Dorothy Kittaka

Glass half full

Dorothy Kittaka, photography by Neal Bruns

If you have a school-aged child in northern Indiana and that child is an artist of some stripe, you’ve probably been touched by Dorothy Kittaka. The founder, along with fellow teacher Mike Schmid, of FAME – Foundation for Art and Music in Education, Kittaka was also a music teacher at Haverhill Elementary School. But her life started at a Japanese internment camp during World War II. Find out how she survived the camp and got FAME-ous as we play 20 Questions.

1. What’s with all the dragonflies in your house?
Every time I go on a trip I try to get a dragonfly. There’s a Japanese song, “Akatombo,” which means red dragonfly. They are resilient. In Japanese traditions they (mean) strength.

2. When did you become interested in music?
When I was a child, my first sound of music was in the internment camp at Heart Mountain. Over 70-something years I have heard this music in my brain. Just this past year I found the gentleman who (played) it. I was only like 4 years old. I just remember the sound. I remember skipping nursery school, and I listened to him.

3. How old were you when you were sent to the camp?
I was around 2 years old. We (had) lived in Washington state. My father came over to America from Japan at 14 years old. When I was in the camps, I was just a kid. I thought this was how people lived – six in one room, going to eat in a big mess hall, sharing a bathroom. I was there until I was 5 years old at Heart Mountain. I returned to Heart Mountain last year, and all the (wooden) barracks were gone. They had two buildings that were brick – one where I had my tonsils out. I remember screaming as loudly and long as I could, and they tied me down and put me to sleep. Those little memories are like, wow, OK?

4. Have the celebrations 70th anniversary of the war’s end been difficult for you?
No, because I’m an American. I’m here. I am a citizen. The Japanese that invaded and did things are probably of my heritage but not of my belief. And all Americans come from a different country. I just feel this is my country, and I’m just so pleased to be here.

5. Were your parents bitter that they were interned?
My parents modeled forgiveness. They were never bitter. They never said one bad word about our treatment. They wanted us not to feel that we did something wrong. As I look back, they were in their quiet ways protecting us. They told us we had to be model citizens because we were the only Asians around and anything we did would be the model for what people would think any Asian people did, so we had to behave ourselves and excel.

6. How did FAME come about?
I always liken it to Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland saying, “let’s make a play!” Mike Schmid and I talked about this for years over at Haverhill.

7. Why are the arts so important?
The arts saved many of us, because everybody has this wonderful place in life, and they have talents that aren’t tested out in those little (standardized test) bubbles you have to put down every year. They think creatively out of the box.

8. What does “dedication” mean to you?
Dedication for me is teaching, because I love teaching. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, besides being a stewardess, but I was two inches too short.

9. You’ve been retired for nearly a decade. How do you spend your time?
I’ve never stopped running! I want to put my finger in things. I don’t want to lose contact with (FAME), but I don’t want to be one of these founders who hover and tell them what to do. I think they have to be completely independent to carry on.

10. As part of the Sister Cities committee, you do a lot of traveling. Where would you like to visit?
Australia. I’d like to go back to Paris. I’d love to go to Alaska, but I would get seasick on the cruise!

11. You lost your husband, Bob, five years ago. How are you doing?
We were together for 48 years. I’m doing really well. Together we have this loving family of children, and we’re so lucky they’re all so healthy. I’m so proud of my three sons because they’re great fathers, and that’s because Bob was so good.

12. If you were a superhero, what power would you have?
I would love to be able to find cures for things like cancer and ALS.

13. Where does your mind go when you are singing?
It goes with the meaning of the words.

14. If you could wave a magic wand and cure a societal ill, what would it be?
Our society is so preoccupied with guns. It really is something I’d like to have us wake up (about). I think guns can be used responsibly as in hunting. My son is a hunter and his kids go to hunting school, (but) why do we need assault rifles?

15. When are you the happiest?
I’m usually a happy person most of the time. The happiest would be to be with my family and to see my children become good parents and for the grandchildren to become successful.

16. What’s the one thing you can’t live without?
Music, because it’s something that really made me who I think I am.

17. Who are your heroes?
My mother, Sakaye Terada Kometani, and father, Kizo Kometani, are my heroes. My mother was such a strong person, such a force. Such a model of strength, and she was pretty strict, too. We knew we had to do things.

18. Who was your favorite teacher?
I’ve had so many, but way back when we went to the one-room schoolhouse, Mrs. Hance was there. She was a wonderful motherly-type person, and she took care of all of us in that one-room schoolhouse. We’d go out in the spring and pick this wild asparagus, and she had this pot-bellied stove and she’d put it on top and she’d make asparagus soup and it was the most wonderful thing. She was one, and Howard Dill, my voice teacher at Northern Illinois, he just changed my life.

19. What are three qualities that every teacher needs?
You have to like children. You have to not be afraid to be up in front of people, and you have to be comfortable teaching something you’re passionate about.

20. Is the glass half empty or half full?
It’s half full, because I have a lot yet to go. I try to always look on the positive side, mainly because it’s a happier place to be. I don’t exactly know what all I’m supposed to do when I grow up, because I’m still growing.

First appeared in the July 2015 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.


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