Commencement
Past Honorary Degree Recipients

Lillia Uri Satow Matsuda

  • After graduating from Broadway High School, Lillia Uri (Satow) Matsuda enrolled in Seattle University's five-year bachelor's/registered nurse program and worked at Providence Hospital. Her mother had returned to Japan earlier to take care of an ill family member, so when the incarceration orders were issued, she got on the last bus to the Puyallup Assembly Center by herself. She later went to Minidoka, where she met her future husband, Frank.

    Uri brought her blue and white nurse's training uniform with her, so she worked at the camp hospital and kept up on her nursing skills. After a time, internees were allowed to apply to leave for school or work, and she was accepted at St. Francis Hospital in Peoria, Ill. She worked at Wesley Memorial Hospital, which was affiliated with Northwest University, and was elected head nurse in the ear, nose and throat area. Frank returned from military service after serving in the famous 442nd and receiving a silver star, and moved to Chicago.

    They were married in 1949 and moved back to Seattle, where she worked nights in the newborn nursery at Providence while caring for their three children. They lost their youngest daughter to cancer when she was a teenager.

    Uri, who lives at Seattle Keiro Nursing Home, said she was "amazed and stunned" when she learned about the university's honorary degree she would receive and she can't wait to be at the ceremony. Now 87, she has clear memories about her incarceration years and is grateful the university is recognizing what she and others went through.

    Lillia Uri (Satow) Matsuda had dreams of being a doctor. Her mother and younger brother had returned to Japan to take care of an ill family member, and Uri, as she prefers to be called, made the difficult decision to stay in Seattle by herself.

    "I loved my mother, and I thought about going to Japan with her," she recalled. "But at 18, I wanted to stay and finish school with my class."

    She couldn't predict that a short time later, her whole life would change and that the family would remain separated for decades.

    "I really wanted to be a doctor," she said. "After my mother left, I knew I couldn't do it alone, so I thought of the next best thing: I'll become a nurse."

    After graduating from Broadway High School, she enrolled in Seattle University's five-year bachelor's/registered nurse program.

    "I never expected a war to break out," she said. "I was working at Providence when we got the word."

    There were strict orders about where Japanese Americans could go, she remembers.
    "I couldn't cross 12th Avenue, so the school had to send my tests to Providence," she said.

    Uri says she was on the last bus to the Puyallup Assembly Center and later went to Minidoka.

    "They called it evacuation, but really you were scheduled to leave," she said from a lounge at Seattle Keiro Nursing Home. "What they called camp was actually prison."

    Now 87, she remembers details and shares her story with a sense of humor that takes some of the sting out of the pain. Unlike most, Uri went to camp alone, without a family. They didn't know where to house a single woman, but she was eventually paired with a roommate.

    "They handed us a bag and you had to stuff it with hay," she said. "That was the mattress. They built so-called cabins, but it was a horse stall."

    They went days or weeks without showers, and when they finally had them, they were cold. She remembers a soldier walking back and forth above the high walls surrounding the camp. He seemed friendly, and one day she and some other girls joked with him about what would happen if they set a foot underneath the gate.

    "He said, 'I'll shoot it,'" Uri recalls. "That's when you really found out you're not living in a camp. You're not free and you better watch what the heck you say."

    Though the conditions were bleak, she said she was never afraid, and there were bright spots, such as meeting a young Frank Matsuda, who left camp to serve in the military. She brought her blue and white nurse's training uniform with her, so she worked at the camp hospital and kept up on her nursing skills. After a time, internees were allowed to apply to leave for school or work, and she started writing to hospitals to see if she could find another place away from the West Coast to continue her education.

    "I thought staying there was not doing me any good," she said. "I wrote and wrote and wrote."

    She was accepted to St. Francis Hospital in Peoria, Ill., where the German nuns were extremely strict and made the students' lives difficult.

    "I was bound and determined to finish," Uri said.

    She worked at Wesley Memorial Hospital, which was affiliated with Northwest University, and was elected head nurse in the ear, nose and throat area. Frank returned from military service after serving in the famous 442nd and receiving a silver star, and moved to Chicago.

    They were married and moved back to Seattle, where she worked nights in the newborn nursery at Providence while caring for their three children. They lost their youngest daughter to cancer when she was a teenager.

    When Uri received her redress money from the government in the late '80s, she finally was able to go to Japan to visit her mother and brother, who she hadn't seen since they left Seattle before the war. She said she never forgot her younger brother calling out to her from the boat, "I don't want to go!" I didn't think it was going to be 45 years before I saw them again."

    Uri said she was "amazed and stunned" when Professor Lori Bannai told her about the university's honorary degree she would receive and she can't wait to be at the ceremony. Two of her friends from childhood and nursing school, Madeleine (Iwata) Uyehara and Caroline (Kondo) Taniguchi, also will receive honorary degrees. Both of them were able to complete their schooling in Colorado when they were forced to leave Seattle University. She has stayed in touch for more than 70 years with Caroline, who lived next door when they were growing up. Madeleine has passed away.

    She is grateful the university is recognizing what she and her friends went through. It's good to talk about her experiences now, but she says it took her years to open up about her incarceration.

    "When you're young, you have all these ideas and dreams that you could do anything," she said. "It's hard to live with it."