His life stretched from an internment camp to being Tacoma’s No. 1 doctor and beyond

Dr. George Tanbara, noted Tacoma physician, died July 1 at 95.
Dr. George Tanbara, noted Tacoma physician, died July 1 at 95. Staff file

Dr. George Tanbara always found a way to put patients first — long before he became a licensed doctor in 1952 and long after he officially retired in 2008.

“If being retired is doing what you want to do, my father’s probably been retired since 1955,” his son Greg Tanbara told The News Tribune.

The former pediatrician died July 1 after 95 years of life, but the work he started in Tacoma continues to reach across the South Sound, just as it had since he (kind of) handed over the reins nearly 10 years ago.

“It seems like every month I continue to find people like me who thought of him as a great community resource and an icon,” said David Flentge, Community Health Care president and CEO.

Even in their 90s, Tanbara and his wife of 65 years, Kimi, were in the Baker Center Pediatrics Northwest office together most days.

They often walked across the street to eat lunch together at the MultiCare cafeteria up until Mrs. Tanbara had an accident in December. She died in March at 93.

George, who grew up in Los Angeles, and Kimi, a Tacoma native, met in the mid-1940s at an internment camp in Wyoming. Their families were brought to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center during World War II because of their Japanese heritage.

“They told us it was for our own protection,” Tanbara told The News Tribune in 2004. “But the guns were always pointing toward the inside, not the outside.”

After leaving the camp, he was exposed to further discrimination in the job market. He later returned to Heart Mountain, where he worked at the pharmacy and discovered his passions for helping children and the less fortunate.

These eventually manifested in two of his proudest contributions to Tacoma: Community Health Care and Pediatrics Northwest.

After serving in the Army from 1945-47, Tanbara married Kimi in 1951 and started a private practice in Tacoma once he finished his medical residency in 1954.

A decade into working at his private practice, Tanbara still wanted to satisfy the unmet medical needs of local low-income and uninsured populations.

Word that Tanbara needed volunteers to open a free clinic for the poor made its way to the human resources department at St. Joseph’s Hospital and then to its director at the time, Les Cathersal.

“He came out of the (internment) camps not bitter, but wanting to help poor people,” Cathersal told The News Tribune.

He gave Tanbara some of his first helping hands.

“That was the beginning of Community Health Care,” said Cathersal, who remains a CHC board member.

Tanbara intention was to bring care directly to the people who needed it.

So in 1969, CHC’s first two clinics opened in Salishan and on the Hilltop — two low-income, high-crime areas at the time — and they were kept running solely by the volunteer work of providers and compassionate citizens.

“He was one of my walking-around saints,” said Cathersal, adding later, “I’m proud to have known him and he definitely changed my volunteer life forever.”

Now a nonprofit led by president and CEO David Flentge, CHC’s five locations served more than 44,000 patients last year, according to its annual report.

But CHC is only one way Tanaba affected the region over 63 years.

He and Flentge met in the 1970s, when Flentge was working at a group home for young, abused and neglected girls and came across the “most gentle, calm and helpful provider that (he) ever met.”

Working as the group home’s pediatrician, Tanbara could relate and listen to the girls better than anyone, Flentge said.

“He really enjoyed seeing patients and he really got a big thrill watching people grow up,” said Tanbara’s son, Greg.

In 1980, Tanbara co-founded Pediatrics Northwest with his longtime friend, Dr. Lawrence Larson. It is now the largest pediatric provider in Pierce County.

The two met through Boy Scouts when Larson was in high school and Tanbara was a troop leader.

“He’s my inspiration. He was my mentor,” Larson told The News Tribune. “ … Everybody feels that way about George.”

The friendship became a partnership after Larson completed his medical residency and moved back to Tacoma. Larson handled the business side and Tanbara provided the vision.

“He laid the foundation for the philosophy of Pediatrics Northwest and how to provide great for children,” Larson said.

Their undertaking to provide the best care for the region’s youth started as a two-man operation out of a small office in the Tacoma Medical Center. It grew to four main offices and 14 physicians by 1996 and now serves patients across the South Sound through 12 locations with 26 physicians.

During their partnership, Larson said witnessed Tanbara’s “amazing amount of energy and focus,” which allowed him to influence so many areas in the community.

“He taught us … not just to care for children,” Larson said, “But to care for the community.”

Tanbara was at every meeting and every community event, “and always at his side was his wife, Kimi,” Larson said.

He seemed to be so many places at once that many of Tanbara’s colleagues didn’t find out he had a hand in something until much later.

It wasn’t until Flentge became involved with Community Health Care in the 1990s that he learned how instrumental Tanbara was in getting it started.

Over the years, Tanbara came back onto the board as needed and stepped down when he felt the operation was in good hands. But even when he wasn’t a board member, Tanbara and his principle, “the patient always comes first,” were a guiding light, Flentge said.

The weekend before Tanbara died, the CHC board decided his guiding principle should be listed with the CHC mission and values on future documents.

And when he stepped down for good several years ago, the board decided Tanbara should always be a member and created the board member emeritus position.

Tanbara is the only person to hold that title.

Flentge and Cathersal said they are looking for a way to honor his contributions the community beyond the CHC.

The late doctor received countless awards and had numerous dinners held in his honor, but Tanbara always credited his success to those who supported him.

“He has always told me that he appreciates the support he’s gotten throughout his life,” his son said.

When the CHC was gearing up to build a clinic at the site of the original Salishan facility, Flentge said he thought the only way to honor the people who lived there was to name it after the Tanbaras.

Because Tanbara didn’t feel his name was the most important, the only way to convince him was to point out how his stature would help with fund raising.

“Many people think of him as an icon and a hero,” Flentge said.

In 2009, the Kimi and George Tanbara, MD Health Center opened at one of the spots the CHC started 40 years earlier.

Even better, Flentge said, is the fact that Tanbara’s “children became leaders of Community Health Care.”

The couple’s four children, Greg Tanbara, Diane Taniguchi, Susan Brahm and Merilee Tanbara, have all had a hand in the organization.

Said Greg Tanbara: “He left me with the impression that you work hard; you contribute back to your community; family is important and so are friends and church.”