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Marie Sugiyama, champion of North Bay high school sports, WWII internment camp survivor, dies at 84

Marie Mariko Sugiyama, a fierce advocate for girls' sports and a high school sports commissioner of the North Bay League for more than four decades, died this week at the age of 84, leaving a personal and professional legacy that friends and family said would long endure.

Just a young girl when her Japanese-American family was forcibly relocated to a U.S. internment camp during World War II, she later worked to educate local youth about that troubled era and was a longtime member of the Japanese American Citizens League in Sonoma County, serving as three years as co-president.

She began her life as an athlete - and later as a coach, and administrator - when her family was released from U.S. custody and returned to Sebastopol, where she played whatever sport she could.

Decades later, she finished her career as a local hall of fame coach and champion for young athletes, but especially girls.

The Santa Rosa resident died after a struggle with illness that her family did not detail.

“She was at peace and free of pain. She had lived a full life, teaching, coaching, traveling and making positive connections wherever she turned,” a New Year's Day Facebook post from her niece and nephew said. “She was well loved and respected in the community and deeply loved by her family.”

Sugiyama retired in 2015 from Montgomery High School and as commissioner of the NBL, a post she'd held for 42 years.

When she started, girls' sports were an afterthought, shunted away into small spaces or relegated to “recreational” status, not competitive endeavors.

Today, girls have multiple sports to choose from in public schools and some play on boys' teams.

Sugiyama's efforts helped develop those local programs. She was described as organized, firm and almost always right when it came to arguing what was fair.

Raised in Sebastopol, she graduated from Analy High School and from Santa Rosa Junior College before attending California State University, Chico.

In those early years, she chafed at the lack of options for girl athletes.

“I just enjoyed sports,” she said in a 2015 interview with The Press Democrat. “I used to go out and play recreational (games) with whoever was around, most of the time with the guys. I thought all girls should have that opportunity.”

In 1966, Sugiyama was hired as a physical education teacher at Montgomery High and she immediately took over the Girls Athletic Association, essentially the girls sports club.

By sheer force of her positive, supportive personality, Sugiyama grew a few girls sporting opportunities into a successful girls athletic program.

She soon began serving as a commissioner of the local league's governing body. She was in that position when the landmark legislation Title IX passed, requiring gender equity for boys and girls in all educational and athletic programs that receive federal funding.

“At the time, the boys athletic program got a lot of money. But the girls program was pretty much on their own,” said Russ Peterich, who served alongside Sugiyama for years as co-athletic director at Montgomery.

Sugiyama and a handful of other female administrators in Santa Rosa and Sonoma County worked together to build their school's girls programs.

“They got things straightened out very quickly,” Peterich said. “They were always champions of girls sports.”

Peterich, who attended Chico State with Sugiyama, called his friend of more than 60 years a “wonderful woman” who was fair and always honest, even if it wasn't what someone wanted to hear.

“She was such a genuine person. Marie had very, very few enemies, if any at all,” he said. “She was totally dedicated to whatever she did. I have not seen her mad but maybe about three or four times. She was very patient, always willing to help out kids. Always.”

Sugiyama played field hockey in college and became quite successful, he said.

At Montgomery, she coached basketball and badminton, and was the co-athletic director for 23 years. She remained a competitive field hockey player into her 50s.

She was inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fames at both Montgomery and Santa Rosa Junior College.

Her perseverance and fortitude may have been forged by her early life experiences during World War II.

Shortly after the U.S. entered the war after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, her family was ordered to join the 120,000 ?people of Japanese ancestry held at internment camps for the duration of the war.

Sugiyama was 6 years old at the time. The family of 10 -including her parents and seven siblings - were taken from their Sebastopol home and transported by train to Merced and then to the Amache camp at Granada, Colorado. It would be four years before they returned home.

She would later recall her father telling her: “You can't do anything about it now, so move on with your life.” But, he said, “Don't forget about it.”

Sugiyama remained active in the Japanese American Citizens League in Sonoma County, helping prepare a visual-oral history presentation about the internment-camp era for young people throughout the North Bay.

She served for three years as co-president of the league with Mark Hayashi.

“I became so dependent on her,” he said. “I've never known anyone to know so many people in Sonoma County, and all had respect for her. She was such a go-getter. She was very knowledgeable.”

Sugiyama helped organize the JACL's annual “Day of Remembrance” essay contest in which Sonoma, Marin, Mendocino and Napa County high school and middle school students wrote papers to commemorate Feb. 19, 1942, the date that led to the internment of so many Japanese and Japanese-American citizens in the U.S.

Sugiyama also volunteered for many years to help stage The Press Democrat's All-Empire Awards, honoring the top athletes and scholar athletes in the region.

“She was probably the most helpful person I ever met,” said longtime Montgomery teacher and coach Mickey Rabinovitz. “It didn't matter what the question was, what you wanted, what you needed, she would find out for you. If she could help, she certainly would.”

Sugiyama even made badminton cool, he joked.

“When she had her badminton teams, they were super. A competitive part of her came out. She loved it,” he said. “She got so many kids to come out for the team.

“It was her personality, her energy. Badminton wasn't necessarily a primo sport to go out for,” he said. “They had to use the other gym. But she built a little dynasty. People even went to badminton matches. I'd never been to a badminton match in my life. But people supported her. She was a pioneer.”

Never married, Sugiyama is survived by a small family and a wide network of friends and colleagues with whom she shared a love of sports, service and history. Memorial services are scheduled for 2 p.m., Feb. 15, at the Enmanji Buddhist Temple in Sebastopol.

In an interview the year before she retired, Sugiyama talked about some of the changes the North Bay League was making, changing seasons and modifying league makeups. Asked if she had anything to say to student athletes, she kept it simple, yet profound: “Go out there, have fun, enjoy what you're doing.”

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

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