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In the Community

Family Legacy to Support Building of OC Agricultural and Nikkei Heritage Museum
by Gail Matsunaga


from Dateline (May 8, 2003)

Honoring their late parents’ legacy of community support, Nerio siblings Sumi, Art and Hisako recently designated the Orange County Agricultural and Nikkei Heritage Museum as recipient of a $100,000 gift from the Koichi and Toyo Charitable Remainder Unitrust. The museum, to be built on the grounds of the Fullerton Arboretum, will spotlight the agricultural heritage of Orange County and the Japanese-American community’s part in that story.

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Within the ashes of adversity are sometimes sown and harvested the seeds of prosperity through hard work, integrity and sense of community. The late Koichi and Toyo Nerio adhered to these tenets and built successful farming and real estate businesses following internment during World War II – when they were forced to leave their farm in Downey behind.

Their enduring legacy of community support continues with a recent $100,000 gift from the Koichi and Toyo Charitable Remainder Unitrust to the Orange County Agricultural and Nikkei Heritage Museum to be built on the grounds of the Fullerton Arboretum.

The donation is part of a $750,000 fund-raising effort led by business and community leaders from the Japanese-American community. The museum is the focal point of the $2.7 million visitor, education and museum center; the schematic plans for which were recently approved by the President’s Administrative Board. Groundbreaking is planned for December.

Honoring the rich agricultural legacy of Orange County and the Japanese-American community’s contributions to that chronicle, approximately half of the 2,500-square-foot museum will focus on local history and Orange County’s development from its agricultural beginnings. The other half will be devoted to the Japanese-American, or Nikkei, community’s heritage and history – which closely paralleled the county’s agricultural and urban development.

Koichi Nerio emigrated from Japan in 1918 and married his wife, Toyo, in 1923. Although he wasn’t able to complete as much schooling as he would have liked, Nerio was a strong advocate of education. All four of his children earned college degrees, and daughter Sumi Nerio Leonard became the first Japanese-American secondary school teacher in Orange County.

The family eventually sold the farm in Downey and continued farming in Westminster. Son Art helped with the farm business, while son Dick handled the family’s real estate interests. Around the same time, the Nerios purchased the Meadowlark Airport in Huntington Beach – which has, since its sale, been transformed into a shopping center and homes.

They were among the first supporters of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, and recently, the Nerio siblings – through the trust – gave an additional gift to the museum to name an education center in their parents’ name.

For businesswoman Hisako Betty Nerio Imamura, Koichi and Toyo’s youngest daughter and trustee of the trust, the donation to the Orange County Agricultural and Nikkei Heritage Museum represents an opportunity to highlight the contributions of Japanese-Americans in the county.

“We thought it was important for people to know that Japanese farmers were prevalent in Orange County – that they were hard-working people,” says Imamura. “My parents would have liked to have Japanese people remembered, to know that they were part of history.”

“We are delighted with this recent gift from the Nerio family,” says Greg Dyment, director of the Fullerton Arboretum. “They played an important role in the success of Orange County’s agricultural and Nikkei community, and their story is one of the many we hope to tell with the new museum.”

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