‘Kindness of strangers’ sets alumna on path to DU

Rose Hanawa Tanaka (BA ’48) is many things: a DU alumna, a Denver public school teacher, a Japanese American internment camp survivor and, most recently, a scholarship founder.

From humble beginnings in California to becoming a successful DU student and community leader, Tanaka always has been grateful to the University of Denver for the education it offered her and her husband, Floyd (BA ’51). Her journey is a fascinating tale of determination, hard work and, as she says, “the kindness of strangers.”

Tanaka’s path to DU is one with many twists and turns; the most pivotal being her family’s relocation to an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II.

In response to the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which paved the way for creation of internment camps for persons of Japanese descent. This included Tanaka and her immigrant parents, who had lived peacefully in the United States for more than 40 years but never were granted naturalization rights.

These camps, as Tanaka describes, were on desert or swamp lands surrounded by barbed wire fences and guarded by armed soldiers. Tanaka’s father was sent by the FBI to an enemy alien prison camp; her family went to Manzanar, in California.

“Although it was a demeaning experience even while our own young men fought and died overseas while their families were incarcerated in American camps, it was necessary to overcome anger and bitterness and become aware that there were many in the nation who believed in the fundamental American values of respect and justice for all, despite color or ethnicity and the rule of law which would have prevented unjust incarceration,” Tanaka says. “I became more appreciative when I experienced freedom upon release from the internment camp and learned of the many people who had worked tirelessly to right the wrongs which had occurred.”

“The camp was administered by the civilian-led War Relocation Authority, which was made up of people who recognized the unjust circumstances of our population having been imprisoned without charges,” she continues. “They treated us respectfully and encouraged internees to contribute skills to make life bearable.”

Additionally, the state of California set up an accredited school system, which brought in dedicated teachers as well as using qualified internees who gave students like Tanaka a basic education. For Tanaka, “all this helped to restore my faith in a nation which seemed to have let us down.”

Coming to the University of Denver was an unplanned experience for Tanaka. During the week of her high school graduation, when going on to higher education was only a remote hope, her adviser explained that plans were in place for her to enroll at DU, an institution unfamiliar to Tanaka. She later learned that the War Relocation Authority had established the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council, an organization whose purpose was to assist thousands of students coming out of internment camps who had lost all means to continue their education. The council paid for Tanaka’s transportation to Denver, found her room and board and paid for her first year’s tuition.

“How else can I explain this but to say it all happened through the kindness of strangers?” Tanaka says. “Being able to enroll at DU opened up a whole new world for me and encouraged me to put forth my best efforts.”

Tanaka participated in DU’s Student Methodist movement and served as a mentor to new students in her senior year. “The opportunities to serve others influenced my work in later years,” she says.

After graduation, Tanaka became a social worker for the Denver Bureau of Public Welfare, then a Y-Teen director with the YWCA. During that period she married and started a family with Floyd Tanaka, a World War II veteran and a graduate of DU’s School of Architecture and City Planning. While raising her children, Tanaka became a certified classroom teacher and worked in elementary education in the Denver Public Schools. She also studied Spanish and English as a Second Language, which allowed her to work during her later years in a bilingual classroom.

“It was fulfilling in my 25 years with DPS to have this experience, which also included the school desegregation project in Denver during the civil rights movement,” she says.

Tanaka gives DU much of the credit for the life she has today.

“Since most of my career was in public education, the social science major gave me a broader understanding and respect for people of different backgrounds,” she says. “While working with children, this knowledge made me realize that students need to not only acquire basic skills and knowledge in subject matter, but they also need to develop a sense of self-worth while respecting and accepting others.”

Tanaka’s husband, Floyd, also had a successful career as a DU alumnus, including positions as city planner for Colorado Springs and assistant director of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority. The two were married for 59 years before Floyd’s passing in January 2008.

“Our family is always reminded that his successful career was a result of having had the unique opportunity to attend DU on the G.I. Bill after his service in the U.S. Army,” Tanaka says.

Tanaka recently founded the Floyd H. and Rose H. Tanaka Endowed Scholarship fund, which she established to help students like herself.

“I am always aware of my gratitude for DU’s generosity in providing scholarships and assistantships each year, which allowed me to receive a BA degree when I had no other resources,” she says. “I envision the fund to benefit anyone in need of assistance and encouragement to enter or continue in the pursuit of higher education. I hope it can be an incentive to study to work in areas which serve the larger society.”

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