Once Upon A Time In America – An Untold Story
I often say, to have something of value to share with others, takes life’s meandering experiences to be worthy of this intention. I would like to share a story that seldom gets told. It not only happened in America but to our founder and director, Marilyn Takahashi Fordney. Upon reading and understanding the unusual historical events that took place in Marilyn Fordney’s childhood; you can see how she became the fearless, strong, talented and compassionate person and benefactor of the human condition both academically and in the liberal arts, that she has become.
You may know of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 that took place in Hawaii and since then, declared, Pearl Harbor Day in the United States by the president of the day, Franklin D. Roosevelt. That was the beginning of World War II and you learned about it in school. But what you don’t know and it is seldom discussed, is what happened to the Japanese-Americans who were affected by this event and what they had to go through to exist and survive in the United States.
As the World War II ensued, it was decided that Japanese-Americans had to be relocated or incarcerated in internment camps across the United States. In a small town, aptly named, Boys Town, Nebraska, one man stood up for these displaced Americans and came to their defense. I am talking about Father Edward J. Flanagan who came to America from Ireland in 1904. He became an ordained priest in the Diocese of Omaha. Father Flanagan was a passionate social reformer and a true visionary for changing how America cared for its children and families. He was not afraid to speak out and take action on social issues that others refused to address. Father Flanagan died in 1948 but Boys Town still exists today and prides itself on saving children and healing families for 100 years, as Father Flanagan so fiercely defended his whole life.
Marilyn Takahashi Fordney, was the oldest of three children and only 6 years old when her family was uprooted from their Los Angeles home. Her father was a gardener and lost his agricultural nursery. The family had been relocated to Santa Anita Internment Camp, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. Food riots occurred regularly. Marilyn recalls this time in her life as very disruptive and upsetting. It was hard for a 6-year-old to understand. This is where the well-known Santa Anita Racetrack is now. Fortunately, for Marilyn’s family, difficult as it was, they only endured 4 months in camp confinement. To this day, very few people even know that Santa Anita Racetrack used to be an internment camp.
James Takahashi, Marilyn’s father, knew he had to get his family into a safe and more viable environment. It came to be known that the famous Irish priest in Nebraska needed workers. James Takahashi sent a compelling, heartfelt letter that got him and his family to be offered a place to live and work in Nebraska in 1942. It took help from many people and getting through red tape but the eventual move to Boys Town happened and proved to be a completely rewarding experience. Marilyn recalls being treated humanely and fairly, as the full citizens they were. Her family had all the comforts and privileges of home. Soon, James became the grounds supervisor. The children attended school. It was here that Marilyn learned Polish folk dances and crafts. This may have been her first introduction to the world of art and dance. The family celebrated major holidays – including unforgettable, bittersweet Christmases, in freedom, but still far from home.
The Takahashis were content in their new life and arranged for family and friends to join them. They had worked hard as a family and had wonderful times in their new environment and were grateful to Father Flanagan for everything he had provided. A few unfortunate events took place that made the Takahashis want to leave after the war and anti-Japanese hysteria ended. First, the winters were too cold and they endured a tragedy when Marilyn’s younger brother contracted measles and encephalitis, falling into a coma that caused severe brain damage. Another motivating factor for the family to leave was Marilyn’s father’s desire to work for himself again. In 1947, the family left for California, when Marilyn was barely 12 years old. Of course, Marilyn was heartbroken because unlike her parents, she loved the cold and snow. She would miss her friends, her cat and her dog that had died and being able to live in the country. Marilyn Fordney, resides in California, to this day.
Marilyn Takahashi Fordney may be a retired medical author and educator but she has not slowed down in the least. She credits her many accomplishments to what the wartime years took away and bestowed. “The Internment made me an overachiever. Because I was the eldest and experienced so much, I have become actually the strongest of the siblings,” she says. “Nothing can stop me from reaching my goals.” The kindness shown by Boys Town to relieve their family plight made a deep impact. Marilyn came to view what Father Flanagan did for her family and others who had been interned, as a humanitarian “rescue.” She also says, “a Boys Town education gives you the tools needed to succeed in life.” Marilyn also says, “I am grateful that I went through the experience because it made me who I am today.”
Internees were granted reparations by the U.S. government under the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. Marilyn received $20,000 and she gave it all away. She divided the reparations money into equal parts for four recipients: two younger siblings who also grew up in poverty (but did not experience the internment camps of World War II, to create the Fordney Foundation (to help future generations of ballroom dancers) and to Boys Town.
Forty-four years after the Takahashi family left their safe haven in Nebraska, Marilyn returned to Boys Town in 1991. During the visit, she made her donation to the place that gave her family a temporary home and renewed faith in mankind. Note: This story was recently published in the November-December 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine. It is touched upon in a book written by Father Clifford J. Stevens entitled Legacy of Devotion to be released on Amazon January 2019.
Thought Of The Week:
“Often it has been said that youth is the nation’s greatest asset. But it is more than that – it is the world’s greatest asset. More than that, it is, perhaps the world’s only hope.” – Father Edward J. Flanagan
Leo Adam Biga for his feature article: From Japanese-American Internment Camp to Boys Town Photography provided by Boys Town