War delays Ida O’Connell’s diploma no longer

Paul Clark

After more than 70 years, Ida O’Connell will receive her high school diploma on Saturday.

Friends and family will gather at Deerfield Episcopal Retirement Center to present the longtime Black Mountain resident and artist with the diploma she earned years ago, one delayed by her family’s internment during World War II, one that, despite O’Connell’s finishing high school with good grades and the expectation of living the life that other Americans were living, she never pursued.

Her friends in Black Mountain pursued it for her. Their work is a great story of warm friendship, of the lengths people will go to help those they love. The story starts right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but the story threads were created long before that.

Ida Tabuchi, as she was known then, was one of 11 children her Japanese parents had. Her father, who immigrated to California in the early 1900s, worked in vineyards and orchards, harvesting and pruning. A matchmaker set him up with his wife, a so-called “picture bride” who came over from Japan to work in the vineyards as well. “She had scars on her hands from the knives that you cut grapes with,” O’Connell said in a recent interview.

The Tabuchis lived in a sharecropper’s home. “Rudimentary, but with a kitchen and all the necessaries,” O’Connell recalled. She went to the nearby schools, including San Benito High School in Hollister. There her grades were so good that she wasn’t allowed to take sewing and weaving, a vocational class that she wanted. Bound for college, she had expected her life to include “the things that you do when life is going as you think,” she said.

Pearl Harbor changed all of that. With the bombing came President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1942 order to relocate and incarcerate more than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry, more than half U.S. citizens like Ida Tabuchi.

The Tabuchis were assigned to a camp in Poston, Arizona, the largest of the 10 relocation centers. Camp officials issued them and the other 17,000 detainees cots to sleep on and sacks to fill with straw to serve as mattresses. The family moved into an end unit of a barrack, one of thousands of four-unit barracks in the camp. The Tabuchis used sheets to partition off rooms. O’Connell remembers the gaps between the floor boards, good for sweeping but bad if you dropped money.

Outside, her father built a Japanese garden, stocking the pond with fish that he got from the river. Fellow internees would come by to see the garden.

“It was very cold in the winter,” O’Connell said. I remember one winter thawing out mop water. It froze in the air.” The family was at the camp for three or four years (some of the memories are “murky,” she said).

Released, Ida Tabuchi worked with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Teheran, Iran, where she met her husband, Tom O’Connell, then working there on organic methods of controlling harmful insects and weeds. An entomologist and diplomat, O’Connell and his career took the growing family to Morocco, Mexico, Belgium, Hungary and Bulgaria. The O’Connells retired to Black Mountain in 1991. Ida O’Connell became an accomplished painter who sold her work at Sourwood Gallery in Black Mountain.

Sally Robinson, whose family lived in Japan for seven, met O’Connell years ago, through O’Connell’s neighbor, Gay Currie Fox. Fox always had a July 4th party, and the O’Connells would be there. One day sitting on the porch of O’Connell’s home overlooking Lake Tomahawk, Robinson mentioned that one of her sons was graduating from University of California at Berkeley. O’Connell said that she too went there, even though she had never received her high school diploma.

“My reaction was, let’s look into this,” Robinson said.

So last winter, she, O’Connell, Fox, Nancy Mason and others met at Dobra’s Tea in Black Mountain and decided to contact the high school. Robinson remembers the smile that appeared on O’Connell’s face during the discussion. “When Ida smiles, that means ‘OK,’” Robinson said. “She never would have initiated this herself.”