After being held at the Topaz Internment Camp, he was drafted into the Army, where, he later wrote, ‘I served the very country that had imprisoned me.’
The football players he coached at Englewood High School said the racial prejudice Yoshio “Yosh” Yamada experienced as a Japanese American during World War II helped him empathize with his Black students.
“He was in one of the internment camps during the war, so he understood the oppression of Black people,” said Charles Hudson, 73, a 1967 graduate who played guard on the Englewood Eagles football team. “That was like being in prison. I think he just felt he had to help underprivileged people like Black people.”
Mr. Yamada called himself “a coach-counselor” in a 1965 interview with the Chicago Daily News.
“I know that athletics help to keep many boys in school that would otherwise drop out,” he said. “If I see a boy on the verge of quitting, I’ll give him more responsibility. . .make him feel he’s needed.”
Mr. Yamada died last month in Sacramento, where he’d moved to be closer to his sister June Tamanaha and his extended family. He was 94 and suffered from heart failure and kidney disease, according to his nephew Steve Tamanaha.
A respected coach, athletic director and gym teacher, he was a familiar figure on the South Side. He worked at Englewood High School from 1952 until his retirement in 1991, coaching from the 1950s into the 1970s, and lived for a time in Bronzeville’s Lake Meadows apartments.
His students respected his no-nonsense style on the field and in the driver’s education courses he taught.
“If you messed up,” Hudson said, “he would let you know: ‘You’re going to the prom by CTA.’ ”
And when his players didn’t have money for extras or essentials, “He’d get them socks and things like that,” Hudson said.
“I never kept track of how much money I took out of my own pocket to pay for equipment, shoes, carfare or meals,” Mr. Yamada once said in a Chicago Sun-Times interview. “I used to pay for trips to colleges, so I could show them what they had to look forward to if they became good football players.”
“He was inspiring,” said Eugene Hudson, 73, who played fullback for Mr. Yamada at Englewood. “Most of his players went to college.”
Eugene Hudson, who worked for Western Electric, and Charles Hudson, who went on to a career with the Chicago Public Schools that included coaching football at Englewood, credit Mr. Yamada with helping them get into Morehouse College.
Both men are relatives of Jennifer Hudson, the Chicago-raised singer and actor. When three members of her family were killed in 2008, Mr. Yamada was invited to the funeral for her mother Darnell Donerson, brother Jason and nephew Julian, according to Eugene Hudson, who is an uncle of the Academy Award-winner.
“He sat with the family,” said Charles, a first cousin of Darnell Donerson. “That did us a lot of good to see Coach show up.”
Mr. Yamada grew up in Oakland, California. He was the second-youngest of nine children of Masayo and Masaoki Yamada, natives of Yamanashi prefecture in Japan. His father died when he was a child, and his mother operated a small laundry business.
Mr. Yamada later wrote about the day the U.S. government ordered his family into captivity. They wound up at Topaz Internment Camp near Delta, Utah.
“One Friday afternoon in 1942 when I was 15 years old, my family got a knock on the door,” he wrote. “When my mother answered she was told to take my eight brothers and sisters and me to our church on Sunday to be delivered to a camp. My family was sent by train to an internment camp in Utah where we remained for 2-and-a-half years.
“We lost everything, including our home and business in Oakland. I. . . graduated from the high school in the camp where we often moved about with guns pointing at us.”
Topaz initially wasn’t ready for internees, so the Yamadas were first housed at Tanforan, a former racetrack near San Francisco.
“All the manure was still below the floorboards, so it really stunk,” said Mr. Yamada’s niece Paula Mishima.
Mishima said her mother Miye told her life at Topaz meant “having to wait in line for everything and how there was no privacy, how cold it was and how dusty it was.”
Young Yosh excelled with the Topaz Rams basketball, football and track teams, the latter which had to make do “without a track, pole vault pit, high jump pit, and who used chairs for hurdles,” according to the high school yearbook at the camp.
Jane Beckwith, president of the Topaz Museum Board, said it was a point of pride with the Topaz athletes that they often beat the “big farmboys” they competed against from nearby high schools “who were at least 50 pounds heavier.”
He graduated in 1944 and enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A few months after that, he was drafted into the Army, where, he later wrote, “I served the very country that had imprisoned me.”
After the war, he returned to Madison, where he got bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physical education. He ran track and lettered with the school’s champion 150-pound football squad.
Mr. Yamada and his brothers and sisters scattered to New York, St. Louis and Chicago, where he and his mother, who worked for Curtiss Candy Co., lived in an apartment building on Sheffield Avenue for a time.
At Englewood, his players won the Chicago Public League’s first Blue Division championship in 1958. He coached them against Hyde Park High School in what’s been called the oldest football rivalry in the state.
At home, his family said he was a “fun” uncle.
“He gave me his car when I was in high school, so, when I graduated in 1979, I was driving a ’76 Grand Prix, black,” Steve Tamanaha said. “He was the uncle who would always take me to Bargain Town” — an old Chicago toy store.
In 1991, the year he retired, Mr. Yamada received a $20,000 reparations check from the U.S. government for his internment.
“There never was any evidence that any of us had done anything against the United States,” he told the Sun-Times then. “These reparations are too little and too late.”
He liked to play golf, go to the Super Bowl every year and gamble at the Hammond Horseshoe casino. In his later years, living on the West Coast, he enjoyed the local casinos, visits with family and doing Sudoku puzzles.
In addition to his sister June Tamanaha, Mr. Yamada is survived by many nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews.
A celebration of his life is being planned for the summer, Steve Tamanaha said.
When he retired, Mr. Yamada told the Sun-Times, “Working in the public schools gave me a chance to do something for minorities, especially in the Black community, to help repay for some of the things that were given to me.
“I have no regrets. It was enjoyable to work with kids. They never discriminated against me.”