro had been a decorated member of the 442nd “Go For Broke” Regiment. After marriage, the couple moved to Washington, D.C. But their stay was brief. Hiro’s father became very sick, so the couple moved back to Seattle to care for him.
In the 1950s, Hiro found work with the Boeing Company. Ruth found work at the Veteran’s Hospital as a receptionist. Two children were born: Teresa, who today works in the Human Resources Division of the Boeing Company, and Janice Leonard, who today works for the Longview School District.
In 1960, Hiro died at the relatively young age of 35 from kidney failure. Ruth was now a single mother raising two very young daughters. At about the same time, Ruth had her first taste of political life when she went to work for the Mayor’s Office in the early ’60s for both Gordon S. Clinton and Dorm Braman. In 1964, then-City Councilman Lud Kramer won the election for Secretary of State in Olympia and asked Ruth to work for him there. But Esther Seering, a good friend on the Governor’s staff, commented that if Ruth was going to work in Olympia, why not work for the Governor? So Ruth packed up her two kids and moved to Olympia to work for Dan Evans.
In 1971, when Dan Evans ran for a third term, Ruth offered to campaign for him. She was a real political rookie. As Ruth recalled, “I didn’t even know what ‘doorbelling’ was. Ruth was hooked. She loved being involved in political campaigns because “It was a way to meet people. It was exciting.”
In 1975, Ruth managed her first political campaign for Jim Dolliver, whom she had met while working at the Governor’s Office, while he was running for State Supreme Court Justice. Shortly thereafter, Ruth managed Doug Jewett’s campaign for City Attorney. As Ben recalled, “She used my office and my copy machine.”
What explains her interest in politics? Ruth said, “It’s often said that people who run for public office are crazy. Well, the people who don’t run but work long hours to get their candidates elected are even crazier.” But it occurred to her that she was only helping white males get elected. Ruth believed in the politics of “inclusion.” Said Ruth, “It was important to get Asian candidates, women and people of color to run for office and be elected. I felt that I could play a role.” Since then, she has played a role either as a campaign manager or advisor/mentor for State Commissioner for Public Lands Jennifer Belcher, State Representative Kip Tokuda, State Representative Velma Veloria, Superior Court Judge Eileen Kato, King County Executive Ron Sims and Washington State Governor Gary Locke. Her litmus test for being involved? “How they stand on diversity issues.”
When Ruth manages a campaign, she becomes that candidate’s “surrogate mother.” Ruth is a “Yoda” to the political Luke Skywalkers and Princess Leias running for office. She coaxes, cajoes, keeps spirits up, and inspires confidence. Ruth served as political advisor for State Representative Kip Tokuda. He said, “Ruth has great intuitive skills. When I ran for the State Legislature, Ruth was instrumental in crafting strategy, particularly when it comes to reaching the voters you need. She has a great understanding of people. Ruth knows how to target different kinds of people for their support. She knows the demographics of the voting public and could cite how, for me, the voters in my District voted in the last five or six elections. She knew who was most likely to vote for me and how to reach those people. And, she’s a great fundraiser.”
Another old friend, former Seattle City Councilwoman Dolores Sibonga, said,”When Ruth goes to work for a political candidate, she really believes in that person, wants the best for that person. She’ll go out of her way, paying for banquets and other events for her candidate so that they can go out and meet the public. A lot of the political work Ruth does is not glamorous; in fact, she does the grunt work: scheduling, strategizing, doorbelling, mailing out brochures, soliciting donations, getting the yard signs made and distributed.”
When her candidate wins in the limelight of flash bulbs and election-night news coverage, you won’t find Ruth. She prefers to stay behind the scenes and is very reluctant to step forward when the spotlight shines on her. But today, we have Asian American judges, City Councilpersons, State legislators, School Board members and a State Governor—and that has happened in no small part because of Ruth Woo. She has played a huge role in opening that door of political inclusion.
Ruth and Ben Woo first met in 1966 at a New Year’s Eve dinner party at the Hyatt House, introduced to each other by Nobi Chan. Both were single and available. They quickly hit it off and went together for nine years before Ben popped the question and Ruth accepted in 1975. Old friend Mako Nakagawa said, “They’re really perfect together. Ben operates at a really slow speed while Ruth is chatter, chatter, chatter.” Ben can be measured and reserved; Ruth can be impulsive and gregarious. Ben has a dry wit and Ruth can be downright earthy. But both are generous with their time, committed to the cause and conscientious in their approach. As Mako says, “They really good people. We need more people like them.”