Eunice Sato, the first woman to serve as mayor of Long Beach, dies at 99

Eunice Noda Sato, who served as the first female mayor and first Asian American mayor of Long Beach from 1980 to 1982, died at her home in Long Beach Friday. She was 99.

The daughter of Japanese parents Bunsaku and Sawa Maeda Noda, Sato was also the first Asian American woman to serve as mayor of any major American city.

Sato grew up in the town of Livingston east of the San Francisco Bay. While in school at Modesto Junior College, she and her parents and siblings fled the Bay Area when the government began interning Japanese immigrants in camps. The family moved to  Colorado to live with relatives.

Sato continued her education at the University of Northern Colorado and later earned her master’s degree from Columbia University. As a teacher, she worked in Michigan and then spent three years as a missionary teaching English in Yokohama, Japan.

In 1950, she married Thomas Takahashi Sato. The couple had a daughter and twin sons before moving to Long Beach in 1956.

An active Republican, Sato worked in support of the party, while keeping involved with her children’s schools, PTA’s and serving as president of the Long Beach Council of Churches.

Though she had said she had no interest in running for office, Sato nevertheless ran for City Council and was elected in 1975. She served on the council until 1986, including the two years when she was mayor, which was a part time appointed post at the time.

Her death is “terrible news for the city,” said Mayor Robert Garcia. “She really loved Long Beach and had a huge personality. People should know that she broke barriers, especially for Asian Americans and women. Our love and prayers are with her family.”

Former Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster described the 4-foot, 10-inch Sato as gruff and straightforward. “She was very honest,” he said. “She said what she thought and damn the consequences.

“I really began to know her when I was running for mayor and trying to get her endorsement,” said Foster. “We set up an interview, and when I got out of there I swear I felt like I’d been through a medical exam. Let’s just say she was very thorough.”

As mayor, Sato found herself leading a city that was going through some difficult financial times and during her years as mayor she made the decision to focus efforts on Downtown, which had reached a low point in terms of vibrancy and visitors.

City officials decided to focus on the heart of the city. She was mayor in 1982 when the Long Beach Plaza shopping center was built and opened and, while the Plaza eventually was razed in 2000, she had said that it had served its purpose in terms of bolstering business in Downtown.

After leaving council, Sato continued working on conservative causes. Gov. George Deukmejian appointed her to three state commissions and President George H.W. Bush appointed her to the National Advisory Council on Educational Research in 1991.

In 2015, Sato was honored by the naming of a new high school in East Long Beach, when Hill Middle School became the Sato Academy of Math and Sciences.

There will be a private service for the family.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.
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