In the first semester of my freshman year, I attended Hinkley High School in Aurora, Colo.
Years later, a young man who had lived in Evergreen, Colo., attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. He not only shot and wounded Reagan, he also wounded three others: press secretary James Brady, Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy and Washington police officer Thomas Delahanty.
The would-be assassin’s name: John W. Hinckley Jr.
The surname of the man for whom my former high school was named and that of the troubled young man — who was later found not guilty for reasons of insanity — are pronounced identically. But the names Hinkley and Hinckley are different because of one letter.
The Colorado-born Hinkley, according to an internet search, was a military pilot in WWII and was memorialized for promoting aviation in the Aurora school system by having a school named for him. The other Hinckley will probably be remembered as the troubled young man with a Jodie Foster obsession who failed, thank goodness, to fulfill his objective.
And on the topic of insanity, no one in their right mind would ever confuse William C. Hinkley and John W. Hinckley as being the same dude. No one in their right mind would ever think that Hinkley High was named for a man who attempted to kill a president.
Turns out not everyone in the city of Palo Alto, Calif., got that memo.
In 2015, it was learned that a pair of middle schools there were named for a pair of men who evidently held views that by today’s standards would be looked askance.
The Palo Alto Unified School District’s Jordan Middle School was named for David Starr Jordan, the founding president of nearby Stanford University. (Incidentally, in Los Angeles County, there is a David Starr Jordan Middle School — Home of the Cougars! — in Burbank.)
Jordan was also a proponent of the pseudo-science known as eugenics, which is basically Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution gone sideways, with some misusing it to “prove” the racial superiority of some groups over others and advocating the forced sterilization of those deemed too feeble-minded, crippled or weak to pollute the gene pool. (You know, wheelchair-bound types unable to care for themselves like the late Stephen Hawking.)
The other PAUSD school with a questionable namesake was Terman Middle School, which was actually named for two people: Lewis Terman and his son, Fred Terman. The younger Terman is credited as being one of the fathers of Silicon Valley but, unlike his old man, was not known to espouse eugenics. (The other father of Silicon Valley, incidentally, is William Shockley, credited for helping invent the semiconductor. He was a eugenicist who wanted to pay people with IQs of less than 100 to be voluntarily sterilized. And he also taught at Stanford. I’m beginning to detect a pattern here.)
Lewis Terman (yes, he also has a Cardinal connection, as a professor of educational psychology at Stanford) studied intelligence, developed IQ tests and conducted a famous long-term study of gifted children known as Terman’s Termites. (If they had been a British Invasion band, their hit would have been “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Genetically Inferior Daughter.”)
So it was that a push began to have renamed two PAUSD middle schools that had been named after men with some now-discredited beliefs. I get it. It’s kind of like some southern cities removing statues of Civil War generals in the modern day. After all, not only were those “heroes” on the losing side, that losing side was in favor of slavery, which you could say has at its core the same racial superiority nonsense as eugenics.
To be fair, it is kind of unfair to degrade a leader or high-achiever of yesteryear because he (or she) held views or engaged in activities that were probably typical of many people of a particular time and place, stuff that we as a society have come to realize is antiquated or no longer relevant.
If, however, it’s within our power to not just change but improve or set right the mistakes and misdeeds of the past, why not? Going back to Darwin, you could say it’s a societal evolution in our thinking. Just as there’s nothing wrong with naming a town, school, building, street, library or other such place after someone prominent, there’s nothing wrong with renaming it decades later if local standards and wishes have evolved, especially when it’s learned that the honoree had some serious blots on their personal record.
Back to PAUSD, in February, a selection committee announced the names of six individuals (and two place names) thought worthy as replacements for naming honors at the two aforementioned middle schools.
One of those names was Fred Minoru Yamamoto. He was a local. He was an American soldier. He was even awarded the Silver Star after he was killed in combat serving his country as a member of the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team. As they say when you’re an Oscar finalist, it’s an honor just to be nominated — and at one point, the Japanese American was seen as a front-runner to have one of the two schools named after him.
But then something unexpected happened. Some local residents came out against Yamamoto — because his name was Yamamoto. This vocal group was, according to news reports and local observers, mostly recent immigrants from China.
Their reasoning, if I can use that word, was that Yamamoto was no good because it was the same as the WWII-era Japanese admiral named Isoroku Yamamoto. According to the opponents, because of Adm. Yamamoto’s activities during WWII, Chinese people could never accept such a name for a school that their children attended. Forget that Adm. Yamamoto, as a member of Japan’s navy, had nothing to do with, say, the Rape of Nanking. Forget also that many Chinese Americans and civil rights organizations like OCA (national and local) came out in support of renaming a middle school after Fred Yamamoto.
Frankly, I find the opposition to renaming the school in honor of Fred Yamamoto as ludicrous as parents being upset that their child was attending a school named Hinkley because it sounded just like Hinckley. My “spidey sense” tells me that if Fred Yamamoto had been Fred Motoyama, this same group of opponents would have found some reason to oppose the renaming of the school, due to their anti-Japanese prejudice.
Also ludicrous: The voting members of the PAUSD Board of Education bowing to the pressure and voting unanimously on March 27 to not rename either Jordan Middle School or Terman Middle School after Fred Yamamoto. If I can allude to the conclusion of the report on the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, while there was no “war hysteria” at work here, it does appear that there was some race prejudice and a failure of political leadership.
That said, I don’t have a problem with the schools being renamed to honor finalists Ellen Fletcher or Frank S. Greene Jr. Bully for them. It’s still, however, a missed opportunity to show why renaming one of those schools for Fred Yamamoto was necessary and important.
Example: I think of one of Fred Yamamoto’s comrades-in-arms named Young Oak Kim. During WWII, when he was a freshly minted Army officer, he was assigned to the 100th Battalion. Before it happened, though, a superior officer pulled him aside and told him that if he wanted, he could be reassigned to another unit, because of the existing ill will between Korea and Japan. Kim rejected that notion, saying that he was an American and the Nisei he’d be serving with and commanding were Americans and they were fighting the same enemy. Wow. Beautiful.
Decades later, in 2009, a local Los Angeles Unified School District school was named Young Oak Kim Academy — and there was no opposition to that, even though it shares the same last name as North Korean despots Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung.
At this point, it would be easy and maybe understandable to get angry and upset that these immigrants from China are guilty of the same now-discredited thoughts and actions from more than 70 years ago that removed Fred Yamamoto, his family and thousands of other Americans of Japanese ancestry from their West Coast homes and into desolate concentration camps.
It would also be very easy to point out that these very same Chinese immigrants were able to emigrate from China due to changes in U.S. immigration laws that can be traced directly to the sacrifices made by Japanese Americans like Fred Yamamoto.
But it would be wrong to hate or heap derision on them. As new immigrants, and possibly new Americans, they may not possess an American identity their children will surely develop, and they don’t have the many decades of “institutional memory” that Japanese Americans have. It’s kind of a “forgive them, for they know not what they do” situation.
Here is the sad reality: Recent Asian immigrants, including Japanese from Japan, don’t know these things because collectively, as a community, Japanese Americans haven’t fully succeeded in getting our story — and stories — told to the rest of America and the rest of the world.
As evidenced by what happened in Palo Alto, the collective influence of JACL, JANM, Denshō, GFBNEC, NCRR, LTSC, EWP, AACI, JAVA, JABA, JACCC, JCCNC and any other Japanese American or Asian American community organization’s name or acronym you can think of have only scratched the surface in making one of the greatest teachable moments and cautionary tales in American history — meaning from E.O. 9066 to H.R. 442 — as much a part the zeitgeist as Rosa Parks refusing to give up her bus seat or Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
This, despite, many, many books, some novels, several scholarly works, educational curricula, state-sponsored initiatives like the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program and so on.
There are still many Americans who don’t know or misunderstand what happened to Japanese Americans — and why — during WWII. There are still many Americans who don’t know who Gordon Hirabayashi, Minoru Yasui or Fred Korematsu were (despite there now being a Fred Korematsu Day in California) and why what they did that was significant. There are still Americans who don’t know of the valor of the 100th/442nd or the bravery of those who resisted their government’s coercive attempts at loyalty. There are still many Americans who don’t know of Redress, one of the greatest “fighting city hall and winning” stories in U.S. history.
Shikata ga nai, right? After all, there aren’t that many Japanese Americans compared to the overall U.S. population and while Japanese Americans were the No. 1 Asian American population in the 1960s, we’re probably No. 5 (if that) nowadays.
Is the failure to rename a school after Fred Yamamoto a case of shikata ga nai? I say no — nor should it be solely blamed on Chinese immigrants or the PAUSD Board of Education. It is actually a wake up call that our work isn’t finished, and that the strategy and tactics used to convey the Japanese American story so that all Americans can benefit need to be re-examined, reconfigured and reprioritized.
I’d like to think that even John Hinckley, who was released from a mental hospital in 2016, might now be sane enough to agree.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
(George Toshio Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of any organization or business. Copyright © 2018 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.)