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Born in Washington State during World War II, Dorothy Kittaka’s early life was spent at an internment camp along with other Japanese-Americans confined in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack. While that kind of experience can give a young, impressionable child a narrow and frightening view of the world, she now looks back at the one thing which opened up the world to her and put her on a path that was to dictate her future: music. From her first experiences with music, Kittaka says now that it was to become a lifelong pursuit.
Fortunately for her many students and for the Fort Wayne community, she did not keep this pursuit to herself. She made it a mission to provide that same passion for music and the arts that had so defined her life. Even as her family was eventually relocated to Illinois, in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, she was able to pursue her love by taking piano lessons. Eventually she expanded into other instruments, to being in the school band and ultimately to voice lessons which helped her develop an operatic approach to singing, moving her from an alto to a contralto soprano in one semester.
Majoring in music and music education in college, Kittaka met her husband, also a survivor of the internment camps, and the couple relocated to Fort Wayne when his job at Central Soya called for a transfer in 1978. She has lived here ever since.
“It was a culture shock,” says Kittaka. “But Fort Wayne has become such a fantastic cultural place. The arts community here is really fantastic. Even this past weekend I went to three different events and conducted a choir, so my whole day was about music. It was just great.”
Had Kittaka chosen a quiet life in the pursuit of music, we might never have known of her talent and she would not now be receiving the H. Stanley Liddell Award for her contributions to the arts in Fort Wayne and northeast Indiana. But she sought to do more, to bring more people – children especially – into the arts, to provide them the same creative outlets and rewarding achievements that she had found in the areas of music, fine arts and drama. She did so by co-founding FAME, the Foundation for Art and Music in Elementary Education.
“I was teaching for Haverhill Elementary in Southwest Allen County Schools with Mike Schmid, and that’s when we came up with FAME. It’s like those old Judy Garland musicals with Mickey Rooney, when they’d say, ‘Let’s put on a play!’ We said, ‘Let’s start a festival downtown!’ We didn’t know anything because the music and art teachers are isolated so the first thing we did was get everyone together.”
Gathering the teachers and seeking input was one thing, but Schmid took it one step further – he booked a venue for the festival. And not just any venue. He booked the Grand Wayne Center.
“He told me that, and I said ‘You did that, eh? Okay.’ I mean, we didn’t have money or anything at this point. But then a women’s group came to us and needed the Grand Wayne for an event they were having, and they offered us $1,000 to give up our reservation. That was our first grant.”
Moving into a somewhat smaller area, the ballroom to the adjacent Hilton Hotel, the first FAME Festival in 1987 still drew a remarkable 4,000. To this day, the FAME Festival is the largest single event each year at the Grand Wayne Center, where it has been held ever since. Kittaka has been gratified by the opportunity the festival provides to kids, as school funding for music and arts education is often the first casualty of budget cuts.
“It’s always the first thing to go,” says Kittaka. “At one point when I was teaching, I was teaching 11 to 12 classes a day at three schools, but eventually it got better and I was teaching for 40 minutes, two times a week at each school. But by the time I retired, they had cut it again to 10 to 30 minutes, and that was happening throughout the state. In many places they’ve cut it altogether or have watered it down.”
But as music education has dwindled, the FAME Festival has grown. The number of stages has grown from two to three, plus an orchestra pit. The Imaginarium, which provides hands-on arts experiences, has grown as well, and the number of visiting artists has been a boon to not only the students, who get to share their own art work and mingle with their fellow students and artists, but it draws the interest of other community participants as well. This year’s focus will be on Indiana’s Bicentennial celebration, and in fact the 2016 FAME Festival has been announced as one of the official events of the Indiana Bicentennial.
Kittaka has not only retired from teaching, but has also stepped aside from her duties as executive director of FAME, a position now held by “T” Irmscher. But Kittaka has hardly become sedentary. In fact, while she continues to assist in FAME’s planning and often opens her home to visiting artists, she also helps raise funds for FAME which hosts not just the festival but also a multidisciplinary camp every summer. Additionally, she had traveled extensively and is active with the Fort Wayne Sister Cities, which include Takaoka, Japan; Plock, Poland; Gera, Germany; Taizhou, China; and a friendship agreement with Mawlamyine in Myanmar. Her combined passion for the two groups will likely result in a particularly exciting celebration in 2017 when, in the spirit of friendship with Taizhou and in celebration of FAME’s 30th anniversary, Kittaka plans to bring a Chinese operatic performance to Fort Wayne.
“It is much different from the operas that we’re used to seeing,” she says. “I saw a performance of the Peking Opera when I was in Beijing, and it was fascinating. It will be so wonderful for us to be able to see that and have such a huge learning experience culturally. Most children are not able to travel that much, so it’s important that we can provide these experiences to them by bringing arts and cultures to them.”
The Sister Cities organization holds galas and fundraisers and is also helped by the Chapman Fund, which helps provide grants so students can visit these cities themselves. Providing these glimpses into other cultures – and giving children an intense love and appreciation for the arts – has been Dorothy Kittaka’s life’s mission, and it’s one she has pursued with passion.
“Music, drama and the arts – they change lives. They provide confidence and creativity and provide a work ethic that they carry for the rest of their lives. Arts are just a language of bringing people together. We don’t have to understand the language to hear it and see it and to understand that people are people. It’s the same thing I see in the Sister Cities experiences. Once you meet people personally, you’re friends for all time.”