Helen Tsuchiya | 92

Surviving a WWII internment camp, she shunned bitterness and spread joy. She shared her wartime story at local elementary schools "so it will never happen again." 

She was always drawn to teachers; they were some of her best friends.

Perhaps that’s because Helen Tsuchiya wanted to be a teacher herself. And she might have been, if she were white.

Instead, the teenage Tsuchiya — a U.S. citizen — was taken at gunpoint from her family’s California farm to a prison in the Arizona desert, one of 120,000 Japanese-Americans who were confined to internment camps during World War II.

When the war ended, her family wound up in Minnesota, where one of her brothers had served in the Army as a translator at Fort Snelling. Instead of going to college to become a teacher, Tsuchiya went to work as a medical secretary to provide for her family, which had lost everything.

More than a half-century later, when Tsuchiya was 80, the St. Louis Park resident finally got her chance to teach, appearing at local elementary schools to tell kids about her wartime experience — “so it will never happen again,” she told them.

A devout Buddhist, Tsuchiya lived by the credo, “Be kind to all that live,” said her son Todd Tsuchiya.

“That really sums her up. She really lived that throughout her life,” he said.

Tsuchiya made origami cranes and carried them with her, giving them away to people who looked like they needed a lift. Once, she gave cranes to some children at Ridgedale Mall, not knowing their mother was one of Todd Tsuchiya’s dental patients — and had recently lost a child to cancer.

“She saw my mother’s name on her walking cane and she asked me about it,” Todd Tsuchiya said. “She said, ‘Sometime I want to go around and give origami to people and make them happy.’ ”

JOHN REINAN