If you’ve never heard of Ruth Woo, you have likely heard of the people she has helped.
Woo passed away on July 13 at the age of 89.
Well known in the Asian American community, Woo was a political mentor to people like former Governor Gary Locke, state Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, former King County Executive Ron Sims, and Supreme Court Justice Mary Yu. She had a knack for organizing political campaigns. Locke used to visit the Woo home in Mount Baker — he even used her living room as a makeshift campaign headquarters during his run for the state Legislature in 1982.
Woo was born Ruth Oya in White Fish, Mont., where her immigrant father worked on railroad gangs. After her father died, the family moved to Seattle and later to an Oregon farm. Then came the World War II internment of Japanese Americans.
The Oya family was banished first to the Tule Lake internment camps in California, then to Camp Minidoka in the Idaho desert.
In 1948, she married Hiro Yoneyama — the couple had two children, Teresa and Janice. The Yoneyamas saved up enough money to buy a house in South Seattle with an orchard, plenty of room for expansion, and a spectacular view. The next day, their agent called to tell her the neighbors didn’t want “Japs” around. They simply bought another house.
Mr. Yoneyama died in 1960 from kidney failure. Ruth was now a single mother.
She got her first taste of politics when she worked for Seattle mayors Gordon S. Clinton and Dorm Braman.
Ruth got hooked since she offered to campaign for then-Governor Dan Evans — who was running for a third term.
Ruth and Ben Woo first met in 1966 at a New Year’s Eve dinner party. They quickly hit it off and were together for nine years before Ben popped the question and Ruth accepted in 1975.
Ruth became a widow again in 2008. Mr. Woo died from heart failure at age 84. Eight years later, Ruth is now reunited with her husband.
She is survived by her daughters, Teresa Yoneyama, of Seattle, and Janice Yoneyama, of Long Beach, Pacific County. There will be no service, in accordance with Woo’s wishes.
Remembering Ruth Woo
Gary Locke, former Governor and Ambassador to China, said “There hasn’t been a more influential person in Washington state politics than Ruth Woo. She has been the behind-the scenes brains and mastermind in the elections and success of so many officials, including city council members, state legislators, mayors, governors, judges, and members of Congress.
I could not have won my first race for elected office without Ruth. I owe it all to her.
Everyone running for office has sought out Ruth. An endorsement from Ruth meant instant credibility.
Ruth has forever promoted the advancement of Asian Americans and people of color not just in politics but all professions.
She has helped and inspired hundreds and hundreds of people.
She has been like a second Mom to all of us, encouraging us, supporting us, and like a true Mom, nagging us to do more!
It is up to us all to continue her work. Our thoughts and prayers are with her and her entire family. We love you Ruth and miss you so very much.”
Mary Yu, Supreme Court Justice, said, “I am so sad about losing this remarkable woman and yet one can say for certain that her life was a life well-lived. She is a legend and so deserving of our gratitude for her kindness, good works, and empowerment of people of color. There is no one like Ruth Woo.”
Dolores Sibonga, former Seattle City Councilwoman, said, “We called her our political guru, but I think her real mission was to build community. She believed in a just society and worked tirelessly to elect anyone who shared her vision. Ruth influenced policy makers and activists at all levels of government, business, education, and civic life. She mentored young people who called her ‘Auntie Ruth.’ She was respected for her wisdom, loyalty, and compassion. Ruth Woo changed my life, and my heart is broken at her passing.”
Ed Murray, Seattle Mayor, said in a statement, “Ruth Woo was a legend in the community, and I’ll always remember our many breakfasts together at AJs over the years. Her legacy will be the dozens, no, hundreds of us, whom she mentored as we embarked on our careers. Look around, from Olympia, to D.C., to the city, and nonprofits, every part of our region’s public life have people who leaned on her for advice and support. To all of us, today and forever, she will always be ‘Auntie Ruth.’”
Dow Constantine, King County Executive, said in a statement, “Ruth Woo helped shape the leaders who shaped our region, pushing our city, county, and state toward justice and inclusion. For generations of local elected officials, she was a mentor, a trusted leader of the Asian Pacific Islander community, and a driving force for social change.
She was motivated not by fame or access to power, but by a contagious belief that we could always do more to make this a better place to live. She had a remarkable ability to create and connect communities, a talent that helped advance the cause of civil rights.
Ruth was a warm, generous, and inspiring figure in Washington politics, one who will be missed by generations of politicians, myself included, who appreciated her wry smile and her wise counsel.”
Do you have a story or favorite memory about Ruth Woo? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.