Whenever we called our father to catch him up on the grandkids and [to] ask how he was doing, he always had the same response. We’d say, ‘Hey Dad, how are you doing? And he always said, without missing a beat, “still surviving.”
To say that Al Ysrael was a survivor is a bit of an understatement. Our father not only survived through good times and bad, he carried with him an unwavering optimism and enthusiasm that spilled into every aspect of his life. Whether it was cheering us on at our various sporting events, or regaling anyone who would listen about his views on just about any and everything, Al Ysrael did everything 100 percent—there was no holding back.
Dad was thrifty or, as we often said, super cheap! Dad proudly embraced this frugality like a badge of honor, and taught us as well the value of living a modest life. Dad’s thriftiness had its roots in his childhood, when he and his parents and his six brothers and sisters lived in Manila, actually Pasay City, [in] a very humble part of the city.
There were many mouths to feed, and money was tight. And times got tougher during the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, when Dad and his family survived for nine months in the mountains, making do by trapping birds and living off the land, and then spent the next three years under Japanese occupation, when food was scarce and had to be rationed.
Dad never lost this frugality, and for the rest of his life, he drove the most economical of cars and loved his sandals from Kmart.
A distinct and personal memory, which we all laugh about today, was when he bought us girls our first car. It was a peach-colored Ford Granada. He didn’t want us spoiled by the luxury of power steering, so he specially ordered the car to come without power steering, power brakes or power windows, which ended up actually costing more because it was custom made.
Dad came to Guam in 1951 as an H2 worker, working as an accountant for the bowling alley at Anderson Air Force Base for $250 a month. He noticed that there were no civilian bowling alleys on the island. In typical “AL” form, he saw an opportunity and took it and, even though bowling was not a sport that was very popular on the island at that time, he opened the island’s first civilian bowling alley, and there began his first business!
Mom and Dad lived in a Quonset hut in the back of the bowling alley they operated in Anigua, and Dad always used to say he slept best when he heard the sound of the bowling pins crashing because that meant customers were there and money was coming in!
In the 1960’s our dad saw another opportunity and seized it. He noticed that Japanese tourists were on layovers in Guam and had no hotel accommodations, and were just camping out at the beach or the airport.
So in 1968 he opened the Fujita Hotel, which was specifically intended to attract and service these layover tourists from Japan. Other hotels followed, and the tourist industry on Guam became one of its primary business sectors.
There was also a less public side to our father, and that was his commitment to family. The energy and enthusiasm that folks saw our dad throw into his many business ventures was rivaled only by the energy and joy he displayed as a husband, father, and grandfather. Dad and Mom were married for 57 years, and together shared their love of their children, love of learning, and love of travel.
Our dad was larger than life and had a bold and vibrant personality that rocked any room he entered. Right until the end, he loved engaging in conversations with young and old, and was able to find humor in almost any situation.
Many of you have memories of our dad in recent years in one of his neon fluorescent shirts and shorts, complete with matching neon hat and polo shirt. For a man who was very frugal and what one might call low maintenance to the very end, this was his one splurge—he would only wear polo shirts that had a pocket on the left side so he could always carry his glasses, his black ballpoint pen, and scraps of paper to take notes or draw diagrams on, that he would use in conversations to better explain his opinion.
Our dad used to like to say he was a “gadfly,” by which he meant that he was always hovering and eager to poke his nose into whatever issues he thought important—you may have an image of him walking around Tumon, showing up at parties and events, always eager to give advice to young politicians and today’s youth, in his ubiquitous polo shirt and shorts. He never truly retired, and continued with his letters to the editor and blast emails until the very end.
Dad often told us this story: When he was a young boy, his father gave him a choice. He would either pay for his education at La Salle, or give him a lump sum in pesos. Dad opted for education, because, he recalled his father saying, “You can lose your money, or people can steal it from you, but no one can take or steal the education and knowledge that resides in your mind.”
We can hear our dad saying to us right now: “With education there are no limits to what you can do with your life.” Dad viewed education as the stepping-stone to achieve one’s dreams, and he was relentless in his pursuit of education, both for himself and for others.
It was this fervent belief in the power and value of education, and his belief that no matter how modest one’s background [is], as his was, education coupled with good hard work had the ability to level playing fields. It was this belief that fueled his contributions in recent years to several of Guam’s schools. That, and his love for Guam, which knew no bounds.
Our father loved this island, and you could see that love with every business venture he started. In recent years, we tried to convince him to come out to the states for a few months out of the year and maybe live part-time in California. He would always give us this look of “Are you crazy?” and say, “Why would I leave paradise?“ And he meant it.
He Really Cared
Nino was so fun, and my fondest memories of him were how much energy and humor he brought to any occasion. My parents told me that they would play intense Monopoly games when they were on double dates, and that tradition carried on even after they had kids.
When they first started to play Monopoly, Nino would play the game by saving all his money as he went around and around the board. My father would pay for buildings on his properties so he could charge more rent when the other players landed on his properties. At first, my dad would win all the games. Naturally, Nino noticed my dad’s strategy and started to spend money on his properties and even to use mortgages wisely to invest in his properties. Then, Nino showed no mercy, and came to dominate the Monopoly games. As soon as we children were old enough to listen, he loved explaining to us how it was important to build apartments and hotels on your Monopoly properties.
Growing up, the Gayle kids and the Ysrael kids—there were five of them and five of us—pretty much did everything together. We lived less than one mile from each other in Tamuning and could run to each other’s houses for impromptu play dates, no adult supervision required. The Ysrael kids joined the swim team. Nino’s thinking was that it was very efficient to have all five kids on the same team with the same practice schedule. Not only that, swimming was a physically and mentally tough sport, and winners were determined by the all-knowing [impartial] stopwatch, not judges, because this eliminated human bias. So, lucky me, I had to join the swim team because the Ysraels were on the swim team. I remember Nino at those meets, cheering us on from the side of the pool, not caring how loud he was.
Nino was teaching us that life could be tough, and that we needed to strive if we wanted to succeed.
Nino was enthusiastic about everything he did. I remember elaborate Easter egg hunts at the Ysrael house, where he and Nina would hide eggs all over the back yard and then paired us off—an Ysrael and a Gayle—by age, and made us all keep one hand on the house before starting so no one would get an unfair advantage. And, unlike current trends, there would be a winner of the egg hunt. The one with the most eggs would win, and there was a second, less-prestigious award for the one who found the golden egg. Nino was teaching us that life could be tough, and that we needed to strive if we wanted to succeed. Oh, and by the way, hard-boiled eggs only, no chocolate for anybody…but I think he had his own stash somewhere.
Nino also put all of us kids to work. Nino and Nina needed child models to advertise Nina’s clothing store that many of you may remember, Diana’s. He decided that newspaper advertising wasn’t enough so he organized live action television ads on KUAM, Guam’s only local television station at that time. Back in those days, they did not pre-record ads like they do today. It was live action. We would all line up at the television studio dressed in the latest Diana’s fashion, and when given the green light we would “walk the runway, stop, and turn” on live TV for all of Guam to see. Talk about stress. Nino had the vision to see that television would be a great advertising venue and that his kids plus the Gayle kids were FREE LABORERS, a perfect combination. I am happy to say that Nino was wise enough to let my Nina choose the clothing for the advertising spots.
Nino was generous in so many ways, and not just in his charitable contributions. He was generous with his time, giving me advice whenever I needed it and sometimes when I didn’t. He really cared about what was going on in our lives.
That was my Nino. Looking out for others, and when necessary, leading the way. Thank you Nino. I will miss you.
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