Finding acceptance and a place to call home should never be an issue for a Cal-Berkley graduate who has a doctorate in chemistry and has been sent by the United States government to Russia during the Cold War. The same country that trusted this man with vital petroleum secrets while behind enemy lines is the same country that forced him from his home, his family and a lucrative career in the petroleum industry almost 70 years ago.
In 1964, Dr. James Sugihara not only blazed the trail for Japanese-Americans, but he also became one of the most highly distinguished administrators North Dakota State University has ever seen. This is the incredible story of an American-born citizen fighting his way through struggles and triumphs while earning every piece of respect a scholar of his level deserves.
As it turns out, the now 95-year-old Sugihara never thought of joining the academic field when he was a promising young chemistry student at the University of California-Berkley during the late 1930s.
“I thought it would have been hilarious to become a professor,” Sugihara said. “I believed that route was closed to a student back then.”
What Sugihara desired was a position as a researcher for Cal and to follow a similar path his good friend Vaughan Smith was going down. It was different times back in 1939 when Sugihara completed his bachelor’s degree in chemistry. Opportunities that were wide open for his peers weren’t always available for a person of Japanese descent, making Sugihara’s path much different than what he had anticipated.
“The chemistry students by and large were interviewed by the industry,” Sugihara said. “I walked into this situation and talked to a professor at Berkley about this and he said, ‘Sorry, there’s no point in you interviewing. You’re not acceptable because you’re Japanese.’”
Sugihara was not mentioned as a possible candidate for the Cal research position, but his friend Smith, with whom he shared textbooks, socialized and had a relationship “like brothers,” received the research position. Smith went on to have a spectacular career in the petroleum industry, rising through the ranks at an unusually fast pace while staying close with his college friend, Sugihara. The company Smith helped develop became the Cheveron Corporation, one of the six “super major” oil companies in the world. All it took was one chance, the chance Sugihara never had.
“This is the life of a kid that I felt I was pretty parallel with, coming from the same (academic) circumstances,” Sugihara said. “I went a different route; ended up going to graduate school, ended up in an academic position, academic administration, and I think if I were to compare notes in the end, I would have taken my path again.”
That unforgiving path would yet again take a turn for the worst on Dec. 7, 1942. While studying for his master’s at Berkley and in response to the attacks on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, Sugihara was detained by the U.S. government and was thrown out of school because he was now seen as a threat to the country. Along with 110,000 other Japanese-Americans, Sugihara was sent to a Japanese internment camp for five months.
It was an obvious bump in the road for the aspiring chemist who was unfairly forced out of the classroom and into a horse-racing track called Tanforan, along with 7,000 other Japanese-Americans. Through the removal from the classroom to the outskirts of the San Francisco and through these apparent dark times during Sugihara’s life that shadowed hope for any kind of a future, he couldn’t help but find light in the situation.
“There were horse stalls,” Sugihara said. “I ended up in a bunk in the center of the race track, but a bunch of people were in horse stalls for several months and that’s when I met May.”
Shortly after meeting May Murakami at Tanforan, Sugihara and his new girlfriend were among the people sent to Topaz, Utah, for two weeks, and he had a chance to continue his promising academic journey in chemistry. “The only way anybody was allowed to leave the group was to go to school and to show evidence of financial capability of taking care of yourself,” Sugihara said. “The University of Utah awarded me that opportunity.”
In 1944, while attending the University of Utah, Sugihara married Murakami, whom he is still with today, and the couple recently celebrated their 69th wedding anniversary. Sugihara was finally able to complete his master’s degree that he started before being physically removed from Berkley and he went on to receive his doctorate in chemistry from the University of Utah in 1947.
Sugihara scaled up the ranks, quickly becoming a full-fledged professor at Utah in 1955 and by 1963 had opportunity knocking at his door. He was shocked to find an agricultural school from Fargo was on the other side, but something swayed Sugihara to follow the path and to open the door for an exciting career change. Pondering the move to Fargo wasn’t a pleasant thought for a man who has family roots in nearby Colorado, where he was born in 1918. Sugihara remembers being dubious about making the transition to Fargo, but he ultimately knew it was the proper step to take in his career.
“I knew nothing about Fargo or North Dakota,” Sugihara said. “One of the professors at NDSU, Bob Peterson, … calls me up one day and says, ‘Would you like to apply as dean for my college?’ I said ‘I would not. Are you kidding me, North Dakota?!’ Anyhow, he convinced me and said, ‘Not to put it all so short. Why don’t you come to an interview?’ So I went the spring of 1963.”
After being offered the position of Dean of the College of Chemistry, Sugihara was still uncertain about the move to Fargo. A graduate student who moved here with him told him, “When you move your family to Fargo, you are going to double the oriental population.”
Sugihara waited a year and finally made the move to Fargo. He remembers his reception to Fargo being pleasant, recalling an early conversation he had with then NDSU President Herb Albrecht. “’You have given me a warm reception and I am very happy to receive this,’” Sugihara said. “’I hope you understand I am not Anglo-Saxon, Caucasian,’ and he looked at me like ‘Why would that matter?’ And that’s the ways it’s been.”
The feeling of belonging and not being considered an outsider from the rest of his Caucasian co-workers made it an easy adjustment to the way of life in North Dakota for Sugihara. Another contributing factor was the athletic program and the relationships he built with numerous Bison coaches.
The same spring Sugihara came to interview in Fargo, the Bison football team was coming off its worst season in school history, an astonishingly bad 0-10. NDSU President Albrecht was looking to take the football program in a different direction and he interviewed Darrell Mudra hoping he would be the man for the job.
Although Sugihara believed Mudra was an interesting character, he could never knock the way Mudra went about handling the men on the football team. Inheriting a winless team in 1962, Mudra turned around the football program in just three seasons, capping the resurrection of the program in 1965 by winning the first national championship in school history.
“That one year the Bison went to a bowl game, they ended up playing a black school,” Sugihara recalled. “I thought when they scheduled this game our poor guys are going to get murdered. So we asked Mudra about this and he said, ‘Don’t you worry, we’re going to do alright.’ We asked him what he was going to do against this All-American Tackle and he said, ‘We are going to go right at him.’ We thought ‘you are crazy’ … And he says, ‘They’re going to be a little uneasy about coming at us. We’re going to play our usual game and win.’”
Mudra was right as the Bison defeated Grambling in the Pecan Bowl, 20-7. It was the first of ten national championships Sugihara would eventually witness at NDSU.
Sugihara adored many of the football coaches that have come through the Bison program and especially Mudra. “I thought that guy could have made it in anything other than a football coach,” Sugihara said.
Throughout his career at NDSU, Sugihara remained involved with athletics and gives former NDSU President Laurel D. Loftsgard and many of the coaches such as Don Morton and Ronald Erhardt credit for getting him involved early in his time at NDSU. Even after retirement, Sugihara still buys season tickets to the football games in the FargoDome like he always has.
“We were involved in not only our sphere of activity, but he (Loftsgard) had us involved in all sorts of things including the athletic program,” Sugihara said. “That’s the reason I got to know athletic coaches and athletics directors. Some well, some not very well, but that’s because we were expected to get involved as the institution as a whole.”
That involvement is what Sugihara thinks makes NDSU a great institution to work for. As he explains, “they simply became friends in a sense.”
His newly formed relationships at the University level gained him an outstanding amount of respect among the faculty. His esteem became apparent when the U.S. Department of Energy Delegation approached him about joining a team that was headed to Moscow, Russia in 1978.
In the heat of the Cold War, Sugihara was sent to Russia with a handful of his peers to speak with Russian oil experts on geochemistry. Sugihara was apprehensive at first of their mission.
“When we went, we were told, ‘If you have any things of value or significance that you want to talk about among your group, never do this in an enclosed room. The likelihood is that it is bugged,’” said Sugihara, recalling the briefing before shipping out to Russia. “‘If you want to visit, go out somewhere, go to a park out in the open and then you can visit and won’t be overheard.’”
The fear of the Russian people was quickly diminished when Sugihara finally arrived to Russia. Shocked by the lack of resources, he knew this would be a useless trip to Moscow, but it would be something he would remember for the rest of his life.
“Our Russian compatriots were very knowledgeable about a lot of things and I guess most of us were simply amazed that their capability of doing anything was so poor,” said Sugihara. “They didn’t even have mimeo graphic machines. Their balances were primitive, and I guess when the Russians sent a man to the moon, we were simply shocked.”
Of the many accomplishments and awards Sugihara has accumulated over the years, there is one that he still holds close to his heart. In 1972 he received the Blue Key Doctor of Service Award from NDSU, one of the highest honors any member of the University can receive.
At this point, the story of Dr. James Sugihara has come full circle. He was awarded an honorary doctorate at NDSU 1998. After experiencing the struggles of being a minority living in a hostile part of the country and dealing with the discriminative behaviors in California, Sugihara couldn’t be happier with the place he is now. Sugihara will be forever grateful for the opportunities he was presented at NDSU and is glad to have said he has served the University and to have had the opportunity to raise his kids in the accepting community of Fargo, ND.
At 95 years old, there isn’t much for Sugihara to accomplish that he hasn’t already. All he can hope for now is to pass along his experiences to the next aspiring chemist, who will overcome obstacles and yearn for his or her shot at making a difference, however it may be.