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The Graduate

At 81, Joe Sumoge earns his long-overdue high school diploma

September 3, 2005

The auditorium where Joe Sumoge stood Tuesday morning has not changed much in 62 years. It’s the auditorium of a different school, true, but the old wooden seats in what is now Hood River Middle School are the same ones that were there when the school was Hood River High School beginning in the 1920s. The Percy Manser wall murals, painted in 1928, are still there as are the chandelier-style lights.

Joe Sumoge, 81, stood in that auditorium Tuesday morning and received some things that were overdue him: his high school diploma, 62 years late; a couple of standing ovations from a packed house of Hood River County teachers; a walk from the stage with several of his classmates from the Hood River High Class of 1943; much heartfelt emotion from a lot of people who know that Joe Sumoge’s life, along with hundreds of other Japanese residents of the Hood River Valley, was changed forever by a series of events they had nothing to do with beginning Dec. 7, 1941.

Through a Powerpoint presentation Tuesday morning put together by Hood River Middle School principal Bob Dais, Joe Sumoge also had his story told at the district-wide teacher inservice. It’s an important story, and it goes like this.

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Sumoge (pronouced soo-mo-ghee) was born Dec. 23, 1923, at his family’s home in Oak Grove. He was one of 11 children born to Shinjiro and Masa Sumoge, who owned an orchard. His childhood was a happy one. He attended Oak Grove School, where he was well-liked by classmates and teachers, then Hood River Junior High — which was located where May Street Elementary is now. By the time he got to Hood River High School, Europe was at war. Two of his older brothers were serving in the U.S. military. But for the most part, life went on as usual in Hood River.

Then on a Sunday morning in December 1941, everything changed.

Sumoge recalls being at Viento west of Hood River cutting wood when he got word about the attack on Pearl Harbor. He hurried home, thinking there would probably be a curfew.

Sumoge was a junior that year, and he tried to carry on normally through that winter and spring. His high school record shows he rarely missed a day of school and was never tardy.

But the mood in Hood River had changed. On Feb. 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, calling for the internment of all people of Japanese ancestry living in Washington, Oregon, California and Arizona.

On May 1, 1942, the superintendent of the Hood River school district wrote a letter to the principals of all county schools.

“There seems to be a certainty that sooner or later all Japanese will be evacuated from Hood River County,” the letter read. “Any Japanese children or youth leaving between this date and the date of the closing of school shall be given evidence of their standing — High School Diploma, Eighth Grade Diploma, or Certificate of promotion — as of the closing of school. No such credentials shall be given before the close of school until it is definitely known that they are being moved.”

Two weeks later, on May 13, 1942, all Japanese living in Hood River County were forced to gather at the railroad depot to be transported to internment camps. By the end of that day, all the Japanese in the county were gone — more than 10 percent of the entire population.

Sumoge, his parents and nine brothers and sisters ended up at Tulelake Internment Camp in northern California. At the end of May, Sumoge wrote a letter to his first-grade teacher at Oak Grove School, with whom he’d remained close. “We take the Hood River News and the County Sun,” he wrote. “I read the frost is there, and I think it will spoil the crops.

“I sure miss Hood River and all the friends of Hood River High School,” he continued. “I brought the ‘41 Dragon (yearbook) along with me and every night I look through it. That way I could see some of my friends in good Hood River.”

Because Sumoge was 18, he was not allowed to attend the camp school and soon was sent on a “seasonal pass” to work — first in the asparagus fields near Walla Walla, Wash., and then cutting sugar beets in Montana.

Shortly after his return to Tulelake, he and his family were transferred to Heart Mountain Internment Camp in Wyoming. Sumoge remained there until his release on April 14, 1944, when the U.S. government issued him his green card which he still carries with him.

After Sumoge was released, he headed to Cleveland, Ohio, where a sister had moved. His parents and younger siblings returned to Hood River. A neighbor who had been entrusted with their home and orchard had up and left during the war. Another neighbor had taken over the Sumoges’ home and was using it to house farm laborers.

When he couldn’t find work in Ohio, Sumoge returned to Hood River briefly in 1945, but he felt unwelcome.

“People didn’t want us here,” he said. Most of the stores in Hood River had signs in the windows that read “No Japs.”

“They wouldn’t sell to us,” he said. “We were born and raised here....” The Sumoges would give money to a sympathetic Caucasian friend who would purchase food and other necessities for the family — until she was eventually “caught.”

Sumoge worked on an orchard near the Lower Hanel Mill for a few months, but didn’t like the way he was treated in his hometown.

“I decided there was no use staying here,” he said. He returned to Cleveland where he eventually landed a job at a veterans’ hospital. A few years later he was transferred to L.A. and then to Portland. He spent nine years at the veterans’ hospital in Portland before marrying and returning to the Midwest with his wife.

After divorcing, Sumoge returned to Hood River in 1966 where he landed a job at Hood River Hospital. The climate had changed by then and he felt better about being in his old stomping grounds. He worked at the hospital for six years before being hired by the Hood River County School District. He started as a custodian at the high school (in its new location on Indian Creek), then was moved to the Frankton School. He later worked in the district’s maintenance department, doing, as he says, “a little bit of everything” at schools around the county.

He retired in 1989, but soon was hired back by the district part time to help with the lunch program at Hood River Middle School, working in the same building where he’d spent much of his last two years as a youth. He continued in that job until his second retirement in 2002.

About that time, Bob Dais, HRMS principal, learned that Sumoge had never graduated from high school.

“I knew we needed to do something about that,” Dais said. After Sumoge retired, he returned to the school frequently to visit his old friends and collegues and bring birthday cards to staff. Earlier this year, during one of those visits, Dais decided the time had come.

“I said, we need to recognize this man and his story,” said Dais, who describes Sumoge as “a man of integrity and honor.”

Sumoge was reluctant at first, but finally agreed to be honored at the district’s teacher inservice marking the beginning of the school year.

“He had some stipulations,” Dais said. “He said no silly hat, no speeches, he wanted his classmates to attend, and he wanted to share his story.” Six of Sumoge’s classmates from the Class of 1943, whom Sumoge has grown close to over the years, sat with him in the front row of the auditorium on Tuesday. They joined the hundreds of teachers who gave Sumoge not one but two standing ovations. And, at the end of the program, after he’d been presented his official high school diploma, they walked up the aisle and out the front doors with him, as it would have been 62 years ago.

“It felt real great,” Sumoge said after the program was over. He says he has put the past behind him and is not bitter about it.

“I put it up to experience,” he said. He plans to display his diploma on a wall in his home alongside framed certificates of his two retirements from the school district. They are all much-deserved honors for one of Hood River’s native sons.

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