When Tom Panas showed up to give a presentation as a part of program at the El Cerrito Library last Thursday, he was surprised to find himself on the receiving end of another presentation.
Panas is a board member of the El Cerrito Historical Society who has devoted considerable time and energy to documenting the history of the Japanese-American nurseries that once flourished in parts of the Richmond and El Cerrito.
He was at the library Thursday night for a screening of on the bygone flower-growing community and the ordeal of being uprooted by the World War II relocation of people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast. His role at the event was to provide a historical overview of the nurseries and the families who operated them.
In an unannounced part of the program that took him by surprise, he was presented with a certificate from the Contra Costa chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League for "Outstanding Leadership in promoting the story of the East Bay Japanese American Flower Growers."
"I have such a respect for that community," Panas told Patch, "and it was a great honor to receive it."
Panas, like many local residents, had long noticed the rusting remains of greenhouses and other buildings of the former nurseries. A few years ago, he said, he decided to see if he could find out more and found that the history of the flower-growing community had been almost completely ignored by historians. He also realized that those who worked in the industry were getting older and older and that time was running out on collecting their stories.
So he started knocking on doors, and local residents like Eiko Sugihara and Jun Honda responded and offered to help him gather information and photos of that era.
One treasure, in addition to personal stories and family photographs from the families involved, was a book of special photos that Honda showed Panas. They were taken in response to an initiative by the Emperor of Japan in commemoration of the 2,600th anniversary of the Chrysanthemum Throne in 1940 to document the accomplishments of the Japanese diaspora, Panas said.
In accordance with the initiative, the California Flower Market commissioned photos at that time that included the Japanese-American flower growers in Richmond and El Cerrito and produced a book, Panas said.
As a result of his accumulating knowledge and growing collection of photos, Panas produced an El Cerrito Historical Society book in 2009 of photos with historical background and maps, Remembering our Local Japanese American Heritage: 1900-2006, which can viewed on the Historical Society's website.
He also organized an exhibit of photos at the El Cerrito Senior Center in 2009 and one at El Cerrito Hall in 2010. In 2010 he received a City of Richmond Historic Preservation award for his effort, which also helped lay the foundation for a 2010 Richmond Art Center exhibit, "Blossoms & Thorns: The legacy of Richmond's Historic Japanese American Nurseries."
Panas has also been a leading advocate in the Historical Society's efforts to preserve a historic stone-clad building at 10848 San Pablo Ave., former home of a Japanese-American florist and possibly the last remaining structure in El Cerrito from the flower-growing industry.
A copy of the Japanese American Citizens League certificate is attached to this article.
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