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History Snoopin': Learning is never ending

“I started out as nothing, but I did have goals — like finishing school,” she said.

Mary Takao, an honor graduate at Medford High School, left her Central Point home on September 15, 1941. She was off to her freshman year at Oregon State College in Corvallis.

Born in a farmhouse, June 6, 1923, Mary was the seventh child of Japanese immigrants Kakuji Takao and his wife Yaeno. Her mother died when Mary was 7 years old, leaving her father no choice but to send her and her 5-year-old sister, Mona, to live with Harry and Kimi Yokota, a Japanese couple with a Central Point farm that bordered the Medford airport runway.

Unsure what to call these stepparents in their new living arrangement, the sisters decided on “ojisan” and “obasan,” Japanese for aunt and uncle. Later, Mary credited her aunt for Mary’s attitudes in life.

“Somehow,” Mary said, “obasan instilled in Mona and me a burning desire to learn.”

After graduation from high school and saving her money for college, Mary took a job as a “salad girl” at the Hotel Medford. In the summer of 1941, she enrolled at Oregon State and found a home where she could work as a live-in maid and earn just enough money to pay for books and tuition.

On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, Mary had just prepared a breakfast tray for her employer, Lucile Buxton. As she entered the bedroom, a shaken Lucile shouted, “Mary, listen to this bulletin on the radio!”

“We listened in silence,” Mary said, “as it was repeated over and over again, ‘Japs bomb Pearl Harbor.’” While trying to remain calm and ease the tension, Mary remembered thinking, “I hope they won’t ship us all to Japan.”

“I won’t let them take you!” Lucile suddenly shouted, and both women began to cry.

As the days passed, there was a lot of war talk; however, the many American-born Japanese students on campus tried to convince themselves they had nothing to fear. Still, they were put on a curfew and each had to carry their birth certificate at all times.

“By January 1942, our worst fears began to turn into a grim reality,” Mary said. Non-native Japanese were being rounded up and taken to prison camps.

“Then the inevitable occurred in May 1942,” she said. “I received my notice ... we were to be taken to a relocation center called Tule Lake in Northern California.”

In the camp, Mary was happily reunited with her father and sister Mona, along with her aunt and uncle, the Yakotas; yet, after nearly a year, Mary admitted she was feeling blue. “I felt hopelessness and despair and needed to try somehow to get out and go on with my life.”

She answered a notice on the camp bulletin board asking for someone interested in working in St. Paul, Minnesota, and, to her surprise, “I walked out of the barbed wire gates to a new beginning.”

Mary lived the rest of her life in Minneapolis, Minnesota. There she married and raised a large family.

She had earned a Religious Education degree from Texas Wesleyan College, yet, after returning to Minnesota, she faced discrimination in her job hunt. She landed a position as Teen-Age Program Directors with the YMCA for a few years, before moving on to a 20-year career as a councilor and advisor in the Minneapolis School System.

In 2008, Oregon State finally issued honorary degrees to all of the Japanese students who were taken away during WWII.

Mary died September 27, 2014, 91 years young and never bitter over her internment.

“Hindsight is important,” she said, “but living in the past can’t change what has been done. It has made me very much aware that learning is never ending.”

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including“History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.