SEATTLE – Members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul are mourning the passing of 101-year-old Thomas Takao Kobayashi, who spent more than seven decades helping the poor.
Kobayashi, a longtime parishioner at St. Matthew Parish in Seattle, died Jan. 4 at Providence Mount St. Vincent in Seattle.
He was a “living example on how to serve the poor,” said Paul Tran, a St. Matthew’s parishioner who volunteered with Kobayashi through the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul conference.
Kobayashi was considered by many to be the longest-serving St. Vincent de Paul volunteer (Vincentian) in the U.S., according to a Jan. 6 statement the St. Vincent de Paul of Seattle/King County Council sent to its members.
“Mr. Kobayashi’s service and leadership to Seattle and King County are extraordinary,” Council President John Morford said in the statement. “He is a role model for all of us.”
A retired accountant for the Port of Seattle, Kobayashi will be remembered during a funeral Mass at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 27 at St. Matthew Church, 1240 N.E. 127th St., Seattle. He will be buried at Holyrood Cemetery in Shoreline.
Tom Kobayashi. Photo: Ray Meuse
Born Sept. 4, 1916, Kobayashi was the oldest of six children and was the first Catholic in his family. He joined the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in 1934 as a college student, becoming a member of the St. Francis Xavier Conference at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Parish in Seattle. The Japanese parish was operated by Maryknoll priests before its closing in the 1950s.
“I knew what it was like to be poor,” Kobayashi said in a 2011 interview with the National Catholic Reporter. “I was taught at an early age by Maryknoll sisters who instilled the idea of doing what is right to help the poor,” he said.
Kobayashi’s work with the poor continued even when he and his family were among Japanese-Americans forced into internment camps during World War II. At the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho, Kobayashi collected food and clothing for people in need, according to the NCR article.
While interned, Kobayashi volunteered for the U.S. Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a Japanese-American unit. He later worked at a secret military installation in Virginia, decoding intercepted Japanese messages. In 2011, Kobayshi was among Japanese-American WWII veterans who received the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
After his discharge from the Army, Kobayashi and his family moved back to Seattle. He joined the Japanese Relief Committee that collected food, clothing and medicine and sent it to St. Vincent de Paul Society organizations in Nagasaki and Tokyo.
“It was about 1950 in which I made helping the poor a lifetime goal,” Kobayashi said in the NCR article. “The Bible says that we will always have the poor, so I thought, ‘That’s the job for me.’”
During his decades of service through St. Vincent de Paul, Kobayashi served in almost every leadership position. At St. Matthew’s, he was council president three times — 1960-62, 1969-74 and 1987-93.
Other leadership roles included president of the Seattle Area council from 1962-68, the first Archdiocesan Council of Seattle president from 1970-76 and Western regional chairman from 1987-94.
Tran said he became interested in the St. Vincent de Paul Society around 2000, when he saw Kobayashi collecting gently used clothing during a SVdP “Bundle Sunday” event at St. Matthew’s.
When Tran and his wife, Nicki, joined the SVdP conference at St. Matthew’s, Kobayashi was treasurer, secretary and food bank coordinator — in addition to visiting those in need at their homes on Saturdays.
Kobayashi continued making those “home visits” until 2008. After that, on Saturday mornings he still walked over to St. Matthew Church from his home across the street to check up on the St. Vincent de Paul volunteers.
“We’d joke around that he was our supervisor,” Tran said. “He never stopped being a Vincentian.”
Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain stands with Tom Kobayashi, Maryknoll Father Tom Marti, left, and Maryknoll Sister Stephanie Nakagawa during the 2013 dedication of a plaque commemorating Maryknoll’s work with Japanese-Americans at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Parish in Seattle. The parish was closed in the 1950s; today the property is home to Swedish Medical Center’s Cherry Hill campus. Photo: Courtesy Maryknoll Father Tom Marti
Jim Gauntt, a former president of the SVdP Seattle/King County council, met Kobayashi in the early 1990s. Although Kobayashi “was kind of meek,” Gauntt said, “there was a presence there — you paid attention.”
In 1991, the St. Vincent de Paul Society honored Kobayashi with the first annual “Least of My Brethren Award,” given to members for extraordinary service to the poor. He also received the Distinguished Brotherhood Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
In 2013, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Seattle/King County honored Kobayashi’s service by renaming its building in the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle. The Tom Kobayashi Center houses the council’s food bank, helpline center and case management program.
Besides his work with SVdP, Kobayashi was a member of the Knights of Columbus and the Carroll Club, which assisted the Catholic Youth Organization. Through his life, he continued his support of the Maryknoll missionaries, said Maryknoll Father Tom Marti.
In the secular world, Kobayashi worked for the Veterans Administration, the Military Sea Transportation Service and the Port of Seattle.
He is survived by numerous nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews.
Donations in Tom Kobayashi’s memory may be made to the St. Matthew Conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.