Yoshie Hagiya '45 is
high school valedictorian - after 60 years
Weeks before she was to graduate from
Oxnard (Calif.) High in 1942, Yoshie Fujita Hagiya learned she was in
the running for class valedictorian.
But in late April, the 17-year-old Japanese
American girl was forced from her home and sent to an internment camp.
As World War II raged abroad, she spent graduation day surrounded by
armed soldiers and barbed wire fences.
In May, Hagiya got the phone call she
had been awaiting for 60 years. A school district official who dug through
the old records told Hagiya she had the highest grades in her class
and should, indeed, have been valedictorian.
On June 14, the 77-year-old Culver City
grandmother donned cap and gown and received the honors due her.
"I think," she said, "it will go a long
way toward healing an old wound"
Hagiya doesn't recall hostility from her
peers or teachers at Oxnard High School, where she started as a freshman
in 1939. But there were segregated movie theaters and swimming pools.
And laws prevented Asian immigrants from owning land or marrying outside
"We were the kind of people who knew our
place- we didn't push things," Hagiya said.
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor
in 1941, the climate grew especially tense.
The following April, by order of President
Franklin Roosevelt, she and her family were forced to sell or give away
most of their belongings. They packed what little they could and said
goodbye to their friends, their two-story farmhouse, and their Springer
Escorted by soldiers, the family boarded
buses headed for a racetrack in Tulare, where they lived for months,
first in a horse stall and then in a crowded barracks, while they waited
to be transported to the Gila River Relocation Center in Arizona. That
was one of 10 internment camps that, from 1942 to 1947, housed 120,000
people of Japanese ancestry from Washington, Oregon, California, and
In Tulare, Hagiya met the boy who would
become her husband, Paul Hagiya. In the evenings they would linger by
the fence that surrounded the assembly center. They peered out at a
drive-in hamburger place across the street.
"We would drool," she said. "It smelled
so good. We would have loved to go there."
In June, while Hagiya was still in Tulare,
her Oxnard High diploma came in the mail. School officials had sent
the lone document in a brown envelope, with no explanation or calculation
or her final GPA.
After about a year in the Arizona camp,
Hagiya got permission to leave early and attend Southwestern College
in Kansas, a United Methodist school where Paul Hagiya had gone to study
to be a minister.
Her mother gave her $500 in cash and told
her to go as far as she could. Hagiya finished college in three years
with a sociology degree.
She and Paul married in 1945, the night
before he left to fight in the European theater under Gen. George Patton.
Like many Japanese American men who wanted to prove their loyalty to
the Untied States despite having been treated as prisoners, he enlisted
in the Army immediately after finishing college.
After the war, the couple often moved as
her husband served in different communities as a minister. They spent
16 years in Denver, where Hagiya earned her master's degree in education
from the University of Colorado.
She worked for 20 years as an elementary
school teacher in Denver and Los Angeles, where the family settled.
She raised three children, one of whom died in a car accident at 23.
Hagiya's husband died in 1983. She now
lives alone in a Culver City townhome. She plays bridge, line dances,
and visits her 13-year-old grandson Tyler, who lives nearby.
Hagiya was not be alone when she accepted
her long-awaited valedictorian honors. Her daughter, Jan Haruta, and
son, Mark Hagiya, were to be with her in the stands, as well as her
Hagiya rarely talks about life at Tulare
and Gila River. She has kept most of the details from her own children.
Throughout her life she has followed an old Japanese philosophy: shikata
ganai. IF it can't be helped, make the best of it and press forward.
But in February, Hagiya heard it was the
60th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which authorized the Japanese
Internment. The date jogged a memory of a wish her brother expressed
before his 1989 death: that she find out, at last, where she had stood
in her Oxnard class.
She called Nao Takasugi, a former Oxnard
mayor and state assemblyman, with whom she had grown up in Oxnard and
been interned in Arizona, to see if he could help. He asked a friend
in the Oxnard Union High School District to check into the matter.
The friend tapped Judy Warner, an assistant
superintendent in the school district, to help. She dug out the 1942
yearbook from a vault and found a picture of the top three scholars,
Hagiya among them. In archives at the school, she found 1942 transcripts
for all three students and computed the GPAs. Hagiya's was the highest,
Warner called Hagiya immediately.
"When she told me, it was shock," Hagiya
said-"shock because I did not expect them to follow through that soon.
When I hung up the phone, I sat down and the tears would not stop. It
was just overwhelming.
Until then, Hagiya had never heard a word
from any school official. Knowing she is finally to receive her valedictorian
honors, said Takasugi, "brings closure to this part of her life."
Copyright 2002, Los Angeles Times. Reprinted