The year is 1942.
The Place: A small family farm in Loomis California, a farming community east of Sacramento.
Paul Yokote, age 16, and the youngest of five children, stands in the family’s orchard when his attention is drawn to a large cloud of dust traveling up the dirt road. The dust subsides in front of their home to reveal several cars. Car doors burst open and out jump federal agents who proceed to round up Paul’s mother and father along with Paul and his brothers and sisters. Their next stop, a waiting bus that would take them to Amache Colorado, and a Japanese Internment camp. Their “crime”, being of Japanese ancestry.
Paul’s life changed forever when on February 19, 1942, at the beginning of World War II, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, ordering 120,000 Japanese-Americans to evacuate the West Coast and to be placed in Internment Camps, which is simply a fancy name for prison.
70% of those Japanese Americans being interned, like Paul, were NOT illegal immigrants. They were born in the United States . . . they were American citizens.
The Amache Internment Camp was located in the south eastern corner of Colorado, a very bleak landscape that is prone to high winds and severe dust storms. The camp, where over 7000 Japanese Americans were crammed, was surrounded by barbed-wire fencing with eight machine-gun towers overlooking the camp.
1942 was also a year when the dreaded disease polio was at epidemic proportions. Polio was extremely contagious, crippling or killing mostly children. And in 1942 there were no vaccines, so keeping away from someone who had polio was the only way to prevent getting the virus.
The Amache concentration camp became the perfect storm, the perfect place and circumstances for spreading the polio virus. This is where young Paul contracted polio and was to spend the next decade in one hospital or another undergoing treatment.
It was not until 1955 that Paul would be able to return to his home in Loomis California. And it was there for the next 40+ years where he was to live, in a wheel chair.
Paul Yokote was a very special human being. Even though he had been through horrific circumstances, “handicapped” was not a label that would define Paul.
His life purpose became clear in 1959 with the opening of Del Oro High School in Loomis. From that point on, Paul, who never graduated from high school because of being sent to an Internment camp, became an integral part of life at Del Oro High School.
He lived in a modest home on the main street in Loomis just a few blocks from the Del Oro High campus. Paul’s Place, as his house was to become officially named, became a meeting place and unofficial hangout for students from the high school. Paul had an open-door policy and provided a safe haven and sage advice for the teenagers. My wife Marylou was one of those students, which years later, was how I met Paul.
One of Paul’s loves was photography, and he used that love to reach out and connect with the students and faculty at Del Oro. Paul could be always seen in his wheelchair with his camera at football games, basketball games and many other school activities. The photos he took were used to help document life at Del Oro, not only in their school newspaper, but for area newspapers as well.
In 1986 my wife Marylou, along with former Del Oro students, established Paul’s Place Association, a nonprofit organization in Paul’s honor, that has since provided tens of thousands of dollars in college scholarships for Del Oro graduates.
As a living memorial to Paul, and to honor all he had contributed to the youth of the area, in 1997 the School District named the gym at Del Oro High School “Paul Yokote Gymnasium”. Today a bronze plaque with Paul’s likeness adorns the entrance to the gym.
When Paul died, an overflow crowd of more than 1,500 people attended his funeral. The Placer County Sheriff’s Department provided a color guard, the Del Oro choir sang. The Varsity football team signed a ball that rested in Paul’s arms, as he wore his prized possession: A Del Oro letterman’s jacket.
One of the many speakers at the funeral told the crowd: “It is often said that the best way to measure a man’s wealth is by the number of the friends he has. If that is true, then Paul Yokote was the richest man on Earth.”
Former Placer County Sheriff Ed Bonner, one of Marylou’s classmates, counts himself as one of Paul’s friends, and in a tribute said: “Paul was one of the most influential people in my life and I will be forever grateful for his wise counsel. I knew Paul to be a humble man, a tender person who desired nothing more than tranquility, happiness and success for Loomis, and especially its young people.”
My friends, that brings us to today, where I am reminded that we are a land of former immigrants. My roots go back, by way of Canada to Germany and France, and no telling where else beyond that. Like Paul Yokote’s family, my ancestors came here looking for a better life for themselves and their family.
Today when I hear the news stories of the young Dreamers, who were brought here by their parents for those very same reason . . . that they may be deported . . . it makes me angry . . . but most of all, it makes me sad.
It is my hope that by sharing the story of my friend Paul Yokote, that the next time you hear the label “Dreamers”, his story will help you put a face to that label. Because I know in my heart, that within those 700,000 plus kids, those “Dreamers”, there are many young Paul Yokote’s.
And like Paul, they came here to make life better for themselves . . . and in the process . . . they will make life better for all of us.
We need more Paul Yokotes.