On October 14, 2020, I lost one of my oldest mentors and greatest influences on my life. Pastor Dr. George Takashima was a man with boundless energy, and belief in the resilience and beauty of mankind. To the end, he believed that showing up each day and giving our best mattered. "Good enough is not enough" was something I heard him say many, many times.
We met when I was 18 and a half years old, and just back in Canada after living that summer as a youth exchange student in England. George had just moved to my community after retiring as a teacher and superintendent, and would become the Pastor of the Japanese United Church. I wanted to give back to the Lions Clubs that had made my youth exchange possible, so they connected me to George who had started a Lions youth leadership camp in Manitoba.
At first I was intimidated by George. He wasn't tall, but had this deep, booming voice and a way of looking at you that made you think before speaking. He invited me to volunteer at his camp, and the next summer I traveled with his wife, granddaughter and a Japanese exchange student for 16 hours to reach the camp. We met up with George in Winnipeg first where exchange students from around the world would be arriving at the airport to attend the camp. This is where I started to know the real George - a person eager to learn all he could, and ready for any adventure.
"The best way to get to know a new place is to walk it!" he exclaimed on our first day in Winnipeg. After breakfast he took myself and a few other camp staff downtown, and told us he'd meet up with us again at the end of the day. I didn't realize he meant at 8:00 PM - a full 11 hours later! We definitely got to know Winnipeg because we walked miles and miles. When he finally picked us up I was looking forward to the hotel and going to bed, but he had other plans, and instead took us visiting old friends! I'm sure he thought it was funny how exhausted us kids were, while he had energy to spare.
He put me in charge of the leadership training component of the camp that year. I had never been to a summer camp in my life, but his absolute faith in me meant I had to deliver, and I started to discover the leader within.
The next summer George moved the camp to Waterton Lakes National Park in the Canadian Rocky Mountains at my suggestion, only an hour and a half away from where we lived. That spring I wrote a list of all the ways I thought camp could be improved, and then I summoned up the courage to meet with him to share my ideas. He patiently listened to me as I read through my pages-long list, with no expression on his face. When I finished, there was silence, and then he simply said "Do it".
That summer when I arrived at camp he looked at me and said again "Do it", and suddenly I was his co-director and in full charge of the entire program. I was 20 years old - barely older than the 50 or so 15 - 19 year old students from 20 countries around the world at camp that year.
I taught/directed George's camp for 15 years, including many years after he retired from the camp and had fully handed over the reins. Some of the most profound experiences in my life took place in those mountains, with George encouraging me to be the leader he could see that I was. Our program became known world-wide, and to this day I still have former camp students contact me to tell me that the experience changed their lives, and that they've changed lives because of it.
I become a speaker because of George. After a few years of working together at camp, he called me to his church office one day and told me that I should become a motivational speaker. I laughed and told him that I wasn't a speaker, but he insisted. He said "You have a way of talking so that young people listen to you. There are so many schools across North America who are desperately looking for a speaker that kids will actually listen to. There is especially a lack of female speakers whom young girls will listen to - someone who can reach so many girls who are dealing with such terrible insecurity, and who need to hear that they have so much potential. That person is you."
I wish I could say that I took his advice immediately, but I was insecure myself and didn't believe he was right. After a few years of gently encouraging me, George called me one day. He was the President of the Canadian Association of Student Activity Advisors - a national youth leadership organization - and he had booked me as a keynote speaker for their annual conference in Newfoundland and Labrador. Suddenly, I was a speaker!
Since that first conference over 20 years ago, I've spoken to tens of thousands of people in rooms and from stages all over the world.
For years I was politically active as a Conservative, while George's heart was Liberal. Yet when finally I ran for a provincial Conservative nomination in 2018, he happily endorsed me and told his friends that they should too. He told me "I vote first for the quality of the person." In fact, George was one of the only people ever to run for election under two different Party banners - Liberal AND Conservative. In the 1973 Manitoba provincial election, both the Progressive Conservative Party and the Liberal Party endorsed him as their candidate for The Pas. As there was no way for him to be recognized on the ballot under two different Party banners, he officially ran as an Independent candidate. When I didn't win, he was one of the first to meet me for lunch and empathize.
A year later, at the age of 85 years, George organized a series of events on behalf of the Southern Alberta Ethnic Association aimed at helping newcomers understand Canada's political systems. In addition to asking our Member of Parliament, a Member of the Alberta Legislative Assembly, and our Mayor to speak, George asked me to lead a session. He told me that I would be the person to make sense out of what all the politicians had said.
George knew how to make an impact. He loved to do things that were unorthodox or that pushed boundaries. I joined the Japanese United Church while George was Pastor, and I'll never forget a service he held one Easter. As we entered the sanctuary, he had us each take a nail out of a box he held. After sharing the Easter story, he talked about how evil prevails when good people stand by and do nothing - how silence is almost the same as committing the evil act. He then had us come forward one-by-one to place our nails at the cross he had placed at the front of the room, symbolizing how the people who didn't speak against the crucifixion of Jesus were as responsible as Pontius Pilate. The emotion I felt as I walked forward with my nail is something I've never forgotten.
George knew what it meant when good people stood by and did nothing. He spent some of his childhood years in New Denver, an internment camp for Japanese people during WWII, yet never held any resentment. For roughly a decade he organized group tours to New Denver and area to share the stories of his childhood there, so that what happened would not be forgotten.
I invited him to my business breakfast club meeting a year ago to give a presentation about the subject, and he held the audience spellbound. My favourite memory from that day? Upon being asked numerous questions about his feelings and how the experience shaped him, George simply turned to me with a huge grin and said "Ask Kimberly. She knows who I am."
In everything I've done since meeting George 26 years ago, he has been by my side cheering me on. Through career shifts, traumas, and celebrations, he would meet me for lunch, have me explain it all to him, carefully listen, then offer advice meant to push me forward. Over food we discussed everything. I clearly recall one day early in our relationship. I had stopped by his church office to deliver something, but didn't want to get too close because I had a cold and felt terrible. He took one look at me and said "I know what you need. Sushi and green tea. Get in my car!" I learned how to eat sushi that day and I swore my cold did get better!
George believed that individuals could change the world, and never lost hope that good could prevail. George was frustrated at dying because he had so much more work that needed to be done, specifically in supporting people that he knew had the ability to make a difference.
I will forever be thankful for the time I got to spend with him in his final months. Before passing George told me how proud he was of me; that when he moved to Lethbridge he thought he was done inspiring youth, and then he met me and everything changed. He said it had been an honour to watch me grow, and to see the potential in me before many others did. He told me that with all I have overcome, I am unstoppable now. That I will break through all barriers, and have influence far and wide. He told me that I had "made it", and how the world needed me and my leadership.
He told me that I was his best friend.
"You are Kimberly. You are so wonderful. I am so lucky to have met you and to know you. You are Kimberly - that is all you need to know."
I miss you George. The honour was mine.