Louisa Nishitani | Passages

February 21, 1923 – July 14, 2022

Louisa Nishitani was born Louisa Aliene Taylor to Oliver Taylor and Ruth Seegmiller Taylor on February 21, 1923 in San Diego, California. When she was eight years old, Louisa and her family moved north to follow seasonal labor during the Great Depression and settled in Naches, Washington. Louisa’s father worked in the orchards while her mother stayed home to care for Louisa and her older brother, Jack, until her mother’s passing in 1935.

Louisa excelled in her studies, graduating as student body president and valedictorian of Naches High School in 1940. She started at the University of Washington the following fall, studying botany under C. Leo Hitchcock and living in the Synadelphic Coop House. After completing two and a half years of study, Louisa left school to volunteer for the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service, or WAVES, division of the Navy. She did so on her twentieth birthday, the minimum age eligible to serve. Her service took Louisa to New Jersey, Georgia, and the District of Columbia, where she trained as a codebreaker. While in DC, Louisa learned of the death of her brother Jack in Anzio, Italy while serving in the U.S. Army. She then served in Hawaii as an aerographer, deciphering Japanese weather information for the Pacific arena. It was while stationed outside Honolulu that Louisa celebrated the end of WWII and assisted in transporting troops back to the US mainland.

After the war, she returned to Seattle, finishing her MS degree at the University of Washington on the GI Bill, graduating Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Xi while caring for her father. After his passing, Louisa relocated to Coulee City and taught high school geometry, math, physical education and biology, spending her summers on botanical field trips with her mentor, Dr. Hitchcock and his students. In 1951, she married fellow botany graduate Richard Norris, and the pair moved to Berkeley, CA, where Louisa assisted the biochemist M. Calvin in his lab at the University of California, conducting research on photosynthesis. Calvin would later win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his research, and Louisa is listed as a co-author on one of his research papers. Richard completed his doctoral studies while the couple lived in Berkeley.

In the following years, Louisa and Richard had three children—Richard “Rick”, Jack, and Laura—and moved from Berkeley to Minneapolis, New Zealand, Mumbai, and Seattle, before finally settling on San Juan Island. Richard taught botany at the University of Washington and in 1966 Louisa began her PhD at UW in the College of Fisheries. Her studies focused on Alexandrium minutum, a microscopic alga that can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning, and she became a regional expert on the organism.

Also in 1966, after spending many summers at the UW Labs on San Juan Island, the family purchased property on the western top of Cady Mountain. They moved to the island year-round in 1969 and bought a home on Cattle Point Road, fondly referred to as Thisbit Manor, a portmanteau of the only two things that could survive on the property at that time: thistles and rabbits. Louisa fell in love with the sweeping view of Griffin Bay and the Cascade Mountains from Thisbit, although there was little water and no possibility of growing anything on the land because of an over-abundance of rabbits. Her time on this desolate piece of property led her to gather islanders together at the Grange in 2012 to relate true Rabbit Tales about what it is like to live amongst so many rabbits and help others understand the fragility of an island ecosystem.

In the early 1970s, concerned that there was no Land Use Comprehensive Plan in San Juan County, Louisa spearheaded a grass-roots movement to address the topic. She did this by sitting at the kitchen table and creating meeting invitations for everyone in the phonebook. Louisa was particularly concerned that long-time islanders have a say in the process and reached out to many of them personally. Through her work she met other like-minded community members and formed a loose coalition, who spoke at County Commissioner meetings about the importance of protecting San Juan County’s critical habitat areas, including False Bay and Cattle Point.

Louisa and Richard separated in 1975, and she went to work for a researcher at the UW Friday Harbor Labs, managing a baseline study of the marine flora and fauna found in the intertidal zone. In 1979, she married Jim Nishitani, a fellow botany student she had met before the onset of WWII, and the two lived together in Seattle, where Louisa served on the boards of the Nature Conservancy in Washington and the Washington Natural Heritage Program. Jim and Louisa then moved to the Naches River Valley near where she grew up, and they enjoyed many mountain activities, including volunteering with the Washington Trails Association.

After Jim’s passing in 2003, Louisa moved back to her beloved Thisbit and became reengaged with the island community. She was well known for her involvement with many local groups, including the League of Women Voters, San Juan Island Trails Committee, and the San Juan Preservation Trust. Louisa led countless native plant walks, compiled species lists for conservation groups and the National Park Service, and supported the purchase of several major land parcels, including Mount Grant. Louisa felt truly at home on San Juan Island and was dedicated to preserving its unique character and natural heritage throughout her life, well into her nineties.

Despite hardship early in life—including the passing of her mother, father, and brother before her twenty-third birthday—Louisa carried optimism and resilience through her life. She maintained lifelong relationships with college classmates, fellow botanists, and former students and carried a perennial love of learning, eager to follow the latest news and review cutting-edge scientific research. Louisa was also dedicated to her family and enthusiastically supported her grandchildren in their endeavors. She cherished her island friendships and was appreciative of the excellent in-home care she received in her final years.

Louisa was preceded in death by her husband, Jim Nishitani, and son, Jack Norris. She is survived by her son, Richard Norris II, daughter and son-in-law, Laura Norris and Ken Crawbuck, daughter-in-law, Terilee Wingate, and grandchildren, Michael Norris and Claire and Graham Crawbuck. In lieu of flowers, please honor Louisa’s memory through a donation to a local environmental organization.