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Augustus Tanaka ’45

Born to Dr. Benjamin and Michiye Tanaka in Portland, Gus graduated from Grant High School in 1941 and started at Reed that fall. Within months his world was turned upside down by the United States’ entry into the Second World War.

“Four hours after Pearl Harbor,” Gus said, “the FBI was ringing our doorbell.” Agents searched the house for six hours hunting for radio transmitters and receivers, which were never found because they didn’t exist. Instead, the agents confiscated family photo albums and cameras. Gus’s father, a Hawaiian-born American citizen, was arrested on unfounded charges of being an enemy of the U.S. government and kept in prison camps for over four years.

Because he lived outside the five-mile travel restriction zone imposed on all Japanese-Americans, Gus needed a security waiver to continue attending Reed. He made his way to Reed averting his eyes from the hostile stares directed at him. In May of his freshman year, Gus and his family were sent to detention camps, first at the Portland International Livestock Pavilion and then at Minidoka, Idaho.

“I thought the world had come to an end when the evacuation came,” Gus said. “That experience was a test of my loyalty. I came out more loyal. The negative things didn’t harm me, but the good things advanced my future and helped me achieve things that I thought I wouldn’t.”

In the fall of 1942, Dr. Arthur Scott [chemistry 1923–79], who was then the acting president of Reed College, facilitated Gus’s enrollment at Haverford College in Pennsylvania.

“These were nightmarish times,” Gus said. “I am deeply indebted to Reed for its compassionate concern for me. I don’t know how my life would have turned out were it not for Reed’s actions on my behalf at that time.”

In 1944, Gus was drafted into the U.S. Army. In 1945, he went to Japan, where he taught the history of war and reading to American soldiers. After being honorably discharged from the Army, Gus returned to Haverford, where he finished his BA. He went on to get his degree in medicine from the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in 1951.

In 1953, he married Teruko (Teddy) Wada, having met her on a blind date. Their three children were born during his surgical residency in Manhattan. The family later moved to Ontario, Oregon, where he and his father opened the Tanaka Clinic in 1959, and where Gus worked tirelessly until he retired. 

Gus served as the Oregon Medical Association’s first minority president in 1971–72, was a delegate to the American Medical Association’s House of Delegates, president of the Malheur County Medical Society, and a member of the Oregon State Board of Medical Examiners. In 1993, the Oregon Foundation for Medical Excellence chose Gus as Outstanding Physician. Passionate about “giving back,” he was honored by many organizations for his service, including being chosen Citizen of the Year by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce.

Gus is survived by his wife, Teddy; his three children and their spouses, Maja and Cordell Berge, John and Ann Tanaka, and Susie and Larry Nielson; his younger brother, Karl Tanaka; five grandchildren, Alison Tanaka, Megan Tanaka Kmetz , Briana Tanaka, Ryan Nielson, and Kate Nielson Brodkin; and a great-grandson, Sage Wilder Kmetz.

Appeared in Reed magazine: June 2016

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