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Interned in 1942, 92-year-old woman finally gets her diploma

After being interned during World War II, Mary Matsuda Gruenewald finally receives her Vashon High School diploma. Credit: Aileen Imperial/KCTS 9

Vashon High School graduated its Class of 2017 on a cold and drizzly evening last Saturday. Included among the exuberant and emerald-robed graduates was Mary Matsuda Gruenewald, who is 92.

Seventy-five years earlier, Gruenewald was a 17-year-old high school junior living a regular teenager’s life. Her parents Heisuke and Mitsuno Matsuda ran a 20-year-old strawberry farm. She lived on Vashon with her older brother Yoneichi.

But on a walk home with her brother one day after Sunday school, Gruenewald remembers a stranger’s angry words directed at them. It was Dec. 7, 1941: the date of the attack on Pearl Harbor. In the aftermath, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, forcing the incarceration of more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry. Gruenewald and her family abandoned Vashon on May 16, 1942 and were locked up at Tule Lake for more than two years.

Among life moments that Gruenewald lost because of her imprisonment: graduating with her class at Vashon High.

So on Saturday, Vashon High School Principal Danny Rock presented Gruenewald with a yearbook and a diploma: Class of 1943. It was largely symbolic for a woman who ended up studying in the camp’s makeshift schools, eventually joining the Cadet Nurse Corp and earning a nursing degree at the war’s end. Nursing became Gruenewald’s career and she is credited with founding the consulting nurse service at Group Health Cooperative that has become a model for hospitals nationwide. She has penned two memoirs: “Looking Like the Enemy,” chronicling her family’s plight and resilience during World War II, and “Becoming Mama San,” reflecting on her personal journey and the wisdom passed on to her from her mother.

Just two weeks ago Gruenewald suffered a stroke, but she had been cleared by doctors to attend graduation after she quickly regained her strength in the days leading up to the ceremony. On Saturday, a steady drizzle fell onto the graduates lined up on the high school football field. Gruenewald, a blanket on her lap and a walker at her feet, looked unphased by the weather. She looked emotional, in her green robe and her celebratory purple lei, as her name was called and she was handed a 2017 yearbook signed by students and staff.

The teenage graduates who sat beside her rose to give her a standing ovation.

Mary Matsuda Gruenewald

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