A Degree in Patience : Japanese American Receives Diploma Denied to Him 53 Years Ago

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Through no fault of his own, Jim Sugasawara had to wait more than half a century to get his diploma from Compton High School.

Thursday evening, the retired Japanese American auto mechanic from Altadena finally got the diploma that he didn't get 53 years ago because the United States, the country of his birth, was at war with Japan, the country of his ancestors.

"I'll probably sleep with it, " said Sugasawara, who will be 72 in August. "I missed this fellow for a long time," he added, clutching his belated certificate.

It was a poignant moment at the graduation ceremony when Compton High Principal William Savant handed him a sealed envelope containing his transcript, a commemorative diploma with the 1942 date and a regular one, bearing Thursday's date, which 210 seniors also received.

When Savant explained why Sugasawara was graduating 53 years late, the graduating class and hundreds more in the audience stood up and applauded.

Too touched to speak, Sugasawara acknowledged the applause with a bow.

The commencement ended a lingering sadness in the life of the unassuming Southern California native who was wronged by his government but who says he is not bitter.

"Life is too short to hold grudges," he said. "I was at the wrong place at the wrong time."

Sugasawara was a Compton High senior in February, 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the government to evacuate people of Japanese descent from the West Coast. Authorities rounded up more than 110,000 Japanese, two-thirds of them U.S. citizens, and dispatched them to hastily built camps.

Sugasawara was assigned to the Manzanar War Relocation Center, located on barren, dusty land 200 miles northeast of Los Angeles in the Owens Valley.

More than 10,000 Japanese Americans, including Sugasawara'3 family, lived there in Army-style barracks, surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by military police.

Not having the "piece of paper," as he calls it, changed the course of life for Sugasawara, who had dreamed of becoming a pilot when he was a boy growing up with nine brothers on his parents' cabbage and celery farm in Dominguez Hills.

Like all his brothers, he had helped on the farm since he was 10. Whenever he saw a plane overhead, he would stop to watch, imagining that someday he would be inside a plane just like it.

Then the war came, and the 18-year-old was sent off to Manzanar, leaving his future unclear and his heart in "turmoil," he recalled.

It broke his heart to leave behind his horse and dog, his fencing gear and his collection of marbles.

When he returned to Southern California after the war, one of the first things he did was to inquire about his diploma at his old school. But school officials told him his records were missing.

"I figured they lost the records," he said. "They probably figured I wasn't coming back."

So, instead of studying to fly planes, he learned to repair cars.

Still, his longing for a graduation certificate never left him.

"There were jobs I couldn't get because I didn't have a diploma," he said. "Even when I had jobs, I could only go so far."

Worse, he always felt embarrassed and inadequate when prospective employers asked if he had graduated from high school.

For 10 years after his return to the Los Angeles area, he worked as a mechanic for a Pasadena car dealer. In 1955, he opened his own auto repair shop in Pasadena. Twenty-one years later, he sold his business and went to work for the city of Pasadena repairing Police Department cars. He retired several years ago.

Though he managed to do rather well financially, not having that diploma tugged at him.

One evening about four years ago, the subject came up when a friend, attorney Michael B. Montgomery, was visiting Sugasawara and his wife, Chizu.

When Montgomery said he would look into it, Chizu Sugasawara asked, "What's the use of getting the diploma at this late stage?"

But Montgomery went ahead and wrote to the school. In a May 21, 1991, letter, he said that it was Sugasawara's recollection that he had sufficient units to graduate at the time he was forced to leave school.

Montgomery asked school officials to check for Sugasawara's records and urged them to give the man, "who has led an exemplary life," his high school diploma.

He did not hear from the school.

In January of this year, Montgomery wrote another letter.

This time, Savant, the school's new principal, asked Christine Sanchez, who had just started working for the Compton Unified School District, to look into the case.

Sanchez, an information and community relations officer, knew right away it was a special case.

"I have a lot of Japanese friends, and I had heard about the internment," she said.

Sanchez went to the central records office, and within five minutes Sugasawara's transcripts were found. Sure enough, he had earned sufficient units for graduation.

Initially, school officials considered a special ceremony just for him. But they decided to let him experience the real graduation by joining the Compton High Class of 1995.

When Montgomery first told him about the discovery, Sugasawara thought the attorney was joking.

And his wife told Montgomery: "I don't think a diploma is going to make any difference now."

But in the ensuing weeks, as she watched her husband of 45 years looking forward to graduation day, she realized how much that "piece of paper" meant to him.

"I'm going to hang my diploma on my living room wall," Sugasawara said. "When I die, I want them to put it in my coffin."

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