NEWPORT BEACH — About 40 people gathered at Irvine Terrace Park on Thursday to honor a man who, along with two friends, helped create a student exchange program and formed a bond of friendship between Newport Beach and Okazaki, Japan.
A bench memorializing Masao Kato was dedicated during the ceremony. Kato died in May in Japan.
"So we have lost a visionary, a humanist, and in short, a good Rotarian," said Daniel Hoffman of the Newport-Balboa Rotary Club. "Above all, I have lost a good friend. But it is also a day of joy because we have the opportunity to get together and enjoy our friendship."
The bench with Kato's name was placed between benches honoring his friends, Wendell Fish and Moe Hamill. The men were all active members of their Rotary clubs, and together they worked with Rotary and the Newport Beach Sister City Assn. to create student exchanges that began in April 1984.
Fifteen delegates from the Okazaki South Rotary Club attended the dedication ceremony, which was held in a section of Irvine Terrace Park informally known as the "Okazaki Japanese Gardens."
The area near the playground includes two Japanese lanterns donated by the Japanese Rotary Club, along with donated Japanese pine trees.
Former Newport Beach Mayor Don Webb told the group that Kato was a wonderful host who made him "feel welcome, immensely," when he toured Japan.
During the ceremony, Teddi Tate of Newport Beach sat on the bench bearing the name of her father, Moe Hamill.
"They were so close, and they had so much fun together," she said. "My dad would tell jokes, and half the time I don't think they understood, but they laughed and had fun."
Hamill organized the memorial bench for Wendell Fish, but he died suddenly before it was dedicated. The Newport-Balboa Rotary Club contributed a bench for him as well, and those two benches were dedicated about eight years ago.
The bench for Kato was approved by the city's Parks, Beaches & Recreation Commission last month.
"These three men allowed hundreds of youths to travel from Newport Beach to Okazaki," said Liddy Paulsen, president of the Sister City Assn. "For many of them, this is a life-changing experience and one they'll never forget. I can't tell you how wonderful it's been to develop friendship between our two cities."
"We celebrate the men and the dream," said Roger McGonegal, a Rotary governor. "We're grateful for the vision, their friendship and their leadership. I know that these three friends are together again today, smiling down upon us and the students whose lives they changed."