Updated at 9:40 p.m. Jan. 18, 2012
Grace Kaminaka was a Foothiller to the soul—just like her four older siblings, all graduates of Grossmont High. But she spent only her freshman year and part of her sophomore term at the school straddling La Mesa and El Cajon.
Despite having been born in El Cajon, she was expelled in April 1942 by federal order—one of 110,000 American citizens of Japanese descent sent to Western internment camps in the wake of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
“I didn’t know why we had to go,” she said Friday. “People [at Grossmont] were good to us.”
Grace finished high school at a camp near Poston, AZ—where she would meet her future husband—commercial fisherman Mas Tsuida, a graduate of San Diego High School.
But Grace always regretted never getting her diploma.
Her niece, Judy Miyamoto of University City, never forgot that. So when Uncle Mas was invited to Washington, D.C., in November to be awarded a Congressional Gold Medal for his unit’s heroism in Europe during World War II, Miyamoto sprung into action.
She sent email to Grossmont High School—addressing it to Theresa Kemper. No longer the principal, Kemper handed it off to Principal Dan Barnes.
“Sure enough, gosh,” Miyamoto said, Grossmont quickly assented to issuing an honorary diploma for Grace—67 years after the fact.
But that wasn’t all. Thanks to the Grossmont High School Museum co-directed by Connie Baer, Grace also got her 1941 and 1942 yearbooks and a copy of the 1944 commencement program, provided by a classmate of that year.
At a November dinner in honor of Mas Tsuida at their daughter Nadine’s home in Falls Church, VA, Grace finally got her diploma.
“She was in shock—so surprised,” Miyamoto said. Later [Grace] said: ‘Even though [Mas] got his medal, the highlight of the trip was my high school diploma.’ ”
The school had arranged to have a diploma replicated that included the signatures of then schools Superintendent John Warburton, Principal Walter Barrett and Board of Education president Rexford Hay.
Last Friday morning, several family members brought Grace to Grossmont for the first time in nearly 70 years.
Grace, 86, was greeted at the museum by schools Superintendent Ralf Swenson and sisters Connie and Lynn Baer, Hiller alumni (Classes of 1965 and 1969, respectively) and museum directors.
Later, Grossmont High School historian and teacher Don Ginn stopped by to chat—telling Grace how some students boycotted class for several days in protest of the banishment of their Japanese friends.
Grace, a San Diego resident, recalled that her teachers were “sentimental” when they learned she was being sent to Arizona—along with 14 other students and a teacher.
“As soon as you handed them [the paperwork], they knew what it meant,” she said.
With Grossmont freshman journalist Tim Collins listening respectfully, Grace told of attending “general English,” science and gym classes at Grossmont.
“It was fun in those days—carefree,” Grace said. “Sweetwater [High School] was our rival.” Her best friend was another Japanese-American girl.
She also recalls a Grossmont coach: “If he saw me in the mornings, he would say ohayo [like Ohio], which you know means good morning in Japanese. He never said it like ohayo gozaimasu.
“Someone taught him what it meant, though. I thought that was cute of him.”
Grace lived in El Cajon—somewhere “way back east” in an agricultural area that since has given way to subdivisions. But her parents were farmers and commuted to Lemon Grove, so Grace took a bus from Lemon Grove to Grossmont.
Grace was a homemaker who raised three children—Nadine, Glenn and a son, Mark, who died of kidney cancer ay age 47.
She held down the house while Mas (pronounced Moss) was on his commercial fishing expeditions—until his retirement in the 1970s. The couple now lives in University City.
On Nov. 2, Tsuida was among hundreds honored for World War II service in Europe. (The first Congressional Gold Medal medal recipient, in 1776, was George Washington. Others include Neil Armstrong, the Tuskegee Airmen in 2006 and the Native American Code Talkers in 2008. Mas was part of the highly decorated 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team. )
“You should have seen the wheelchairs,” Miyamoto said. “All kinds of wheelchairs. My daughter and I looked at each other and said: Aren’t we fortunate.”
Grace was offered a seat several times during Friday’s visit to the Grossmont High School Museum.
She smiled and politely declined each time.
Instead, at 4 foot 10, she stood proudly as a graduate, possessor of a blue-covered document that read:
Be it known that Grace Kaminaka has completed satisfactorily the Course of Study prescribed for Graduation from this High School and is therefore awarded this Diploma Honorary.