Mary Thoits

From left, Beverly O'Neill, Eunice Sato, Mary Thoits and Gary Scott.

Eunice N. Sato, the first female mayor of Long Beach who helped turn the city around during tough economic times in the 1970s and 1980s, has died. She was 99.

Sato, who was also the first Asian American woman to serve as mayor of a major American city, died from cardiopulmonary arrest on Friday, Feb. 12, at a residential care facility in Bixby Knolls, said her daughter, Charlotte Sato. Sato was four months shy of her 100th birthday and died one day before she was scheduled to receive her second dose of the coronavirus vaccine, her daughter said.

Sato served on the Long Beach City Council, representing the Seventh District, from 1975 to 1986, including two years as mayor in the early 1980s. Sato was appointed to that post by her City Council colleagues during the time before Long Beach’s election rules changed to have voters select the mayor.

Sato might have been small in stature – she was 4 feet 10 inches – but she was a giant as a community leader and educator, said former Long Beach Mayor Beverly O’Neill.

“She was so deeply involved in the community,” said O’Neill, who became mayor in 1994, more than a decade after Sato, “and when she spoke, everyone listened.”

Current Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia said he would close Tuesday’s council meeting in Sato’s honor.

Sato made “amazing and groundbreaking contributions to the community,” Garcia said, “especially for women and Asian Americans.”

Eunice Sato, née Noda, was born on June 8, 1921, and was one of six children who grew up on a farm in the small town of Livingston, near Modesto in California’s Central Valley.

While she was attending San Jose City College during World War II, the government began interning Japanese Americans in camps. She fled with her family to Colorado, where their relatives lived. She resumed her studies at Colorado State Teacher’s College in Greeley and later received her teaching degree and credential.

“She remained forever grateful to Gov. Ralph Carr of Colorado, who welcomed Japanese Americans to his state,” her daughter said. “Her autobiography mentions incidents of hate and ignorance, but she neither spoke of them to her family nor in public nor let them hold her back.”

When she was 27 years old, she wrote an essay for Columbia University Teacher’s College, where she received a master’s degree, about her pride in being the child of Japanese immigrants.

“It isn’t necessary or required that I reveal my (Nisei) background, but I do that because I am neither ashamed of it nor afraid to face any obstacles or discrimination as a result,” she wrote. “I am convinced that if one community is too narrow and prejudiced to have me because of my cultural background, there will be another somewhere that believes in true democracy and desires to see it in action as well as in words.”

Years later, after moving to Southern California, Sato was also the victim of three robberies while walking, one in Los Angeles and two in Long Beach. But, her daughter said, Sato — who was also a two-time breast cancer survivor — was not cowed by those incidents.

“She didn’t think they were a big deal,” her daughter said, “and just moved ahead.”

After teaching junior and senior high school students in Upper Michigan for three years, Sato sailed to Yokohama, Japan, in 1948 to teach at Ferris Seminary, a private school for junior college-aged women.

Two years later, while still in Japan, she married Thomas Takashi Sato, who was serving under Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Their three children – Charlotte and twin sons Daniel and Douglas Sato – were born there.

The family returned to California in 1956, and Sato began her volunteer work for her children’s PTAs and her church. She also became president of the Long Beach Council of Churches.

Because of her community involvement, she found herself being asked to run for the Seventh District City Council seat, which she won in 1975.

During her tenure on the council, Long Beach went through difficult financial times.

“Long Beach was really at the rock bottom,” Sato said in an interview with the Press-Telegram on her 90th birthday. “Downtown was terrible; it was deserted. Shops were closed.”

City Hall started rebuilding downtown with high-end hotels and other developments, she said then.

“I think Long Beach is where it is today because of the groundwork we laid 20 years ago,” Sato said in that 2011 interview.

After leaving the council, Sato remained deeply involved in the community, volunteering with dozens of organizations through the years and serving as president of the California Conference for Equality and Justice.

Then-Gov. George Deukmejian appointed Sato to three state commissions, and former President George H.W. Bush appointed her to the National Advisory Council on Educational Research in 1991.

Among her many honors, the government of Japan recognized her with an award in 1996 for promoting a positive relationship between that country and the United States.

In 2015, Long Beach Unified School District opened the Sato Academy of Mathematics and Science, making it the first school in the district to be named for an Asian American.

“After leaving office, she continued to be active in the community for many years,” her daughter said. “Her faith, positivity and energy sustained her lifelong commitment to her community and her country.”

Her work, both on and off the City Council, illustrated her love for Long Beach, those who knew her said.

“Eunice was a marvelous person,” said former Mayor Bob Foster. “I’m saddened by her loss. She loved the city and worked hard to improve it.

“What I liked best about her,” he added, “was that she was honest, candid and straight forward all the time.”

Sato is survived by her daughter, Charlotte Sato, and sons Douglas and Daniel Sato.

Her daughter said no service is planned at this time.

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