18 Dec 1920 (Spokane) - 29 July 1998 (Seattle)
Tom was not a Sinologist; he is included here as part of the ambience of Sinology in Seattle in the mid 20th century, whose path crossed with that of Reifler among others.
Kaasa at the Console
of the organ in Big Bob's Pizza, Federal Way
Tom Kaasa was born in Spokane, Washington on 18 December 1920. He went to high school in Seattle, and saw service with the Marines as they hit various beaches during the Pacific war. Drawing on different skills, he also later assisted the American occupation forces in Japan and Korea. He was a person of musical, artistic, and linguistic susceptibilities, both intelligent and easy-going (a frequent Seattle combination); and beyond that, with a certain wry compassion for what the waves of chance washed up on the Seattle shore.
Tom's interests were wide, ranging from the popular culture of his day to the elite culture of an earlier day. During the period of work on his thesis, Tom was one of Erwin Reifler's chief assistants on the early Machine Translation project, designed to eliminate the barriers between seemingly different languages. Tom's knowledge of Japanese made him useful in and around the Center for Asian Arts, especially on kyôgen evenings and bon-odori afternoons, and during the visit of Tôkyô University musicology professor Kishibe Shigeo, whose research tracked music across the breadth of Asia and back, and whose wife, a natori of the Yamada school, taught koto to many of us. Conference or a concert, Tom was often there, wry but unobtrusive, and usually far more knowledgeable about the subject than his wry but unobtrusive manner would suggest. He was also busy at his desk. In 1956, while still working toward his MA, he contributed an English adaptation of Takahashi Seiichiro's study of Torii Kiyonaga for the Kodansha series on Japanese printmakers.
More local printmakers also had his attention. Himself of Norwegian ancestry, Tom took an interest in the Finnish-derived artist Helmi Juvonen (1903-1985), born in Montana but raised in Seattle, who had early become fascinated with Northwest Indian art and ritual; there had been an exhibition of her paintings of Indians at Hartman's Books, as early as 1934. In the war years, she first consulted on camouflage with the U S Navy, and then, in 1943, went to work for Boeing, doing isometric perspective drawings of mechanical equipment. After the war, Helmi's behavior became increasingly strange. She had the wiring removed from her house, little more than a shack, out of fear that it contained a death ray. She indulged in cats and chickens, flocks of whom shared the shack with her. She maintained a very public obsesson with artist Mark Tobey, announcing to friends and strangers alike that he was going to marry her. All this and more, including the complaints of neighbors, had gotten her declared a ward of the state in 1959. Transferred to the Oakhurst Convalescent Home, with her cats, but as far as Tobey was concerned, reduced to merely writing letters, she continued to paint, and when she could, to sell her works. She would remain at the Home for the rest of her life. Tom purchased several of her prints and paintings. In 1961 he made plans (though in the end they were not carried out) for an exhibition of Helmi's prints at Hanga, a gallery then newly opened on Broadway by the singer turned art dealer Mineko Namkung, wife of Tom's close friend, the singer turned photographer Johsel Namkung. Hanga too was a pioneering venture, one of the first commercial galleries in Seattle.
Tom completed a Master's thesis on the weird Meiji Japanese printmaker Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) in 1964, and thereafter took his place in the community of learned but also leisured persons living on the fringes of the campus, making ends meet as best they could in that mild and receptive climate. Tom made ends meet with dignity but also with consistency. His day job from October 1964 onward was at the University's Far Eastern Library, as it was then called, where he was first employed as a subject specialist.
His chief personal passion, his personal frontier, was pipe organs. He was a member of the Puget Sound Theater Organ Society, and in the days of our acquaintance, he was continually contemplating building an organ in his house in Seattle. In 1969, another local organ enthusiast, "Big Bob" Koons, acquired from the Highland Baptist Church in Portland a Robert Morton two-manual organ which had originally been in the Dream Theatre in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. He expanded this to a five-rank instrument, added a set of ceiling-mounted Austin 32' Magnaton pipes from Seattle's First Presbyterian Church, and with the help of Ed Zollman Jr and Mike Koons, installed the whole thing in his business, Big Bob's Pizza. Big Bob's opened in February 1969 on Federal Way in Seattle with two regular organists: Tom Kaasa and University of Washington Music Education graduate Brad Miller.
Other frequent performers were Ron Barrett and Mike Koons, and there were occasional visitors like Tony Fenelon, who played Big Bob's on his first two American tours.
In 1970, Tom got his own instrument, a two-manual five-rank Robert Morton theater organ from the former Seattle Music Box Theater. He stored it for several years, but never installed it. He also had a three-manual Skinner draw knob console, originally from the Alaska Theater.
Tom was promoted to Library Associate in 1974. Helmi too moved up a step: she finally had her exhibition, at the Frye Museum in 1976. Meanwhile, in 1975, Big Bob had committed the small businessman's basic mistake by opening a second restaurant. This was the utterly unbelievable Big Bob's Pipe Dream, with an even larger organ plus a grand piano, seating 300 people in several tiers, all in the former Burien Theater.
Things seemed to be moving up in all directions. Then disaster overtook one of the directions. A fire in December 1975 broke out at Big Bob's Federal Way restaurant. The restaurant was a total loss, and of the organ, only a few pieces could be salvaged. The Pipe Dream restaurant also fluttered to the ground. It changed owners, and was downputtingly renamed "Pizza Works," shortly before being closed for good in the summer of 1978. The organ was sold off in bits and batches. Bob Koons himself died in November 1979.
Thus ended the ten-year saga of Seattle area pipes and pizza.
That left the Library. The Library was not one of Nature's miracles of generosity. There was acid from above, and there were tensions from below, with the Pacific War still being fought out in hard looks from the desk of one staff member to the desk of another. All the more did Tom stand out (as one student of that era recently put it)
at the desk of the library in Seattle. I remember Tom as always smiling, always pleasant, even in a toxically unpleasant environment, and always helpful.
The always helpfulness, the constant use of one's knowledge to assist the acquisition of knowledge by others, was Tom's trademark. He had a special knack of seeing library problems from the library user's perspective. Tom Bolling recalls:
One reason he was so helpful was that he knew how Americans use Chinese, Japanese and Korean materials, whereas the respective subject specialists understood those materials from a native speaker's viewpoint. Tom was so valuable in helping American students approaching these languages and resources from outside the respective cultures. And with that, Tom was also the diplomat who could facilitate the sometimes difficult interactions between colleagues of differing cultures.
In addition to expediting access to the collections, Tom was alert to possibilities of improving the collections themselves. He called the Library's attention to the importance of a series of rubbings of temple inscriptions which had been made by the ethnologist J F Rock in southwest China. How they came to the Library is not certain, but the Library itself did not at the time ascribe any great importance to them.
Tom knew exactly where they were (says Tom Bolling), and showed them to me in the basement of Gowen Hall. They were just rather carelessly in cardboard boxes, and the basement room was a terrible situation. Everything in the room was rare. They called it their rare book room. But it was not temperature/humidity controlled whatsoever, and in fact it was hot down there, with various steam pipes and other plumbing exposed up near the ceiling... a nightmare, really, and Tom and I were always afraid the pipes would go haywire and get water all over everything. Tom tried to communicate to people just how valuable these rubbings were, but no one understood it at all.
One is reminded of Reifler's dictionary notes. The rubbings were rediscovered only much later, and their importance was at last recognized. This was not the only instance of Tom's sense of the value of something that was currently disprized. Tom Bolling: "Tom had a sense of the kinds of materials which later on would become of interest to scholars, such as collections of Rakugo tales."
Tom continued to be capaciously interested in, and quietly a part of, the Seattle pop scene in its present tense. Here is Tom Bolling again:
I was very close to him, and many times in his amazing treasure-trove home. We ate lunch together almost daily. Evenings, I often accompanied him to various pipe organ venues, punk rock clubs, favored restaurants such as the Doghouse, or other popular culture scenes loved by him, or simply shared a few beers somewhere.
So it continued until Tom's retirement in 1990. Retirement did not give him the kind of leisure with intelligence which his qualities had earned him. Instead, it quickly reduced him. He was struck by a taxicab, and badly injured. He wound up in a "convalescent home," where things steadily deteriorated. Dr Ulrich Fritzsche, researching for his book on Helmi Juvonen, more than ten years after her death, managed to photograph the 95 Helmi works in Tom's collection, mostly prints but also small watercolors; Tom at that time was the major collector of her work. Here is Dr Fritzsche's memory of the preliminary interview with Tom:
I met Tom Kaasa July 13, 1996, at a luncheon meeting at Seattle's Bell's restaurant in the North end, known for their famous cobbler dishes. He was accompanied by Mr. Dierke, his guardian. The first words out of his mouth were: "I've seen you before." It could have well been at an exhibition of Helmi's works in 1976 at the Frye Museum where several works from his own collection had been shown. He looked very frail and didn't eat very much at all. From talking with Mr. Dierke, it was my understanding that he also was in the late stages of kidney disease. As a physician I was acutely aware of this. One thing that still sticks out in my mind from this encounter was the fact that Tom was wearing two different colored socks. Sadly, due (I assumed) to his advanced Alzheimer's disease, his memory for any events in regard to his old friend Helmi was completely gone, meaning that he was of no help whatsoever.
I have chronicled his past actions on her behalf (whatever I managed to dig out) in my book. In 1998, the Davidson Gallery exhibited part of his Helmi collection. They published a nice little flyer with photos. Tom will be known forever as one of the very few true supporters Helmi had during the times when she really needed it.
Tom died in Seattle on 29 July 1988 in the year of the Davidson Gallery exhibition, his last gesture of support for Helmi. And the Seattle shore was diminished proportionately.
E Bruce Brooks
- Seiichiro Takahashi. Torii Kiyonaga. English adaptation by Thomas Kaasa. Kodansha Library of Japanese Art, No. 8. Tuttle 1956
- Guide to the Helmi Juvonen Papers, 1934-1986 (University of Washington Library)
- The J F Rock Rubbings (rediscovered at the University of Washington Library)
- Ulrich Fritzsche. Helmi Dagmar Juvonen: Her Life and Work - A Chronicle. Davidson Galleries 2001
Tom Bolling, Ulrich Fritzsche, and Don Gibbs contributed to this profile.
11 Nov 2006 / Contact The Project / Exit to Sinology Page