Norman Y. Mineta was the greatest and most successful politician ever to come out of San Jose. Last week, he returned for his last time to San Jose from Washington D.C.
Norm’s friends gathered to say goodbye and the tributes of former President Bill Clinton, former CIA Director Leon Panetta, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo were poignant and personal.
Behind the scenes was a vast effort to highlight Norm’s legacy to San Jose. Les Francis, his former chief of staff and a former deputy chief of staff to President Jimmy Carter—think Josh Lyman in “The West Wing”—headed the effort.
Francis, a storied graduate and champion of San Jose State University, was there from the beginning of Norm’s political career. It is imperative to tell the San Jose story of Norman Y. Mineta.
San Jose did not disappoint.
The flight carrying Norm’s remains and Deni Mineta, Norm’s cherished spouse, came home to a water cannon salute that showered the airplane. This tribute by the San Jose Fire Department played on every television station broadcasting the event.
As one might expect for a former secretary of transportation, the plane was not only on time—it was early. While there is no proof of this, some believe a special force from a heavenly transportation department provided the tailwind needed to make sure the San Jose events were a success.
Much has been televised and written about the events that followed, including a poignant stop at the railroad tracks where a 10-year-old Norm was forced into a train, his baseball bat confiscated as Americans were sent to concentration camps in one of the most shameful and sordid acts in our history. Scores of Boy Scouts lined the streets saluting as the motorcade went past the site last week.
But Norm, while never forgetting the experience, was never bitter toward the nation he ultimately served with distinction—appointed cabinet secretary by two presidents of different parties. Yes, he could bring people together.
For two days we heard from local friends of the special person Norm was to the San Jose community. Sunday school teacher, councilman, mayor, congressman; Norm never forgot San Jose.
He used to joke with visitors when landing at the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport, “I have no idea why my parents would name me after an airport.”
There are many stories of Norm, which I invite people to share in the comments section. Norm was a personal friend of mine as he was to many others. I was proud that Les Francis allowed me to play a part in helping advance the events over two days.
San Jose’s favorite son is now finally resting in peace in the city he loved.
But I cannot end this without sharing my favorite personal story of Norm. Gordon Reynolds, who passed many years ago, was also a good friend of Norm’s. When the government took his baseball bat, it was one of Norm’s saddest memories.
As a congressman, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron heard the story. They signed a bat and presented it to Norm as a gift to signify the regret Americans now feel about the interment order that sent thousands to concentration camps in the United States.
But because the bat was signed by two legendary baseball icons, the worth of the bat exceeded allowable gifts to members of Congress; so the government took the bat away from him. He got his bat taken away twice.
So Gordon Reynolds invited his friend to throw the first pitch for his Bobby Sox team in Campbell. Most congressmembers would decline such an invitation, but because it meant so much to Reynolds, Mineta showed up.
At the event, Mineta was presented with a new baseball bat signed by all the girls on the team. Mineta had tears in his eyes when given the bat, and it meant as much to him as the Mays/Aaron gift. Because for Mineta it was not simply a bat, but a reminder of what should never happen again. The young girls knew the story; they would not be a generation that repeated the mistake. They would never forget.
That is Norm Mineta’s legacy and tells us much more about the man than the impressive resume and titles he earned during his lifetime.
Goodbye Norm, you were no candle in the wind. You are a flame that will burn forever because of the people you touched.
San José Spotlight columnist Rich Robinson is a political consultant, attorney and author of “The Shadow Candidate.” His columns appear every fourth Wednesday of the month.