Retiring Southern Oregon University President Roy Saigo addresses students at an orientation Thursday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch

A voice for those with no voice

ASHLAND — Roy Saigo, who will retire as Southern Oregon University's president Sunday, was a young boy when he and his family were sent to the Gila River War Relocation Center during World War II, but the impact of those years shaped his career as an educator — and as an advocate.

"It's influenced my whole career," Saigo, 75, said of the years, 1942 to 1945, he and family spent at the Arizona relocation center. "I feel I am a voice for people who have no voices."

Gila River was one of 10 relocation centers built following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, which stirred simmering resentment at Japanese-Americans. The camp was on the Gila River Indian Reservation about 30 miles south of Phoenix. Most of the "internees" were from areas near Fresno, Sacramento and Los Angeles. At its peak population of 13,348 people, it was Arizona's fourth-largest city. Overall, about 130,000 Japanese-Americans, two-thirds of them U.S. citizens, were sent to the camps.

"We were visibly the enemy, so everyone had a lot to overcome," Saigo said of families with Japanese ancestry.

Before their incarceration, Saigo's family worked and lived on a fruit farm in Vacaville, then a small city with a large Japanese-American community near Sacramento. His father, Toshiaki, had immigrated to the U.S. from Japan as a teenager. His mother, Fumiko Kawasaki, was born in San Francisco, moved to Japan with her father after her mother died, then returned to San Francisco, where she married Toshiaki.

"Because of the internment, we didn't have photo albums or other family items. You could only take with you what you could carry. Our history was pretty much eliminated," he said, noting his and other incarcerated families were given only days' advance notice before being shipped to Gila River and other camps.

Saigo was told that his and other families' discarded household and family items were tossed in ditches, doused in gasoline and burned instead of having them stolen after their departure. Years later, he visited with a Vacaville friend who told him about finding broken pieces of porcelain and remnants of other items.

Because of his age — Saigo was only about 3 years old when his family was relocated — he has few specific memories of the camp. He does remember his mother took charge of the family's day-to-day routines, including awakening Saigo and his siblings early so they could have some privacy while using communal restrooms and eat meals before lengthy lines formed.

"Mainly we were put on schedule because of our mother. There was no privacy."

His father worked as a truck driver at the camp. Once, while away from the camp at a gas station, he was threatened and frightened by whites.

"He was a brave man, but he was threatened," Saigo said. "Can you imagine your parents being responsible for your family, not knowing where you're going to live, how you're going to live, what rules will be enforced? ... As kids we were oblivious of the strains and pressures our parents were going through."

Because of the passage of time — the last camp closed in 1946, so surviving Japanese-Americans are in their 70s and 80s — he believes some survivor stories about camp life don't truly reflect the strains created on parents, grandparents and those old enough to serve in the Army. He says childhood memories told by those still living "sometimes send the wrong message because that's from a child's perspective. We must interpret to the public what really happened."

Likewise, "Nobody talks about coming back" and the challenges faced by Japanese-Americans after the camps closed and they returned to their previous homes, where many were not welcomed and many had lost their homes.

"I describe it as a land grab. There was intense hostility against us," Saigo said. His family moved to Sloughhouse, a small community east of Sacramento, where the family again worked on a fruit farm for about six years. The Saigos later moved to nearby Elk Grove and worked on a dairy and a fruit farm. He graduated from high school while in Elk Grove.

"I think we forget the difficulties and endurance of the people who were incarcerated and released," Saigo believes.

He hasn't forgotten. During his growing-up years working on farms, "I got tired of throwing silage and digging manure. My father said, 'If you don't like it, go to school.' I felt there was an injustice and that I had to do my best, but I knew I couldn't if I was a person with no voice."

To earn a voice, he earned a bachelor's degree in biological science from the University of California, Davis, where he also did post-graduate studies in agriculture. He later earned a Ph.D. in botany and plant pathology from Oregon State University, where he met his wife-to-be, Barbara, a fourth-generation Oregonian.

From there he became a faculty member and, later, assistant dean at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. In following years Saigo was dean at the University of Northern Iowa, provost and vice president at Southeastern Louisiana University, and chancellor at Auburn University. From 2000 to 2007 he was president of St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, where he was named president emeritus. After being retired seven years, Saigo accepted a two-year appointment as Southern Oregon University's interim president in 2014.

"I believe I am the only Japanese-American who was a former federal prisoner, who has been a three-time university president," he says, referring to his years at Gila River.

The experiences at Gila River and ongoing challenges of being a minority have shaped Saigo's career. The mantra he's espoused at SOU — "We treat every student as if they are one of our own" — stems from both his personal history and his desire to find a "voice." Race-related problems, Saigo believes, persist.

He and his wife will remain in Ashland when his retirement becomes official July 31, partly because of her Oregon roots and partly because "we've made wonderful friends in the valley. We have a lot invested in the future of this area and want to be an active part of it."

He'll retire from SOU, but don't expect Saigo, who has worked as a consultant, speaker and writer on societal issues, including the incarceration of Japanese-Americans, to withdraw from voicing his beliefs.

"Education is important for the middle class, and I feel we're losing that. Democracy requires an educated community," Saigo says.

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at or 541-880-4139.

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