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Katherine `Mama Naka' Banks, 85; Compton restaurateur served up food and wisdom

June 23, 2007|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

On a sliver of land across the street from Centennial High School in Compton, Katherine and Nathaniel Banks opened a small restaurant in 1956. Their goal was to serve good food. They ended up serving much more.

Their restaurant, Naka's Broiler, became the community's kitchen table, the kind of place where a child ordered a cheeseburger -- and got a side order of wisdom for free from Katherine Banks.

"She seized the opportunity, while we were there enjoying her food as patrons and students, to teach us the value of becoming entrepreneurs, the value of making an honest living, the value of embracing community development," said Earnestine Thomas-Robertson, a graduate of Centennial who is now the dean of academic affairs at Los Angeles Southwest College.

When Banks, 85, died June 5 at Memorial Hospital of Gardena of complications from a stroke, she had nourished and nurtured generations of youths -- among them future judges and mayors and lawyers -- who call her "Mama Naka" and remember her cooking and her lessons.

Born Dec. 25, 1921, in Travis County, Texas, she married Nathaniel David Banks in 1938. In 1947, a year after their daughter, Joy La Nell, died from an illness, the couple moved to California. Katherine Banks worked as a cook and received so many compliments that she decided to open a restaurant.

The couple built the restaurant at 1961 W. El Segundo Blvd. near Central Avenue and created the name Naka by combining the first two letters of Nathaniel with the first two of Katherine. On March 1, 1956, they opened for business -- and for decades, even after the couple divorced in 1963, the little restaurant prospered.

Every day a constant stream of children stopped by to eat, talk and share their lives. "They kept calling me Mama Naka," she wrote in a brief history of her life. "And I kept treating them like I was their mama."

Banks spent time talking with her children -- easygoing, warm and sweet conversations. When necessary she added salt: I don't think you should do that, or, that's not right. But a light touch like hers didn't feel judgmental or nagging, said David Fisher, who first met Banks when he was 7 years old.

The staff at Centennial knew Mama Naka and appreciated the role she played.

"To the students she was a mother away from home; she was a cook whose stove was always aglow," said Maple Cornwell, who was a teacher and assistant principal at Centennial for 43 years. "To me she was a truant officer; she was our friend."

Plenty of times children who couldn't afford a meal ate anyway, said Wini Jackson, a Centennial graduate. By the next day, when Banks had forgotten all about the debt, she'd hear a little voice say, "Here's the money I owe you." Sometimes they brought her flowers.

The life of the community played out at Naka's. In 1965 there were the Watts riots. Other businesses were burned; Naka's was untouched. "Everybody was acting out of order," but a good meal put them in a better frame of mind, she recalled.

The years passed, students went to the prom, got their driver's licenses, went off to college. Times were good for Naka's.

"I saw three generations grow up, and I felt like I still had Joy La Nell in my life," she wrote.

Celebrities found their way to Compton -- and the community grew its own. As a high school student, then a law school student, then a practicing attorney, Johnnie Cochran stopped in for chili dogs.

One evening the door flew open and in walked Muhammad Ali. Jaws dropped in disbelief. The champ ordered a cheeseburger and a slice of German chocolate cake; the conversation was free. Ali spent part of the evening laughing and joking with youths.

In the late 1970s and '80s, gang violence was ravaging the community. But Naka's Broiler was neutral ground. "Regardless of what you did out there, when you got here you straightened your act up immediately," Fisher said. "This was Mama. There's always been a respect thing."

Like Banks, Fisher grew up to become an entrepreneur, and he grew even closer to her, eating regularly at her restaurant. She still loved the cooking and the customers, but he could see the business was taking a toll.

In 1991 Fisher purchased Naka's Broiler and has tried to keep the same atmosphere Banks created; he kept Mama Naka there too, because she loved her little restaurant and wanted to see her "son" succeed.

Last year the restaurant celebrated its 50th anniversary with a big party. City officials, the media and Mama Naka's "children" came en masse to honor her. She couldn't have been happier.

"I did something right for [my] kids to have them love and respect me as much as I love and respect them," she wrote. "If I had it to do all over again, I wouldn't have changed a thing."

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