Mary Kawakami was born in Colorado to Japanese immigrants on December 12, 1912. Her parents were devoted Americans in every way. Mary’s father was not allowed to vote, but he carefully studied the candidates in every election and gave Mary the information he had gathered. She listened and learned but voted how she wanted anyway. She studied civics and taught other immigrants what they needed to know to pass the test to become U.S. citizens.
The family moved to Helper, Utah, where Mary met and married her husband, Charles. She worked as a hairdresser in Helper,and Charles worked in the coal mines in Spring Canyon. In 1943, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Helper city officials gave all people of Japanese heritage 48 hours to leave the area. In subsequent years, the Kawakami family was a focus of an FBI investigation. Several agents came to their home looking for contraband. Mary knew they were not to have flashlights or incriminating documents. She put her flashlight and other forbidden items in a bucket and threw them in the outhouse toilet. The family endured bigotry and prejudice for many years.
Mary and Charles moved to American Fork, where they bought seven acres of land with some Liberty Bonds they had purchased earlier in their marriage. They built a chicken coop on their property. One half of the coop was used to raise chickens, and the other half was where Mary set up her hair salon. For years, Mary would cut and style hair during the week and then catch a bus to Los Angeles, where she learned new hair styling techniques. She would bring her knowledge back home and eventually opened Mary Kawakami’s College of Beauty School on Center Street in Provo. Today, it stands with a plaque honoring Mary and her influence on the many students who learned from the very best.
Mary entered many hairstyling contests ignoring the murmurs she heard in some corners about “letting the Japanese compete.”In 1954, she was honored in Hollywood as “One of the World’s Ten Best Hair Stylists.”
One of her moments of courage and strength came in 2000 when developers were starting construction on the Meadows commercial development in American Fork. The Kawakami’s owned the property adjacent to the new Target store. The property was part of the Kawakami’s sixty-year residency in American Fork. As the bulldozers attempted to take down some trees on the Kawakami property, Mary stood in front of the bulldozer, “It was like a terrorist attack,” said Mary, “they were inside our property pushing down our fence and our trees. This is America. They can’t do that,” she said.
Charlie was 98 at the time and frail and couldn’t do much. American Fork leaders told her they had to stay neutral. Others warned her, “They would squash you like a bug.” Just five feet one inch tall, Mary rooted herself in front of the tree. “If I have to lay down, I will. You will have to run over me and kill me.”
The standoff ended in Provo’s 4th District Court, where Kawakami’s attorney, Thomas Duffin, filed suit against Miller Weingarten Realty and Okland Construction Company. Kawakami said they would rather settle than sue, but either way, she says, she will stand up for principle and property rights.
This is Mary’s legacy: Know your rights and stand up for them. She has been a voice for decency, fairness, and all that is good. She was taught public speaking skills by a dear and long-time friend, Janice Dean Mayne, an honored American Fork teacher. They both became members of the Toastmaster club and spentmuch time speaking to local groups and school classes on the wonders of America and democracy. Mary was an advocate for everything good about America. In 2016, Governor Gary Herbert honored Mary as the oldest registered voter in Utah. She treasures her ability to vote, “My mother and father were denied this right many years ago. I am happy to send my ballot off each year,” she said.
The 110-year-old woman is remarkable. Healthy and sharp, her eyes light up when asked about her family and her love of her country. She has four children, Ben, Marilyn (who died at age 71), Smiley and Paul. Paul, a former Tai Chi instructor at Utah Valley University, lives nearby.
When asked what has given her such a long, rewarding life, she laughs and says, “I eat a lot of fruits and vegetables. She said a typical breakfast is blueberries or strawberries and a Japanese omelet. She loves oranges, watermelon and orchids. Her friend, Janice, brings her flowers often.
Her caregiver and friend, Dana, said, “Mary loves going to Costco, and she invariably sees someone she knows. She also loves to watch Shark Tank.” Mary also attributes her long life to her son, Paul, who for over 20 years came to Mary’s home daily and helped her exercise. “That is why I have lived so long,” said Mary. Paul teased that he thinks she is too mean to die. Mary also said, “a positive mental attitude helps.”
She also loves people and kids. In 2002, Mary established the Mary Kawakami Youth Speech contest for students in grades 7-12. The topic is “America-Our Country” The prize money totalsover $2,000.
Most travelers in Utah County have driven on the road in American Fork, honoring her contributions. Next time you’re at Target, notice “Mary Kawakami Drive” and think of this remarkable woman.