Howard W. Louis
Howard "Toby" Wong Louis, one of San Luis Obispo's best-known and most-beloved citizens, died Friday, Aug. 15, 2008, having celebrated his 100th birthday on August fifth.
Howard was born in 1908, the Chinese "Year of the Monkey," the youngest of eight children to pioneer merchant and labor contractor, Ah Louis and his wife, Gon Ying Louis.
Howard grew up in the family's living quarters above their store on Palm Street. The store served as the unofficial center of Palm Street's "Chinatown." Howard's father was often referred to as the "mayor" of that community.
Howard's early memories of San Luis's Chinatown included scenes of fireworks during the Chinese New Year's celebrations, of Chinese language lessons in the Chinese temple above the Quong Chon grocery store, of duck-hunting in "Frog Hollow" just to the north of the store, of using a pitchfork to spear trout in San Luis Creek, of traveling in the family's Model T Ford to the 1915 Pan-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, and of family mealtimes where the older children were always served before the younger. ("I was 14 years old before I realized there was anything to chicken but a neck and wings.")
Howard attended Court School (present site of the Ludwick Community Center) and then San Luis High School (present site of the Scolari's Rite-Aid complex - corner of Marsh and Johnson), where he was a track star and captain of the championship football team despite his small stature ("I was little, but I was fast.")
During high school and after graduation, Howard worked many jobs in order to earn money for his studies at UC Berkeley. These included harvest times on his father's seed farms, projectionist at the Elmo Theatre (present site of the Union Bank of California at Marsh and Morro), clerk at the Western Auto Store, and janitor at S.O. Darling's apparel store on Higuera, where he worked the night shift to avoid customer complaints about the store employing a Chinese-American. Howard rarely spoke of this and other encounters with racism and discrimination; instead, his generous and friendly nature led him to focus on the positive aspects of life.
From 1932 to 1933, Howard and his brother, Fred, accompanied their father on a journey back to Ah Louis' birth village near Canton in Southern China. This was when Howard determined the family store should change its focus from groceries to imported gifts and art objects.
In 1941, Howard met and married the late Yvonne Sam of Vancouver, British Columbia. Soon afterwards, he was drafted. Because he was of Chinese ancestry, the Army tried to make him a cook, but he was reassigned when he explained, "I don't even know how to boil water." Although he received specialized Army training at Stanford University in preparation for intelligence work on the Asian front, Howard was transferred into the 89th Infantry Division, when troops were needed for General George S. Patton's assault on Germany. Howard's unit was engaged in heavy fighting in March of 1945 as they crossed the Rhine River from St. Goar to St. Goarshausen. Of the 250 men in his unit, 92 were killed and many more were injured ("I remember it as if it were yesterday.")
After the War, Howard and Yvonne resumed their life in San Luis Obispo and their operation of the Ah Louis Store. In the early 1950s, Howard did battle with the San Luis Obispo's City Council to save the Ah Louis Store from demolition when the city wanted the space for a parking lot - the store was designated a State Historical Landmark in 1965. In their later years, Howard and Yvonne gradually restricted the hours of the store's operation, and Howard would often post a "Gone Fishin'" sign on the door, but visitors were never sure whether the sign meant Howard had truly gone fishing or whether he and Yvonne were off on one of their many cruises.
Howard was endlessly generous with his time and energy. Through him, the past came alive for thousands of people - schoolchildren, members of civic groups, historical researchers and tourists all benefited from Howard's willingness to share his memories of San Luis Obispo's early Chinese community. He reached even a wider audience through several appearances on Huell Howser's television program, California's Gold.
Howard's public generosities included substantial support for the Chinatown mural on the Palm Street parking structure, the Iron Road Pioneers statue in Railroad Square, and San Luis High School's new entrance at the T-intersection of California and San Luis Drive, as well as ongoing support for the Chinese Students Association at Cal Poly and the San Luis Obispo County Historical Museum and Society.
Howard is survived by his devoted and loving caregivers Yvonne Hampton, Felicia Planet, Margo Salas and Joann Takahashi; brother-in-law, Dr. Eugene (Dorothy) Louie; great-nephews and nieces Dr. William (Dondi) Watson, Dr. Jaime Watson, Leslie Watson, Jo-anna (Alex) Watson-Wong, Elaine Watson and Carol (James) Gin; Yvonne's great-nieces and nephews Frances Yuen, Jeff Yuen, Janis (Rick) The, Cynthia (Jim) Waechtler, Jo-Anne Sachse, Jennifer (Chuck) Wou, Tammy Lee, Kathy Sam, Georgina (Henry) Sue, William (Gilda) Sam, Mary Sam, Dr. Martin Louie and Ginny Louie from Vancouver, Canada; many great-great nieces and nephews and their children; and a host of friends in San Luis Obispo County and throughout the country.
He was preceded in death by his wife and constant companion for over 60 years, Yvonne; seven brothers and sisters Walter, Young, George, Fred, Mae, Tai and Helen; and niece, Elsie Louis.
Howard will be remembered for his generous spirit, quick wit, boundless vitality, gift for friendship, loyalty to family and ongoing work in educating the public about the history of the early Chinese and Chinese-Americans of San Luis Obispo. His was a life lived with integrity and courage, generosity and humor. He will be greatly missed.
A public viewing will be held from 9 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. Friday Aug. 22, 2008, at the Reis Family Mortuary Chapel, 991 Nipomo in San Luis Obispo, followed by a memorial service at 2 p.m., also at Reis Chapel.
A military burial will follow at the Old Mission Cemetery, 101 Bridge Street in San Luis Obispo, culminating with a celebration of Howard's life at the Garden Room of the Madonna Inn following the burial. Friends are welcome.
In lieu of flowers, donations in Howard's honor may be made to San Luis Obispo High School, Chinese Students Association of Cal Poly, the SLO County Historical Museum and Society, American Red Cross or to a charity of your choice.
Reis Family Mortuary
San Luis Obispo