Graduating High School At 92

Jun 25, 2017
Originally published on June 26, 2017 6:23 pm

Mary Matsuda Gruenewald grew up on Vashon Island in Washington State. It's a small town of about 10,000 people — many of whom commute by ferry to jobs in nearby Seattle. It's green, it's beautiful, it's the kind of place where you can't walk into the grocery store without seeing someone you know.

Mary Matsuda Gruenewald says that when she lived there, a lot of the families were farming families, including hers. Her high school experience was pretty typical, until one Sunday in 1941.

She remembers the moment vividly when she and her brother returned home from Sunday school to find their father sitting at the dining room table.

"Both he and my mother were somber," Matsuda Gruenewald recalls. When she and her brother asked their parents what had happened, their father told them that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor. "We didn't know what that would mean other than that some bad thing was going to happen to us as a family because we were Japanese," she says.

They were right. Within days her family was instructed that they had to leave their home. They weren't told where they would be going or for how long. They each packed two suitcases. The family was loaded into Army trucks and driven to the Vashon ferry dock.

Matsuda Gruenewald remembers how some of her best friends from high school had gathered there to see her off: "We said careful goodbyes because we didn't know if we would ever see each other again."

Matsuda Gruenewald's family wound up living in several different Japanese internment camps in California and Wyoming. She finished her senior year of high school in one of them, taught by volunteer teachers.

After the war was over, she returned to the Seattle area where she worked as a nurse — and later became a major force in the health care field, advising on the national level.

She also wrote a memoir about the painful years she spent in the Japanese American Internment Camps. She was 80 years old when it was published.

She never lived on Vashon Island again, even though she brought her children there for a few weeks each summer to work on her brother's farm there. But even now, she says it's still special to her — "a place that I consider home."

This year Vashon Island High School invited Mary Matsuda Gruenewald to come experience the graduation she should have had in 1943. She got a cap and gown as well as a diploma, and when her son Ray Gruenewald wheeled her to the graduates' seating area, she got a spontaneous round of applause from the crowd.

"I got all choked up that people would cheer as we walked in," she says, "because when the war was on, it was just exactly the opposite. And I felt ashamed for being Japanese, and wanting to crawl into my skin, and not be visible at all."

Matsuda Gruenewald has some thoughts for the students who graduated alongside her and will soon be leaving their island behind for the wider world. She says it can be overwhelming, but the world can also be a welcoming place, like it was for her on graduation day.

What crossed her mind then, as she looked out at the crowd of Vashon residents applauding her was, "Wow, isn't this a wonderful introduction to being an adult."

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Vashon Island in Washington state held its high school graduation last Saturday. Among the teenagers getting diplomas was one 92-year-old woman. The ceremony was a rite of passage she should have had decades ago.

NPR's Ravenna Koenig has a personal connection to this story.

RAVENNA KOENIG, BYLINE: Mary Matsuda Gruenewald grew up on Vashon. It's a small island town, about 10,000 people, and many of them commute by ferry to jobs in nearby Seattle. It's green. It's beautiful. It's the kind of place where you can't walk into the grocery store without seeing someone you know. That's something that still happens to me. I also grew up on the island and graduated from the local high school.

But Mary Matsuda Gruenewald experienced a different chapter of island history. Her high school experience was pretty typical until one Sunday in 1941. She remembers the moment vividly when she and her brother returned home from Sunday school to find their father sitting at the dining room table.

MARY MATSUDA GRUENEWALD: And both he and my mother were somber. And we said - what's going on? And that's when our father said, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. We didn't know what that would mean other than that some bad thing was going to happen to us as a family because we were Japanese.

KOENIG: They were right. Before long, her family was instructed that they had to leave their home. They weren't told where they would be going or for how long. They were loaded into Army trucks and driven to the Vashon ferry dock.

GRUENEWALD: Some of my best friends were there, and we said tearful goodbyes because we didn't know if we would ever see each other again.

KOENIG: Mary's family wound up living in several different Japanese internment camps in California and Wyoming. She finished her senior year of high school in one of them, taught by volunteer teachers.

And after the war was over, she returned to the Seattle area where she became a nurse and eventually advised on health care issues at the national level.

She never lived on Vashon again, even though she brought her children to the island for a few weeks each summer to work on her brother's farm. But it always remained a special place to her.

GRUENEWALD: It's still a place that I consider home.

KOENIG: This year, Vashon High School invited Mary to come experience the graduation she should have had in 1943. She got a cap and gown, a diploma. And when her son Ray wheeled her to the graduate seating area, she got a spontaneous round of applause from the crowd.

(APPLAUSE)

GRUENEWALD: I got all choked up that people would cheer as we walked in because when the war was on, it was just exactly the opposite. And I felt ashamed for being Japanese and wanting to crawl into my skin and not be visible at all. But on this occasion, people were cheering us on, and it was wonderful.

KOENIG: Mary Matsuda Gruenewald has some thoughts for the students who are leaving their island behind for the wider world. She says it can be overwhelming, but the world can also be a welcoming place, like it was for her last Saturday.

GRUENEWALD: What I felt that day was a feeling of - wow, isn't this a wonderful introduction to being an adult?

KOENIG: Ravenna Koenig, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.