Her 35 years as a warm presence on nightly news broadcasts make it easy to think of Wendy Tokuda as a people person. She’s really a whole earth person, a rabid recycler and a kamikaze composter who has alarmed and embarrassed her family by invading neighbors’ yards and trash bins to ferret out composting matter.
“Mom your car reeks,” one of her daughter complained to her. “Have you been hauling garbage again?”
Her practice of raking neighboring yards for mulch prompted her ex-husband to demand that she confine her scavenging to their own yard. Tokuda ignored him. When he demanded she stop, Tokuda defied him.
“That was when I decided I’m not hurting anyone I’m helping the environment,” Tokuda told SF Chronicle reporter Paul Kilduff. “That’s when I realized I was growing up.”
The ferocity with which Tokuda devotes herself to saving the earth at the expense of her family’s equanimity is one sign of her apparently capricious but passionate tiger nature. Another is her fierce compassion for the struggles of the underprivileged. For the past 13 years, as one of the Bay Area’s top TV new anchorwomen Tokuda has been spotlighting teens struggling to get an education against long odds in her Students Rising Above series.
That sympathy for the earth and for the downtrodden harkens back to the Tokuda family history.
Wendy was born in Seattle in 1950, the fourth of five children. Her father George and her mother Tama met in Minedoka, one of the internment camps to which West Coast Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated after the start of World War II. Tama was a literature major in her last year of college. She had already shown enough talent to have articles published in Harper’s Bazaar. “Imagine what that means for a Japanese American woman at that time,” Tokuda says.
As war hysteria subsided, internees were allowed to leave camp if they secured employment on the East Coast or Midwest. George Tokuda found work as a welder in Chicago. Tama joined him there and the two were married. The marriage put an end to her writing career.
“My mom was the classic Japanese American wife and [my father] was a very dominating, strong man,” Tokuda recalls. “She told me once , ‘The last significant decision I made was when I said I do.’”
The couple lived in a one-room hotel. Soon after the marriage Tama developed a kidney infection for which the only medical care she could get was painkillers. She developed a sustained high fever and, eventually pneumonia. Later, she discovered she was pregnant. Her first child, a son, was born mentally handicapped. As an adult he lived in a protected apartment north of Seattle.
“You could say it was the war, the fever, the painkiller,” says Tokuda of her older brother’s condition. She blames it squarely on the treatment of Japanese Americans. “While I was growing up, if I had to pick the one thing that had the biggest impact, I always thought it would be race.”
Growing up in a lower-middle class area in southern Seattle, the Tokuda children were among the more affluent. Wendy was an all-around success at Cleveland High where about 30% of the student body was Asian, mostly Japanese Americans. Wendy was a cheerleader and an honor student. “I was socially oriented,” she recalls.
In her career choices she rebeled against the expectations placed on her classmates. Graduating in 1968, Tokuda spent a year at Whitman College in nearby Walla Walla, Washington before majoring in political science at the University of Washington. With an eye toward becoming a lawyer, she spent a year working at a legal services clinic. “I enjoyed talking with the people that came in and hearing their stories,” she recalls. “What I did not enjoy was sitting in the law library pulling out books.”
Instead she spent a year in teaching English in Japan, then set her sights on TV reporting. In early 1974, at the age of 24, she started as a secretary in the public affairs department for Seattle’s King TV. Within a year and a half Tokuda was promoted to on-air reporter. At the age of 27 she left her family to work for KPIX, San Francisco’s CBS affiliate.
Her new assignment editor there was a recent Yale grad named Richard Hall, the son of famed TV game-show host Monty Hall. Within days after their first date in May they told their parents that they were getting married in November.
The wedding didn’t take place until the following May. At around that time Tokuda became half of what would become the nation’s longest-running news anchor duo. Her pairing with Dave McElhatton lasted 12 years. During that happy period Tokuda indulged her lifelong love of animals by writing two children’s books. But by 1991 Tokuda was ready to move to KNBC in Los Angeles, the nation’s number 2 TV market.
“When I went to LA, I was at one extreme,” she told The Monthly’s Paul Kilduff. “This driving ambition had carried me through. And I was a pit bull of a worker. And then all of a sudden I hit this wall. It was just not a good fit for me, the whole culture in that market of being that close to Hollywood. It’s been called the most competitive market in the country. I think that’s true. The first thing everybody did was figure out at what point in the newscast did the ratings drop? Which story was that? Why did they turn the channel? Don’t do that story again. And I’m just not geared that way.”
By 1997 Tokuda returned to the Bay Area as an anchor at San Francisco’s KRON. She began her trademark series Students Rising Above to spotlight hard-luck teens struggling to get an education. She has nurtured the series for over 13 years as a labor or love. She took the series to KPIX when she returned there in April of 2007 and continues it to this day. The series has won the Peabody Award, a National Emmy for Public Service and other distinction. Tokuda also raised over $3.8 million to help send the subjects to college.