Jun. 16—Former San Jose Mayor and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta made his final return to his hometown — and the city he changed indelibly — for his memorial service on Thursday.
Hundreds attended the service at the San Jose Civic Auditorium to hear remembrances of the late Bay Area native who was forcibly taken to an internment camp with his family as a child but broke through glass ceilings at every step of his storied political career. Mineta's ashes were flown in for the memorial.
To South Bay residents, Mineta is perhaps best known for becoming the first person of color to serve on the San Jose City Council in 1967, and his following post as the first Asian-American to become mayor of a major U.S. city.
His unyielding dedication to mass transit — and later his securing of federal funds to revitalize Bay Area urban infrastructure — were major factors in why his birth city's airport was renamed to Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport in 2001.
"None of us believed we would ever lose Norm because in many ways, he was life itself," said former U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, speaking at the service. "He wrapped both arms around those he loved and life itself. He never let go."
Panetta — along with others at the memorial service — cheekily remembered the many times the two were confused for each other because of similarities with their last names. On one occasion, Mineta was accidentally invited to greet the Italian prime minister; on another, it was Panetta who was invited to greet the Japanese prime minister.
But it was clear through dozens of stories that even if Mineta was bothered by the mix-ups, he didn't let on, his colleagues said.
It was most important for him to make a difference and to lead a political career that would produce the most good, which created long-lasting friendships along the way.
"He was a man of conscience," said former San Jose Congressman Mike Honda, who was also interned with his family when he was only 1 year old. "He was my North Star, my moral compass."
Multiple dedications to Mineta mentioned his tumultuous years interned at the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming. He was only 10 and wearing his Cub Scouts uniform when he and his family were forcibly sent to the camp.
"I think he decided that he would not live as a victim, that he would not let (his internment) define his whole life," said former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who spoke at the service. "Norm spent a lifetime trying to be a builder, not a breaker. A uniter, not a divider."
After his family returned to the Bay Area, he attended San Jose High School, where he served as ASB President and went on to UC Berkeley, followed by a stint in the military.
Following a formative early career in San Jose municipal politics, he served as a congressman from 1975 to 1995. He pushed forward many bills that addressed transportation, the environment and other issues.
In 1988, he co-sponsored passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which facilitated reparations to the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were forced into internment camps.
After working in an executive position at Lockheed Martin, Mineta returned to public service and eventually became the country's first Japanese-American cabinet official for the Clinton administration, working as secretary of commerce. Six months later, he became secretary of transportation in the Bush administration — the only Democrat in the cabinet.
His work would become seminal during 9/11, when Mineta ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to ground more than 4,500 civil aircraft, a polarizing decision at the time and the first of its kind in history.
"He had a quality about him which caused people to believe him," said former San Francisco Mayor and assembly speaker Willie Brown during the service. "They didn't believe me, they didn't believe Bill Clinton ... he had an affinity that allowed him to be persuasive and convincing."
But Mineta also wanted to make sure people felt heard and comfortable, colleagues said. His two sons from his first marriage, Stuart and David Mineta, recalled their father's warmth and dedication, not just to his family, but to everyone with whom he crossed paths.
David Mineta recalled his father coming home after a long day of work, changing into his sweatsuit and getting to work in his rocking chair, writing handwritten notes on postcard-style photos to various people he'd met.
"He would go on as long as he could, until inevitably, he would fall asleep," David said. "And that last picture, the handwriting would just trail off the picture as he fell asleep. And he'd have to do that picture all over again."
Rear Admiral Joanna M. Nunan, who served under Mineta as his military assistant and who hand-carried his remains aboard his flight to San Jose, evoked another another Bay Area luminary — the Golden State Warriors' Steph Curry — to put Mineta's stature in perspective.
Nunan said that Mineta's second wife, Danealia "Deni" Brantner — whom he married in 1991 — had told her recently that she was enjoying watching Curry and the Warriors work their way through the NBA playoffs.
"I wonder if Deni realizes why she likes this guy," Nunan said of the Warriors star. " Stephen Curry is the Norman Mineta of basketball."
Annie Vainshtein (she/her) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected]
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