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Civic Leader Iao Katagiri Dead at 70

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By Jorge Casuso

April 29, 2022 -- Iao Katagiri -- whose petite stature was graced with a quiet wisdom and a big heart that brought out the best in Santa Monica -- died Thursday of cancer. She was 70.
Iao Katagiri
Iao Katagiri (Photo courtesy WISE & Healthy Aging)

During her four decades at the RAND Corporation, Katagiri rose through the ranks from researcher to deputy vice president, becoming the face of the world-renowned think tank in its hometown, where she headed major non-profit boards.

Katagiri played an instrumental role in replacing RAND's Cold War-era building at the Santa Monica Civic Center by spearheading a campaign that defeated a ballot measure to kill the project.

After retiring as RAND's director of community relations in 2016, Katagiri remained a civic force, championing everything from childcare and after-school programs to programs to help the poor and elderly.

At the time of her death she was chair of the board of Providence Saint John's Health Center, vice chair of the Chamber of Commerce board and co-chair of the School District's Early Childhood Advisory Committee.

“Iao made tremendous contributions to the growth of RAND as an institution,” said Michael D. Rich, RAND's president and CEO. “She understood how important the Santa Monica community was to RAND and vice-versa."

“Iao was a tireless community leader, children’s advocate, and all-around wonderful person,” said Michael Ricks, Saint John's chief executive and chair of the chamber board. “Her mark on Santa Monica will remain for years to come.”

Former Santa Monica Mayor Nat Trives, who knew Katagiri for nearly 50 years, called her "the power behind the throne," noting that she worked for five RAND presidents

"She did not push herself at all," Trives said. "She wasn't out waving flags. She was an outcomes person and did it with dignity and grace."

Katagiri's influence was often felt outside the boardrooms and away from the community spotlight.

When Santa Monica College's (SMC) Black Collegians Program received a $325,000 donation in 2020, it was Katagiri who first mentioned the 30-year old program to philanthropist Ann Wang, her close friend and RAND colleague.

Since then, Wang has donated $200,000 to launch the SMC Foundation’s Meal Project and $325,000 for the school's Adelante program.

Community activist Clyde Smith, who talked Katagiri into becoming involved in the National Conference for Community and Justice, soon had her volunteering at the Red Cross and Rotary, Katagiri recalled during Smith's funeral in 2009.

Photographer and personal trainer Fabian Lewkowicz, who was Katagiri's personal trainer for more than 10 years, remembers the times she helped him sort things out with her quiet no-nonsense advice.

"She was wise, very wise, and very smart," said Lewkowicz, who recalled how Katagiri would often take long walks by herself on the beach. "She always had the best advice."

Katagiri joined RAND in 1975 after earning a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of California, Berkeley, and an M.P.A. from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

That year, she joined a research team "focused on finding a better way to provide decent affordable housing to low-income households," RAND officials said.

Four years later, she was tasked with helping organize and launch the first privately funded research center at RAND, the Institute for Civil Justice.

"She was responsible for designing and implementing the institute's fundraising program and raising its first $8 million," RAND officials said.

In 1987 Katagiri joined RAND's effort to replace its Santa Monica headquarters, which was so outdated the electricity and plumbing was always breaking and researchers came to work on hot days in shorts because there was no air conditioning.

It would take nearly 20 years for a new RAND campus to be completed in the fall of 2004.

“It's not surprising that a research institution would take as long as this,” Katagiri told the New York Times. “The first, knee-jerk reaction here to any question is to make a study.”

If Katagiri was usually quiet and self-effacing, she grew excited during her tours of the modern art that lines RAND's hallways, which features 200 works loaned by software entrepreneur and philanthropist Peter Norton.

Three days before she died, Katagiri, who had not been taking calls and didn't want flowers sent to her hospital room, asked to speak to her longtime friend Nat Trives, who is known as Mr. Santa Monica.

"It was powerful," said Trives, who is 80. "We talked about the importance we had on each other's lives, the importance of helping people. Her contribution to this community was selfless.

"I got goosebumps on my arms talking to her," said Trives, who was mayor in 1975 when Katagiri came to town. "It was a blessing. It made it clear that losing her was like losing a member of my family."

Katagiri is survived by her sister, Laurie Katagiri-Hoshino of Ewa Beach, Hawaii. She had been preceded in death by her older sister, Grace, and her parents Mineo and Nobu Katagiri.

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