An Interview with Historian Mary Woodward

Mary Woodward photo

To meet Mary Woodward is to meet history in motion. In the present, she thrives on capturing the past, so that we can carry it into the future. Her head is full of historical facts, family trees, and stories that define the heritage of the community where she was born and raised. A rural Island community in the Puget Sound thrust into national and global prominence when WWII was brought to American shores. As an educator, historian and author, Mary is always eager to learn more so that she can add to our collective public memory of Bainbridge Island.

Born during the aftermath of WWII, Mary was raised amongst a complicit silence about the war and Japanese American Exclusion that overtook Bainbridge Island and much of the country for the four decades that followed. However, as the daughter of Walt and Milly Woodward, the owners and editors of the Bainbridge Review during the tumultuous years surrounding WWII, Mary grew up aware and curious to know more.

The Bainbridge Review stood out during WWII as the only newspaper in the country to offer a voice and place on the pages for their Japanese American neighbors. The Woodwards helped to maintain an inclusive sense of community for Japanese Americans from Bainbridge Island while they were in concentration camps that made them feel they had a home to return to after the war.

It can be challenging to follow in the shoes of iconic parents who are revered as champions of civil liberties. Mary Woodward has made a path in life that is her own, that has included honoring the legacy of her parents and becoming a prominent voice on the history and politics of the Exclusion. In 2008, she authored the book, In Defense of our Neighbors: The Walt and Milly Woodward Story, which is the most authoritative and complete history of Bainbridge Island surrounding WWII and exclusion.


Mary W. book

Mary maintains an active presence in her community. She serves as President of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community, and was dedicated to the development of the Exclusion Memorial on Bainbridge Island. She represents her family at Woodward Middle School, named after her parents. Mary is also a lead advisor and presenter for EduCulture’s Only What We Can Carry Project, and has been a frequent member of our Delegations to Manzanar. Her body of work has helped to weave strong threads of continuity from original community to the present that will last long into the future. We are honored to have the opportunity to help you learn more about this community treasure.

– Jon Garfunkel

JG: What was it like growing up in the household of the family that owned and authored the Island’s only newspaper, and what do you remember about the conversations at your dinner table in the 1950’s?

MW: It was great growing up in that family. One of the reasons is this amazing community of printers and newspaper people that my folks gathered. Coffee break was delightful; John Rudolph would come downstairs from his architect’s office and other folks – my Uncle Freddy – would drop by – both of those guys had the best senses of humor, we would laugh; they all took care of us. And I got to work at the Review when I was in high school – that was kind of fun. Dinner table conversations – my folks had an interest in reading everything. So maybe mother had just read an interesting article in the Saturday Review (for example).

JG: Do you trace your current passion for our Island’s heritage and community back to those days growing up on the Island or did that evolve for you later in life?

MW: It was evolving all of the time, but I’m aware of different levels of community involvement more so than the general person might be. It was a good foundation, and then my interest in political science and history developed and merged in college.

JG: Why and when did your parents choose to buy and run the Bainbridge Review?

MW: They purchased it in 1940 – mother purchased it – my father was still working at the Seattle Times – and I think that his name is not on the masthead because of that. My father majored in pre-med but he was a newspaper person from the get-go and had been working in Juneau at the Juneau Empire, I think, and coming to Bainbridge which was my mother’s home – they knew that the newspaper there was not what it had been. They purchased it in 1940 with a couple, Claire and Babe Peters and after about a year, Babe decided he’d rather be a lawyer and earn some money and not be a newspaper person so my folks bought them out, and by 1941 it was theirs. Within a year they had said, in a front page editorial, “this is our community and we commit ourselves to you folks.”

JG: And they owned and carried the paper until…

MW: ’65 I think was when they sold it to the Averills. And my father stayed on as editor.

JG: Would the paper have looked different in 1965 or read differently in 1965 than it did in the early 40’s?

MW: Oh yes, it had changed. It was still kind of folksy, but nowhere near that “over the backyard fence” sort of chit chat. “Billy Jones is recovering from his cold and he wants to thank people for the letters…” – you know – it was just chit chat. I tell the kids now, it’s like Facebook! That’s what it is – it’s all the little details. But by 1965 it was more of a newspaper. It still had the news of the Garden Club and when the Boy Scouts met, but it was different.

JG: What do you think the Bainbridge Review’s greatest role and contribution was to the community during the WWII era?

MW: I think perhaps the greatest contribution is the communication it afforded the two communities: Manzanar and Bainbridge and later Minidoka and Bainbridge. The news from the camps was presented and it encouraged people to write letters responding to things they’d seen in reports from the camps. And it just was awareness. In most communities, once the people were gone they were gone, and people got on with the war. Some people say how terrible it was that people forgot about this, but it was out of the news and there was nobody in these other communities that was attempting to keep it in the forefront of people’s minds. But I do think the fact that Islanders in different places still embraced each other as Islanders was a big part of it. The Rabers went to Montana to see how the Koura boys were doing. They travelled to Montana, in time of war, and tire rationing, gas rationing. Just like Mr. Narte, traveling to Manzanar and Minidoka. There was a Bainbridge community that survived the war and I think it was because of the Review. Certainly their outspoken objection to the unconstitutionality of 9066 is very important. It’s like Kay (Sakai) Nakao says; “We didn’t buy furniture (at camp); we could use these fruit crates because we knew we were going to go home. I didn’t want to waste our money on that.” It was courage – “Sisu” – that’s what Tom Paski used to say to his high school athletes – it means courage in Finnish.

JG: What would you say distinguished the Review from other newspapers in the Pacific Northwest during WWII?

MW: It was a conscious effort to present both sides of the issue. They wanted the Islanders to know what was being discussed elsewhere. Of course, Islanders were reading the Seattle PI and Seattle Times – they knew what people were saying, and like in Everett – “Scoop” Jackson was their new representative to Washington, D.C. , Henry M. Jackson. He actively worked with the Everett Herald to “get the Japs out” and they didn’t want them back. So here we have a leading politician and the newspaper – what else – are you going to stand up and be the lone voice against that? They made it very difficult, the political and newspaper element – made it very easy for people to not speak up. And I think on the Island to a certain degree they made it a little harder for people who wanted them removed to speak up, so they used intimidation in the other direction.

JG: Did your parents ever articulate to you that they felt like lone voices as a newspaper in our region at the time?

MW: No. They talked about it openly. Ken Myers was the insurance agent that said to his parent company, “I’m going to sell, even though you’re telling me not to. I’m going to sell to these (Japanese American) Islanders, and if you want to fire me you can,” and of course, they didn’t fire him. And he issued insurance. But he was a very good friend of my parents and they would be over for dinner, and the whole quote about, “if it can happen to these Americans it could happen to red-haired Americans, or teacher Americans…” that’s Ken Meyers, that’s not my father, although he very successfully incorporated that into his repertoire! We heard about it in anecdotes from the people who lived it. Not so much Japanese because my parents did not live near a Japanese family and they were working 24 hours a day like the farmers were. They knew Johnny and Pauline Nakata because mother shopped at Eagle Harbor Market.

JG: But as newspaper editors, compared to other newspapers in the region, did they realize that they were presenting a story differently, and in that case lone voices?

MW: I think so, but I don’t think they labeled it that way. One of the most fascinating things, and I wish more people were aware of it, is the ‘about face,’ the manufactured fear that occurred between December 7, 1941 and Feb 19, 1942. In December, newspapers like the San Francisco Chronicle agreed with my parents, saying the same thing my folks were saying, “You know, these are our neighbors, let’s be reasonable.” By February, they were supporting the Exclusion. Within two months they had changed their opinion; this is a major national newspaper, that’s remarkable. When you talk about manufactured fear, it’s right there folks, just read about it.

JG: Tell us about the lessons and values that you learned from your mother.

MW: That it is important to respect individuals. That it doesn’t matter what they look like. That real commitment requires follow through, you need to complete what you start. She taught me to love gardens, and to bury dogfish, and kelp is always good too. She was one of the strongest women I’ve known. In so many ways she reminds me of Mrs. Sakuma and Mrs. (Sa) Nakata. They were quiet and didn’t attract attention, they didn’t want attention, but they did for their community. And mother is responsible – with a handful of others – for the creation of Kitsap County’s Regional Library, and then for the construction of our library. In the 40’s she had also campaigned to cover the wells. There were lots of wells around Bainbridge and they wanted to prevent a tragedy. And so she campaigned for that. But sexism, and the way that society has changed – she would be more recognized today.

JG: Tell us about the lessons and values you learned from your father.

MW: He taught me how to be a boater – to love boating, to love the seashore. We had wonderful vacations. He also taught me that once you start something, you need to complete it – if you are committed to doing something you need to follow through on it. He taught me the importance of planning things out and being prepared with your tools before you start a project – which I never do but I know I should. My father had everything laid out…the value of organizing your thoughts and speaking clearly, using words that really do express what you are thinking. He taught me the importance of words. How valuable the impact of words is, how it can sway people one way or the other.

JG: When did you start to catch the historian bug about Bainbridge Island and our legacy with WWII?

MW: In college – Dr. Edwards, American History. My senior thesis was on the west coast newspaper reaction to the exclusion. So that’s where it really started, when I tried to get those thoughts together.

JG: What led you to research and write In Defense of Our Neighbors; the Walt and Milly Woodward Story?

MW: Joan Piper, who was then the executive director of the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum, worked at it for probably 3 years. “Mary, this is an important story, we need to hear it, and you are the one who has to write it.” So, she finally won. But it was daunting, thinking about writing a book. You have to be spare in choosing your words, you can’t just throw in all the adjectives, you want to find the one noun that says it. I loved that process once I got into it.

JG: What were some of your greatest surprises or “aha’s” about our Island’s history, heritage, and community, that you uncovered while writing the book that you were not quite aware of previously?

MW: I think I became more aware that there were so many others who were ready to step up and help their neighbor – they didn’t think about it; like Mrs. Norman, and Shigeko Kitamoto; she was her beautiful, tall friend. And she says in (the documentary) “Visible Target”: “I didn’t know how to help my friend. I didn’t know what to do.” There were people like that all over the Island. I’ve said I don’t think my parents changed minds. I don’t think somebody reading the Review went, “Oh my gosh, I hadn’t thought of that!” But they made it ok to talk about it so people made up their own minds.

JG: What do you think your parents would think of Bainbridge Island today?

MW: Well, you know I’ve often thought of that. Oh my gosh, the changes since the 1980’s. But my Mother was born in 1909. She went from total dirt roads and how many different schools, to one high school, and paved roads, and then T&C, which must have been huge for her going from Eagle Harbor Market, which was this lovely, small grocery. She experienced almost a century of changes on Bainbridge.

JG: What elements of community have you experienced on Bainbridge that you feel have a continuum that has carried on through today? Aspects, values, of community?

MW: I think the one that strikes me most is that it was impossible to be anonymous growing up on Bainbridge, because the adults either knew you, or they knew your parents – it wasn’t intentional, but we didn’t go into Vern’s drugs and steal because Linda Amdahl’s mother worked there. We didn’t want to disappoint her. Mr. Beemer in the hardware store would take a kid back – “I know your parents, next time you do this, I’m going to call them up…” he would really read them the riot act. People cared about the kids in the community and they knew them. Today, it’s impossible to know all of the kids, but I see so many, just like the water polo program – that have developed a whole community of adults who know them and care about them. And those kids know it. There are some kids who don’t have that connection and it is possible for them to be anonymous. But that is something that has carried through, I think that’s an element – Bainbridge cares about its kids and always has and we demonstrate it in a different way and we’re dealing with a larger population of kids. I still see that as significant.

JG: What do you think your parents would make of how our Island community is embracing the legacy of WWII and Japanese American Exclusion in 2015?

MW: They would be over the moon for so many reasons; certainly for the recognition of the unconstitutionality of 9066. That was the reason they objected to it. They did not object to it because these nice people were being rounded up and sent away. It’s that it was unconstitutional, and it’s not ambiguous at all. It’s hard to read the three principal elements of the constitution that were violated by 9066. It’s difficult to read the simple sentences that describe that and wonder, ‘how could someone be confused by this? How could it not be clear?’ Somehow the President on down, they figured out ways to say it was ok.

JG: What does it mean to you to have a Woodward Middle School on Bainbridge Island?

MW: Well, I used to never say it – it was always the Middle School, for about 5 years. I couldn’t say it – it seemed so weird. It’s wonderful. And we are going to start working with a more concentrated effort to tie the Woodward story to Woodward Middle School the way they have done so beautifully at Sakai.

JG: How does it feel to be serving as president of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community?

MW: Well, it’s quite an honor. I remember when Frank Kitamoto nominated me for vice president. That was the honor, that Frank nominated me. I thought, of course, an occasional meeting – I can do that. And then the situation changed. We’re branching out a little, trying to work more with the multicultural committee from the schools, we want to see if we can get, once a year, a speaker who might talk to small groups or larger groups. It was wonderful to support what BPA and David Guterson did, it was a wonderful experience, with Snow Falling on Cedars. That was an honor. There are times when I think I should probably research a little more how others feel about this. I’m delighted to do it but I don’t want to offend, particularly the elders.

JG: What has it been like filling the shoes of Frank Kitamoto?

MW: Impossible – I don’t try to do that. We’re just going forward, using him always as our touchstone, our inspiration.

JG: What do civil liberties mean to you in the year 2015?

MW: Civil liberties are the rights we have under the government, the rights that are protected by the constitution.

JG: So when you think about the civil liberties your parents stood up for during WWII, what do civil liberties look like today in your eyes?

MW: Pretty much the same, it just depends on who the marginalized group is. The reason that we now have an apology from a President of the United States for an action by the United States government – which I think is unique, that the government actually apologized – the reason that we have the apology is that within 40 years, this marginalized group that had no money, and no political supporters, by 1980 had a lot of money, and Patsy Mink and Daniel Inouye, and others were holding high political office. Now if the Mexicans coming can accomplish that in 40 years they’ll be the same. But it’s money. Arab Americans and people coming from Mexico are being treated the same way we treated the Japanese – they are being marginalized.

JG: What has it been like to work with so many students from Bainbridge Island and around the Puget Sound who are studying WWII and Japanese American Exclusion?

MW: It’s been wonderful. It’s been fun, and challenging. Teachers like Bill Covert and his class who came in prepared, they knew what their assignment was – we just helped them find the research, and that was encouraging to me as a teacher. We’ve had kids come from Texas, and Colorado, so it’s not just Bainbridge.

JG: What do you think makes Bainbridge Island such a meaningful landscape and setting for telling this particular story?

MW: One thing that it does highlight – a pioneer group has a specific area where they live and to those outside they become “the other” – their dress is weird and they talk funny and they eat strange food. On Bainbridge, what happened in the 20’s – the big mill closed and people had to find work. Yama, which was the Japanese enclave at the mill – didn’t move someplace else, so there was no Japantown. They had neighbors who were Finnish, or Croatian, and in most instances, I think that’s what created the whole interweaving of support and real friendship. And one thing Tom Ikeda of Densho has said is there were similar situations between Filipino farmers who had come later working for the Japanese farmers. But he has not seen in other communities the friendships between the Filipino farmhands and their employers, so that’s different on Bainbridge. To me that’s really remarkable. That shows so clearly that once you get to know somebody, it doesn’t matter what they look like. “Riceballs – oh yeah, my daughter brought one of those home when she was visiting – those are really good.” You have to assimilate – once your kids start playing together – that’s the beginning of the end for racists.

JG: What has it been like for you to be part of OWWCC’s delegations to Manzanar?

MW: It has been wonderful – such a privilege. Personally, I am amazed at how affected I am every year I have the opportunity to visit either Minidoka or Manzanar. I thought the first time I got off the bus at Minidoka and burst into tears – “Ok that’s important, now we’ve done that,”; but it’s the same every time. The sacredness of the camps, the joy we found in locating block 3 at Manzanar – I can’t express how joyous that was. And to listen to Kay Nakao and Lilly and Frank Kitamoto talking about where their doors were in relation to each other – it was just mind blowing. Wow, they’re talking about where their cells were in relation to each other. It was remarkable. And the opportunity to talk with educators and see their excitement at uncovering things. We’ve had a couple times where actually things were discovered that the Rangers didn’t know were there, and these were teachers. Can you imagine the inspiration that that brings into the classroom? It‘s a wonderful group of people all the way around, every time. Just to get to know Alisa and all the knowledge she has about interpretation and we can use her skills in putting together our interpretation at the memorial wall, on so many grounds, it’s a wonderful experience.

JG: Where do you see the impact of OWWCC in schools and communities on Bainbridge Island and beyond?

MW: The ripples in a pond…it’s just going to keep growing. I see kids now, 8th graders, who say, “oh, at Sakai we learned…”, “I know you from Sakai…” We’re building this, we keep building. It’s becoming commonplace to know about the exclusion on Bainbridge. It wasn’t taught when I was in school. None of my classmates knew about it, including people whose parents hadn’t  talked with their kids. So, it’s like night and day.

JG: What was it like to witness that transitional time between when no one talked about it and then they began to?

MW: It’s been interesting, and within the BIJAC community. Many Nisei in particular, say “don’t want to make waves…we want to be good citizens…” But now, for example, the Memorial – people see their name, their relatives have come and been to the wall. They see what an impact it has on people, whether they know anything about it or not. Whether they know all about their family and they can find their Auntie on the wall, to those who know nothing about it, they learn a bit.

JG: What do you think Bainbridge Island as a community has learned over the past 70 years since WWII and Japanese exclusion that we need to carry into the next 70 years?

MW: I hope we have internalized it. We certainly have learned a lot of the facts. We will see in the future if we really carry the principles of justice and civil rights. I think (the recent production of) Snow Falling on Cedars showed us that we are curious, and want to know more, and we have begun to talk about it as a community. I saw the enthusiasm – you had these little groups that came to the library, and the bookstore; it was delightful, because there were folks I’d known forever, and then there were new folks. Talking about it is good, and I think we are beginning to learn that. So maybe we will be more willing in the future to tackle a difficult issue like this. I think we have learned that it’s important to include in discussions the whole Island, to not pick and choose. I think we need to have it open to whomever wants to show up, include their information and their questions. So in essence I think that we are more willing to discuss it as a community.

JG: It’s not one group’s stories – it’s all of our stories.

MW: Right, I think we’re recognizing that. At the time, in 1942, the whole Island had vegetable gardens – it was a poor community. Although there were many, many rich people who lived at the end of very long driveways. And they were delightful people and they contributed to the community, and it was more homogeneous than it is now. We do have people who hide behind gates, and economics have gotten in the way. We don’t have too many jobs on this Island. It used to be that everybody worked on the Island except for the few who worked in Seattle. And now everybody goes to work there. So in that sense we’re getting farther away from everybody joining in on one thing. We learned we need to discuss things and I think people are more willing to do that. I think we’ve learned that the contributions from not only the adults are important. We’ve recognized that kids have a lot to offer to any topic, but certainly to this. In many ways, the kids are leading the Island in understanding.

JG: What are the stories that you hope that we as a community are still telling 70 years from now about the experience of WWII and the legacy of Japanese American exclusion?

MW: A major story that I hope we are telling is that it was not just Milly and Walt Woodward who are these iconic newspaper publishers, but it was Bainbridge Island. They made it possible for us to join together. They didn’t create that. There are so many other people, the list can go on…the Bucklins…Bucklin Hill…they stored the Sakai’s rugs. The Hydes took care of the Nishimori’s dishes. Little things like that, but it was all over the Island, it was not just Milly and Walt, it was everybody. And, the same coming home. Johnny Nakata did call and speak with mother, and say, “should we come home? I’ve got boys. What’s going to happen to them?” And my Mother responded, with, as my father would have; “Yes, you need to come home.” And they did. People had gotten to know one another, and whether or not they look different, that’s your neighbor, and you get to know your neighbor. That’s a really important one that talks to so many things. That talks to the importance of words – my folks did not refer to the Japanese community as “Japs.” My folks tried to use the words that they felt would say what they needed to say. Japanese is a really long word to have in a headline, Jap is much more concise, but it doesn’t serve it well. The power of words – I hope that is something we’re still talking about. And the symbolism of locking up people because they might be a threat. How dangerous is that? To say, “you’re going to lose your citizenship if you go back to Japan.” That’s scary. How do you lose your citizenship unless you renounce it? You can’t do that. They’re talking about doing that in Arizona. To children, native born, whose parents are not citizens. Taking away their citizenship. I hope we’ve learned that lesson. I hope that we’ve learned that there can be dissention within a community and the community can heal from that. We’re taking steps in that direction and its really encouraging because Islanders are Islanders and we don’t want to shut out any Islander from a discussion. And I think we might be closer to that.


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