Donna Okimoto has been my dear friend for some 20 years. When she emailed me to tell me that at age 86, her Mom was finally going to get her college diploma, I shared her joy.
I also knew in my heart what a wonderful story this would be to share with all of you.
I suspected though that Donna's sweet, quiet Mom, Yuki Sumoge, probably wouldn't want to do the story. Thankfully, I was wrong.
Yuki had already finished two years at Pacific University on a scholarship before Pearl Harbor was bombed.
Like a hundred thousand other Japanese-Americans on the West coast, Yuki and her parents were taken from their Parkdale orchard and sent to internment camps. Prison camps really. Barbed wire surrounding the desolate tarpaper barracks. Towers with armed guards. All of them in hot desert locations. A far cry from the lush beauty of the Hood River Valley.
Only allowed to take what they could carry they were loaded on trains with blacked- out windows. Yuki and her parents would go first to a camp outside of Fresno, California, then to the infamous Tule Lake camp in Northern California. After passing a loyalty test they would eventually end up at Minidoka in Idaho.
During that time Yuki would be given a short leave to marry her pen pal, a U-S soldier.Harold Okimoto had volunteered for the service even before Pearl Harbor, and was waiting to be shipped out to Europe. He fought with the 442nd, a unit of all Japanese-American soldiers. He would fight to defend our country. The same country that had imprisoned his wife.
After the war, Yuki and Harold would settle in Parkdale, start a family and try to fit in. If any of you are familiar with this part of Oregon's history, you know they weren't exactly welcomed home. While they had many good and loyal friends and neighbors, there was plenty of prejudice to go around. Yuki says they simply weren't allowed to buy things at many stores or restaurants. And at least one Hood River newspaper printed anti-Japanese petitions.
Harold would die too young from cancer, at the age of 41. Yuki would raise their three girls on the orchard determined to put the past behind her. She distanced herself from her heritage and her history.
The girls were given all-American names and were not taught to speak Japanese. It wasn't until the youngest daughter, Debbie, was in High School that she found out her Mom had been in the camps. A history teacher asked her about it.
Luckily an old friend and mentor remembered Yuki's story well. Sylvia Bryan was the wife of Yuki's High School principal. They helped her get a scholarship to Pacific in the first place, and now Sylvia was about to help her get her diploma.
An alumnas of Pacific University herself Sylvia called Pacific and asked if they had heard about a new Oregon law.
A bill championed by Oregon State Representative Brian Clem .It would grant honorary college degrees to former Japanese-American's who were forced to leave school for World War II internment camps.
Then Sylvia told them Yuki's story and urged them to right a wrong.
Last Saturday with a former classmate looking on and her family by her side, Yuki graduated from Pacific University. A school that interestingly enough now has a major Asian Studies program.
When Yuki got her diploma, there were cheers and of course tears.
Yuki said she was so grateful. Donna said it was the proudest day of her life. Granddaughter Julie called Yuki her hero.
Photographer Brian Robertson and I felt so honored just to witness it all.
If you missed it, there's a good chance the story will air again during our Sunday morning newscast and of course you will be able to see it right here on kgw.com . Click on News and then Special Reports.
As always, thank you for watching.