Gardener Tom Kubota, 87, leaves serene legacy

To visit Seattle's Kubota Garden is to learn about one of its founders, Tom Kubota, who died Aug. 9 at age 87.

Its quiet elegance suggests a gentle man of few words; its simplicity bespeaks someone who lived plainly and worked hard.

Mr. Kubota was only a youngster when he handed over $800 earned from magazine and newspaper sales to help his father purchase five acres of logged-off swampland in the city's South End.

Fujitaro Kubota, a Japanese immigrant, and his two sons ran a family landscaping business. Their acreage flourished into a garden with a pond, maples and pines.

The plot lay abandoned during World War II while the family was interned at the Minidoka camp in Idaho and the sons served in the Army. After their return, the Kubotas rebuilt the land, expanding it to 20 acres, carving a mountain with waterfall, excavating reflection pools, tucking in yews, cypresses and bamboos.

Those who knew Tom Kubota don't recall him ever speaking bitterly about his family's internment.

With his father, he helped design gardens at Seattle University and at the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island, landscapes where traditional Japanese-garden elements are fused with Western influences. Tom Kubota continued the landscaping business after his father died, and he cared for their Seattle garden, a testament to perseverance.

Kubota Garden invited long strolls and contemplation, and became a gathering spot for the Japanese community. In the 1980s, when developers targeted the property for condominiums, the surrounding community secured landmark status for the garden. With Mr. Kubota's blessing, the city purchased Kubota Garden in 1987, making it available to anyone who seeks an urban refuge.

In his later years, Mr. Kubota saw how the garden and its prominent Mountainside was prohibitive to some. He wanted an open space with long vistas accessible to anyone who was slow in step or using a wheelchair.

"He'd say, 'We're not getting any younger and we all need a place to sit down,' " recalled Mary Anne Parmeter, a longtime volunteer with the Kubota Garden Foundation.

"That's the kind of person my grandpa was, said granddaughter Angela Kubota-Wolbert of Renton. "Always thinking of how to improve things, how to make things better for other people."

Five years ago, the foundation and the city collaborated on a garden-renovation project that Mr. Kubota directed. To plan it, he did not draw a plan on paper. Instead, in a manner learned from his father and passed along to his son Allan, who now runs the family's landscaping business, he walked the plot, gestured with his hands, envisioned the design in his head.

The Tom Kubota Stroll Garden, with its long, granite benches, opened in 1999.

Mr. Kubota was a small, sprightly man with a winning smile who captivated strangers. His unusual, paperless landscape designs were evidence of the trust he inspired in his private clients and the faith he had in them: He worked without contracts or down payments.

"Out of hundreds of jobs he did, only once was he not paid," recalled daughter Linda Kubota Byrd of Sacramento, Calif.

Born June 10, 1917, he graduated from Seattle's old Broadway High School and attended the University of Washington. He first glimpsed his future wife when he was a girls basketball coach. She was a player on an opponent team.

He saw Amy Sakaguchi again at Minidoka while visiting his family. They married May 5, 1946, and had five children, living briefly in a house that stood on the site of the original five-acre garden.

Family outings, recalled daughter Linda Kubota Byrd, consisted of trips to nearby mountains where her father would admire rocks, joking that the kids should hop out of the car to make room for the rocks he wanted to bring home.

He was tireless, working six days a week, and he stopped only if snow covered the ground. Once, after back surgery, Mr. Kubota asked his wife to help him put on his shoes and socks so he could go out. In his last months, when it was too hard for him to walk, his family drove him through parts of Kubota Garden, which is undergoing reconstruction, and he commented on what ought to be done.

A public memorial service for Mr. Kubota will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Kubota Garden, Renton Avenue South and 55th Avenue South.

In addition to his wife, daughter Linda and son Allan, Mr. Kubota is survived by daughters Cathy Hem and Margo Izutsu, both of Renton, and Wendy Goade of Kent; their spouses; 11 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

The family requests donations to the Kubota Garden Foundation, P.O. Box 78338, Seattle WA 98178, or to a favorite charity.

Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916 or