In the bitter years following World War II, Vivian Potter saw a way to bring some peace and harmony to Japanese children struggling to survive in their war-torn country.
The war had been over 7 years when Potter accompanied her husband, Army Lt. Col. Alwyn Potter, to Yokohama, Japan, in 1952. A volunteer English teacher at a private school there, she touched the lives of many Japanese students who, through her efforts, came to understand and respect American culture.
Tuesday, those former students paid their debt to 83-year-old Potter, who was left comatose and bedridden after suffering a massive heart attack during a visit to Japan in May. They raised more than $15,000 to fly her to Orange County so that she could be near her daughter.
Accompanied by a doctor, a nurse and a family friend, Potter arrived at Los Angeles International Airport on Tuesday afternoon and was brought by ambulance to Western Medical Center-Bartlett, a convalescent care facility in Santa Ana.
“I can’t believe people from another country would do all of this for my mother,” said Potter’s daughter, Laura Williams, 41, of Fountain Valley. “If it wasn’t for them, my mother wouldn’t be here. When I left (Japan) in June, I said goodby to her. I never expected to see her face again.”
Potter and her husband, who ran a military dental clinic in Yokohama, left Japan in 1956 and later returned to their home in Boston. But Potter, who had grown to love the Japanese people and considered the country her second home, returned to visit many times over the years. Her former students, many of whom had become successful in their country, kept in touch and visited her in America. Potter’s husband died in 1975.
Last May, she was was invited to return to Japan as the guest of honor at a class reunion. Three days after her arrival, she suffered a heart attack at the Sapporo home of former student, Yoshiaki Kodama, now chief of the foreign news section of a Japanese newspaper.
For several weeks, Potter lay comatose in Sapporo Municipal Hospital, kept alive by a respirator. Her daughter had sought to have the life-support system removed, but Japanese laws would not allow it. By July, Potter’s lungs had strengthened; she was able to breathe on her own, and the respirator was removed. But doctors said she suffers from irreversible brain damage and is unlikely to recover, according to her daughter.
Potter’s story was broadcast on Japanese television stations and newspapers, prompting several Japanese people, many of whom had never met her, to send donations for her plane fare home.
“She served as a good-will ambassador. She introduced a lot of American culture to Japan at a very early time, and a lot of her students wanted to repay her,” said Dr. Joseph Woo, Potter’s attending physician at the Santa Ana convalescent hospital. “I think the Japanese people she came in contact with were very grateful.”
Potter, who was a nurse, began teaching English as a volunteer at Kanto Gakuin High School in Yokohama. She befriended many of the students and often invited them to her home in the Homoku military base to polish their English skills.
She taught the girls how to prepare American-style meals and introduced them to American food such as ice cream and hot dogs. In return, they taught her Japanese cookery, flower arranging and other skills. Potter also organized a Girl Scout troop and worked as a volunteer for the Red Cross.
“Mrs. Potter gave us lots of friendship, kindness and big love,” said Yuko Kodama, the wife of Yoshiaki Kodama; she accompanied Potter on her flight. “She loved the students and introduced them to American life styles. That was very impressive to young students.”