By Lee Xie
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The pervasive discrimination toward minorities during the 50s was what inspired Violet “Vi” Mar to get involved with mainstream organizations.
“When I applied for my first job, I did very well on my test, but they wouldn’t hire me,” Mar said. “My relatives knew one of the supervisors and asked if I passed my test. The supervisor said I did very well and that they were not prejudiced, but also that they never hired anyone but whites.”
In addition to missed job opportunities, Mar also had to endure being turned away from purchasing a house because she was Asian.
“It was just a little shack, but they didn’t want minorities living there.”
Mar, who was always an active figure in the Chinese and Asian community, wasn’t discouraged. She was determined to become involved with organizations that had never accepted minorities before.
“I thought, ‘How do we get Caucasians to know about us (minorities) if we just stay in our own communities?’ ”
This idea would be the basis for a lifetime career of achieving firsts. She became the first woman and minority trustee and first woman and minority chairperson of Seattle Community College District VI. She also became the first woman president and first Asian American on the Harborview Medical Board of Trustees, the first woman president of the Seattle Chinatown/Chinese Chamber of Commerce, and the first minority president of Seattle/King County Dental Auxiliary.
In 1972, Mar was appointed to the Board of Trustees at Harborview Medical Center by King County Executive John Spellman. Four years later, she became the first woman and Asian American president on this board.
When asked about her feelings toward this accomplishment, Mar doesn’t play it up. Rather, she calmly said, “I never think about that. I’m there to do a job, and I’m just there to do it. When you’re Asian, a lot of people think of you as a pushover. They think they’re in charge. When I grew up, men were more chauvinistic.”
Mar said that during that time, boardmembers and presidents were typically older white males. It was hard for young Asians to find a role model, though she pointed out that the community has come a long way since those days.
“Young Asians today are independent,” said Mar. “I [too] had to learn to be independent because my dad died when I was 9 years old. I had to take care of my mom, who couldn’t speak English.”
Mar was born and raised just seven blocks from the ID and has been active in the Chinese/Pan Asian community since she was a teenager.
As Harborview president of the board, Mar was busy attending meetings. Her accomplishments were abundant.
“We started programs, such as Sexual Assault Against Women, and the Medic I Program.”
Medic I was a role model program and trained other medical centers and hospitals. The program now functions worldwide.
In addition, Mar also provided the leadership and support for the 1976 King County Bond Issue of $19,500,000 for the modernization of Harborview.
During her time at the hospital, Harborview Medical Center was nationally recognized as a top health care facility providing outstanding burn and trauma care.
For her exceptional contributions and service for 12 years at the hospital, Gov. John Spellman proclaimed Nov. 16, 1984 as Violet Mar Day in Washington state.
Interestingly enough, Mar’s minority status ended up appealing to people.
When Mar was appointed as a charter member of Seattle Community College District VI’s governing board of trustees in 1967, she was surrounded by four other trustees who were white and male. In contrast, she was an Asian woman in her 30s.
“I was appointed by Gov. Dan Evans because he had learned about my work with many community organizations. My fellow trustees were white, and I wasn’t white. They were men, and I wasn’t a man. When I went to conferences, presidents from other universities would see me and ask me if I was a student or a faculty member. When they learned that I was a chairperson, it blew their minds,” Mar said, chuckling.
“A lot of faculty members and students came up to me because they felt comfortable with me, as I was the only woman and a minority.” The fact that she was a good listener greatly helped, as well.
Mar found the job to be very educational. She spent 10 years and hundreds of hours listening to faculty and students over coffee while they shared concerns.
At the time, Mar was the first minority trustee out of 110 trustees in Washington state community colleges. Later on in her life, Mar was told that she was probably the first woman minority in America to be on a board of higher education. This was a great honor, considering there was still a great deal of discrimination in the 1960s.
After leaving Harborview, Mar started Chinatown Discovery, Inc., in 1984.
“I started Chinatown Discovery to show people that Chinatown wasn’t dangerous after the Wah Mee massacre. When I looked out of the window after the massacre, there was no one walking the street. I started to educate whites to come to my community. It’s safer walking the streets of Chinatown than some of the streets in downtown Seattle.”
In October 2007, Mar donated Chinatown Discovery to the Wing Luke Asian Museum because “I wanted them to continue and get young people involved. Young people nowadays move to the suburbs and don’t know much about the community.”
Mar’s community service isn’t slowing. She played a key role in acquiring the historic West Gate, and it was dedicated on February 9, 2008 with Gov. Chris Gregoire, Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, King County Executive Ron Sims, and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels present. Fundraising for the East Gate will start on Oct. 24.
Mar and her husband, Howard, have eight children and sixteen grandchildren. She loves travelling, dancing, reading, and most of all, spending time with family and friends.
“I’m easy going, but I put my foot down when it’s necessary. I enjoyed my years at SCC and Harborview, and I believe I made a difference. I’m a double minority, Asian and a woman. It’s been an active life for me.” ♦
Vi Mar is being honored by Northwest Asian Weekly Foundation as a Pioneer in Health on Oct. 1. Meet her at our banquet on Oct. 1. For more information, visit pioneers.nwasianweeklyfoundation.org.
Lee Xie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.