Hannah Hayano Semba has called Minneapolis home since the 1940s. But when she turned 95 in March, she told her son Charles that she'd like to visit her native state of Washington one last time.
Hannah grew up 60 miles north of Seattle, the fifth of seven children of a potato farmer who'd emigrated from Japan on a freighter in 1906. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor 35 years later, everything changed for 15-year-old Hannah. Her family was among 120,000 Japanese Americans rounded up and uprooted to prison camps scattered across dusty western towns far from the Pacific coast. Instead of graduating with the Mount Vernon High School class of 1944, she attended makeshift classes taught by Quaker volunteers at the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming.
"I've always wondered what happened to my classmates," she said during a phone call from her home near Lake Harriet. Sad answer: She's outlived most, if not all, of her peers.
But that didn't dampen a sweet, surprise graduation ceremony on May 3 that came 77 years late. After hearing his mother's wish to revisit her childhood home, Charles Semba quietly colluded on a plan with Mount Vernon High officials. Hannah knew only that she was going to stop by her old school to pick up a diploma.
"We were just going to take a peek," she told the Skagit Valley Herald in Mount Vernon, "and then the crowd grew and grew."
She was shocked when school leaders presented her with a green cap and gown, two floral bouquets and her long-awaited diploma as a lone trumpet played "Pomp and Circumstance" and teachers applauded in the gym bleachers. COVID-19 prevented students from attending, but there's a 17-minute video at tinyurl.com/Sembagrad.
"I could see her eyes tear up — it was so unexpected," said Charles. "They gave her the full rock-star treatment." Hannah, he said, was "blown away" and heard to say: "Had I known this, I would have put on my makeup!"
Back home on Minnehaha Parkway, Hannah said the whole production "was kind of silly to me," and she wasn't even sure where she had put her new diploma. After all, she had gone on to study at Macalester College before earning a degree in food and nutrition from the University of Minnesota in 1948.
"I don't need a piece of paper to know I am well educated," she said.
But Superintendent Ismael Vivanco said the ceremony was important "to right that wrong" after nearly 80 years, when her teenage years were "so sadly interrupted."
Back in 1941, Hannah excelled in science, served as sophomore class secretary, played violin in the orchestra and pitched in at the yearbook. Then came what she calls "the shock of her life."
Two months after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order No. 9066. It froze Japanese Americans' bank accounts, restricted their travel to five miles and authorized their relocation to prison camps — all in the name of wartime security.
For Hannah and her family, that meant packing what they needed in suitcases, selling everything else and climbing on a flatbed U.S. Army truck for a humiliating ride through the streets of Mount Vernon, where she had been the lone Asian student in her class. She was on her way to confinement at Tule Lake, Calif., and then the prison camp in Wyoming.
"We had no hearing; it was dehumanizing," she said. "I will never, ever forget that day."
As the war wound down, Hannah's siblings developed a pipeline to Minnesota. Her brother Joe enrolled at Dunwoody Institute in 1943 to train as a mechanic, and St. Olaf College accepted her sister, Mary. Hannah enrolled at Macalester in 1944.
Their parents, Toraji and Tona Hayano, were the last to leave the camps, following the children to Minnesota. Toraji became the state's first tofu maker, in the basement of their home on Colfax Avenue S., where they also sold groceries on the front porch.
Hannah met her husband, Thomas Semba, a premed student, at a dance at the U in 1948; they wed in 1951. He became a leading pathologist and medical school instructor, while Hannah worked as a dietitian in hospitals and taught nursing students about nutrition. Thomas died in 1988.
Their four kids all built impressive careers as physicians. Charles graduated from Carleton College and the University of Minnesota Medical School — where he studied under his father — and now is a radiology professor at Stanford University and biotechnology executive. His older brother, Robert, studied at Stanford and the U before becoming an orthopedic surgeon in Chicago.
Richard graduated from Yale University, earned a medical degree at Stanford and became a leading ophthalmologist, while Laura attended Brown University on her way to becoming a plastic surgeon in Chicago.
"I learned the importance of education from my parents," Hannah Semba said, "and hopefully, we passed that value on to our children growing up."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.