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Summer 2004 | Volume 26, Number 7 | Campus

Response Readers Help Solve the Mystery of Toshiko Senda’s Graduation

says Seattle Pacific University senior Katie Stalley about receiving several letters from former classmates of Toshiko Senda. The letters answered the culminating question of her quarter-long research project: Was Senda permitted to leave a wartime internment camp for Japanese-American citizens in order to attend her 1942 Seattle Pacific College Commencement? After seeing the article relating Stalley’s search in the Spring 2004 Response, readers wrote in to share the answer, which turned out to be a resounding “yes!”

The mystery began when Stalley came across two yellowed letters from the University’s archives. The first was a handwritten note to Seattle Pacific President C. Hoyt Watson from Senda, then an SPC senior, who was stranded in an internment camp for citizens of Japanese descent. “The Headquarters’ Office has told me that if I have someone be my custodian while I am gone and also have someone come and get me I will have an easier time getting out,” she wrote.

Watson’s return letter, addressed to the camp manager, was received within days. “By vote of our faculty, she [Senda] is being graduated,” he wrote. “We are very anxious for Miss Senda to be present to receive her diploma and degree.”

But did the camp manager release Senda for her graduation? Did she make it to SPC in time? Stalley launched a large-scale research project to find answers. But after three months of tracking clues, she reached a roadblock. “We had all the pieces of the puzzle lined up — the letters, all kinds of historical documents, interviews — but no solid proof from anyone who had been there that day in 1942,” she says. Even more unfortunate, Stalley learned that Senda and Will Hunter, the student who was asked to pick her up from camp, were both deceased. “It really felt like the project had reached a dead end.”

Then the letters from Response readers started coming in, including from SPU’s own Tim Nelson, professor of biology. His mother, Elsie Somerton Nelson ’42, was a classmate and friend of Senda. “My mom graduated with her [Senda] in 1942,” wrote Nelson. “I heard the story about Dr. Watson arranging for Toshi to be at graduation retold many times by my mom, who held her cap and gown for her as the students lined up for the processional. She arrived just in time to put on the cap and gown and ‘walk’ with her class.”

Harold Leise ’42 verified this version of events — with a firsthand account. “I was a very good friend of Will Hunter,” wrote Leise. “When Will was asked to pick up Toshiko … I volunteered to go with him. We arrived back at campus in the nick of time. The graduating class was walking across the campus to the auditorium. Will drove … as far as the road would take him, and I jumped out of the car almost before it came to a full stop … and breathlessly announced, ‘Toshiko’s here!’

“That’s all I needed to say,” Leise’s letter continued. “The dean stopped the procession while Toshiko and Will got into their caps and gowns and joined the group.”

Even greater than hearing this, says Stalley, was learning from Leise about how the SPC community received Senda that day. “During the introduction of VIPs by the college president, the one who got the longest applause was an elderly, well-known, well-respected professor — except for one,” writes Leise. “With an appropriate background of events, President Watson introduced Toshiko Senda. The applause went on almost interminably. It was an unforgettable experience.”


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