Thursday, June 12, 2008

A long time coming


Sixty-six years ago, Michito Fukuzawa was two-months shy of graduating from Santa Barbara High School when he and his family were sent to a Japanese internment camp.
While there, Fukuzawa, now 84, received his diploma in the mail. But the experience of “marching down the hill” as they say at Santa Barbara High School, and participating in commencement ceremony, had gotten away.
That is, until yesterday, where before a packed Peabody Stadium, Fukuzawa donned a cap and gown, and with the youthful faces of 639 fellow graduates, the retired graphic arts and special education teacher, finally got to walk.

“I get to walk down the hill,” Fukuzawa said before joining Santa Barbara Principal Mark Capritto and District Superintendent Brian Sarvis for the walk. “That’s a dream fulfilled and not everyone gets that.”
After the Japanese military bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Fukuzawa said it was apparent to everyone, not just Japanese Americans, that things wouldn’t be the same.
He said one of his close friends called him that night to tell him the attack in no way would affect their relationship.
On Dec. 8, a Monday, Fukazawa said his other close friend, Mel Hammel, showed up at his home early to walk him to school in order to ensure nothing happened along the way.
Fukuzawa said he and his family left their home in April 1942 and went to a meeting place near West Beach, where they boarded a Greyhound Bus that took them to an internment camp in Gila River, Ariz.
While there, Fukuzawa said another of his friends, who wrote to say he’d been accepted to Dartmouth College, offered to send him money. Fukuzawa thanked his friend for the offer, but informed him that in the camp, there was no place to spend money, and therefore no need for money.
“I was very touched by that,” he said.
Fukuzawa wasn’t there long. He said the government allowed him to leave to attend college in Chicago, but not more than a week after arriving in the Midwest, he was drafted.
By 1944, roughly a year before the end of World War II, Fukuzawa found himself fighting in France and Germany, where he earned a number of military honors, including a Bronze Star for bravery, a Presidential Citation and a Combat Infantry Badge.
Five months after the war ended, he returned home and eventually enrolled at UC Santa Barbara, where he earned a teaching certificate. After graduation, he moved to Los Angels, where he taught school from 1953 through 1985.
It wasn’t until about six months ago, when the school invited Fukuzawa to attend commencement, that his son, Leigh Fukuzawa realized his father had not participated in the graduation ceremony,
Leigh Fukuzawa, 52, said it’s not so much the diploma that counts, but the ceremony itself that one remembers.
“You don’t think it’s a big deal but after all these years he really got excited about it,” he said of his father. “It’s one of those things you never forget.”
The younger Fukuzawa said his father was never bitter about being forced to live in the internment camp.
But in a letter he sent to a classmate in May 1942, the elder Fukuzawa expressed his disappointment in not being able to “march down the hill.”
“I am fortunate that they are giving me my diploma in a few weeks, but the idea of not marching down the hill makes me feel pretty sick,” he wrote. “Maybe someday I can go back to live a normal life. I am keeping my fingers crossed for that certain day.”
Principal Capritto said that inviting Fukuzawa back goes hand-in-hand with school’s motto, “Once a Don, Always a Don.”
“It is the piece of tradition he missed certainly through no choice of his own,” Capritto said. “He had a pretty bad experience and was asked to leave.”
Capritto said the symbolism of “marching down the hill” is what every student looks forward to.
He said students who have to leave the school for short periods of time for one reason or another often return and tell Capritto they do so in order to “march down the hill.”
“It’s the hill that students have truly come to understand and know,” he said. “It’s part of the culture of the school. It’s just what they want to do.”
Fukuzawa resides in Gardena, Calif.

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