The Back Story: Honoring the Life and Legacy of Norman Y. Mineta
Mayor Liccardo delivered the following address at the June 16, 2022 memorial honoring the late Norman Y. Mineta:
To Deni and the Mineta family, thank you for honoring us with your presence, and allowing us to share this moment with you. Mr. President, Mr. Secretary, and visiting guests, welcome to San José.
A few San José denizens might be forgiven if the name “Norman Y. Mineta” melds into the ambient noise of their daily lives every time they drive over the Mineta freeway, or fly out of Mineta International. Norm wouldn’t blame them for their indifference, as he told me the airport’s name got him into a lot of trouble whenever he was spotted flying out of Oakland or SFO.
Yet for a man of his stature, it’s remarkable how many San Joséans feel some personal connection to him–each of us harboring our own anecdote about a “Norm encounter.” Norm cultivated that connection with his legendary memory, seemingly never forgetting a name. Far more than some yardstick of political skill, though, his memory reflected a passion for the people he served–and loved. Our community knew him not as Mr. Mayor, Congressman, or Mr. Secretary, but simply as “Norm.”
My own personal connection came through my Dad, Sal, who grew up a few blocks away from Norm on North Fifth Street. Norm was a couple of years older than my Dad, but my Dad recalled that Norm magnanimously persuaded the neighborhood kids to allow younger boys like him to join their pick-up baseball games on weekends at the school ball field on 4th Street.
One day my 8-year-old Dad came home to report that Norm and some other kids hadn’t been coming to play baseball anymore. My grandfather told my Dad–angrily–that the government took Norm’s family away.
So Norm’s extraordinary journey would begin in San José with that poignant image of him boarding a train in his Cub Scout uniform, losing his beloved baseball bat to government confiscation. Norm’s trek to Santa Anita and Heart Mountain would be the first of several historic journeys in which San José provided an iconic launchpad: consider the march that took Cesar Chavez from the corner of Alum Rock & King to Delano, or the sprint of San José State students John Carlos and Tommie Smith to an Olympic pedestal with raised fists. These images burrow deep into our collective soil, one day to sprout as fertile catalysts for national transformation.
When Norm returned to San José after the war, he encountered the silence that so many Nissei children experienced from their San José elders. Parents struggled to suppress the pain of their loss of homes, their freedom, and years of their lives to confinement in Heart Mountain or Manzanar or Tule Lake. As so many families quietly reassembled the broken pieces of their lives, Norm seemed determined to thrive, becoming student body president at San José High, graduating from UC Berkeley, and serving our nation abroad in the Army.
But always, Norm returned home. Mayor Ron James told me that his 1967 appointment of Norm to the San José City Council was the best decision he ever made, and a fortuitous one for our city and our nation. When Norm ran for mayor in 1971, it was Japantown’s elders who launched Norm’s career– people like Yosh Uchida–who, God love him, is with us here today at the age of 102–and Wayne Kamemoto, and I.K. Ishimatsu. Yet Norm united San Joséans of all races in that landslide, winning nearly ⅔ of the vote in a crowded field of 15 candidates. “I don’t know if this could have happened anywhere else, “ Norm recounted to one author, “San José was such a special place because of its diversity.” Becoming the first Asian-American mayor of a major U.S. city was a great individual accomplishment for Norm, but for San José, it was much more: a landmark achievement that everyone shared.
I first came to know Norm as an 18-year-old intern in his congressional office in 1988. They didn’t pay me anything, the coffee was terrible, and I recall thinking how ironic that a guy who drives an awful looking Dodge Colt would be a national leader on transportation policy. Yet the lessons were invaluable. Norm never seemed to get rankled by politics or pettiness, always found time for a laugh and a good story, and on every issue, he applied that enduring instinct to heed those otherwise left out of the neighborhood pick-up baseball game.
My two years there gave me a front-row seat to Norm’s longstanding efforts to pass the American Civil Liberties Act, the legislation providing redress to tens of thousands of Americans incarcerated through internment. “The past is never dead” — Faulkner reminds us–” it’s not even past.” Not to Norm, and not too many thousands of diverse San Joséans with their own experiences of discrimination and injustice. I can still see Norm rolling his eyes as he recounted being approached by a member of Congress who told him, “Norm, I saw your ambassador today, who just flew in from Japan,” as if Norm wasn’t even American. Norm quipped, “California has an ambassador?” Norm understood too well that if the long moral arc of the universe bent toward justice, it wouldn’t bend itself — it would take some pulling.
Norm secured bipartisan support for the passage of that landmark redress legislation, ending a generation of silence, and awakening our nation’s better angels. As he had in San José, he calmly, resolutely united people of different races and parties around a central principle: that we might fail to meet our nation’s great ideals, but we must never abandon them. Perhaps Norm Mineta believed in us–as a community, and as a country–more than we believed in ourselves.
The last time I saw Norm in person, we had lunch together at Minato’s on 6th Street. He shared memories of San José and Japantown, and of some neighbors who helped his family in the tough times. We couldn’t get him from the restaurant booth to his car without a half-dozen people stopping him to say hello, exchanging stories along the way. Norm seemingly summoned a half-dozen names from his 88-year-old brain, to the delight of each person he encountered.
What made Norman Mineta’s odyssey so remarkable is that even as he reached a national stage, he never really left Fifth Street. His journey, and that of his family, meant so much to us because he took San José with him– all of us. His story is our story — we all feel a pride in some part of Norm’s success.
God bless Norm Mineta for his journey. May it never be forgotten in times like today, when our country needs it most.
Norm, welcome home.