By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
“How have you been?” is a typical conversation opener. But with community leader Bettie Luke, that line not only deepened a dialogue, it twirled into extraordinary revelation after revelation. And eventually, it became an opportunity for healing and celebration.
Last July, I asked Luke at a community event how she was doing. The last thing I expected was that she would pour out her grief and her state of distress. While I wasn’t prepared to respond to her plight, I was a good listener, pondering how I could help.
“I am going to be 80 this October,” were her first words. That’s a milestone. What followed was nothing to celebrate—the number of tragedies that shattered her orbit, including relatives, loved ones, and close friends who died in the last two years. The staggering count was over 20, including her sister, brother, niece, brother-in-law, and long-time friends and associates.
“Half of my generation was disappearing,” she said.
Wow, I thought as I sat next to her. My “wow” was a sad one accented with a sigh. I was at a loss for words, even though I felt her pain. Luke has been a good supporter of the Northwest Asian Weekly for decades. I relish her friendship, leadership, and humanity.
Her friend Rosemary Villanueva depicted her so well.
“Bettie embodies this quote of Mother Teresa of Calcutta: ‘I ALONE cannot change the world but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many RIPPLES.’ Through her warmth, wisdom, and creativity, she has been such an example of goodness in her personal and professional life. She is a consummate educator.
“She sees the world through both a microscope and telescope at the same time,” said Anselmo Villanueva. “She pays attention to all of the tiny details and sees the big picture at the same time.”
Organize your own party
The day after we talked, Luke’s gloom inspired me with an idea to cheer her up—I offered to host her 80th birthday party with 10 of her special friends. Luke was thrilled.
“The short visit with you…did wonders in starting to clear the clouds of grief in my head,” she responded in an email. “Now, your amazing offer to host a dinner…it is a joy I did not ever imagine. ..Your unexpected kind and generous offer has cut through the immobilization where I have been stuck for too long.”
Literally and figuratively, I was giving her an assignment—to organize her own birthday party. And she turned it into an adventure. My intent was to take her mind off from affairs which she had no control over. Keeping her busy by organizing a special occasion was good therapy. She could pick the restaurant, date, and guests, I suggested.
“Your offer created a marvelous mission to plan this event—bringing such “big gun” people together in one place, at one time, at one table, to meet and talk to each other and to learn about their impact and influence on me and on life,” said Luke.
Not many folks would focus their own birthdays on their guests. Luke did.
It’s Luke’s classy quality—caring and warm. She knows how to make everyone feel special. She brought along guest Quintard Taylor’s book, “The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle’s Central District from 1870 through the Civil Rights Era,” when she shared her story about him. You can imagine how much stuff she brought to the dinner.
Each friend also received a goody bag of chocolates, a necklace of beads and mini jingle bells, and two pieces of her artwork. Each of us also received a different animal mask as a gift, and she made us put it on for a group photo. She is skilled in bringing out the child, fun, and joy in each of us, despite the fact that most of her friends are seniors.
Luke invited guests who have impacted her life in different ways and times.
An amazingly diverse group of friends, many of them Luke had known and worked with for over 40 years, including me. The Villanuevas drove five hours from Eugene, Oregon, just to attend her party. And they drove back home for another five hours after the dinner. Luke’s bonds with her guests are lifelong and tight.
I have known Luke when she was a teachers’ trainer on multicultural education in the 1970s. As a Mercer Junior high school social studies teacher, I had the privilege of attending her workshops. Multiculturalism is big in many school districts today, but back then, it was not. Like her oldest brother, the late Wing Luke, one of the first Asian American elected officials in America, Luke is a pioneer in her own right. An author, Luke is the Asian “community’s historian,” said Arlene Oki, another guest. I called her our “community’s encyclopedia.” I often ask her for quotes for the Asian Weekly about other Asian community leaders as she is a master storyteller with an impeccable memory.
Luke picked the Joyale Restaurant in Chinatown-International District. I assume her choice was because the restaurant provides free parking and fine food. The menu included her two favorite items: Chinese pizza and steamed tofu with shrimp. Chinese pizza? What the heck is that? It was shredded duck meat wrapped inside a pizza-like, round flat cake made of pan-fried crispy bean curd thread. I haven’t seen this dish served in other restaurants.
The Chinese-style banquet included Peking duck, lobster, steamed fish, and other goodies.
Did it work?
This was the first time I told a friend, “Go organize your own party and give me the bill.” The experiment was to elevate Luke’s spirit. You may wonder why I did it.
Last year was a tough year for us in the media space. We lost most of our long-time advertisers. At the end of March, my husband and I were contemplating shutting down in May. But then, miracles unfolded, not just a few times, but every week. And we are still here, publishing every week without missing a week.
When you feel blessed, you have to remember those who have supported you. And I feel blessed that we are still able to publish and serve the community. Luke is one of those who have always encouraged us through her kind notes and cards on our good work. She was the first one to send a check during the early days of the pandemic when we needed support the most. Her gesture and kindness illuminated our journey of struggle and hardship. She has inspired us not to give up.
It is my turn to show appreciation and recognition of her commitment to support people, issues and organizations, which are important to the community. And the party did serve our purpose.
“The planning was a happy time of generating ideas to celebrate the wonderful relationships and valued meaning of important friendships and events,” said Luke after the event. The planning process practically dissolved her sense of loss.
And boy, did she have a formula of producing a festive party! Her intuitive and artistic quality made all the guests’ experience fun and memorable.
“You indeed brought light back into my life, after the awful parade of recent losses in my life,” wrote Luke in an email. “…your amazing gift brought sunshine back into my life!”
Thank you Bettie, for sharing your milestone with us.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.