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Kirkland-based Northwest University to honor first Japanese-American student

Yeiko Ogata, with her brothers Gen and Dye Ogata in Minnesota in 1942.  - Contributed photo
Yeiko Ogata, with her brothers Gen and Dye Ogata in Minnesota in 1942.
— image credit: Contributed photo

Northwest University business administration graduate student Devin Cabanilla has always enjoyed studying his heritage. He is a member of the Filipino American Historical Society and his knowledge of Asian-American history made him take notice of a black and white school photo in an old Northwest University yearbook.

“When I saw the photo, it just didn’t make sense, historically,” Cabanilla said.

His natural curiosity led him on a three-month investigation, which will culminate tomorrow as the school presents a posthumous bachelor’s degree to one of its first Asian-American students, Yeiko Ogata, who attended the school in 1942.

“It was a mystery that just kept unraveling,” Cabanilla said. “I feel really blessed and proud to be able to highlight our school’s great history.”

He began researching her school records. He found that she attended and graduated from North Central Bible Institute, a sister college in Minnesota. So how did her photo end up in Northwest University’s year book? That question sparked three months of research.

“I spent as many hours as I could researching it, alongside my job and studies,” Cabanilla said.

Ogata was born in Washington but grew up in Helena, Mont. Her parents were Rinzo and Toriye Ogata and her father worked for the railroad.

Records show Ogata registered as a student at the Northwest Bible Institute of Seattle in January 1942. The institute would eventually move to Kirkland and become Northwest University.

With the United States entering World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order in 1942, forcing relocation of all Japanese people along the West Coast to internment camps. The rights of Asian Americans were taken away as the U.S. military engaged Japanese forces in the South Pacific. Those in Seattle were forced into camps by April 21, 1942.

“They could be interned or move to the middle of the country,” Cabanilla said. “There was a little-known effort by Christians to help Japanese American students get to other schools so they wouldn’t have to go to the camps.”

A university document states that Ogata’s grades were excellent, despite a double-class workload.

“Our records show that Northwest highly valued Yeiko as a student,” said Northwest University President Dr. Joseph Castleberry. “Her race was seen as a benefit, not as a problem for the school.”

Photos in the school’s yearbook and a terse final note in her academic records clip her Northwest Bible Institute story: “Dropped Mar. 30 Japanese Evacuation,” according to school officials.

Cabanilla discovered that Ogata moved home to Helena. She left Montana on April 11 and school records show that she started school at North Central on April 13.

“The school gave her a transfer and a way out. Our university helped someone when other people would not,” Cabanilla said. “And since her father worked for the railroad, she found a way to get to Minnesota.”

The school's strong ties allowed for Ogata to avoid internment.

“Our first president Henry Ness was also a founder of North Central and likely arranged for her to be accepted as a student,” Castleberry said.

Cabanilla’s research of the 1930s and 1940s also uncovered the college’s diverse student body. Those students included Native Americans, several African Americans and many Filipinos. All the students lived together in nonsegregated housing despite racial codes, according to school officials.

Although Ogata died in 1966 at the age of 45, Cabanilla was able to contact surviving family members.

“When I contacted her family they indicated that she went to school in Minnesota,” said Cabanilla. “It seemed they didn't have the story of her schooling and activities in Seattle.”

Cabanilla asked Castleberry to petition the Northwest University Board of Directors to confer a posthumous four-year Bachelor of Arts degree on Ogata and they unanimously agreed. Cabanilla said that Castleberry's help and passion for the issue was essential in getting the honor or Ogata approved.

“We do not frame this honoring of Yeiko as an apology, but rather as a ‘fulfillment of all righteousness.’ This is a celebration and reclaiming of a long forgotten Northwest University heritage,” Castleberry said.

Cabanilla will accept the honor on behalf of Ogata and her family during the ceremony and the school will present more historical information.

“When I tell other people they are shocked and surprised,” Cabanilla said. “It is nice to bring a positive story to light for such a dark time.”

Northwest University’s 2014 Commencement will take place at 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 10 at Overlake Christian Church Auditorium, located at 9900 Willows Road NE, in Redmond.

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