Tustin's oldest city employee
Tustin woman is oldest city employee at 90
by Elysse James
TUSTIN – Tomoko (Kitasaki) Mizusawa is a short, soft spoken woman who likes to work. At 90, she is the oldest employee for the city of Tustin working for the Tustin Area Senior Center. On Friday, employees and friends gathered to surprise her with a 90th birthday party at the center. She became the city's oldest employee at 81, and could also be the most humble.
Mizusawa grew up in Tustin. During World War II she lived in a Japanese internment camp where she met and married her husband. Later, she raised three boys while running a farm in Garden Grove.
"She is an absolute inspiration to everyone. She's just a survivor. I tell her she's my role model," said Sherry Geyer, chair of Tustin Senior Advisory Board.
Mizusawa doesn't talk much about her past, but she's seen much in her 90 years. And she's never stopped working through it all. Those who frequent the senior center say the place couldn't run without her.
"She always does what she needs to do. She doesn't complain about it, she just goes and does it," said her son, Steve.
She's always held jobs, said her son Robert. As a child, she helped out on her family's vegetable farm in Tustin. Her family rented the land because her parents had emigrated from Japan, and the family was not allowed to own land under California's Alien Land Law.
"She's lived a hard life," said daughter-in-law Jenny. "She raised three children, she's been in an internment camp. But she's always been really happy, outgoing and always friendly to everybody."
Mizusawa graduated from Tustin Union High School in 1939 and attended Santa Ana College until World War II, when her family was taken to an internment camp in Arizona.
Tustin's only police officer, "Big John" Stanton, knocked on her family's door with two FBI agents to escort the Kitasaki family away. Her father, Zenjiro Kitasaki, was charged as an enemy and sent to Santa Ana Jail in February 1942. He was exonerated after a year and a half, and was sent to join his wife, Tsugi, and their children, Tomoko, Tomiko, Zenjiro and Utaro, at the Poston Indian Reservation in Poston, Arizona block 38-11-C. His daughter had been working as a secretary for the camp's fiscal officer, making $16 a month. While at the camp, she met Minoru Fred Mizusawa, and the two were married in a small ceremony in 1943 and lived at Poston block 38-5-D. "We had no cake, no gifts," Mizusawa said.
The couple moved to Denver for two years because they were not allowed to live near the coast. Fred worked for American Potato, and she for Denargo Market as an accountant.When the war ended in 1945, the Mizusawa family moved to Garden Grove, where they built a house and began farming.
In the 1950s, Mizusawa gave birth to three sons. In 1961, Fred passed away, and Mizusawa leased her ranch and took care of her family.
"Nowadays it surprises me how much she fed us," says Steve. "She would make four cookie sheets of tempura to feed the family."
When the boys left home, she sold the place and moved to a house on Browning Avenue in Tustin. Mizusawa went back to school at age 57 to learn medical terminology and took a job at CBC Laboratories where she worked 17 years. She worked at UC-Irvine Health Center for three years, followed by two years at the American Red Cross.
"Wherever she goes, people comment that she's the nicest person they've ever met," Steve said. In 2001, she joined the Tustin Area Senior Center as an aide 20 hours a week, hired by Parks and Recreation Supervisor Marilyn Esposito.
"I love working here," Mizusawa said. "I'm not going to ever retire because I love working."
At the senior center on Friday, Parks and Recreation Supervisor Marilyn Esposito hands Mizusawa a large knife to cut the cake.
"I look forward to every day because of Tomo," recreation coordinator Vanessa Osborn said. The employees prepared the room in secret, telling Mizusawa it was closed for a city function. Now, balloons, flowers and photographs of Mizusawa decorate the room.
Mizusawa had left to grab lunch in the middle of her busy work day. Esposito called her, saying there had been an emergency and she was needed at the senior center.
"Tomo is one of the most amazing people I have ever met. I mean that from the bottom of my heart," Esposito said. "She is so loved by everyone – volunteers, staff and patrons alike. When she's not at work, something's missing."
Mizusawa rushed back to the center to find no emergency. Instead, she was surprised by the party in her honor. Her two sons and two daughters-in-law were there, along with friends and coworkers from the senior center. Her middle child, Ron, lives in Chigasaki, Japan. Steve and Jenny snuck into her home after she left for work to bring some of her photos to share at the party.
"She has a busier social schedule that any of us," said daughter-in-law Donna Mizusawa of Tustin.
She and her sisters, Yuki of Fullerton and Tomi of Fountain Valley, meet up each Sunday for dinner and shopping. "She has always kept busy, and I think that contributes to her longevity," Steve said.
Mizusawa often brings treats to her friends at the senior center. She taught Gloria MacDiarmid of Orange to enjoy green tea, and sneaks little gifts to Dick and June Reger of North Tustin.
"If you say 'senior center,' you say 'Tomo'," said volunteer Joan Featherstone.
As the party comes to a close, Mizusawa starts cleaning up. Though she could go home to relax, she chooses to stay and finish her shift.