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Tuesday, March 4, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Liem Tuai, 77, attorney, civic leader, family man

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Liem Tuai spent a lifetime serving others.

He served his country in the U.S. Air Force. He served Seattle on the City Council. He served King County as a deputy prosecutor and later as a Superior Court judge. Even after retiring in 1996, Mr. Tuai served as a legal advocate for the community.

"He was a very honest man and always went out of his way to help people with their legal problems," his son, Greg Tuai, said yesterday. "He wouldn't even take their money. He was always more interested in helping people than making money."

Mr. Tuai died early Sunday (March 2) after a lengthy battle with lung cancer. He was 77.

Born in 1925 in Port Townsend, Liem Eng Tuai grew up from humble beginnings. His father was a railroad worker and a laundry man.

He dropped out of Bremerton High School in ninth grade to work as a machinist at Boeing before serving in the U.S. Air Force in Japan from 1946-50, according to news reports.

He enrolled at the University of Washington at age 25 and earned his bachelor's degree in 1954; two years later, he graduated from UW Law School. Over the years, he worked as an attorney for the General Services Administration, as a King County deputy prosecutor and as a private attorney.

In 1969, Mr. Tuai became the second Chinese-American member of the Seattle City Council; he was elected its president in 1973. He ran an unsuccessful campaign to be mayor of Seattle in 1974.

He told his sons that the loss was the best thing for him.

"Dad was not a political animal," Greg Tuai said. "Honest and unwilling to compromise his principles, he was not made for politics."

Mr. Tuai was appointed to King County Superior Court in 1977.

During his tenure on the bench, Mr. Tuai presided over several arson, murder and sex-abuse cases, but he never lost his optimism.

"His faith in the human condition never waned," Greg Tuai said. "He always found the good in humanity."

King County Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng said he was saddened to hear of Mr. Tuai's passing.

"Judge Tuai had a long and distinguished career in public service," Maleng said in a statement yesterday. "He was a true gentleman who showed respect to all those who appeared before him, whether it was a judge or city councilman. He will truly be missed."

Mr. Tuai planned to retire Oct. 9, 1995, but agreed to delay his departure to help the county with its dramatically rising caseload. He resigned from the bench April 1, 1996, after serving more than 18 years as a Superior Court judge.

Stephen Reilly worked with Mr. Tuai for 12 years. What he remembers most about the retired judge was his loyalty, honesty and patience.

"He was one of the finest guys you'd want to know," he said.

Reilly and Mr. Tuai were two of five judges appointed to superior court by former Gov. Dixy Lee Ray in 1977. They affectionately referred to themselves as the "Gang of Five."

As a family man, Mr. Tuai was devoted to his wife, three sons and grandchildren, friends and family said.

Mr. Tuai met Winnie Joyce Eng in 1950. After a whirlwind five-month romance, they married and spent the next 46 years together.

"My parents always held hands," Greg Tuai said. "People would remark about it, but I thought that wasn't a big deal. We always considered that normal."

When she died in 1997, "my father was devastated," Greg Tuai said. "He always considered himself the luckiest man in the world to have my mom choose him to be her husband."

Greg Tuai said his father had a keen mind. He remembers discussions at the dinner table about politics and the law with his Republican father and liberal brothers.

More than anything, he said he'll miss the conversations they shared.

"What I cherished the most was talking about everything and nothing. It was wonderful," he said. "Often, people regret the fact that they were not able to talk with their loved ones during the short time we have on Earth. I have no regrets."

Mr. Tuai is survived by sons Walter, Gregory and David, and granddaughters Alexandra and Cassandra.

The family asks that remembrances be sent to Kin On Health Care Center www.kinon.org or to Seattle Keiro www.nikkeiconcerns.org.

A memorial service is to be announced.

Nguyen Huy Vu: 206-464-2376 or vunguyen@seattletimes.com.

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