Henry "Hank" Oyama

Civil-rights pioneer and longtime educator Henry “Hank” Oyama died overnight while in hospice after a long illness. He was 86.

Oyama’s health had been failing for weeks, his family has said.

The native Tucsonan led a distinguished life that inspired affection, respect and admiration.

• In the 1940s, he and his family were among Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps during World War II.

• In the late 1950s, he fought a state law that prohibited interracial marriage.

• And in the 1960s, he and other educators researched bilingual education and held a national symposium that led to federal legislation that funded bilingual education.

“Hank was unique. He was a staunch supporter of bilingual education and helped so many, many students over the years,” said Pepe Barrón, chief executive officer of Luz Social Services Inc., and a longtime educator.

“He started programs at Pima Community College in bilingual and international studies, and he also found a scholarship fund for Chicano students. He was there for those in need,” Barrón said.

“Hank was my social studies teacher at Pueblo High School in 1959,” said Esperanza Bejarano, a retired Tucson Unified School District administrator and educator.

“I did not speak English, but he was so patient and taught me about democracy and U.S. history. He was a top-notch teacher who cared about his students, and when I went to the UA, I student taught under him at Pueblo,” Bejarano said.

“He always had tickets to sell in the pockets of his guayabera for a community event supporting social services or education,” recalled Bejarano of Oyama who was well-known at fundraising events.

Oyama, a founding member of the local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens was a staunch supporter of community projects — especially in education.

His work for others led to scores of awards, including named 1993 Man of the Year by the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.

Oyama was born June 1, 1926 and grew up in downtown’s barrios where the Tucson Convention Center now stands. He grew up Mexican-American and was raised by his mother, Mary, who was born in Japan but grew up in Mexico. His father, also of Japanese descent, died five months before Oyama was born.

In May 1942 at age 15, Oyama, his mother and sister were sent to an internment camp in Poston, Ariz., along with more than 20,000 other Japanese-Americans during World War II. It was southwest of Parker in La Paz County.

Oyama remained there for 15 months, and about two years after he had left the camp, he was drafted into the Army and served from 1945 to 1947. He then joined the Air Force and worked counterintelligence in Panama. He graduated from the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps at the University of Arizona in 1950, and he retired from the U.S. Air Force Reserve in 1985 as a lieutenant colonel.

While a student at the UA, he studied Spanish and earned a bachelor’s degree in education. It also was at the UA where he met and fell in love with his late wife, Mary Ann Jordan Oyama, a white woman from Buffalo, N.Y., who moved to Tucson for health reasons.

The couple made history as the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona’s first clients in a lawsuit challenging the state’s anti-miscegenation law.

On Oct. 6, 1959, Oyama, 33, a Spanish and U.S. history teacher at Pueblo High School, and Jordan, 28, an American Airlines employee, were denied a marriage license in the office of the clerk of Pima County Superior Court.

A state law prohibited “the marriage of a person of Caucasian blood with a Negro, Mongolian, Malay or Hindu,” according to a Star story.

Pima County Superior Court Judge Herbert F. Krucker declared the law unconstitutional on Dec. 23, 1959, and granted Oyama and his fiancée their request for a marriage license.

The ruling was appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court, but it was dismissed after the state Legislature repealed the law.

Meanwhile, Oyama and Jordan did not wait. After Krucker’s ruling, “I and Mary Ann got married a week later at St. Augustine Cathedral,” Oyama said in a 2009 interview. It was that year that Oyama and Jordan, who died from heart failure in 1987 at age 55, were honored by the ACLU of Arizona at its 50th anniversary celebration.

Oyama said then it was Jordan who taught him about building bridges of understanding and love. “It was her courage and unwavering support that inspired me to continue my involvement in educational rights of Mexican-American children and adults,” said Oyama, who, along with other teachers, was nationally recognized for bilingual education in the 1950s at Pueblo High by Parade Magazine.

That recognition led him and five local educators to research bilingual education programs in 40 schools in the Southwest. They wrote a report, “The Invisible Minority”, and held a national symposium in 1966 to discuss the findings. It attracted policymakers and educators, and two U.S. senators who introduced federal legislation that funded bilingual education.

Oyama left Pueblo in 1970 and became Pima Community College’s director of bilingual and international studies, and then associate dean of the program in 1978.

In 1989, he was appointed vice president for multidisciplinary education and services at PCC. He retired as vice president emeritus after 22 years at the college.

Tucson Unified School District built an elementary school at 2700 S. La Cholla Blvd. and named it after Oyama in February 2003. He worked for the district for 18 years.

Oyama donated historical documents to the UA Libraries Special Collections.

Oyama his survived by his wife of 21 years, Laura Ann; daughter, Mary Catherine Tate; and sons, David Oyama, Patrick Oyama and Steven Oyama; stepchildren, Susanna Minegishi, Chris Toledo, Elizabeth Toledo, Pablo Toledo, and Andrea Leyva; 14 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Services are pending.

Contact reporter Carmen Duarte at 573-4104 or cduarte@azstarnet.com

Senior Editor, News, Arizona Daily Star, Tucson, Az.