Betty Sakai, SVARW Member
Getting to know who Betty Sakai is means getting to know her birth family. Born in 1942 in a small northern California town where everyone in town knew your name, raised in a Christian, Masonic family with a father strongly principled and a disabled mother, Betty Ann Briggs was the middle child, the oldest girl who began shouldering responsibility by age five.
The head of the household, Clarence Briggs, worked for the Thompson-Diggs wholesale hardware company for 50 years. He traveled the northern territory selling hardware to small town hardware stores. Betty’s mother, Carol Briggs, from a long line of educated women, was an avid reader and had planned to help with family finances by getting a job downtown at the Five and Dime.
Unfortunately, in 1946 Carol suffered a massive stroke that paralyzed the right side of her body as she gave birth to her 5th child. Prior to the pregnancy, in one of his many house calls [the doctors in those days made house calls] the doctor had cautioned her not to have more children. The veins in her legs bulged and she wore elastic stockings every day even in the 110 degree heat of summer. Birth control medications were not available in those days.
Following the stroke, although severely disabled, Carol stubbornly dragged herself around, relearning to talk, walk, and write. She could not drive a car but managed to take care of her husband and five children. Her only personal spending was upon occasion going out to the beauty parlor to get her hair done. She cooked, washed clothes and dried them outside on the clothes line (where the sun would make them fresh and clean), shopped, ironed everything on a spindle steam iron, mended and sewed, and still found time to read a good paperback novel. She canned during the summer the readily available fruits and vegetables for her family to eat during the winter. Every morning and every night she prepared a family meal to serve on the vinyl, red-topped steel-legged table in the family room. When the food was ready, she would call everyone to sit down together to eat. She baked occasional gifts for neighbors and prepared cakes and cookies for community social gatherings. She attended church and Masonic events with Clarence and the family. In her quiet hours she could be seen working at her Singer Sewing Machine making clothes for her children and clothes to help the Shriner’s Nile Club provide for the children at the Shriner’s Hospital. Later on, she made quilts for each of her children from pieces of the fabric she used to make their clothes.
The Briggs Family lived on what Clarence could make from Thompson Diggs: a base salary plus commissions. He never talked about how much money he made but complained a lot about not making enough. Having lived through the Great Depression 1929-1939 (his father leaving, forcing him at a very young age to support his mother and siblings), Clarence Briggs was stubbornly independent. He looked down on anyone who took hand-outs or was on welfare. He controlled his spending. He did his best for the family, taking everyone on a low cost vacation once a year – with every moment planned out in detail. Certain expenditures, of course, were necessary, like tithing to the church, helping those less fortunate, and donating to Shriners and Masonic charities.
Clarence Briggs drove a company car. He received a new car every year or two, which made him look financially well off. Looking good is important when one lives in a small town. He was big man, a man of honor, and well respected. On the road, he was welcomed by the hardware store owners. He sold them only the things they could sell. He spent hours with them and they relied on him. Upon occasion, he would take his young daughter Betty Ann with him on his route. As he drove along, he would sing the old camp-town songs. Betty liked going to Weaverville. The family who owned the hardware store in Weaverville would take her horse-back riding while her father worked. Every night, Clarence would return home and print his orders by hand before driving the mile to the post office to mail them. When he finally retired from Thompson-Diggs, the company gave him a retirement party, a gold metal watch, a gold-plated hammer, and a small pension.
LIVING IN A BIG FAMILY
Shopping for school clothes for the five Briggs children was a once-a-year planned event, usually in August just before school started. Carol would be given a budget to shop downtown for everyone’s basic needs. If anyone needed more, they were expect to find a job. Betty’s first job in her early teens, besides babysitting, was downtown at the Foster Freeze on Main Street. She lifeguarded at the city pool during the summer and worked as a maid for a commercial painting contractor who took her with his family to Disneyland. That was the first time Betty experienced Disneyland.
Guns and ammunition were always stored openly in closets in the house. The men hunted for meat to feed the family: one buck a year, plus pheasants, ducks, geese. The family always had a hunting dog that lived with them and ate what the family ate. Betty learned to shoot a rifle and shotgun and enjoyed fishing for trout and salmon.
In her teen years, Betty had best friends like other teens. She also had always wanted a horse, which she figured how to get. She bought a young horse for $125 from a local rancher and named the colt Rebel. She worked at babysitting to buy him, to provide for him, and then to train him. Her parents bought her the tack and saddle. When the horse was three plus years old, Betty rode alone for miles on the dirt roads west of town, hardly seeing anyone or anything except an occasional jack rabbit, coyote, raptor, or rattle snake. Sometimes on cold winter days she would ride bareback along the Sacramento River bypass, burying her fingers into her horse’s long winter coat. During the spring, Betty enjoyed riding in the Riding Club’s shows. She rode with her sister Sandra when she got a horse. Once they went on a trailered group ride up to Mt. Lassen. Most often though, Betty was by herself. It was a time the land was less populated and people were courteous to others. Local ranchers and farmers welcomed Betty and her horse. Occasionally, riding through the plowed furrows of an orchard, both the horse and Betty would enjoy eating freestone peaches off a tree. The horse would slobber as he ate the sweet fruit, spitting out the pit.
Betty learned early to manage things. She had to help her mother. She got her brothers and sister to do their chores by pretending she wanted to do them. Like her parents, she was proud to be an American. She attended church every Sunday. She joined the Masonic Lodge’s Rainbow Girls and worked herself up through the line to become the Worthy Advisor. Although other girls had Moms capable of helping their daughters, Carol did the best she could.
Black and white television did not exist in town until the mid-1950s. At home, the family read, listened to the radio (to shows like “The Whistler Knows”), played records, took music lessons and practiced on the instruments, discussed things with each other, did their chores, and played games and cards. To help with school projects, Clarence and Carol invested in a complete set of encyclopedias which made for interesting reading. Betty’s oldest brother Roger Briggs was a superior athlete with a very fast reaction time. After attending U.C. Berkeley, he became a Navy A-4 Fighter Jet Pilot and experienced three tours in Viet Nam on the Coral Sea. Roger Briggs retired from the Navy as a Captain. Betty’s second oldest brother, Gerald G. Briggs, became a chemist and pharmacist and authored a series textbooks on Drugs and Lactation, and Teratology (birth defects). He is today world-famous, an expert witness, highly respected by pharmacists. Betty’s younger sister and brother, like herself, attended Shasta College and Chico State and earned credentials in teaching and Special Ed.
All of the Briggs children were expected to attend college, to pay their own way. Clarence would always say, “It’s too crowded at the bottom.” He worked every day pushing his five children up the ladder. Whenever Clarence went out on business, he would formally dress in suit and tie. Often the starched long-sleeve shirt under his suit jacket would have a patch at the elbow, but no-one could see the patch because he wore a suit jacket no matter how hot it was.
Although the ties of family remain strong, after Clarence and Carol passed to the Lord, the Briggs siblings found their own places in the world and today rarely gather or see each other.
WINDS OF CHANGE, PRIDE IN BEING AMERICAN
In the 1950s, there was not much technology around. After the arrival of black and white television came the social upheavals that plagued the 1960s and 1970s — the hippies and drugs. By the 1960s, Betty was in high school and society had begun to change. She felt secure being by herself, but Clarence thinking his two daughters needed to know how to protect themselves, took both girls to a local judo dojo. It was there Betty was first introduced to the Japanese culture. Both Betty and her sister Sandra continued in jujitsu through college, earning black belts. In 1964-68 as a teacher in East San Jose, Betty taught judo at the San Jose YMCA and transported children to YMCA activities on weekends in her first car, a $1,800 VW Beetle.
Clarence and Carol were proud Americans who were in control of their life. Their five children followed suit. They believed that each American must contribute something to society, to leave the world a little bit better than they found it. Compassion they believed is dispensed by the individual and through the church, not by government. They understood that for liberty to exist, citizens must be moral. Citizens must be educated to understand what a Constitutional Republic is, and is not. Individual citizens must be willing to participate in controlling their government, to keep their government small so that it does not become a burden on the life and liberty of citizens working to build a life for themselves.
Clarence and Carol Briggs never understood money enough to do more than buy life insurance and build a house, but they were very pleased when FDR backed the enactment of Social Security. Clarence put 1.5% of his gross earnings into the federal Social Security Trust Fund. He trusted that one day he would have enough money (combined with his pension) to retire.
MOVING ON, TO SAN JOSE
Upon graduation from high school in 1964, Betty attended Shasta College and then Chico State. Graduating with an elementary teaching credential in 1964, Betty accepted a position teaching 5th & 6th grade students in the Alum Rock Union Elementary School District in San Jose, CA. After four years of teaching students to feel good about themselves, to think and problem solve rather than just memorize, to participate and help others, to love learning, Betty was recruited by members of the P.T.A. to run for the school district board. In 1968, Betty became the first woman to serve on the Alum Rock Union Elementary School District Board of Trustees.
Working with intelligent, dedicated men, Betty helped them understand education from the point of view of a classroom teacher. Together, the Board developed a federally-funded voucher system and tried it on a limited basis. It was designed to develop and empower teachers professionally and to encourage parents to get involved in their child’s education. By giving parents the power of the purse with an ADA voucher to select their child’s teacher and school, it was hoped that students would benefit and successful teachers would develop into stronger, more successful better paid professionals.
The voucher system was opposed by administrators for a number of reasons. For one, it would change the established district system. Some administrators feared losing their position and being forced to return to the classroom. Teachers, who for years received pay increases by taking CE units, felt threatened by the change. Teaching salaries had always been low and the idea of parents being given a choice made them feel even more threatened.
In 1967, Betty Briggs married Gene Sakai, a Japanese-American man (born in Watsonville, CA) who had been incarcerated the first four years of this life with his family in a WWII Poston Arizona relocation camp. Upon leaving the camp, there was a train-auto accident that killed most of his family. Gene had been raised as a foster child by another Japanese-American family in San Jose. Gene had often said that effective teachers in the primary grades through high school should be paid more than professors in college, that teachers create the foundations for learning. It only made sense. But changing an established district system is difficult, and threatening. The teacher’s union presented a secure offer. Teachers would remain district employees, be represented by the union, have guaranteed incomes, retirement, and summers off.
In truth, Betty failed to properly lead this endeavor. She was too young to manage both a family (birthing two babies between 1969 and 1971, and occasionally breast-feeding under a serape during board meetings), and leading a project of this magnitude. The idea of being an independent professional was new to most teachers. To be successful changing an entrenched system would mean hours away from her family, a huge number of meetings and trips to Sacramento. Betty was responsible for two babies and a husband who was just starting his dental practice. Like her mother, Betty’s priorities had to be her family. She made the decision to not run for re-election. The voucher system died in Alum Rock. The happy part is that ideas don’t die. Today, slightly different vouchers can be seen in the Charter Schools where ADA funds help parents and teachers work together to educate children.
THE FUTURE IS HERE TODAY
Betty’s husband, Eugene (Gene) Sakai, a general dentist in East San Jose, worked serving patients for 51 years, retiring in 2015. Betty worked with him, helping to raise their children, managing the business part of their life together. In 2015 Dr. Eugene Sakai decided not to sell his practice but to help his patients find another dentist. Betty continues today managing the business part of their life together.
In 1974, Gene and Betty moved from Buckner Drive in East San Jose to Willow Glen where there were sidewalks for their three year old son who liked to race down the block on his big wheel. Married for 52 years, Gene and Betty have lived in this same house for 45 years. Their two children also live in the area. As grandparents, they often babysit and attend the grandchildren’s sports games, participating in the family, building reliance on each other as is the Japanese tradition.
Who is Betty Sakai? She is a conservative, a wife, mother, and a proud American. Skilled in writing, she volunteered when asked to help the Conservative Forum with their speaker summaries for a number of years. As a writer, she backed Donald Trump in 2016 because her research showed Donald Trump to be moral, honest, and not a politician. Trump promised to bring back prosperity and jobs for the middle class worker, and he is clearly doing this. As Trump understands money, the hope is that he will be able to tame the inflation that is eroding the dollar, to give hope to America’s children.
Now at age 77 in 2019 and approaching the winter of her life, Betty tires more but knows she still has many things to do, many roads to travel, and many articles to write.