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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 their race.

"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 spaniel, Goro.

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 Arizona.

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 sister-in-law, Lillie.

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, 3.8.

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 by permission.