Pasadena Honors a Citizen Who Broke Through Community's Racial Barriers


As a Pasadena school board member in the early 1970s, Al Lowe led a bitter fight to integrate that city's schools and was later ousted from office for his stand.

More recently, the Chinese American businessman helped change the structure of the Tournament of Roses Assn. to make it more open to minorities--who have been residents of Pasadena for generations but were long barred from many city clubs and facilities.

Now at age 73, more than 60 years after arriving in the area, Lowe and his wife, Rose Marie, are moving to Northern California to be closer to their children and grandchildren.

On Sunday, city leaders threw a public party in their honor--a dim sum lunch on the grounds of Tournament House, where Al Lowe was a member for almost four decades.

"He has . . . integrity," said Ramon C. Cortines, the interim superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, who was superintendent of Pasadena schools during Lowe's tenure. "He has a sense of community like no one I know."

Throughout his life, Lowe has been known for stepping above prejudice and rhetoric as he sought to bring together a sometimes polarized city.

"Most people assess the political climate before they take a stand," said Christle Balvin, a longtime friend. "Al assesses his own values: Is it right? If it's right, he'll stick his neck out for the cause, no matter what the climate is."

As a man whose father once told him he'd have to "do better than the next guy to go half as far," Lowe said he was never bitter about the discriminatory slights he suffered growing up, but, because of them, was attuned to people's prejudices.

And as an Asian American, he felt he had a unique advantage in building bridges between other races.

"As a person who was neither black or white, I saw myself as friends of people of both races," he said.

Lowe is a fourth-generation Californian whose ancestors came from China in the 1800s to mine gold in the Sierra foothills and to build the railroads of the American West.

He was raised in the small farm town of Calexico, on the Mexican border, where his father worked at a Bank of America until 1939, when his father's bosses told him he would not be promoted because they could not use a Chinese bank manager, Lowe recalled.

The family headed to Pasadena. Although the city was established and run by the region's white, old-guard class, it had a sizable minority population, who often worked as servants for the rich.

Lowe's parents started a Chinese curio shop on Colorado Boulevard and Lowe took over the business when his father died in 1952. But at the time, as the communists gained complete control of China, exports were cut off and Lowe was forced to transform the business into a furniture shop.

He ran Lowes furniture for almost 40 years while he became increasingly involved in civic affairs.

In 1970, just months after he became the first member of a racial minority elected to the Pasadena school board, Lowe was thrust to the head of a rancorous issue that still reverberates.

U.S. District Judge Manuel Real ruled that the school district was in a state of de facto segregation--meaning it was segregated not directly by law, as in the South, but by such things as district policies and white flight. The judge ordered the board to integrate the schools, making Pasadena the first district outside the South to receive such a mandate, according to Lowe.

While he and two other school board members embraced the ruling, Lowe became the point man for the media and others because he was a minority himself. As the board implemented a plan that involved busing, he endured threats, pickets in front of his home and patrons who withdrew their accounts from his business.

"What a businessman wants is to be everybody's friend," Lowe said. "You can't take a stand and have that happen."

A recall effort against Lowe and the two other pro-integration board members was narrowly defeated. But in 1973, Lowe lost his reelection bid.

Over the years, Lowe continued working with the school district on various committees. Elbie Hickambottom, a black school board member in subsequent years, remembers the support he got from Lowe in continuing to fulfill the integration mandate. He marveled at Lowe's ability to take a strong, unapologetic stand while not distancing himself from opposing groups, radical or conservative.

"He was highly respected by all the groups," said Hickambottom. "But he's not an appeaser. They know where he's coming from."

It was Lowe's good standing with both minority groups and the city's establishment that drew him into another controversy in the early 1990s. Minority activists were picketing the Tournament of Roses for being an "old white men's club." The organization turned to Lowe to head its diversity committee.

Lowe created an outreach program to get members from various minority groups, including the NAACP, and changed certain procedures that may have perpetuated the tournament's homogeneous nature, including a requirement that applicants be sponsored by two members.

"He was instrumental in getting rid of that stigma," said Ken Burrows, past president of the tournament. "It was a major change, no question."

Lowe took over as chairman of the board of the Pasadena Playhouse in 1994, a time when the theater was going through severe financial problems that threatened to close the stage. Always known as a fund-raiser, he is credited with getting new sources of money and saving it from disaster.

Sunday, old friends and his four children--a doctor, a physical therapist, a vice principal and a lawyer who was a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist--spoke of the legacy that Lowe left on the city. About 200 people showed up as a glowing Lowe thanked them for the tribute.

"If you want to get attention," Lowe said, "don't just pass away; move away."

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