SUEY GIM LOCKE LEFT THE TINY Chinese village of Jilong more than a century ago to come to America, where he found work as a houseboy in Olympia, Wash. Two full generations later the children of Jilong, waving pom-poms and Ping-Pong paddles, have lined the streets to welcome a very special visitor: the native son's grandson, Gary Locke, 47, governor of Washington and the first Asian-American ever elected to a state's highest office in the continental U.S.

Stepping out of a limousine to greetings from marching bands and elaborately costumed dancers, Locke trod on his ancestral soil for the first time, making his way to the modest one-room house where his grandfather had lived. "I sat in a chair in that room and felt like I was being transported back 100 years," he says. The October visit—part of a trade mission that helped seal Beijing's purchase of 50 jets from Seattle-based Boeing—also served as a reminder of what Locke had overcome to rise to the top. "The family is very proud," he says. "It really is the American dream."

Growing up among immigrants in the housing projects of Seattle, Locke—who didn't learn English until kindergarten—remembers being punished in school when he would admit to the teacher that he had not eaten a conventional American breakfast. "We often had rice soup or seafood," he recalls, "so I'd get slapped on the wrist." Now Locke presides over an increasingly important state (home of Microsoft and Boeing), where 5 percent of the population is Asian-American. As the Democratic candidate in last year's election, he won 59 percent of the vote. "There's a certain endearing quality to him," says Jim Simon, a political reporter for The Seattle Times. "He's fixed problems for a lot of constituencies, and he's built a broad base of support." Though proud of his heritage, he is cautious about being identified as a spokesman for Asian-American interests. "I know that I disappoint a lot of people who expect me to speak fluent Chinese," says Locke, who has gradually lost the ability to speak his parents' native tongue with ease.

Locke has made a name for himself by increasing school spending, pushing tough juvenile-offender legislation and freely wielding his veto power against the state's Republican-controlled legislature. Known more for earnestness than charisma, he has a reputation as a policy wonk who will tend to the most minute details himself. "There's a joke in Seattle," says longtime friend Mary Charles: "If he goes to a dinner party and there's a dripping faucet, Gary's under the sink fixing that leak."

Locke learned his work ethic as the second of five children of Julie, now 71, and James, 80, a World War II veteran who would quiz young Gary on his homework while cooking dinner. With his parents working 365 days a year in their small grocery, the restless teenager found an extended family in the Boy Scouts. He became an Eagle Scout at 14. In 1968 he entered Yale and went on to earn a law degree at Boston University. He then returned to Seattle, where he served as a prosecutor and spent 11 years in the state House of Representatives before winning election-as the chief executive of King County.

Locke's devotion to politics left little room for a private life. A brief marriage ended in divorce in 1978. Then, in 1992, an aide arranged a blind date with Seattle TV reporter Mona Lee, now 32, a former University of California cheerleader who was skeptical about dating a politician. "Before we got married he was more of a workaholic," she says, adding that as a county executive, "he'd say things like, 'If I'm here 'til midnight, why can't you be too?' " Two years later, Locke had softened enough to stage a rooftop declaration of love, complete with a rose, a bottle of champagne, a Tiffany necklace and an airplane banner proposal. "It was overwhelmingly romantic," says Mona, who accepted on the spot. They married four months later, and Mona finally persuaded Locke to cut back his hours and drop working weekends after daughter Emily Nicole was born last March.

"I'm the typical doting father," says the governor. Acculturation is a lifelong process, and Locke, who missed out on Mother Goose in English, has more work on his agenda: "I've got to start learning all those nursery rhymes."

BILL DONAHUE, DON CAMPBELL and TINA KELLEY in Washington

  • Contributors:
  • Bill Donahue,
  • Don Campbell,
  • Tina Kelley.