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10 (or so) Questions with ... Warren Wong

Columnist Steve Lange talks to the retired IBMer and Chicago and Lake Pepin sailing legend.

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Warren Wong
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Rochester Magazine: Okay, so you were born in Chicago?

Warren Wong: Born and raised in Chicago. In Chinatown. My parents owned a restaurant and grocery store.

RM: Did you work there?

WW: I washed dishes. I waited tables. I did everything. I said to myself, when I grow up, I never want to work in a restaurant.

RM: You’ve been called the “ Master of Lake Pepin .”

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WW: I’m the only surviving founder of Lake City Yacht Club. We started that in 1969.

RM: Tell me about when you first got into sailing.

WW: Well, that was 75 years ago, when I was maybe 15. There was a sailing club sponsored by the city. We lived a couple of miles from Burnham Park [in Chicago], and I would ride by there on my bike and there would be like 50 kids sailing and it looked like a lot of fun. So I went and asked and they didn’t want me to join because I was Chinese. He told me I couldn’t get into the program without a recommendation. Well, I was a very competitive ping pong player in my day. We had park districts that played against each other in ping pong. So I went to the head of my park district and asked him to write me a letter of recommendation for the sailing club, and he did. I went back to the sailing guy with my letter and he couldn’t believe it. That’s when I started sailing.

RM: And you obviously took to it quickly.

WW: My brother and I joined the junior sailing program and we were pretty competent. And I studied it. I learned. I learned lots of things quickly. And so my brother and I, we became pretty proficient. When people realized we could sail they started to ask us to crew for them.

RM: I’ve heard you were the first non-Caucasian admitted to the Chicago Yacht Club.

WW: I guess. My brother and I got pretty good, and, well, they sure wanted us then.

RM: You’re one of the most experienced sailors I know. You’ve been through a lot of storms that people couldn’t imagine being outside in, let alone on the water in a sailboat.

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WW: Oh, I don’t know about that.

RM: Between the two of us, we have completed 33 Chicago-to-Mackinac and Port Huron-to-Mackinac sailboat races.

WW: I have finished 32 times.

RM: Well, now it seems less impressive for me ...

WW: Oops. Yes. We’ve finished 33 races between the two of us. We’ll leave it at that.

RM: Do you still play ping pong?

WW: Not really. Do you know the hardest thing about playing ping pong for me? Guess what.

RM: Holding the paddle?

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WW: No. No.

RM: Seeing the ball?

WW: No. Picking up the ping pong ball from the ground.

RM: Yes. I can understand that. What brought you to Rochester?

WW: I worked for IBM. We lived all over. We lived in Chicago, and we moved to the East Coast. And we moved to Rochester in ‘68. We thought we’d be here for a couple years. That was 54 years ago.

RM: Were there many Asian-Americans here when you moved here?

WW: No, not many of us. You know what I mean? My wife and me and the Wongs from Wong’s Cafe. And a couple of other families. I sure miss the original Wong’s, on Third Street. There used to be a line out front all the time. I’m no relation to those Wongs, though.

RM: And you and I always meet at Dunn Bros. [where we are now], which is owned by Dennis and Lynn Wong. You’re not related to them either.

WW: No. But everyone assumes we are, so we just say we’re cousins.

[Literally, at this moment, Lynn Wong walks by and says “Hey, cousin” and Warren says “Hey, cousin.”]

RM: Anyway. What did you do for IBM?

WW: If you asked my kids, they would always say, “They’re still trying to find a job for him.” It was education, it was marketing, it was engineering ... I’m a graduate of Purdue and then got my business degree from Northwestern.

RM: Tell me about your family.

WW: My wife Ginny is a nurse and she also worked for the clinic for a number of years. We’ve been married for 68 years. We have three kids. They are smart kids. Cynthia, Jeffrey, and Greg.

RM: And Ginny is in the Rochester Hookers Club.

WW: How did you know that? I keep telling her I’m going to get her a shirt that says “I’m a hooker and I’m proud of it.”

RM: Though, really, I’m assuming it has something to do with sewing or something.

WW: Yes, yes.

RM: What do you and Ginny do for fun now?

WW: I’m trying to relearn the things I should have learned when I was younger. My wife and I are learning how to play Mahjong. I’m re-reading books that I should have studied years ago. I read lots of non-fiction. So I’m reading biographies about Mao Zedong and Stalin right now. Everyday, I try to do something for the mind, body, and spirit.

RM: Well, now I feel like I need to go workout and read something and do something spiritual.

WW: Or we could just sit here and keep drinking coffee. I’m retired. And my cousins could use the business.

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