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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  K-12 education

Groundbreaking of Spokane’s new Denny Yasuhara Middle School an emotional experience for late activist’s wife

May 31, 2021 Updated Wed., June 2, 2021 at 8:09 p.m.

As groundbreakings go, this one dug a little deeper.

Ninety-two-year-old Thelma Yasuhara had just laid down her hardhat and ceremonial shovel Wednesday afternoon when she was asked about her late husband, Denny, and the middle school that now bears his name.

It was about 100 degrees in the shade, if you could find any. But Yasuhara didn’t care.

Gathering more strength while others walked back to their air-conditioned cars, she warmed to the occasion and looked ahead to the next one.

“I wish I could have more of Denny’s students today,” she said. “But I hope to see more of them at the dedication of the building.”

That will happen in the fall of 2022, when the first students walk through the doors at Denny Yasuhara Middle School.

“It will be emotional,” she said as she tried to hold back tears.

The new middle school, paid for by a bond voters approved in 2018, will serve some of the same neighborhoods where Denny and Thelma taught for many years.

But Denny, who died in 2002, did much more than that. He was also a civil-rights activist – a major reason the Spokane Public Schools board decided last week to honor his legacy.

Known for his generosity, he often dug into his own wallet to help a needy child.

“I always trusted my husband,” Yasuhara said. “We had allowances back then, because we didn’t have much money. … And I wondered what he was spending our money on.”

Then came a powerful revelation.

“You have to read this letter,” a fellow teacher told her. It was from a student who’d been helped by her husband.

“I had her in the third grade and he had her at Garry Middle School,” Thelma said. “It was so heartwarming.”

The other attendees also found much to celebrate.

School board President Jerrall Haynes recalled the work that stretched back to 2018, passing a $495 million bond and “turning dreams and possibilities into reality.”

Spokane Mayer Nadine Woodward talked about the partnerships between the city and school district that helped make Denny Yasuhara Middle School a reality.

“I haven’t seen a city that does it as well as Spokane,” Woodward told the gathering of about 50 people.

Council President Breean Beggs expounded on that thought as he reminisced about working with the school district and executing complicated land swaps that also led to the construction of schools and libraries.

“We are one Spokane,” Beggs said.

A few moments later, Woodward, Beggs, school board members and others donned their hardhats, grabbed their shiny shovels and let the dirt fly.

Behind them, columns of steel and concrete were already rising, and Yasuhara noticed.

“You know, I have a brother who had a school in Los Angeles named after him,” she said. “Now I can picture them together, high-fiving each other and saying, ‘How about them apples.’”

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