A HIDDEN ACHIEVEMENT: Margaret Masuoka’s education interrupted

MARGARET AND DAVE — Now residents at Kokoro Assisted Living, the Masuokas enjoy their time in San Francisco, but behind them is a past that spans decades of colorful history. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

Margaret Masuoka was meant to graduate with a degree in botany from Santa Ana College in 1942. Masuoka, 89, studied the subject until she was ordered to the Poston, Ariz. concentration camp. The Nikkei was set to graduate that June.

Masuoka received a letter from her favorite professor, J. Russell Bruff, telling her to meet him at the fence in the camp. He traveled 30 miles to the Santa Anita Race Track to give her a gift and some words of encouragement.

“You look for some plants in the desert,” he said, and left her with a magnifying glass to help her study the plants.

Masuoka eventually lost track of Bruff and she found that Poston didn’t have much in terms of plant life to study, even with a magnifying glass.

Today, she lives at Kokoro Assisted Living in San Francisco’s Japantown. She shares an apartment with her husband, Dave.

The couple moved to the City by the Bay two years ago from Los Angeles at the request of their son and daughter, who also live in the Bay Area.

Margaret never went back to school. She worked as a Kelly Girl temp as well as in her family’s floral nursery. Her husband, with the aid of the GI Bill, got his Ph.D. in pharmacology. After the two retired, they became active volunteers at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. They gave tours and told visitors about their experiences at camp.

Margaret has traveled around the world and seems comfortable with her life. She lived in Sweden for five years when Dave got a grant to live and work there — the couple were invited to attend the Nobel Science Awards. She is also noted by Santa Ana College to have climbed mountains such as Fuji and Whitney, but she had never walked in a college graduation.

“One thing I missed was getting my diploma,” she said.

Upon learning that Santa Ana College was looking for former students such as herself, she called the school, and they offered to pay for her transportation to the school in Santa Ana, Calif., and a hotel stay, in order to attend her graduation ceremony, which was held May 20.

The process was part of the California Nisei College Diploma Project, which provides outreach and education to support Assemblymember Warren Furutani’s Assembly Bill 37, which requires California State University and the California Community Colleges and requests that the University of California to award honorary degrees to former students who were unable to complete their education due to their wartime incarceration.

The associate degree, however, is not honorary for Margaret. While incarcerated, she continued her studies. Before she was forcibly removed from her home — along with some 120,000 persons of Japanese descent — she asked her professors if she could finish her degree remotely. They allowed her to do so and Margaret packed her books and a typewriter into her suitcase.

“I took more books than clothes,” she said with a chuckle.

The work she did in camp had qualified her for a degree, the Orange County Register reported. However, she never heard back from the college after she mailed them her academic work, she said. According to the Register, Margaret was not even one of the students Santa Ana College was initially searching for. The school, nevertheless, invited her to join the other 1,800 graduates and fulfill her dream of walking at the May 20 commencement ceremony.

“I’m happy it’s finally come to this,” Margaret said, about receiving her degree.

While incarcerated, Margaret found that her typewriter served as her lifeline to Dave, who had left the camp for Indiana to continue his schooling. She wrote to him every day.

Margaret eventually left Poston for Colorado, where she worked as a live-in domestic worker. “It was the hardest time for me,” she said. She lived in a rich family’s basement; her employer seemed hardly sympathetic to her situation.

She continued writing to Dave, telling him about how she hoped that “someday, it will get better.” It was around then that Dave sent her a package. He had bought her a diamond ring.

It was no picnic afterward, though. Dave’s father passed away in camp a few days after Margaret received the ring, and his mother moved in with him. The Masuokas had a small wedding in Chicago and lived together for a short time before Dave was drafted into the Army.

He was sent to Minnesota to receive training for the Military Intelligence Service, and she followed him. She was treated well in Minnesota and despite the cold weather, had an easier time living there. Margaret found work helping to take care of a woman and her three children. The woman didn’t charge Margaret rent. When the war ended, the woman told Margaret, “You don’t owe me anything.”

After the war ended, the Masuokas went to Fort Mason in San Francisco, before Dave was sent to Japan. Margaret saw her husband off as many of the servicemen were coming home from the Pacific Theatre.

Dave was shipped to Japan to translate letters and interview prisoners. For him, it was a chance to meet his father’s family in Fukuoka, and he fondly remembers his days there. He worked for a year as a translator in Tokyo and Fukuoka before rejoining Margaret in Los Angeles.

Their move to San Francisco two years ago was somewhat sudden. The Masuokas brought a dresser and nightstand that Dave made out of scrap lumber while he was incarcerated during the war, but some of their possessions, including the magnifying glass, remain in their Los Angeles home.

Even still, the Masuokas now enjoy retirement life in San Francisco. Their children take them out on the weekend and the Masaokas find the staff at Kokoro caring and helpful.

“I was hospitalized after I tripped on a carpet, and the chef made me a bento every day since he knew I wouldn’t like the hospital food,” Margaret said.

She persevered, and is now able to get around, minus the walker.

Margaret is happy to be without the walker — it would have gotten in the way of walking to receive her diploma.

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