From humble beginnings

By Trevor Kenney
Jun 24, 2006, 23:50
© Copyright Lethbridge
It was a simple five-cent business transaction that turned into a lifelongYukio Kitagawa friendship. When 15-year-old Yukio Kitagawa was hocking newspapers in downtown Lethbridge, he stopped in at Reno’s Haberdashery, a fledgling clothing store being run by a young Reno Lizzi. A deal was struck and Kitagawa had his first regular customer.

“I’d buy them right off the press, two for a nickel, then turn around and sell them for five cents each,” Kitagawa said during a Friday morning news conference announcing the formation of the Reno Lizzi Scholarship/Bursary Fund for the Vauxhall Academy of Baseball.

“He was friendly and he probably looked at me as just this little guy and decided to buy a paper from me and he could have bought it from anybody. I don’t know what he saw in me but I’m sure glad he did see that element in me.”

Now, about to turn 70, Kitagawa and his wife Barbara are giving back to the community they said gave so much to them. Kitagawa left Lethbridge long ago (he lived in town from 1947 through 1967) but the former shop teacher has never forgotten his roots, or those who made an impact upon his life. A Calgary resident these days, he supports all manner of worthwhile causes (he was instrumental in helping save Theatre Calgary) but has a special place in his heart for Lizzi and the game of baseball he learned from his “mentor.”

The scholarship/bursary idea came to Kitagawa shortly after learning of the Vauxhall project. He originally wanted to donate time or money to the program but instead settled on the scholarship idea, linking Lizzi’s name (he passed away in 2005) to the proposal because he wanted to make it “great.”

“At the beginning we were just going to donate ‘X’ amount of dollars and then amortize it for the five years and then just continue to do that,” Kitagawa said. “It came to us that this was not going to be good enough. We decided we’d open it up to the public because, after all, Reno had an incredible presence here, we feel that in this community he has a lot of currency in terms of what he’s done.”

The scholarships will be awarded based on academic standing, baseball abilities and the demonstration of citizenship and character. Each scholarship will carry a $2,000 award as well as a commemorative ring. The bursary element is a $1,000 award and is intended to help students in financial need.

“The scholarship will be evaluated throughout the year and awarded near the end of the first year and the bursary part, what’s neat about that, is it will entail looking at all the same criteria but also financial need, deserving athletes who also need a little bit of financial help,” Vauxhall High School principal Todd Ojala said.

“(Yukio and Barbara) are great with people, they’re great supporters of good things and this is a good thing. We couldn’t ask for two better people to have on board.”

Lizzi of course is well known to baseball supporters in southern Alberta. Integral in bringing Pioneer League professional baseball to Lethbridge in the form of the Lethbridge Expos and then Dodgers, he introduced Kitagawa to the game and eventually coached him at the minor level. Kitagawa readily admits he was no all-star ballplayer but he would go on to Olympic weightlifting and eventually capture the 1961 Junior Canadian Championship in the 132-pound weight class.

“One thing that was very important, even though I was not good in some of those sports, I didn’t lose my confidence and went on to weightlifting and always had that confidence,” Kitagawa said. “That’s because I wasn’t shut down, where a person gives up on you.”

It’s a legacy he wants to pass on to another generation.

“We’ve dedicated our life, the people in Lethbridge have just been outstanding to us and we really appreciated that and we knew that some time along the way we had to pay back and that’s what we’re trying to do right now,” Kitagawa said.

“Once you have a role model – mentor – you try to become that for other young kids and it just kind of continues on from one to the next and that’s what we want to do. A community doesn’t go anywhere if you don’t accept and honour those people that went ahead, really and truly, because it’s them who give us the inspiration to move on.”

What it means to the Vauxhall academy, as it gears up for its inaugural season, is priceless.

“The more you have quality people like Yukio out to the academy just to speak to the kids or just meet these people, the kids, when they see things like this they emulate the people who give these things out,” Vauxhall head coach Les McTavish said.

“Reno was a big part of baseball, not only in Lethbridge but in southern Alberta. I wasn’t fortunate enough to know the man personally but I’ve talked to a lot of people and everybody’s had so many good things to say about him and his family and his contributions to baseball.”

The goal of the scholarship fund is to reach a total of $60,000. Donations can be made directly to the academy or at any RBC Royal Bank.

© Copyright by Lethbridge