'Heart of school' to serve Relief Society

When Chieko Okazaki retired as principal of Sunrise Elementary School in Denver, Colo., the local newspaper ran a frontpage story with a headline that read: "Sunrise loses the heart of the school."

The headline idea came as a reporter, sent to cover the event, watched a group of loving children surround their retiring principal, all clamoring to wish her well.The sentiments expressed by those young children are not unique, according to Edward Okazaki, husband of the newly-called first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency. She was sustained March 31.

"Chieko is known for her compassion and understanding," he pointed out. "She's always doing little things to show she cares, to show that you really matter to her."

Brother Okazaki recalled times when he saw his wife baking a cake at midnight for a teacher celebrating a birthday the next day.

"I also remember a custodian at one of her schools," he said. "He had diabetes, and Chieko would watch him and could tell immediately when he started getting low on sugar. She always had a can of pop ready and waiting for him. It's those little things that make big differences."

Education has always played a large part in Sister Okazaki's life. She taught school 23 years and then served 10 more years as an elementary school principal before retiring in 1987. In 1977, she returned as a 50-year-old student to the University of Colorado and earned a master's degree in curriculum and education.

"I decided that I could best serve people by getting into education," explained Sister Okazaki, a native of Kohala, Hawaii. As the impetus behind that decision, she cites the example of her sixth grade teacher, Yuriko Nishimoto.

"I watched her closely and grew to admire her a great deal. She was so kind and generous with her time; she was a one-on-one kind of teacher. She raised your level of expectancy in yourself, and it just seemed to be easy to learn under her tutorship. I felt a great need to do the same thing she did."

However, Sister Okazaki's yearning for education had begun much earlier than the sixth grade. Her parents, Kanenori and Hatsuko Nishimura, encouraged their oldest daughter to learn and set goals to better herself.

"My parents always told me I needed to work hard at whatever I pursued in life. And they encouraged me to get into education. They didn't have a lot of education; they graduated from 'the school of hard knocks.' But they taught me much."

According to Sister Okazaki, one of the best things she learned in childhood was "not to be commanded in all things. "There's a Japanese word I think of when I think of that principle," she observed. "It's kigatsuku. It means to have initiative and look ahead, always looking for ways to serve others and yourself." It was in school that Sister Okazaki, the only member of the Church in her family, first heard about the gospel. She was 11 years old when missionaries came to school and announced that all students were invited to come to a religious education class.

"I had a study period at the time, so I decided to go down and listen. I ended up going every week, and attending Church too."

But the young woman didn't get baptized until four years later. "My parents [both Japanese but born and raised in Hawaii] were strong Buddhists and I didn't want to disappoint them." she explained.

However, she finally decided that baptism was the right choice for her and, though her parents were initially displeased, they "accepted my baptism and eventually were even grateful that I joined the Church."

Others have been grateful for Sister Okazaki's membership in the Church. It was while the two of them were students at the University of Hawaii that Sister Okazaki introduced the gospel to her future husband.

"I'll admit that I was first attracted to Chieko because she was a beautiful woman," said Brother Okazaki. "She was a beauty queen at the university.

"But later on I found out that she was not just a beauty queen on the outside, but she was beautiful inside also. I also discovered she was a bit strange because she spent all day on Sunday at Church. Here I was, spending my Sundays on the beach and she spent the day in meetings."

After asking her what she did all day, he accepted an invitation to accompany her and see for himself. "That's how much influence she had on me," he observed. "I stopped going to the beach and started going to Church."

They were married before he joined the Church but, says Sister Okazaki, "I could tell he was going to join."

"He was already living a religious life, and I could see a Mormon fellow in him. I just continued to consistently go to Church and let him decide for himself."

Since joining the Church, Brother Okazaki has served as a mission president in Japan, as well as a regional representative. His wife, released from the Primary general board in order to accept her calling in the general Relief Society presidency, has served as a ward Relief Society president, stake Young Women president's counselor, teacher in most auxiliaries, seminary teacher and Young Women general board member.

After graduating from the University of Hawaii, the young couple came to Utah, where Brother Okazaki earned a master's degree in social work from the University of Utah. The couple had two sons while in Utah - Kenneth and Robert. Eventually, they ended up in Denver, where Brother Okazaki worked for a federal program on aging and Sister Okazaki continued her work as an outstanding teacher. After only one year of teaching, she was nominated for a state "Teacher of the Year" award.

After both the Okazakis retired, they returned to Utah, where they have continued to remain busy in Church service, as well as other favorite activities.

"We like to garden and we love to exercise together," Sister Okazaki said. While her husband lifts weights and runs, Sister Okazaki swims almost 100 lengths of the pool. They also enjoy singing while Sister Okazaki strums the ukelele, a talent she picked up as a child just by watching others. "Of course, we sing purely for our own entertainment," she is quick to point out. "We don't perform in front of others very often."

The couple also enjoys traveling together and have toured many of the states, as well as most Asian countries. Travel plans to Europe and Australia have been put "on hold" for the moment though, due to Sister Okazaki's new assignment.

"I tell you, it was certainly a surprise," Sister Okazaki commented regarding her calling. "But watching Pres. Jack, I have no doubt that she is being guided and directed."

Sister Okazaki hopes that, given her background and heritage, she will be able to contribute to the new Relief Society general presidency "from the standpoint of a woman in a minority culture."

"I couldn't do this alone," she remarked. "I have the support of many people behind me, especially my husband. And although it's an overwhelming feeling, you serve where you are called and you do your best. I hope that, in this position, I can follow Christ's example of love and service and be a servant to all."


Sister Chieko Okazaki

  • Family: born Oct. 21, 1926, a daughter of Kanenori and Hatsuko Nishimura; married Edward Yukio Okazaki, June 18, 1949; two sons - Kenneth and Robert; one grandchild.
  • Education: graduated from University of Hawaii, earned fifth-year teaching certificate; earned master's degree in curriculum and education from University of Colorado.
  • Community service/profession: taught elementary school 23 years, served as elementary school principal 10 years.
  • Previous Church service: Primary general board member, Young Women general board member, stake Young Women president's counselor, ward Relief Society teacher and seminary teacher.

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