Wing Luke wanted to show that people weren't all that different, no matter what their background. So the museum that bears his name, with...
Wing Luke wanted to show that people weren’t all that different, no matter what their background. So the museum that bears his name, with its universal tales of immigrant struggle and achievement, would likely have made him proud.
Next weekend, the Wing Luke Asian Museum will reopen to the public in greatly expanded form, a tribute to a promising young civic leader whose life was cut short by tragedy.
“It’s everything he wanted,” said Seattle’s Marge Young, whose older brother became the first Asian American to hold elected big-city office in the Pacific Northwest. “The furthering of education, the uniting of the community.”
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“It was because of his leadership that we kids developed the way we did,” said jovial, husky-voiced sister Ruby Luke, who along with Young and sister Bettie Luke helped shape the vision for the reborn museum.
Before he died at age 40 in the crash of a small plane, Luke made a mark as a leader able to transcend cultures and communities. He learned Norway’s national anthem for an address to the local Norwegian community. He favored inclusion, urban renewal and civil rights, aligning himself with efforts such as Native American fishing rights, the Jackson Street Community Council and Japanese American Citizens League.
Appointed assistant attorney general for the state’s civil-rights division in 1957, Luke won a position on Seattle’s City Council five years later, at age 38. He helped pass Seattle’s open housing ordinance, with provisions against racial discrimination, and earned praise for leading with optimism, compromise and conviction.
“Wing Luke was an inspiration to everyone who believes you can effect change through the political system,” said Dolores Sibonga, who became the state’s first Filipina-American lawyer and, in 1978, joined the City Council herself.
Luke’s rising career came to an abrupt end when, while returning from a fishing trip, his small plane crashed in Okanogan County, the wreckage not found for several years.
Born Feb. 25, 1925, near Guangzhou, China, Luke came to the U.S. at age 6 and grew up the oldest of six children whose Chinese immigrant parents ran a laundry in the University District. He tackled the challenge of English head-on, learning to subvert bullying with humor, wit and, eventually, a talent for cartooning.
“He got picked on, got into fights,” said Young, a retired immunology-lab technician at the University of Washington School of Medicine. “He told me that some of his first words were ‘He started it’ and ‘He hit me first.’ “
Thrust into responsibility as the family’s translator, community ambassador and sibling overseer, he turned out to be a natural leader. He was student body president at Roosevelt High School, then head of Seattle’s Inter-High Council. An essay he wrote on juvenile delinquency earned him recognition as one of the country’s most outstanding students and an invitation to the White House.
At the time, the country was in the thick of World War II, and upon graduation, Luke joined the Army. His service would take him to Guam, Korea, New Guinea and the Philippines, where he earned a Bronze Star.
If there was a single incident that lit her brother’s fire for social activism, said sister Bettie, it was the family’s eviction from their University District apartment during World War II. Their landlady, she said, threw the whole family out, forcing Wing to return home on furlough to help them relocate: “She said, ‘We’re still at war. I can’t tell them apart, and I don’t want them around here.’ “
After the war, Luke returned to Seattle, where he earned political-science and public-administration degrees at the UW, led the school’s Young Democrats group and was elected president of his sophomore class.
He was forever the teacher, challenging and enlightening his siblings. He always urged them to read, even if it was just a cereal box at breakfast. When he went away to graduate school at American University in Washington, D.C., he’d encouraged Marge to write. “I was about 8 years old,” she said. “He would send back my letters with corrections on my spelling.”
Toward the end of his life, after seeing some worn Chinese slippers that a local shop owner had found after cleaning out his basement, Wing suggested creating a Chinese folk art museum in the neighborhood. “He said these things shouldn’t be hidden away,” Marge said.
In other words, added Bettie, the baby of the family, while ancient silks and jades already had a home, it was “the everyday culture, the living culture, that’s going to die away and needs to be preserved.”
The three sisters will stay involved with the expanded facility, collaborating on exhibits for the museum’s Luke Family Association Room, a new space they lobbied to create in honor of the family organizations that once helped recent immigrants get on their feet. The Luke Family Association was one of five that once met in the building; one of the other family rooms has been preserved as part of the museum’s “historic immersion” experience.
“The Luke family spirit was already there,” Bettie said.
The museum, which now includes a large community space, is a tribute to their brother’s dreams and principles, Luke’s sisters say.
Bettie, who is administrative director for the Greater Seattle chapter of the Organization for Chinese Americans, said the facility “will continue to educate across generations and cultures. It will just be this wonderful magnet for people coming together.”
Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or firstname.lastname@example.org