By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Contributing Writer
PACIFIC PALISADES — Her name may not be prominently displayed at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center in Wyoming, but former internee Marjorie Matsushita Sperling’s vital leadership role and spirited resolve led the journey toward its creation.
Passionate and outspoken, Sperling devoted much of her life to preserving the lessons embodied in the Japanese American experience and to inspiring young people toward greater achievement. She passed away peacefully May 26 at age 91.
Born in Wapato in Washington’s historic Yakima Valley farming community, Sperling had just completed her first quarter at the University of Washington when she heard news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. She was not permitted to return to school.
She retained vivid memories of the 6 p.m. curfew imposed on all persons of Japanese ancestry and of soldiers in full combat gear ushering her parents and two older sisters onto a dusty train, holding their own luggage. They were sent first to an assembly center in a Portland stockyard and then to Heart Mountain.
In a 2009 interview with filmmaker Ken Burns for his PBS documentary “Never Again,”Sperling said, “(The forced removal) was asinine when I look back at it. And, if it happened today, oh my, I would raise such hell.”
As the war went on, Sperling was able to get a job in the camp’s recreation department and eventually received permission to leave Heart Mountain to attend college. Her experience led to a career as a recreation specialist, holding various positions in Minnesota, Montana, and Washington.
She eventually moved to California, where she worked as supervisor of recreation in Santa Rosa and later in Anaheim. She also worked for many years as director of volunteers for Kaiser Hospital in Bellflower and was appointed to the State Board of Recreation.
In the late 1990s, inspired by the growing movement to preserve Manzanar, Los Angeles area Japanese Americans joined with established Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation (HMWF) leaders Dave Reetz, Patricia Wolfe, John Collins, and others to discuss the possibility of preserving the area where the camp once stood.
Sperling chaired the HMWF Southern California Support Group, which included preservation movement visionaries Sue Kunitomi Embrey, Paul Tsuneishi, Diane Sunada, and Nancy Araki. The support group grew and began meeting regularly. Soon, the possibility of a media and education center to house the Heart Mountain artifacts, stories, and memorabilia began to take shape.
“Marjorie and Sue were friends and collaborators,” remembers Alisa Lynch-Broch, Manzanar National Historic Site chief of interpretation, who worked closely with Embrey in developing the MNHS interpretive center.
Unlike Manzanar, which is on public land, the Heart Mountain site was privately owned. In 2000, Sperling defied naysayers and introduced the motion to purchase 50 acres of the historic site. Former internees in the SoCal Support Group voted to approve the motion, and the land was secured for $186,000.
“(Marjorie) was an initiator and was persistent, making sure that the legacies and stories of Heart Mountain were not forgotten,” recalled Alan Kumamoto who along with his wife, Joanne, belonged to the SoCal Support Group.
Jeanette Misaka of Salt Lake City stated, “She was indeed an outstanding voice among us, and she always said what needed to be said.” Misaka, also confined at Heart Mountain during the war, was also involved in early plans to commemorate the Wyoming site.
The first major gift was $500,000 in federal funds allocated for the proposed center by the Wyoming congressional delegation, led by U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi.
Beyond Heart Mountain, Sperling worked tirelessly on behalf of youths. She drew from her roots as a recreation professional, supporting programs such as the 24th Street Theatre, which conducts free arts education programs for children and at-risk teens.
“She said often that her greatest accomplishment was co-founding Connect L.A. and working on ‘Teens Make a Difference Day.’ She lived each day of her own life as ‘Make a Difference Day,’” Lynch-Broch commented.
Misaka added, “(Marjorie) will be greatly missed, but her advocacy regarding Heart Mountain will long be remembered. She was an outstanding JA woman!”
Sperling was preceded in death by her husband, Herman “Red” Sperling, and her sisters, Amy Nose and Kara Kondo, and is survived by a nephew, Lance Kondo, and a niece, Elaine Kondo-McEwan.
A memorial service is planned Friday, June 20, at 11 a.m. at the Self Realization Center, 17190 Sunset Blvd., Pacific Palisades.