Tom Haeg

Feed Loader,

Spreading the culture, 50 students at a time

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS
  • Star Tribune
  • October 12, 2013 - 7:54 PM

You think you have a challenging week ahead? Tom Haeg’s chaperoning 50 kids from Japan around town. A former Hennepin County judge — “My reign of terror began in 1976,” he jokes — Tom volunteers for an annual program sponsored by Benilde-St. Margaret’s School in St. Louis Park.

Fascinated by Japan since childhood, Tom meant to teach there someday — but life and law got in the way. After retirement, he reconnected with the school in Akido, an institution with a harrowing origin.

“The nuns who founded the school were in Japan in the late ’30s,” Tom says, “and when the war began, they put them in a concentration camp until the end of the war. Afterwards, they were ready to return to the United States, but the State Department calls up and says they wanted someone to distribute food and help out with the educational system. So they’re helping the very people who had put them away.

“One night there was a knock at the door at their convent, and there’s this guy, kneeling down, with a knife in his hands, ready to commit seppuku [ritual suicide], and they recognized him as one of their guards. He had found them and come to beg for their forgiveness.

“They forgive him, the story spreads, and the town of Akido hears about it and invites them to come up and build a school.”

One of the nuns who would later run the school, Sister Olivia, returned to Minnesota, and Tom takes the Japanese students from the school to meet her. “It’s almost a pilgrimage to Sister Olivia, who gave 20 years of her life. They file into the chapel in their uniforms and sing the school song.”

You can imagine what that means to her; you can imagine what it means to the kids who get to visit the strange and mysterious land of Minnesota. (And not pay taxes on clothing.)

But no Disneyland! Getting the kids to come here wasn’t easy at first.

“I was talking to the principal of the Japanese school, and he said they take their second-year kids to California every year. Why there? Well, they want to learn English and go to Disneyland.

“ ‘Why not come to Minnesota?’ I asked. ‘We have culture, we have the Art Institute.’ I didn’t make any headway until I said, ‘By the way, there’s no sales tax on clothing in Minnesota.’ He said, ‘OK, we come to Minnesota, and you can be our guide.’”

You might wonder whether Minnesota has any beloved characters the kids could have their picture taken with, and the answer is yes.

“Walter Mondale gives a speech to the group. The first year, after he’d spoken quite frankly about the most difficult part of his job as ambassador to Japan, the principal came up and says, ‘You Americans, you criticize your politicians, but you don’t know how good you got it. In Japan, these children wouldn’t even dream an official would address a school group like this.’ ”

Tom says it works both ways: “I have to go to Japan to figure out what we have here. I bet I can walk around Lake Calhoun and meet a stranger and in the first five minutes start connecting with someone we both know. I’ve learned from the Japanese the importance of connections and relationships.”

Ten years from now he’ll probably hear “Haeg-San!” as he walks around. The kids will have long outgrown what they bought tax-free at the mall. But they’ll remember him.

James Lileks

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