This column on Bill Kajikawa, who had a lifelong involvement with Arizona State University athletics, appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun in September 2003.
Kajikawa has seen it all in Tempe
By Ed Odeven
Arizona State University’s sporting history has been highlighted by the accomplishments of stars like Reggie Jackson and Barry Bonds on the baseball diamond, Byron Scott and Fat Lever on the basketball court, Herman Frazier on the track and Jake Plummer, David Fulcher, Terrell Suggs, Danny White and Gerald Riggs on the gridiron.
Perhaps no man connected with the program has witnessed or been as much a part of history as Bill Kajikawa. This kind gentleman has been associated with the Tempe institute of higher learning since 1933, when he enrolled as an undergraduate student after attending Phoenix Union High School.
In those days, ASU was still known as Arizona State Teachers College. Kajikawa played fullback for the ASTC Bulldogs from 1934-36 — the school changed its nickname to Sun Devils in 1947, the year it officially became a university.
After getting his education degree in ’37, Kajikawa embarked on a career that kept him working as a teacher and coach at ASU until 1978.
“It’s the only job I ever had. Well, I never left Tempe,” he says proudly, “except during World War II.”
Anti-Japanese sentiments ran rampant after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Japanese-Americans were forced from their homes and sent to internment camps. Others, like Kajikawa, joined the war effort. He served in the U.S. Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an all-volunteer unit of Japanese-Americans, from 1943-46 in Europe. The 442nd was the most decorated of any U.S. military unit in World War II.
I had a chance to converse with Kajikawa this week. The main topic of our chat was football, and naturally our discussion turned to tonight’s game between ASU and NAU, the first contest between the schools since 1950.
Kajikawa was at that game in Flagstaff, a 63-0 victory for the Sun Devils. He coached the ends — on offense and defense that year — under head coach Ed Doherty.
Kajikawa was there for many of the Bulldog-Lumberjack clashes — he played against the Jacks in 1934, ’35 and ’36 (NAU won two of those three games) and Sun Devil-Lumberjack contests later on.
The details of those games are a bit sketchy, but Kajikawa says it was always a special event to play an in-state school.
“It’s kind of hard to remember. It’s been a few years,” he added.
At one point, Kajikawa said, the two schools had similar programs in terms of competitiveness and abilities.
“For a period of time, it was pretty close,” he says. “We had a lot of fun during those times.”
Much like the population boom that transformed Phoenix into one of the nation’s biggest cities, ASU grew into one of the nation’s premier athletic departments, too.
“We got stronger as our program got bigger,” Kajikawa recalls.
Meanwhile, NAU retained much of the small-town closeness that makes a university experience a special bond for many people
“In a way, they are still by themselves,” Kajikawa says. “The (fans) still have that closer connection. … Our university wants to be more like that (again).”
The 1950s were a defining era for the Sun Devils, and Kajikawa was front and center as a key figure in the athletic department. During this time, he simultaneously held ASU’s head baseball and basketball coaching posts and also served as a football assistant. And he also found time to teach two P.E. classes, too.
In 1958, Kajikawa became Frank Kush’s freshman football coach, a position he held until retirement. Many ex-Sun Devils have said Kajikawa’s guidance and knowledge of football helped make their transition to college a smooth one. Ex-ASU basketball coach Ned Wulk told the Phoenix Gazette in a 1978 interview, “I think Bill is one of a kind in athletics. He has the unusual quality of being interested, involved and concerned about everyone around him, be it fellow coach or anyone else.”
ASU recognized Kajikawa’s long-time dedication to the school by naming its practice facility the Bill Kajikawa Football Practice Field in 1995. “When your own school honors you, I think that’s special. It’s like your own family,” he says.
Nowadays, Kajikawa remains an avid sports fan. He attends all home football games and frequently goes to the Sun Devil baseball, basketball and softball games. And he often visits the field that bears his named to watch Coach Dirk Koetter’s squad practice. Kajikawa has slown down a bit, though. His daughters have asked him to take it easy. He uses a walker and a friend accompanies him to the field, where they sit on camping chairs.
Kajikawa turns 91 today. And, yes, he’ll be at Sun Devil Stadium tonight for another slice of history.