Watanabe family's $1 million gift is a game changer for Willamette MBA students

by Tom Morlan,

  • Sachiko and Taul Watanabe ’41

The gift from the estate of Sachiko and Taul Watanabe '41 provides funds for additional scholarships at the Atkinson Graduate School of Management.

Building on a remarkable relationship with Willamette that spans more than eight decades, the Watanabe family has made a $1 million gift to the Atkinson Graduate School of Management.

The gift to the endowed scholarship fund will strengthen access to a top-tier business education by generating about $45,000 annually in additional scholarships for MBA students.

“The Watanabe family is proud to assist Willamette’s business students as they prepare to be entrepreneurs and leaders in building an economically prosperous future for our families, communities and nation,” daughter Laani (Watanabe) Gazeley ’70 said. 

The power of community

Taul Watanabe graduated from Willamette in 1941 and began studying at the university’s College of Law shortly before the United States entered World War II. His education came to a sudden halt that same year, when he was taken to an internment camp in Puyallup, Wash.

The Willamette community stepped into the breach immediately. Otto Skopil Jr. BA’41, LLB’46 had grown up with Taul, and “it bothered Otto to no end that his good friend was being taken away from his educational pursuits,” Mike Bennett ’70 recalled.

Otto asked Willamette President G. Herbert Smith and the Board of Trustees to intervene on Watanabe’s behalf with federal authorities. Within months, Watanabe secured an exemption and was allowed to continue his studies at the University of Denver College of Law.

“Our father and mother were always grateful to the Willamette community for their support prior to and after World War II,” son Brett Watanabe ’72 said.

The consummate business leader

After earning his law degree in 1943, Watanabe worked as an attorney in Denver. It was there he met Sachiko, the daughter of a prominent Japanese-American physician. Watanabe moved to Los Angeles in 1945, and he and Sachiko were married the following year.

He quickly became a major player in Southern California’s booming business community, developing property in Los Angeles and Orange counties and serving as a bank president. Watanabe also entered the realm of public service as a member of the Gardena Planning Commission.

Along the way, he developed lasting friendships with California Gov. Edmund "Pat" Brown and Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty, who appointed Watanabe to the city’s Harbor Commission. As president of the commission, he negotiated the first container ship agreement between the United States and Japan.

In 1968, Watanabe and his family moved to Bellevue, Washington. He felt it would be a better environment for his children, and the native of Salem, Oregon, had fond memories of his time in the Pacific Northwest. “He was always a Northwesterner at heart, and I don't think he ever forgot that," Gazeley ’70 said.

Watanabe would go on to serve as vice president of Burlington Northern and chairman of the state Economic Council. He also helped establish business relations with China, accompanying Washington Gov. Dixy Lee Ray for talks with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.

A legacy of generosity

Watanabe’s commitment to Willamette University never waned over the years, and his impact extends well beyond his time on the Board of Trustees. Four Watanabe scholarships have benefited generations of law students and undergraduates, and an endowed chair dedicated to the study of science bears his name.

Although Taul’s extraordinary life came to an end in 1995, the Watanabe family has continued to make its presence felt in the Willamette community. Laani and her husband, Marc Gazeley ’69, have served on numerous alumni committees, and their two children, William and Chelsey, graduated from Willamette in 1995 and 1999, respectively.

Sachiko passed away in 2019, but the Watanabe Scholars in Graduate Business Education scholarship she and Taul established will endure as a particularly fitting legacy for a man whose influence was measured on a global scale. The funds will provide invaluable assistance not only to students who are new to Willamette, but also to graduate students in the final two years of the university’s accelerated 3-2 MBA program.

“This gift promises life-changing opportunity for future global business leaders and world-changing impact for the communities they will serve,” said Mike Hand, dean of the Atkinson Graduate School of Management. “Watanabe Scholars will, for generations to come, live in lasting tribute to the remarkable lives of Taul and Sachiko Watanabe, and to the extraordinary generosity of the Watanabe family.”

About Willamette University

Based in Salem, Oregon, we are the premier private university in the Pacific Northwest — the only university in the country that appears on both the US News Best National Liberal Arts Colleges list and the Forbes and Businessweek best business schools lists. Our law school is a leader in the state for job placement and bar passage. With unique proximity to our state's capitol, we are a national leader in civic engagement, delivering an “Only at Willamette” education.

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