Kiyo Ochi: Helping Others
by Mich Himaka
Being confined behind barbed wire fencing during World War II did not sit well with Kiyoko Kimura Ochi.
Nor did she let grass grow under her feet. It wasn’t her style to do that. From PTA president to a volunteer worker with numerous organizations, she remained active in the community until a stroke slowed her down June 17, 1999.
Kiyo’s many activities in our community is why she is one of three persons selected for the 2003 Kansha Award.
Like Meko Kawamoto, I guess I’ve known Kiyo all my life, too. Kiyo says we are distantly related, both sets of our parents having lived in a village that today is known as Shingu, Wakayama-ken, Japan.
The oldest child of Kumataro and Hatsue Kimura, Kiyo was born August 5, 1920, in San Diego. Her father was a fisherman who later went into truck farming in the East County town of Bostonia.
Her brother, Jimmy, was born after her in San Diego and her late sister, Dawn, was born when the family lived in Bostonia.
“I don’t think I had started school yet when my folks went into farming,” Kiyo said. “We farmed in the Grossmont-Fletcher Hills area. Other families farming in that area included the Oguras, Ben Segawa’s uncle and a Mr. Ebisu.
“I started school in La Mesa but then we moved to the Casa de Oro area where the Oguras and the Furuta families were farming. Later, we moved to Lemon Grove truck farming such crops as cucumbers, lettuce, cabbage, beans and tomatoes.”
Kiyo went to La Mesa Elementary School and then on to Grossmont High School, graduating in 1939. After graduation, she went to work on the Owashi’s farm picking beans and squash.
Then World War II started and the Kimura family, like other San Diegans, went to the Santa Anita Assembly Center then on to Poston, Arizona, where they lived in Camp III, Block 330 Unit 3-D, at the opposite end of the barracks from our family.
“I didn’t like (being in camp) at all,” she says firmly. “As soon as I was able to, I cut out!
“I was a leave officer in camp with Hatoe Nakamura, who was from La Jolla, so we processed our own papers to leave camp. I left camp in September 1943 and went to Ann Arbor, Mich., near the University of Michigan campus, and got a job with a handicapped children’s hospital close to the university.”
En route to Chicago, we were on a troop train full of soldiers going on R and R (rest and recuperation). There was no place to sit down but two soldiers gave up their seats for us. We were scared to death but all of the soldiers were very cordial. Otherwise, I don’t think we would have made it.
“I wore a lot of muumuus and I was dark complexioned so the people thought I was Hawaiian.”
Kiyo worked at the hospital for two years earning $12 a week, or about four times what workers in camp earned in a month. She then moved to Detroit where she got a job babysitting a set of twins, a boy and a girl, earning $35 a week doing that. She made sure to return to camp every June to visit her folks.
After World War II ended, her parents and sister, Dawn, moved back to San Diego.
Kiyo returned to San Diego in 1946. Jobs were scarce here, she recalled. She went babysitting. That’s when she learned the ins and outs of the stock market and went into selling stocks and bonds and insurance.
The end of the war also meant a change in Kiyo’s life when her husband-to-be, Hideo Ochi, returned to San Diego following service in the U.S. Army. The couple married January 7, 1947, in San Diego and are the parents of Janet Fontanott, Holly Hidinger and Shirley Watson. The Ochis also are the grandparents of five grandsons.
It was while her children were school-age youngsters that Kiyo’s commitment to service began with involvement with the Parent-Teacher Associations (PTA) at their elementary and middle schools. She would go on to serve as PTA president of both schools while Janet and Holly were students there.
Her service in the Nikkei community began when Jack Hamaguchi recruited her to help members of the Meiji-kai Issei organization. She served as secretary for the organization.
“Mr. Hamaguchi used to say I had to go with the members each time they went to Las Vegas, or cherry picking in Riverside County or wherever they went because none of them understood English,” she said.
Kiyo also served as volunteer manager of the San Diego Gardeners Association Credit Union and as volunteer association treasurer for 30 years. They gave her $100 each month for the wear and tear on her car and gasoline because she had to do credit union banking daily.
” I was able to help a lot of people in distress then,” she said. “They used to come tell me their personal problems. Hideo used to tease me that I should have been a minister.”
Kiyo also was a volunteer worker at the San Diego Japanese Friendship Garden. She also served the Kiku Gardens first as a volunteer when the facility opened. She was then urged to take a paid position as secretary there until her stroke caused her to retire in 1999.
Kiyo also served as treasurer for the House of Japan in Balboa Park; the Japanese Coordinating Council from its beginning in 1970 until she suffered her stroke; the San Diego JACL; and the Buddhist Temple of San Diego and its Fujinkai, helping at all the temple functions, including Obon and the various bazaars and other activities.
“But all these activities could not have happened but for Hideo, who helped with the housework and helping with the kids during their growing up years,” Kiyo said. “I give him a lot of credit for anything I’ve been able to do.”