Lillian Kawasaki was considered the “gift” that kept giving.
Hundreds of politicians and loved ones gathered at Forest Lawn Long Beach on Saturday, Aug. 3 during her memorial service, titled “A Celebration of a Life Well Lived,” to pay tribute to their dear friend, remembered as an environmentalist, visionary, energetic go-getter and all-around caring person.
After nearly 35 years of public service as a Los Angeles civic leader and most recently a director of the Water Replenishment District of Southern California (WRD), Kawasaki lost her battle with breast cancer on July 18. She was 62.
Speakers, including Long Beach and Los Angeles city officials, recalled that she not only gave her time and service for the public and environment but also gave her colleagues and friends “special gifts,” whether it was a loaf of pumpkin bread at Christmas time or a CD of Elvis Presley music for no apparent reason.
“We all loved Lillian,” said Frances Spivy-Weber, public member of the California State Water Resources Control Board. “We loved her for her limitless love of the environment and of her community. Lillian valued action and making things happen. Most everything she touched turned into real outcomes that made a difference.”
Congressmember Alan Lowenthal also recalled Kawasaki’s many gifts, including a Daruma doll, a Japanese doll that symbolizes success and good luck, which now sits in his congressional office. “Lillian solved problems, she brought us all together, she gave us gifts, and she made us bread,” Lowenthal said. “She had a huge heart. That’s what Lillian was– a heart that was overwhelmed.”
Kawasaki began her public-service career in 1978, when she was hired as a marine environmental specialist for the Port of Los Angeles. Working there for 12 years, she eventually became the Port’s chief environmentalist.
In 1990, Kawasaki was appointed to head the then newly created Environmental Affairs Department for the City of Los Angeles, becoming the first Asian-American woman in the City’s history to take on a general-manager position.
Spearheading many environmental initiatives regarding water and air quality, she also had stints as general manager for the Los Angeles Community Development Department and assistant general manager of environmental affairs and economic development for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
During the memorial service, many Los Angeles city officials, including Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Geraldine Knatz, shared stories about Kawasaki’s consummate giving nature and dedication, adding that many people “depended” on her expertise and animated spirit. Former Los Angeles City Councilmember Ruth Galanter shared a poem she wrote about Kawasaki.
In 2002, Kawasaki moved to Long Beach with her husband, Craig Carter, who said he first met her when they both worked as teacher’s assistants in graduate school at UCLA. “I’m the person who says, ‘Let’s get it down right the first time,’ and she says, ‘Let’s just get it done– I got two more things to do at the same timeframe,’” Carter said.
In 2006, Kawasaki was elected as the Division Three Board Director of the WRD, serving the cities of Artesia, Cerritos, Hawaiian Gardens, La Mirada, Lakewood, Long Beach and Signal Hill.
Spivy-Weber said WRD staff recalled that Kawasaki worked hard as a boardmember to extend the water agency’s eco-gardening program to have a workforce component to train gardeners in water conservation, irrigation, planting and design. Kawasaki also hoped that all 43 cities in the WRD’s service area would have their maintenance crews trained in eco-friendly gardening.
Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell, who led the memorial service, recalled Kawasaki during his time working for the Los Angeles Police Department, stating that she will be remembered as “one of those rare public servants with a pure heart” and “a passion for service.”
Other Long Beach city officials expressed admiration for Kawasaki, who, in 2012, ran for the 8th District City Council seat.
Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster said she was a “gift” to the Long Beach community and will be missed. He said she always carried with her a “positive attitude” and a willingness to get involved in local water, environmental and civic issues.
“She was the kind of spirit you wanted to be around,” Foster said. “She was both engaging and infectious. She could make you laugh. She would make you want to contribute more. While her passing is a great loss to our city and all of us, personally, we celebrate her life today, and it was a life well lived, full of service and caring for others… Lillian was an example to all of us. We shall be grateful we were able to share some time with her.”