By Toshiye Ishisaka
Anthony (Tony) Hideki Ishisaka, the co-founder of Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS), died at home in his sleep on July 9. He was 75 years old.
Born in the Japanese American concentration camp, Amache, in Grenada, Colo., on May 5, 1944, Ishisaka suffered from severe rheumatic fever that attacked his heart as a child, as well as rickets—both of which were common among the malnourished families in the crowded camps. After the U.S. government released Americans of Japanese descent from incarceration, the Ishisaka family returned to California.
The Ishisakas settled in Elk Grove, Calif., where they ran a farming ranch. Ishisaka grew up a brilliant rascal, the youngest child of four, with free reign over the ranch, hunting, fishing, and exploring. He developed an early and enduring interest in archeology, anthropology, music, and culture in his pre-teen years. A photographic memory coupled with an insatiable curiosity about people and the world helped him to store precious information from books, stories, and experiences. During this time, Ishisaka made many friendships that endured throughout his life.
Originally interested in pediatric cancer research, Ishisaka planned to attend UC Berkeley to study medicine and anthropology. He quickly became involved in social justice work in Berkeley and Oakland in the 1960s and was instead pulled towards social work. It was clear Ishisaka’s lifework would be in creating systemic change through social work and education.
In 1967, Ishisaka met Joanne Baker, a sophomore at UC Berkeley. They married on July 19, 1969, on a 112-degree day in Sacramento after he finished his graduate degree and Joanne her undergraduate degree in Social Work. In 1971, Ishisaka accepted a professorship at the University of Washington School of Social Work (UW SSW), and he and Joanne relocated from the Bay Area to the Pacific Northwest.
Ishisaka quickly set a course for the UW SSW to recruit and support students and faculty of color. He secured federal funds to open the Native American Community House, built to keep mothers living with substance use disorders together with their children. Ishisaka developed programs to train social workers to work with refugees from Southeast Asia. As a faculty member, he was a leader in multi-ethnic practice, with a focus on mental health and services targeted to refugee communities.
In 2003, Ishisaka was recognized for the importance of his community-based work when he was selected to receive the prestigious University of Washington S. Sterling Munro Public Service Faculty Award.
In 2008, the School of Social Work awarded him its Living Human Treasure Award for his “creative genius, embodiment of cultural identity and values cherished by the school community, and enrichment of all our lives.” Ishisaka was remembered in a University of Washington School of Social Work Memorial.
One of Ishisaka’s most lasting and important contributions began in 1973, when he co-founded the Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) to meet the diverse health and mental health needs of Asians and Pacific Islanders.
Dave Okimoto, founding board member and past executive director of ACRS, said, “Tony was the heart and soul of ACRS. As co-founder of the organization, he led and inspired a core group of community volunteers to create the first agency in the country to address the mental health needs of Asian Americans. Not only did he chair the Board of Directors for several years, he also served as the volunteer clinical director of the agency and could be seen on a daily basis providing mental health consultation to staff, volunteers, and Social Work graduate students. Without Tony’s leadership in those early days, ACRS might never have survived.”
Ishisaka retired from the UW in 2009, yet continued to guide a vast network of UW alumni, many of whom called him “Uncle Tony” as a reflection of their profound respect for his influence.
On May 5, 2019, Ishisaka was delighted to celebrate his 75th birthday with his spouse, children, grandchild, and family friends. Two months later, on July 9, Tony Ishisaka passed away unexpectedly and peacefully at home from congestive heart failure. He is survived by his spouse of 50 years, Joanne Ishisaka, children Toshiye Ishisaka and Naomi Ishisaka, grandchild Eveline Ishisaka, nieces Kory Ishisaka and Pamela Ishisaka, nephew Max Kurtz, son-in-law Ryan Bailey, and many beloved friends, colleagues, and extended biological and chosen family. He was preceded in death by his mother and father, Ruth Harue Ishisaka (Ito) and Roy Wataru Ishisaka, siblings Woody Ishisaka, Howard Ishisaka, and Kimiye Ishisaka, nephew Jason Ishisaka, and many other loved ones.
More of Ishisaka’s legacy is described in an obituary written by the Seattle Times or bit.ly/ishisaka_seattle. A memorial is planned for Sept. 14, 2019. For more information, visit bit.ly/Ishisaka memorial. Donations may be made in his honor to the Anthony Hideki Ishisaka Memorial Fellowship Fund at the UW School of Social Work.