Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Remembering Ma Shep

   On the first floor of the Fullerton College Library is a collection of Japanese dolls donated by Anita Shepardson, a math teacher at Fullerton Union High School and Fullerton College from 1916 to 1945.  

   The dolls are part of the Japanese tradition of the Girls Festival, celebrated each March 3.  Representing the emperor and empress, the dolls are meant to protect girls from evil spirits. Fullerton College notes the Anita Shepardson Hina doll collection is "in remembrance of an instructor who dedicated her life to her students and worked to promote understanding between two cultures."

   To many in Wintersburg, Anita Shepardson was known as Ma Shep.

   Clarence Iwao Nishizu, a congregant of Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church, says Shepardson was called Ma Shep "because she had the charm and love of a mother to all of us."  When the Santa Ana River flooded in 1938 and many of the Japanese families lost their homes, Nishizu says Ma Shep opened her home to them.  Shepardson became a good friend to the Nishizu family.

Going above and beyond for her students
   Shepardson started the Japanese Club for students at Fullerton High School and Fullerton College, encouraging traditional Japanese arts and culture.  She took her students on field trips to places like the Sierra Madre Flower Garden and Huntington Library.  She helped them navigate American customs and manners.  Ma Shep also provided spiritual guidance, influencing students to attend church.

   She wrote a play for her students, The Emperor's Doll, and invited the Los Angeles Times and other local media to attend their performance.  In turn, the Japanese students presented Fullerton College with cherry trees and a Japanese garden.   

   Shepardson had to have been aware of those in the County who held anti Japanese sentiment.  She probably heard reports about families who had night visits from Orange County's Ku Klux Klan.  It would have been hard to ignore Sacramento Bee publisher V.S. McClatchy's testimony, On the Japanese Problem, before the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization during its hearings in California in July 1920.  

   Ma Shep never wavered.

An invitation to tour Japan
   Reaching beyond her students, Shepardson was active with Fullerton's International Relations Club and the Japan America Society of Los Angeles.  In addition to her Hina doll collection, Shepardson collected Japanese fine art and woodblock prints.  Nishizu remembers, "often she served tea to guests at her home and had the Nisei students interpret classic dancing and perform other cultural arts and traditions like the tea ceremony."

    Fullerton College Library reports her interest and involvement with Southern California's Japanese Americans led to an invitation by the Japanese Consulate to tour Japan in 1938.  Orange County's Japanese community paid her way.

December 1941
   The day Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Nishizu was delivering vegetables in Los Angeles. On his way back to Orange County, he was stopped by the police. 

   "I was really scared," recalls Nishizu, "Other Nisei shared my fear and accompanying depression. The general public viewed us with suspicion as if we had committed something wrong. Even the attitude of our next door Caucasian neighbor suddenly changed. We were disheartened as to our future. We were in a quandary."

   When a Japanese community meeting was called at the Farm Bureau in Santa Ana, Shepardson was there.  It was the last time Nishizu saw her.  

   Shepardson traveled to the Poston, Arizona Relocation Camp numerous times to see her students and their families.  During his 1982 oral history interview, Nishizu worries that "as a lover of Japanese people, she must have suffered due to the prevailing anti-Japanese atmosphere in the country during the war years."

Her lamp was always lighted
   In the February 5, 2005, Los Angeles Times article, A Lifelong Lesson in Justice, http://articles.latimes.com/2005/feb/05/local/me-teachers5, Teresa Watanabe writes, "For more than 60 years, the students have not forgotten their teachers...one group of people in particular gave them hope: the teachers, most of them white, who volunteered to join them.

   The Japanese American National Museum honored in 2005 more than 200 internment camp educators who braved the tumultuous times and camp conditions.  Unfortunately, Shepardson was not there to re-connect with her students.  Ma Shep died in 1945.

   Nishizu  wished, "she could have lived just long enough to have welcomed all of her Japanese friends back from the camps at the end of the war and to have joined them in reminiscing..."

   He recites an excerpt from a Robert Browning poem, "God gives each man one light, like a lamp, then gives that lamp due measure of oil. Lamp lighted--hold high, wave wide its comforts for others to share." 

   "Anita Shepardson had a goodly portion of oil," remembers Nishizu, "Her lamp was always lighted. She held it high. She waved it wide. She shared its light."

The interview with Mr. Clarence Iwao Nishizu was conducted by CSU Fullerton history professor Arthur A. Hansen for the Honorable Stephen K. Tamura Orange County Japanese American Oral History Project, jointly sponsored by the Japanese American Council of the Bowers Museum Foundation and the Japanese American Project of the California State University, Fullerton, Oral History Program.  Read the entire interview at http://content.cdlib.org/view?docId=hb009n977b;NAAN=13030&doc.view=frames&chunk.id=div00003&toc.depth=1&toc.id=&brand=calisphere

A Lifelong Lesson in Justice, Los Angeles Times, Feb. 5, 2005, can be viewed at http://articles.latimes.com/2005/feb/05/local/me-teachers5

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The Historic Wintersburg blog focuses on an overlooked history in Huntington Beach, Orange County, California, in the interest of saving a historic property from demolition. The author and publisher reserves the right not to publish comments. Please no promotional or political commentary. Zero tolerance for hate rhetoric. Comments with embedded commercial / advertising links or promoting other projects, books, or publications may not be published. If you have an interesting anecdote, question or comment about one of our features, it will be published.