Wintersburg Golf Tournament founder says he’s “just a regular guy.”
By Teresa Watanabe
The gleaming new gym at Wintersburg Presbyterian Church is a passion project of hundreds of supporters who raised millions of dollars to provide youth a long-desired home court.
Among them, one man stands out: Ray Fujino.
Two decades ago, Ray, 83, spearheaded the church’s annual golf tournament to raise money for the gym and sports ministry. He says he initially wanted to help lower the fees families paid to cover registration, uniforms and other program costs – but the idea soon morphed into a plan to build a gym.
The goal seemed outlandishly ambitious at the time but church members have persevered against construction delays, challenges with contractors and rising costs to complete the project. They are preparing to officially open the gym this spring.
“I just think it’s great,” Ray said. “People have been talking about it for such a long time and it’s finally, finally happening.”
He downplays his own contributions, a modesty typical for a man who shrugs off his rich, varied and at times harrowing life experiences: incarceration at Manzanar during World War II, service in the U.S. Armed Forces, a life-threatening illness and decades of volunteer work for his community and church – including visiting the elderly and sick with his ukulele group.
“I’m not any kind of exceptional person,” he insisted during a recent interview in his comfortable Santa Ana home, which is filled with his wife Pauline’s fabric flowers, stuffed animals and other crafts.
Others, however, disagree. Some of the original church committee members who got the gym project off the ground noted that Ray selflessly launched the fundraising effort even though he had no grandchildren at the time who would benefit from the gym.
Hundreds of kids will be able to use the gym, they say, because he drafted committee members to work on the project 22 years ago.
“No,” Ray said with a laugh, “it’s just that I have a big mouth. These other guys came in and took over and it just took off.”
Life at Camp
Ray was born in Long Beach and lived in Van Nuys, where his father ran a produce stand that attracted the likes of actress Jane Russell and Los Angeles Rams quarterback Bob Waterfield. His father was an Issei immigrant from Fukuoka while his mother was born in Berkeley. He was one of 10 children, including a twin brother.
He was six years old when President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which led to the incarceration of 120,000 people of Japanese descent, two-thirds of them American citizens. The Fujino family sold their cars, trucks and equipment at firesale prices and packed up for Manzanar in the dusty and desolate Owens Valley. Ray’s memories remain vivid: He lived in Block 21, Barracks 11, Room 3. He had his appendix removed at the camp hospital. He remembers basketball games on a dirt court and the eerie silence throughout camp when it was announced that Japan had lost the war and surrendered.
The Fujinos stayed at Manzanar for three years, one of the last families to leave in 1945, when U.S. authorities closed the camp. Their homecoming was bittersweet. They had freedom, but no money. The family’s furniture, which a “so-called friend” had pledged to safeguard, had vanished, Ray said. It was time to start over.
They moved to Buena Park, where a family friend found a vacant home to rent with several acres of farmable land. It was surrounded by 8-foot-tall weeds, had no inside restroom and looked like a haunted house, Ray said, but the family cleaned it up and moved in, along with grandparents, an aunt and uncle. All told, 16 people squeezed into the two-story, five-bedroom home.
Ray, just a fourth-grader, was put to work with his siblings cutting weeds and tending to the cabbage, cucumbers, lettuce and other crops. “You want to go play,” he recalled, “but you had to work.”
He graduated from Fullerton High School, where he broke his nose twice playing football, and studied business at Fullerton Junior College.
In 1958, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in the signal corps, managing communications and information systems at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. (He trained at Fort Gordon near the world-famous Augusta National Golf Club, but Ray said he had not yet developed his love of golf so couldn’t appreciate his proximity to the host of the annual Master’s Tournament.)
He tried out corporate life at a firm making aerospace products but soon left. He was prevented from staying late to finish his work, he said, and questioned his future there. “This is crazy,” he thought, and quit.
Ray started working at his uncle’s “Shi’s Market,” the only store carrying Japanese groceries and gifts along with fish in Orange County at the time. “I really enjoyed it because I met so many people,” he said. “Even today, people will come up to me and say, ‘you worked at the fish market.’”
But even better times were ahead. On a fateful day in 1961, Fujino -- an avid bowler who participated in four different leagues -- walked into Premier Lanes in Santa Fe Springs for a league game. A young woman on the other team took one look at him and swooned. Her name was Pauline Kurushima. She was from Los Angeles. She knew what she liked and she liked what she saw.
“He walks in and I think ‘whooooo!” she said with a laugh.
They married in 1963, surviving a first date at a Japanese restaurant, where Pauline unknowingly ordered the one food her husband hates – eggplant. A year later, they had their only child, Noreen, who eventually married Don Wong and had two children, Matthew and Carson.
Community And Church
By 1978, Ray quit his job at his uncle’s fish market and began working as a broker for a Japanese American shipping company. With his weekends now free, he was able to join Wintersburg and began volunteering with his wife for his church and the Japanese Evangelical Missionary Society. Among other things, he helped with the JEMS golf tournaments, which he said gave him the idea to suggest one for Wintersburg.
He joined the Suburban Optimists and also served as president of the Kasuya-Kai, a social and self-help organization founded in San Francisco in 1905 by his uncle, Koheiji Fujino, and five other Issei from the same area of Fukuoka prefecture. Ray recalls attending annual New Year’s luncheons and summer picnics with the group, which he sadly noted has become inactive as younger generations have lost interest in preserving those cultural connections.
Ray says he took early retirement at age 62 for one overriding reason: to play as much golf as he could. But then, disaster struck.
In December 2006, Ray had finished working in his yard when he noticed a branch had scratched his arm and leg. The next day, he felt sick. Pauline put him to bed but after finding that he could not get up himself to go to the restroom, she called 911.
It turned out he had contracted a flesh-eating bacteria. Blisters had broken out all over his leg and then arm. The doctors put him in an induced coma and debated whether to amputate those limbs. They ultimately decided against that, but warned his family he would probably not make it. Ray says that medication to combat his rheumatoid arthritis, which suppressed his immune system, probably made him more vulnerable to the bacteria.
After six months in the hospital and daily injections of antibiotics at home, however, Ray survived. Asked how, Pauline simply smiles and points upward.
Ray lost 4” of bone, and wears a black brace to secure his wrist. He can no longer indulge in two of his favorite pastimes – golf and the ukulele – but he’s found ways to turn his own hardships into help for others. He formed a ukulele group with seven friends, The Revelations, to entertain residents at senior centers. Ray can’t play anymore, but he sings.
His life of service, he said, was inspired by his Christian faith. But to the end, he insists he’s nothing special.