– Albert C. Lowe (1926–2018)
Albert Lowe was born in San Diego and was third mate in the Merchant Marine between 1943 and 1945. About 250,000 Americans served as merchant marines during World War II. The ships transported vital war supplies, equipment, and troops as needed by the American military. These volunteers, however, were considered civilian although they were often in combat zones and suffered a great casualty rate. In the 1988 case of Schumacher v. Aldridge, the federal court ordered that World War II merchant marines be given full recognition and veterans’ benefits.
A newspaper journalist described Albert Lowe as “the man who saved Pasadena.” In the 1970s, Al was a leader in the desegregation of the Pasadena Unified School District. Al also brought progress to the Pasadena Playhouse, Pasadena Community Foundation Board, Tournament of Roses, Rotary Club, Chamber of Commerce, YMCA, and other civic organizations. Gilbert Hom interviwed Albert Lowe on 24 June 1997.
My great-grandparents migrated to the United States, so I’m fourth generation. I was born in San Diego. My father worked for the Bank of America for a good many years in Imperial Valley. In 1939, he moved his family from Calexico, and we came to Pasadena. There were few Chinese in the Calexico area. Because of discrimination, he had reached the peak of his banking career as an assistant cashier. He was told that. He had started as a teller. My father spoke English and two dialects of Chinese very well.12 As did my mother. To move his family ahead, my dad thought to open his own business. He opened a gift shop at 447 E. Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena. He borrowed $3000 from his life insurance. His friend, Albert Quon, had an importing company and my father borrowed some inventory from him. That business grew from a gift shop of Chinese products to a furniture and interior design business, Lowe and Sons, which operated in Pasadena until 1987. None of the grandchildren wanted to continue the business, and my generation wanted to retire. My younger brother, Eugene, then focused more on his law practice.
My mother, Ann Lowe, was born in Grass Valley in the Mother Lode country. Her father owned a farm; her brother had a ready-to-wear clothing store. My grandmother from China had bound feet. My mother was a very bright woman. She worked almost her entire adult life even when my brother, my sister, and I were young. Lowes Gifts started in 1940. In 1942, my father was called into government service. He was gone. My mother took over the management of the business with my young siblings and hired help. Unfortunately, my father passed away in 1952 at the age of 51. My mother continued to run the business until the three of us graduated from USC and went into the family business. Even though I took over the leadership of the business, my mother was always there as the matriarch.
We really don’t know what my father did behind the scenes for the government during World War II. It was private and secretive. It was a cloak-and-dagger hush hush situation in the San Francisco area. He was a very good accountant, but I don’t know why they called him. My father came from a very large family. The family had roots in Hanford—a large center for the railroad industry. My great-grandfather, Harry Lee, established an herb shop in Hanford for his entire life. My paternal grandmother was one of eight daughters and one son. They were all American-born. But at that time, my grandmother never went to school and spoke Chinese only.
I went into the Merchant Marines in 1943 when I was seventeen years old. I had graduated from high school early and had started at USC. I decided to enlist rather than wait to be drafted. Many of us at that time didn’t like the idea of going into the infantry, so I applied for the Air Force. I thought I’d like to be a navigator. I went to the recruiting station in Los Angeles in 1943, and we took certain tests and had our physicals. I passed. Then they told me that since I was of Chinese descent, my file had to go to Washington. That would be another step before I could join the Air Force. That would take a few more months.
I went home disappointed. After a while, I had not heard, and I was concerned. I was afraid I might not be able to choose another position, or that I might get drafted. It was about six months to my 18th birthday. So, I decided to apply for the U.S. Merchant Marines. I had a cousin who had joined the merchant marines a year earlier. I got the acceptance to be a merchant marine cadet. Our training was in San Mateo. Of course, before I actually left for training, I got the approval from the Air Force. But by then, I had settled on the Merchant Marines.
To be a merchant marine involves basic training, and then we were on the ship for a minimum of six months. It was on-the-job training. That was followed by one and a half years program at the Merchant Marine Academy in Great Neck on Long Island in New York.13 The overall program took about two years. I graduated in 1945, and I did some more service, going through several countries including China. The war ended in August of 1945, and I resigned. I went back to USC and my family business.
My father believed in community service. I was active in the Pasadena Rotary Club and became its president in 1960. I worked a lot on bond issues and tax issues for public education. I became elected to the Pasadena Board of Education between 1969 and 1973.14 I was a strong advocate for the desegregation of the schools. Pasadena was under court order. There were recall elections; advisors thought we would be recalled because of the strong anti-busing sentiment in the community. We barely fought off the recall. Those were very important times.
It was a volatile time. I had a retail business, and I knew there would be impact. I knew there would be impact on my family and my personal life. knew it was coming. We talked it over with my siblings and my children, and my family supported me. My family had already been in leadership on racial issues. Our store was the first retail store in Pasadena to hire an African American as a sales clerk. This was in the 1940s when African Americans were relegated to running elevators and cleaning positions. The hiring was a conscious act by my mother. As the generations before us had to deal with even more discrimination, we felt we had to do what we had to do. When my parents bought a lot in Pasadena near Cal Tech, it was in a restricted area. There were racial covenants then. Our all-White neighbors petitioned against our being there. I still have their letter. The neighbors wanted us to sell the lot back. My dad did have wonderful friends who supported him, however. They invited him to join the Rotary Club. This was right after World War II. It was never hard for me to know what was the right thing to do.
13 The Academy trained officers for the U.S. Merchant Marines.
14 See Pasadena Heritage Oral History’s interview with Albert Lowe for a more thorough review of the desegregation of Pasadena schools.