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Taste of Ontario prepares for eighth annual event

The Joint Heirs March 26, 2002

For the eighth straight year, Ontario is gearing up to honor and thank the more than 300 citizens who volunteer their time to a wide range of worthwhile organizations and activities.

"Anyone who has attended the Chamber's annual awards banquet held each January knows how good you feel about living in Ontario after hearing from people who give so much of their time to children, the elderly, the poor or those new to our community," Katherine M. Collins, Ontario School District director of public information and community involvement, said. "You feel honored to be in the presence of so many giving volunteers."

The Taste of Ontario Volunteer Appreciation Event is hosted by Ontario Public Schools with the help of Emmy Bellows of Party Connections, Ontario, assisting with tablecloths, cups, plates and utensils and Ontario School District webmaster, Jeanne Patton doing the decorating.

According Collins, coordinator for the event, the theme for this year's celebration is "Volunteers: A Gift to the Community," and will feature a patriotic theme with Ontario's volunteer firefighters to receive a special recognition. A few of the other service organizations to be honored at the event include, Holy Rosary's Auxiliary, Boy and Girl Scout leaders, the Treasure Valley Civitans and the Ontario Recreation Department.

"These people donate hours and hours of their time to make this a better place and don't ask for anything in return," Collins said.

Musical entertainment will be provided by Ontario High School music teacher, Skip Bicknese and a small combination of his students. A Southern Gospel quartet, "The Joint Heirs," will close the celebration with a medley of patriotic music, Collins said. Taste of Ontario will also feature local restaurants serving up, buffet style, an array of sample-size portions to feed the honored volunteers and guests.

The festivities begin at 4 p.m. April 23 in the OHS Commons.

Organizations with volunteers to thank, businesses interested in becoming involved by making a cash donation or restaurants wishing to participate, may do so by contacting Collins, (541) 889-5374, or kcollins@ontario.k12.or.us.

By Kim Nowacki Argus Observer

February 17, 2002     
By Florangela Davila, Seattle Times staff reporter

They're serving Dungeness crab out here in the country. Mounds of pink legs piled high on paper plates. Iceberg salad. Cold cans of Coors. 

The annual crab feed has drawn a largely Japanese-American crowd to the Four Rivers Cultural Center. 

Tonight's guests

Fear and prejudice

Which isn't to say the arrival of hundreds of Japanese into tiny Ontario went perfectly. 

"There was a Chinese restaurant and a real-estate office that had a sign that we weren't welcome," says George Iseri. "There was a bowling alley that let us bowl, although it cautioned us against coming into the bar. They were afraid there could be fights." 

Joe Saito has been living in Ontario since 1930. He also fought in the 442nd regimental during the war. Upon his return to Ontario, he longed to be a part of the social clubs in town. But the rules prohibited him from joining for several years. Saito, a longtime onion farmer, eventually became a Mason and a Shriner. One time, though, at a lodge meeting, he spoke out on behalf of U.S. citizenship for Japanese immigrants.

"I was accused of making a political speech," he says. When he passed out a petition, some of the friends he was certain would support the issue did not. 

Hugh and Lorraine Lackey, both 77, are fourth-generation Ontarians, the descendants of folks who literally helped build the town: A Lackey constructed two of the brick buildings on Ontario's main street. 

"The Japanese at the time had this big Japanese hall," Lorraine Lackey recalls. "We were all a little suspicious." "We were wondering if they had a radio and if they were talking to the Japanese," Hugh Lackey says. 

He continues: "We felt safe, though, that we weren't going to get shelled." 

"No," Lorraine Lackey says, correcting her husband. "No, we didn't feel so safe." 

Married since 1944, the couple says the Japanese were good farmers, helpful people who never got into any trouble. And they spoke English, Lorraine Lackey points out, which is a lot different, she adds, from the Mexican immigrants who have arrived here in the past decade. 

Stories about race relations are often told in the extremes: hate-filled or Pollyannish. 

But ask locals who have been here long enough to feel some connection to the place, Asian and white alike, and they'll acknowledge an acceptance, a tolerance, a welcoming of the evacuees. They say this matter-of-factly and without a tone of triumph. 

"After the war, I went to my old hometown," says Connie Shimojima, 82, once a truck farmer in South King County. He'd haul his lettuce, peas, cauliflower to Pike Place Market. 

"But people there had changed. I said, 'Life is too short for this.' So we said we'd come here and stay."

A farm town changes

In these parts, Ontario has always been a hub. Decades ago, when he was a kid, Hugh Lackey says, the place had a certain popularity because of its pool halls and bars. 

These days, Ontario has a community college, the Four Rivers Cultural Center, a hospital, a prison and a Wal-Mart. If teens get their way, it'll have an improved skateboard park. 

Locals swear the land still produces some of the best sweet Spanish onions in the country, a reputation nurtured in part by early Japanese farmers. 

A tour of Ontario hints at the changes coming. 

The Mexican community is growing, though the Japanese-American presence can surely be seen in such things as a Buddhist church and the Ore-Ida Judo Club, which has claimed to be the largest in the United States. 

On the East Side of town, where the Iseri retail shop, a photo studio and other Japanese-owned businesses once thrived, only the East Side Cafe still stands. Now there's the Casa Jaramillo and Saddles and Spurs. 

Years ago, a trio of community leaders met for coffee at Rusty's Pancake and Steak House, a church-turned restaurant that still has stained-glass windows. They got to wondering: What makes Ontario unique? Their answer: its sizeable Japanese-American community. 

They turned to George Iseri to figure out why, says John Kirby, a hardware-store owner. 

Dreaming big, the town decided it needed something to commemorate its past and future. 

Four Rivers Cultural Center opened in 1994, funded with $4 million from Congress and another $4 million from local fund raising. Initially, its focus was to be the Japanese-American experience. But the town's Japanese-American community wanted it to be inclusive, according to Kirby. The museum now observes the history of the northern Paiute Indians, European pioneers, Basques and Mexicans.

In recent years, Four Rivers has seen high-school class reunions and gatherings of the Ducks Unlimited club and Pheasants Forever chapter. Earlier this month, it hosted the crab feed and auction to benefit the local chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. 

As guests crunched crab and drank pop, they bid on Oregon State T-shirts, gift certificates to a Mexican restaurant, a carving board, and a case of automotive oil. In the kitchen, third- and fourth-generation Japanese Americans tossed salad and handed out cups of ice cream. 

The event was a fund-raiser for college scholarships. Like teenagers in small towns everywhere, most Ontario kids see a future far from here. 

There just isn't much for them, acknowledges David Murakami, of the well-known Murakami onion family, as the auction got under way and the students bused the tables. 

Fewer than 500 people of Japanese ancestry now live in Malheur County. The community is disappearing, Murakami says. Then again, the hope of that first wartime generation was that the children would do better. That this latest generation is moving on, he says, could be regarded as success. 

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