By Jan Robbins
At 80 years of age, more people are attending classes than teaching them. Tanako Hagiwara joined City College as a sports coach in 1967. And she is still at it – 51 years later – as an exercise instructor.
“I have no plans to stop teaching as long as my health allows and students want my classes,” said Hagiwara.
She wanted to be a teacher – to help people – since third grade.
“The reason I still love teaching is because it’s a learning process,” she said.
Hagiwara, who has a Ph.D. in kinesiology, exercise physiology and higher education from the University of California, Berkeley, was a tomboy as a child.
“My Japanese parents didn’t know what to make of me. But they allowed me to be who I was even though they worried I wouldn’t acquire homemaking skills to get married,” Hagiwara said.
Perhaps her parents did not have time to worry as they were living in a 17-room house, built by her great-grandfather, in Golden Gate Park’s Japanese Tea Garden, helping to maintain and oversee its function.
Hagiwara’s great-grandfather, Makoto Hagiwara, was the official caretaker of the garden from 1895 to 1925. A Japanese immigrant and landscape architect trained in Japan, he personally oversaw the modification of the temporary Japanese Village exhibit at the 1894 Mid-Winter Fair to the permanent Japanese Tea Garden.
When he died in 1925, his daughter Takano and her children became the proprietors and maintainers of the garden. All went well until the beginning of World War II, when Hagiwara’s family was abruptly shipped off to an internment camp in Topaz, Utah. She was four years old.
“My parents never talked about the move and where we were living. I just accepted the reality of barbed wire and the sentries at each corner of the camp,” she said.
When Hagiwara turned eight, her family was released from the camp. They spent the next five years in Portland, Oregon, where her father worked as a food buyer for a hotel and she and her mother worked in the family business, a bean cake factory.
Always wanting to return to San Francisco, Hagiwara’s grandmother was able to put a down-payment on a house in the Richmond District. It was paid for with the proceeds of the sale of artifacts from their Japanese Tea Garden house, which a family friend had saved for them. Hagiwara and her son and his wife and children now live in that same house.
When Hagiwara started teaching at City College in 1967, she coached all of the women’s sports teams, such as field hockey, basketball, soccer and softball. Gradually, she began coaching individuals in golf, badminton, modern dance and rhythmic gymnastics
Soon thereafter, she was teaching both women and men in physical fitness, calisthenics and water aerobics.
“Some classes held 60 to 70 people. Nothing intimidated me,” she said.
During her early years teaching, Hagiwara married, raised a family (two children, 13 months apart) and was attending San Francisco State University at night to get her master’s degree.
“I chose to marry a non-Japanese man, Douglas Dawkins, and my parents freaked out,” she said.
Hagiwara met her husband on Waikiki Beach while on vacation. She fell for a man who shared her passion for physical fitness.
“Douglas had been a wrestler and football player and was teaching physical fitness on Army bases on the islands,” Hagiwara said.
After Hagiwara got her doctorate degree, she was offered a professorship at New York University.
“I decided not to take the position because I didn’t want to move my family across the country. In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t because I love the activity of teaching exercise,” she said.
Hagiwara retired from full-time teaching in 2001, but continued on as a part-timer. But, after a few years, City College wanted to eliminate positions for retired part-timers. As luck would have it, a job opened up in the Older Adults Program.
“I love teaching at On Lok’s 30th Street Senior Center,” she said. “The energy there is so positive and uplifting. I really think smiling and having a positive attitude changes your endocrine and hormone system, so the good hormones overtake the bad. Having a positive attitude allows you to do more things.”
Hagiwara holds the first part of her one-and-a-half hour class on the senior center’s large back patio, with a gurgling fountain, surrounded by plants, flowers and partially shaded by large olive trees.
Hagiwara puts about 40 dedicated students through their paces: meditative breathing; a standing stretch combination of yoga, Feldenkrais, pilates and “good old American stretching;” 20 minutes of low-impact aerobics to music, like Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode;” weight training, and rubber bands that add resistance through the entire range of motion.
About half of the class then goes inside to the exercise room to stretch on the floor. Students also do the plank, a core-building exercise, for two minutes, and an increasing number of push-ups.
“If there’s only one exercise you can do, do push-ups,” she said, “It’s the best for strengthening and stretching.”
Besides teaching three classes a week, Hagiwara swims every day at a pool in the Koret Center at the University of San Francisco, getting up at 5 a.m. to swim on the days when she teaches. Even though her shoulders are not in the best shape, Hagiwara continues to pursue the sport she loves, competing in swimming at the Pacific Masters Tournaments and Bay Area Senior Games.
On aging, Hagiwara offers this advice: “Don’t focus on your chronological age, just live each day to the fullest.”