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Mary Matsuda Gruenewald graduates from her high school – 74 years later

breaking barriers

The 92-year-old's story of graduation delayed is more than just another feel-good tale of a plucky senior citizen, says the principal of Vashon High.

Mary Matsuda Gruenewald reacted as Vashon Island High School’s principal, Danny Rock, told her story at a graduation ceremony June 17 on Vashon Island in Washington. She was in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans in 1943 when she should have graduated with her class.
Marcus R. Donner
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  • Dean Paton
    Correspondent

For 17-year-old Mary Matsuda, a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to her high-school graduation: Soldiers armed with rifles and bayonets forced Mary to abandon her family’s strawberry farm here, weeks before the end of her junior year at Vashon High.

It was May 16, 1942, and Mary, along with 110 others of Japanese-American ancestry, were “evacuated” from this bucolic agricultural island in the Puget Sound and sent to the first of four federal internment camps Mary would inhabit during World War II.

“My friends accompanied me to the ferry,” Mary, now 92, recalls. “They stood on the dock, waving, and I stood on the boat, waving, and I was crying and I thought, ‘I’ll never see Vashon again.’ It felt like there was a part of my heart that was wrenched away from me, and I didn’t think I would ever get it back.”

Of course, the war did finally end. Despite raising a family, authoring three books, and retiring after what many would describe as a luminous career in health care, Mary felt incomplete. One simple prize she lacked gnawed at her.

“Earlier this spring, Mary and I were visiting Vashon Island,” says Linda Ando, a longtime friend. “Mary told me, ‘I have few regrets, but one of them is that I never got a chance to graduate with my class, with my peers at Vashon High.’ ”

Matsuda Family in 1933.
Matsuda/Gruenewald Collection
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Secretly, Ms. Ando contacted Danny Rock, principal at Vashon Island High School. “I went rummaging around in our files,” he says, “and I found her grades and her cumulative file.” The yellowed sheet showed a student with a 3.7 grade point average, as well as perfect attendance and membership in the honor society. He called and said, “Yes, we can do that. We can make her a graduate.”

Principals have “quite a bit of power” in Washington State, Mr. Rock points out. “That’s not true in every state, but I have the power to issue a diploma.”

When Mary learned she would at last graduate, “She was just so overcome with emotions,” Ando says. “She called me eight or nine times the day after she learned what was happening.”

So on June 17, some 75 years after Executive Order 9066 expelled Mary from the island, Mary donned her cap and gown – the green, black, and gold of the Vashon High Pirates – and joined the Class of 2017 on the football field as a light rain drizzled. (Her son, Ray Gruenewald, pushed his mom onto the field in a wheelchair.)

Rock says Mary’s story of graduation delayed is more than just another feel-good story tale of a plucky senior citizen. “Mary’s story is certainly connected to the larger story about the fear of ‘others’ we’re seeing now,” Rock says, “and our students recognize this. As soon as her wheelchair came out onto the track, no one had to say a word. But there was a standing ovation.”

When Rock addressed the graduates and their families, he proclaimed, “Mary, you may think that we’re doing something special for you today, and that may be so, but the deeper truth is that you are giving us a gift rarely given: the gift of time, the gift of life, and the gift of hope that whatever our story includes, whatever challenges we face in our past and in our future, our story is never over.”

Mary wiped away tears as the school presented her with a 1943 diploma as well as a photocopy of the 1943 yearbook, along with a 2017 yearbook signed by this year’s grads.

“She’s really strong to finish what she started, despite being taken away from Vashon at such a young age,” says Linnet Chappelka, 18, one of those new graduates, who played on the school’s tennis team and was president of the Spanish Club. “For us the history seemed so far away; what happened to the Japanese-Americans seemed very distant.

“But seeing her here, seeing the effects of the war so up-close and personal, it really showed us the real-world impact on the Japanese-Americans – the atrocity of what happened,” Ms. Chappelka says.

Proving her principal’s point – that Mary’s return to Vashon High was significant to the students – Chappelka added, “We can’t be against a whole group just because they’re an ‘other,’ and we can’t judge a whole group of people based on the actions of a few.

“As a society, I don’t think we learn – because we sweep unpleasant things we’ve done under the carpet,” she continues. “So we’re ashamed of what we’ve done and we don’t want to remember it. But the whole point of history is to know what we’ve done in the past, and what mistakes we’ve made – and not repeat them.”

Mary and her brother, Yoneichi, in uniform at Minidoka before Yoneichi left for combat in Europe in 1944. Mary was in nursing school.
Matsuda Gruenewald Collection
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In her ninth decade, Mary Matsuda Gruenewald has forgotten little. Her Vashon High diploma was not the first she received. She also “graduated” from a school of sorts in the camp at Tule Lake. But she scoffs at that piece of paper.

“You graduate from high school in the camps, and you can’t go off and do anything,” she says, “because you’re surrounded by barbed wire. I got the diploma, but I was still in camp. You want to celebrate that?

“Vashon is the place where I grew up. That was the place where the community embraced us as one of them,” she says. “I have earned many, many, many awards along the way – and the diploma from Vashon is certainly among the biggest.”

Most today don’t realize the internment camps were not exactly prisons; some Japanese-Americans were able to leave. They just weren’t allowed to return to the West Coast, where officials claimed they might assist any Japanese forces that might invade.

When she was at Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming, Mary decided to become a nurse. Supported by $250 from a scholarship fund created by other internees, Mary joined the US Cadet Nurse Corps, traveled to Clinton, Iowa, and began her training. The war ended before she could serve. (Her brother, Yoneichi, enlisted in the legendary 442nd infantry regiment, a mostly Japanese-American unit that fought savagely against the Nazis in Italy, southern France, and Germany.)

Eventually, Mary married Charles Gruenewald, a minister, and made her way back to Seattle, where she went to work for Group Health Cooperative, one of the first consumer-governed health maintenance organizations. Working as night-shift administrator, she found herself answering “call after call after call” from patients wanting advice about health worries at all hours.

From this, Mary came up with the visionary idea of the “consulting nurse,” a 24-hour service that members could call anytime to get advice without needing to see a physician. The idea grew so popular that it spread to other health-care organizations across the country and, eventually, the world.

When Mary turned 70, she took up writing. Her first book, “Looking Like the Enemy: My Story of Imprisonment in Japanese-American internment Camps,” made it to manuscript form around the time of the 9/11 attacks in Manhattan and Washington, D.C. Mary’s publisher at New Sage Press, Maureen Michelson, says Mary was worried about the anti-Muslim fervor those attacks generated, and “was very driven at that point to get this story about Japanese-Americans into print, because, she told me, ‘We can’t let the imprisonment of minority groups happen again.’ ”

Mary followed up that first book with a young reader’s edition of “Looking Like the Enemy” that was nominated by the American Library Association as a Best Book for Young Adults, and later with a volume titled “Becoming Mama-San: 80 Years of Wisdom.”

Thinking back on the events of 75 years ago, Mary says, “War was coming on the horizon, and ‘they’ needed someone to blame. Japanese-Americans were just a convenient scapegoat.

“I feel for the Muslims now,” she says, “because I think they’re in the same spot that we were in. You feel totally helpless, and you don’t know if people will come to your defense. But I still believe in the American way of life – and the strength of that is in the people who live here.

“One can always hope.”

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