Dr. Mary Oda is someone I am happy to call my friend for the past 35 years. Her story relates to some important people in our past.
I first became acquainted with Mary about the time I became interested in redress. Her older brother, Sanbo Sakaguchi, was a surgeon practicing in San Fernando, and after several years invited Mary to share his office with him. Her husband, Jimmy, had recently retired from running a poultry farm in Fontana.
Redress was just starting to make the news around 1976 or so. Channel 4 was interested in putting together former internees with Lillian Baker. (Yes, the Lillian Baker). So, here we were, the three of us telling our stories pitted against Lillian, who apparently was TV savvy and proceeded to dominate the discussion with her racist ranting. It was a frustrating experience for Mary, Jimmy and me.
The day after the interview, Mary left her office for home to find an American flag draped over her car. She was incensed. As upsetting this whole experience was, there was a bright side. The normally soft-spoken, subdued Dr. Oda became an angry and awakened woman, wanting to get the truth out about our experience during World War II.
Although she had a very busy practice and she told me she really didn’t want to talk about her experiences, she agreed to testify at the federal redress hearing that was held in L.A. She not only gave moving testimony herself, but she says she took off from work for three days and cried the whole time while listening to the other heartrending stories.
When I first met her, Mary told me that in preparation to work in psychiatry she was interviewed by a psychiatrist who told her she was an angry woman. Mary at first rejected this analysis, but after some thought, realized he was right. (I would suspect many of us have repressed anger about our wartime experiences, which remains repressed. But let me save this discussion for another column.) She had every reason to be angry. The internment pulled her from her first year of medical school. While she was in Manzanar she lost her father, older brother, and sister, all within a few months of one another — all attributable to the harsh camp conditions. In addition, her younger sister, Lily, had a medical condition that made it necessary for her to be treated at a hospital in Utah.
In 1978, Eugene, her youngest child and only son, who was a pre-med student, was killed in a freeway accident. Mary was devastated. To make some sense of this tragedy, Mary and Jimmy, through the JACL and San Fernando Valley JA Community Center,initiated two $1,000 scholarships: A thousand dollars each to a Japanese American and a Mexican American high school graduate. Incidentally, her sister Lily’s son was married to the daughter of Ralph Lazo. Lily taught chemistry in Manzanar, and one of her students was Ralph Lazo. Each year Ralph awarded the Eugene Oda Mexican American Scholarship. Both of these scholarships were funded by the Odas for 20 years.
In June of last year, Mary fell at a restaurant and broke her hip. At 90 years of age, this injury frequently would be fatal, but fortunately, Mary practiced the advice she gave to her patients. Prior to the accident she stayed in shape by regularly going to a gym and walking on a treadmill. The discipline borne by the determination that had carried her through to this point in life carried her through once more. Today she uses a cane, and still walks regularly on a treadmill.
Mary has been a medical doctor for 67 years. During the 47 years she has practiced in the Valley, Mary estimates she delivered over 3,000 babies. Her three daughters and seven grandchildren stand in respect and admiration, as I do.
Thank you, Dr. Mary Oda, for all you have meant to your family and to our community.
A postscript: After writing the above column, I read it to Dr. Mary for her approval. In looking back, she said, working as a doctor those many years was easy, and she enjoyed it. However, she tells me, the seven years she stayed at home to raise her family, while satisfying, was a lot of work. Looking forward to Mother’s Day, she pays tribute to all other mothers for their devotion and hard work.
Phil Shigekuni can be reached by email. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.