Always Working to Make a Better World: The Authors Collection.

Kam Kuwata, always working behind the political scenes  for a better world.
Kam Kuwata, always working behind the political scenes for a better world.

KAM WAS ONE of those people whose personality fit his body perfectly.

Even at 17 he was big, fleshy and jovial.  A teddy bear of a young man.  His face was wide and cherubic.   I sometimes wondered if he was the model for the Cabbage Patch Kid dolls.

We attended different high schools in Pasadena near Los Angeles.  I got to know Kam because we both were student leaders at our schools when we were seniors.  This was in the early 1970s – a tumultuous time.  Vietnam was on our minds, not just as a political issue but as a possible next chapter in our lives.  College deferments were gone.  Whether we would be drafted in a year hinged on how we fared in the birthday lottery and Richard Nixon’s management of the war.  Imagine having your fate resting in Nixon’s careful hands.

Closer to home, the Pasadena public schools were under a court order to integrate.  The school board drew up plans to bus elementary school kids, in some cases from lily-white suburbs to all-black neighborhoods.  Irate parents attacked school board members for buckling under to the demands of a federal judge.  Recall elections were in the works.

I saw a lot of Kam that year.  The school district called on us often, trying to find out what students were thinking and hoping to head off protests, walkouts and clashes between ethnic factions in the schools.

thumbI didn’t realize it at the time but it was somewhat remarkable that the 3,000 or so students at Kam’s high school elected him president.  His was the wealthiest of the three Pasadena high schools.  It wasn’t quite Beverly Hills High, but it did encompass the tonier neighborhoods – the ones that could afford to give 16-year-olds new BMWs and Porsches.

Kam was Japanese.  He was raised in modest circumstances by a single mother whose family was forced to live in a Japanese American internment camp during World War II.  On the typical high school coolness scale, he barely moved the needle.  He certainly didn’t have movie-star looks.

But what was clear to anyone who knew Kam was that he was laser smart.  He focused completely on whatever issue or problem was at hand.  He was particularly passionate about civil rights.  And he was one of the nicest, kindest people you were ever going to meet.

Kam never gave me the actual bear hug for which it almost seemed he was constructed.  But every time we met, I came away feeling like he had done just that.  He had that personality.  Not bright, shiny, cloying or condescending.  Just warm and encompassing.  And you could tell he would be that way with anyone he encountered, friend or foe.

We graduated high school, went our separate ways and I only saw Kam Kuwata once after that.  We were around 30.  I was eight years into a journalism career, working for a newspaper in Miami.  Kam was passing through and we met for coffee and a chat.  He was well on his way toward becoming a fixture in California and national politics.  He got his start working in Alan Cranston’s Senate office.  When I saw him, he was running campaigns for Congressional candidates.

After that I heard news about Kam in bits and pieces from mutual friends.  He was still very involved in Democratic politics, mainly in California but also nationally.  He was a key strategist in Sen. Diane Feinstein’s first Senate campaign in 1992 and in her subsequent elections.  He helped manage the 2008 Democratic Convention when Barrack Obama was first nominated.

Then, around three years ago, I saw an article in the newspaper about Kam.  He had suddenly stopped returning calls and emails from his family and friends.  They notified the police.  When they opened his apartment in Venice, California where he lived alone, they found his body.  Kam had died of natural causes at the age of 57.  They said he collapsed at his desk.

Kam was universally praised.  A Republican strategist who was more often a foe than an ally called him a “true gentleman.”   The California Assembly adjourned one day soon after his death in Kam’s honor.  One legislator choked up as he recalled how Kam kept politicians honest – including his clients – by requiring that they actually keep their promises.  Everyone cited his unfailing good humor and the passion that drove him as much as his professionalism.

More than a year after Kam died, I was deep into my second mystery thriller novel, Divine Fury.  During the writing, a minor character – the campaign manager for a mythical candidate running for governor of California – began to assume a larger role in the story.  In many ways, he became the star.   He was funny, smart and ironic.  He orchestrated campaign events and then stood on the sideline offering an off-the-wall commentary, skewering himself as well as his candidate.

The character was a true hero – someone who dreams of a better world and then devotes himself over decades to creating it.  His life was full of grace, humor and passion.  And it ends too soon.

It didn’t take me long to realize what I was doing.  I was channeling Kam, of course, and wishing we had more like him.

Please click the book cover image to read more about Robert B. Lowe’s Divine Fury.

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