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At 100, dancer says she focuses on good life, positive attitude

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Alice Sumidas incredible life was documented in the 2004 children's book Music for Alice by Allen Say. Sumida, who turned 100 last week, said she has no signs of slowing down.Wearing a bright yellow, knee-length ball gown, Alice Sumida knows how to work the room.

Nearly everyone at Edgewood Downs retirement center in Garden Home makes a beeline for her at some point during the day, wishing her a happy birthday, or telling her how happy they are to know her.

Through it all, Sumida smiles.

“This is such a great, great honor,” Sumida told a packed house of friends at Edgewood Downs on Friday. “I cannot believe that I’m 100 today.”

Sumida, who celebrated her 100th birthday on July 18, has lived at the Garden Home retirement center since 2011.

by: TIMES PHOTO: LACEY JACOBY - Prominent Portland Japanese-American Alice Sumida celebrated birthday No. 100 on July 18. She took up ballroom dancing at age 88.“She is so kind to everyone,” says Kathy Montgomery, Edgewood Downs director, who has known Sumida since her arrival at the retirement center. “Alice is gracious all of the time and is always kind to everyone. There isn’t one person who would begrudge her. She is a gift to us all.”

Sumida has been a pillar of Portland's Japanese community for decades and is known far and wide for her support of Japanese-American groups, including the Japanese Ancestral Society, the Japanese-American Society of Oregon, Nikkei Fujinkai, the Oregon Buddhist Temple, Oregon Hiroshima Club, the Oregon Nikkei Endowment, the Portland Japanese-American Citizen's League and Portland Japanese Garden. She’s also president of a club of centenarians in the Portland area.

“We were the ‘Let’s Stay Active Until 100 Years’ club,” Sumida says, laughing. “Now we’ll have to change the name.”

But Sumida’s real passion is dancing.

An internationally recognized ballroom dancer, Sumida first developed a love of dancing at an early age, but it wasn’t until 2002, at age 88, that she took up the sport professionally.

“I love to dance,” Sumida says. “It’s lots of fun, you move the whole body, and it keeps me healthy and my legs healthy. The first thing you lose as you get old is your legs, and you have to use a cane or a wheelchair. The legs are very important. I enjoy the dancing, and it keeps me healthy.”

In 2004, she met award-winning author and artist Allen Say, who turned her story into the children’s book “Music for Alice,” recounting her life and passion for dance.

She danced for years with the Fred Astaire Dance Studio, before moving to The Ballroom Dance Company in Tigard, where she danced every week for years.

“We competed all over the United States, and out of the country to South America, Europe, Holland,” Sumida says. “The South American tango is very difficult.”

At her last dance competition — held in Venice, Italy, a few years ago — Sumida had to buy another suitcase to carry home her winnings.

“I got five or six trophies, and I couldn’t carry it all home,” she says.

Sumida retired from competitive dancing a few years ago, but says she has no plans to slow down.

“I’m still so busy,” she said. “I still love to drive, too, it’s so much fun. If I couldn’t drive, I’ll be a dead duck.”

Life of hardship

Sumida didn’t have time for dancing for much of her life, she says.

Sumida and her husband, Mark, met in California, her home state, at the age of 25 and had moved to Seattle after their wedding when they heard about the Japanese military attack on Pearl Harbor.

The FBI forced the Sumidas, along with 3,600 other Japanese-Americans, to leave their homes, corraling them in the Portland Assembly Center, a hastily converted stockyard in North Portland, where they lived while resettlment camps were built.

Sumida and her husband were given a choice: either be sent to Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho, or work on sugar beet fields in Eastern Oregon. Mark and Sumida chose the latter, and Sumida was the only woman to do back-breaking work in the fields near Nyssa.

After the war ended, the Sumidas bought 200 acres of barren, rocky farmland, which they transformed into the country’s largest gladiola bulb farm.

The couple sold the farm in the 1960s and moved to Woodburn, where Sumida and Mark ran one of the first businesses to import koi fish to America. Mark died in 1981, and Sumida moved back to Portland.

In Say’s 2004 children’s book “Music for Alice,” Sumida described coming back to Portland after a lifetime away. “It’s a place that holds many painful memories, but this is where Mark and I began our journey so long ago, and that makes me feel close to him.”

Her apartment at the time was not far from the assembly center — now the Expo Center — she was sent to stay after the Pearl Harbor attack.

She doesn’t dwell on the past much anymore, saying in the “Music for Alice” book:

“ … The terrible smells of the place are fading from my mind. Now what I often think of is the field of blooming sword lilies as far as the eye can see.”

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