His future wife was working at the registration desk when Bill Doi showed up at America’s most notorious internment camp in 1942.
They had first met a few years before, when he was working on his family’s vegetable farm outside Seattle. He loaded celery into her truck while she read a book. But the 67-year romance of Bill and Peggie Doi didn’t really take off until their families were incarcerated at California’s Tule Lake, where guards with machine guns kept watch over thousands of Japanese-Americans who had been deemed a threat to national security in the wake of Pearl Harbor simply because of their race.
The experience had a profound effect on Bill Doi, who never let his friends or family forget what happens when the fear of foreigners begins to outweigh fairness.
“It was a painful experience, but the pain did not drive him to get even — like it did to many Americans,” said the Rev. Harry Bury, a Catholic priest in Minnesota who got to know the Doi clan while protesting against the Vietnam War. “Instead, it made him more empathetic. He could put himself in the place of another who was suffering.”
Doi, who died at the age of 101 on May 16, was a veteran of the Twin Cities advertising scene and a leader in the local Japanese-American community.
Born in Leland, Wash., Doi was attending art school when World War II interrupted his life. Six months into his confinement, Doi volunteered for the U.S. Army, which sent him to Fort Snelling for training in military intelligence.
“I wanted to show that I am just as American as anybody, and that was one way to prove it,” Doi said in a 2005 interview with the Japanese American Military History Collective.
Bill and Peggie married in 1943, and returned to Minnesota in 1947 when his military career ended. With the help of the GI Bill, Doi graduated with a degree in 1950 from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
After landing his first advertising job, he and Peggie tried to buy a house in south Minneapolis, but neighbors circulated a petition against them because of their race. The deal proceeded after a local priest intervened.
“When we were growing up, Mom and Dad said, ‘You have to be better than everybody else because you’re Japanese — you have to be a better student, you have to be better behaved,’ ” said his son, David Doi. “It was because of the discrimination they faced.”
In 1970, Bill Doi — who often spent his lunch hours handing out antiwar leaflets in downtown Minneapolis — traveled to Paris with a group of about 30 other local activists. While there, the group met with North Vietnamese leaders in a failed effort to jump-start peace talks.
“It was just another little piece to finally getting the U.S. to pull out of there,” recalled Bury, who organized the trip.
When he returned home, Doi turned his attention to the needs of older Japanese-Americans. In 1978, he helped start the Minnesota Nikkei Project, which provides support and social opportunities to elderly residents who have lost their spouses and are increasingly isolated.
After retiring from advertising in 1983, Doi took up golf at the age of 74. He played regularly until late last year, astonishing younger golfers at Gross National Golf Club in Minneapolis. He was doing 60 push-ups a day until he was in his late 90s.
“I’d ask Bill: ‘What is your secret to a long life?’ ” said Paul Asao, a longtime friend. “He always said the same thing: ‘Never stop doing things.’ ”
Peggie Doi died in 2011. Doi is survived by his five children, 11 grandchildren and two sisters. Services have been held.