In 1953, Kiyoshi Ikemi ’57 traveled by boat for 15 days across the Pacific to attend Saint Mary’s, and the differences between his native Japan and America were as vast as the ocean.
Japan was still “in a state of devastation” from World War II, one of the poorest countries in the world, recalls Ikemi, known at SMC as Joe after his baptismal name, Joseph. America was in the postwar baby and economic boom fueled by the G.I. Bill. In Japan, beef was a luxury; at SMC, it was on the dining table just about every day.
A young foreign student could have been overwhelmed by the experience, but Ikemi says it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that his father told him not to pass up.
“Everything I saw was so new and different,” Ikemi said during an interview at last year’s Reunion Weekend. “I was so excited, there was no time to feel homesick.”
At College, Ikemi had to work hard to improve his English skills. A reading assignment that would take other students an hour took him three hours, but he persevered with the help of classmates and professors.
“The friendships I developed are invaluable. I made many good friends who taught me English, including dirty words,” he said with a sly smile. “I liked the College because it had such a small student body. That made it possible for us to develop very close relationships with the faculty.
“Brother Austin taught us French, Ben Frankel was a history professor, Leroy Smith taught us philosophy and logic,” he continued. “I liked so many professors. Brother Thomas — he’s the man I’ll be grateful to eternally. Without him, I couldn’t have come here.”
Brother Thomas Levi, then SMC president, offered Ikemi a College scholarship on the recommendation of Brother Marcel Petit, the principal of De La Salle High in Kagoshima, Japan, where Ikemi was a student. Before the 2007 reunion, Ikemi and his wife, Yoshiko, visited Mont La Salle and laid a wreath on Brother Thomas’ tomb.
Ikemi, who received a bachelor’s in history and political science, did postgraduate work in New York and returned to Japan in 1959. Until his retirement in 1995, he worked in corporate relations and international planning for Honda Motor Company. He was active in selecting Ohio as the site of Honda’s first U.S. production plant and testified before Congressional committees and the Environmental Protection Agency on reducing auto emissions.
The Ikemis have three daughters and four grandchildren, and are looking forward to celebrating their 50th anniversary in 2011. Meanwhile, he loves keeping in touch with old classmates, and he has attended every reunion since his 25th in 1982.
“It takes time and money to fly over the Pacific Ocean, but it is well worth it,” he says.
And, now, it only takes nine hours.