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News / Northwest

Two people honored with Washington’s top awards for civilians

By Bill Lucia, Washington State Standard
Published: February 22, 2024, 7:32pm

A “one-man Red Cross” and “the closest thing we have to Batman in the state of Washington.”

That’s how Gov. Jay Inslee described Donnie Chin, who in 1968 founded the International District Emergency Center in Seattle. Chin steered the volunteer organization for more than 40 years, earning a reputation for swooping in to assist people having emergencies in the city’s Chinatown, Little Japantown, and Little Saigon areas – often arriving before first responders.

Chin, who died at 59 in an unsolved 2015 shooting, was one of two people honored Wednesday at the state Capitol. He received Washington’s Medal of Valor, which is bestowed to someone who saved, or tried to save, another person’s life despite facing grave risks themselves. When Chin was shot, he was responding to a report of gunfire.

“He saved hundreds of lives,” Constance Chin Magorty, Chin’s sister, said during the award ceremony. “He was a hero but not for how he died, but for how he lived.”

The other honoree, Dr. Abe Bergman, received the state’s Medal of Merit, recognizing outstanding public service. Bergman, a professor and pediatrician at Harborview Medical Center who passed away in November at 91, is remembered for tireless advocacy on policy issues that had to do with children’s safety.

Wednesday marked the first time in nine years that the state gave out either award.

“This is the highest honor the state of Washington can bestow,” Inslee said.

Bergman was instrumental in pressing for landmark federal laws in the 1960s and 1970s that set requirements for children’s sleepwear to be flame-retardant and for medication containers to be child-resistant. He also helped to push through a 1974 law that gave the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development oversight of research on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, the leading cause of death in children between 1 month and 1 year old.

Other areas where he advocated included lawnmower safety – an effort that would help lead to the creation of the Consumer Product Safety Commission – and expanding access to health care for tribal, rural, and underserved communities.

Bergman found an ally in one of Washington’s most powerful former senators, Warren Magnuson, and Jerry Grinstein, a top aide to Magnuson. He worked alongside former U.S. Sens. Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Slade Gorton as well.

Lt. Gov. Denny Heck described Bergman as someone who was able to “see the bigger picture about how good policy could prevent so much of the needless suffering he encountered. Not just one patient at a time, but on a wholesale basis, indeed, on a nationwide basis.”

“I think one reason why he worked well with politicians is that he wasn’t one and never tried to be one,” said Matthew Bergman, Abe Bergman’s son.

He said his father “presented things to political leaders in very stark, unemotional, empirical terms, using the scientific method to achieve political ends.”

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Chin’s work in Seattle began in the late 1960s when he was still a teenager. It stretched beyond just showing up to the scenes of emergencies that Chin and his fellow volunteers listened for on police scanners. They looked out for their neighborhood in other ways, too, like checking in on older residents and feeding the hungry.

“The thing that makes us unique is that we’re able to relate to the community on a one-to-one basis, whereas other services can’t,” Chin said in a 1991 Seattle Times profile.

Seattle Fire Department Chief Harold Scoggins described Chin in a statement as a “vital liaison in building trust and understanding” between the Seattle Fire Department and the Chinatown International District community. The fire department repeatedly tried to hire Chin, but he declined the job offers.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Steven Gonzalez, who delivered a speech about Chin at Wednesday’s ceremony, noted how Chin and other emergency center volunteers responded to everything from car crashes, to falls, to fires, and how they provided an alternative for residents wary of calling the police or the fire department because of culture or language barriers.

“He was the kind of neighbor that we hope to be,” Gonzalez said.

The Washington State Standard is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet that provides original reporting, analysis and commentary on Washington state government and politics. We seek to keep you informed about Washington’s most pressing issues, the decisions elected leaders are making, how they are spending tax dollars and who is influencing public policy.