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Roger Eng, First Chinese-American Mayor of Los Altos, Dead at 78

by Chris Fuchs /

Roger S.C. Eng Sr., a dentist who became the first Chinese-American mayor of Los Altos, California, died on Oct. 14. He was 78.

The cause of death was cancer, his son Dr. Roger Eng Jr. told NBC News.

 Roger and Sylvia Eng’s seven grandchildren at their Los Altos home in 2014. Courtesy of Roger Eng Jr.

When Eng Sr. made his foray into politics in the 1970s, he didn’t imagine himself as a trailblazer for other Asian Americans who might later run for office, Eng Jr. said. Rather, Eng Sr. was motivated by a strong desire to give back to his community. That sense of civic obligation took him from the Los Altos planning commission to a seat on the City Council, during which time he served twice as mayor.

“He thought himself as, ‘I’m a member of this community, I think I have something to give, and I just happen to be Chinese American,’” Eng Jr. said.

The youngest of 10 children, Eng Sr. was born in Seattle, Washington, on Nov. 20, 1936, to immigrant parents from China who had no formal education. Growing up in the years surrounding World War II, Eng Sr. faced discrimination in Seattle, at a time when Japanese Americans on the West Coast were rounded up and sent to internment camps.

 The Seattle childhood home of Roger Eng Sr. in the 1940s. (Left to right: Roger Eng, Sam Eng, and Russell Eng) Courtesy of Roger Eng Jr.

"He tried so hard to be an American that he blocked out all the Chinese he knew from birth," his wife, Sylvia Eng, told NBC News. But her husband never forgot his Chinese heritage, she added.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Washington in Seattle, Eng Sr. served six months in the Army as a second lieutenant and eight and a half years in the Army Reserve, from which he retired as a captain.

 Captain Roger Eng Sr., U.S. Army, with Roger Eng Jr. in California in 1966. Courtesy of Roger Eng Jr.

In the late 1950s, Eng Sr. took a position as a chemist for Dow Chemical Company in Pittsburg, California, but he left after only three and a half years to attend the University of California at San Francisco School of Dentistry. After graduating in 1966, Eng Sr. moved to Los Altos, a city 30 miles south of San Francisco, and opened his own dental practice in nearby Sunnyvale, a career he saw as an opportunity to help others, his son said.

“He had a very strong sense of community and family,” Eng Jr. said.

While working as a dentist in the 1970s, Eng Sr. sought an appointment on the Los Altos planning commission, where he served for eight years. He then ran for City Council, an unsalaried position, and was elected to two consecutive four-year terms, Eng Jr. said.

His father assumed the duties of mayor from 1981 to 1982, and again from 1986 to 1987, presiding over City Council hearings and serving as the city’s spokesman. Mayors of Los Altos are chosen from the City Council, completing one-year terms on a rotating basis, Eng Jr. said.

 Annual Los Altos Parade of Lights in November 1981. (Left to right: Sharisse Eng, Roger Eng, Sylvia Eng, and Shanelle Eng.) Courtesy of Roger Eng Jr.

During his time in the City Council, Los Altos had roughly 25,000 residents of which around only 1,000 were Asian. And while Eng Sr. ran into some “little issues” in which he might not have been treated equally on merit alone, Eng Jr. said his father always remained sanguine about the challenges he faced.

“He had the unique qualities of being an optimist and always looking at the best in a situation,” Eng Jr. said.

Eng Sr. is survived by his wife, Sylvia; his brother Sam, and sisters Daisy, Emma, and Alice; his children Roger, Rocky, Sharisse Koelbel, and Shanelle Peterson; and grandchildren Sydney, JT, Logan, Nick, Dexter, Mason, Scott, and Henrik, along with many nieces and nephews.