I didn’t know of Chieko Okazaki until she was called as first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency in March of 1990. I was very much interested in the new leaders as LaRene Gaunt and I had just co-authored our first book, Elect Ladies: Presidents of the Relief Society. This book had made its debut just six weeks before general conference, ending with Barbara W. Winder. A few days after conference LaRene and I interviewed Elaine L. Jack for a new chapter to be included in the second edition. We were introduced that day to Elaine’s counselors, Chieko N. Okazaki and Aileen H. Clyde. I felt that this was a dynamic new presidency and looked forward to learning from them at the general women’s meetings, general conference addresses, and open houses for stake Relief Society leaders.
Sister Okazaki charmed, taught, and inspired Church members worldwide by beginning many of her addresses with “Aloha,” giving some training meeting talks in the listeners’ own languages (she practiced translations of her words in Korean and Samoan), and building powerful gospel messages around memorable metaphors–a crazy quilt, a fishing net, and a cat’s cradle. Chieko preached “lighten up” and talked about real life as she shared many personal experiences, including growing up on “the big island of Hawaii,” becoming converted, facing breast cancer, enduring racial prejudice, and losing her beloved husband, Ed.
Each person has their own remembrances of Chieko; these are mine, and I share them to illustrate her caring nature and vibrant personality. When our paths intersected a few times during her service in the presidency, Cheiko was gracious and friendly—as I knew she was to all she met. A few months after her release, I was blessed to become one of her many, many friends through her reaching out to someone she had never met.
A friend of mine who lives in Arizona asked me to help her drive her daughter’s car to Washington, D.C. Before I flew from Salt Lake City to Phoenix, I browsed at Deseret Book to find an audio book Kathryn and I could listen to as we drove cross country, thinking that with all those miles ahead even we might run out of things to say. I didn’t find any audio books that either I hadn’t heard or thought were appealing. Chieko’s book Sanctuary had just been published but was not yet in an audio version. Nevertheless, I bought the book to read aloud as we traveled. When we finished the last chapter, I said, “Why don’t you give this to your investigator friend? Maybe she would like to read it.” Kathryn’s friend, Kathy, had been investigating the Church but was stalled by the anti-Mormon literature she had found on the Internet.
Though I had not yet met Kathy, she sent me a thank-you note stating, “Mrs. Okazaki’s book touched me as no other book ever has. Could you send me her address?” Chieko then invited Kathy to be her guest when she spoke at a women’s conference in Phoenix. After meeting each other, Chieko said, “If you’re ever in Salt Lake, I’d like to give you the tour.” So Kathryn arranged for the two of them to come to our home, and after their tour of Temple Square that Sunday afternoon, they announced that Chieko was coming to dinner! In December of 1998, Chieko and I both attended Kathy’s baptism and a year later, went to the Mesa Arizona Temple with her.
Occasionally traveling with Chieko gave my husband and me a glimpse into the life of a “celebrity.” When people would approach her at airports or in restaurants to talk to her, she greeted them kindly and inquired about their lives. When crowds thronged her after her numerous speeches at conferences around the country, she listened intently as people shared their experiences and problems. She responded to hundreds of e-mails and letters, offering insight and counsel.
Her talks were masterpieces that she carefully crafted and often directed to a particular audience. She told me that when invited to speak, she would ask “what are the needs of your sisters?” For example, the landmark address she gave on healing from sexual abuse was in response to one stake’s answer. Chieko was a powerful speaker. When she spoke, people laughed, listened, and learned. She usually began with a story or funny anecdote to get people’s attention, shared wisdom she had gained from her wide range of experiences as well as her reading, incorporated scripture, and always bore testimony of the Savior and His gospel. I especially loved hearing several of her Christmas talks, “A Nephite Christmas,” “Shepherds Abiding,” and “Christmas Presence.” Most of her talks found their way into one of her books.
Chieko had such energy and enthusiasm. She was classy and charismatic. She was fun to be around and a delightful hostess. One afternoon, she called and said, “What are you doing for dinner? My refrigerator has too much food, and I need you and Larry to come help me eat it.” Along with several of her neighbors, we enjoyed a fabulous Japanese dinner and great conversation. When she was in our home, Chieko especially liked to discuss a variety of subjects with Larry–who didn’t always agree with her.
I began the article I wrote for Meridian last month, “Leadership Tool: Management by Walking Around,” with a story about Chieko:
“When Chieko Okazaki served as an elementary school principal, she arrived at school early to do her administrative paperwork, then spent the day in classes and later visited with teachers about their concerns, their students, and what was happening in their own lives. Chieko most often spent recess on the playground so she could talk to children individually or she would chat with them in the hallways or at the bus stop. She knew every student in her school of 500 or more. She said, AWhen the parents came to school or to conferences, I could share my observations of their children, and they appreciated that.”
When Larry and I visited her in the assisted living center earlier this summer, I specifically asked about her “management by walking around” as a school principal. That was the last time we saw her. Chieko passed away August 1, 2011. Her funeral was held August 10.
Aloha, Chieko, aloha.