Providence Lives In Fresno
James E. Walton
Department Chair and Professor of English
As a city champion in the 880-yard run in Canton, Ohio, in 1960, I always thought that athletics would be my ticket to college. I had wrestled varsity in high school and, sometime later, held my college’s record in the mile run. In addition to my athletic ability, my grades were excellent, yet a partial scholarship to a local college was the only offer I received. So I gave up the idea of going to college.
. . I graduated from high school at age 16 with no job prospects, no plan for further education and my allotted time to live at home had expired. The U.S. military offered the only hope, so I signed up for the Navy.
Growing up in poverty with a stepfather who cared nothing about my siblings and me and who saw us as a burden, I knew he would not support the idea of my attending college nor would he provide any financial assistance. I’d heard it often enough. “Boy, when you turn 16 years old, there are 18 ways to get out of my house,” he’d say, irritably. He was counting all of the windows along with the front and back doors.
So like my brother one year before, I graduated from high school at age 16 with no job prospects, no plan for further education and my allotted time to live at home had expired. The U.S. military offered the only hope, so I signed up for the Navy.
Two weeks prior to shipping out to Cleveland and eventually Viet Nam, I agreed to take my pastor’s place in a church play performed across town at a “white” church. After the play, I was downstairs trying to arrange a ride home when a foreigner who I didn’t know congratulated me on my role in the play and innocently asked, “How’s school going?”
“School?” I responded with some indignation. “I graduated!”
“Well, why aren’t you in college then?” the stranger shot back. I had no response to that impossibility.
A week later I received a phone call. “You have been on my mind,” the stranger I’d met at the church said, “so I looked up your number.” We talked for several minutes then he asked to speak to my mother. As I feared, my mother mentioned to the stranger that I had signed up to join the Navy. This news spurred the caller into action.
Reminding me that Seventh-day Adventists did not volunteer for the military (Seventh-day Adventists, as a matter of faith, only go to the military if drafted and only as conscientious objectors, at that), the caller tried to talk me out of going. He had no way of knowing the hateful and abusive ways of my stepfather, so I could only promise that I would try.
Even though I had not officially taken the military oath, I had given my birth certificate to a stern-faced local military recruiter and I didn’t want to face him again. After some begging, my sister agreed to retrieve my birth certificate from the recruiter.
One week later, the stranger—having only met me once—called again to ask directions to my home. “I think I can get you into the college in Michigan that I attended,” he told me. “I’ll be at your house in about one hour. Can you be packed by then?”
I quickly tossed my few personal items in a pillow case, slung it over my shoulder, and was standing, waiting, by the time the stranger arrived. My stepfather only had discouraging words as the stranger approached our house. The Navy, he told me, was still my best option. “I won’t be giving you a damn dime to go to no school,” he said.
In sub-freezing temperatures and tall, drifting snow gusts, the stranger and I headed into the darkness toward a private university hundreds of miles away from Canton, Ohio in Berrien Springs, Michigan. I had not applied to attend the university. I hadn’t even taken the SAT or the ACT. Three dollars, left over from the five-dollar bill a relative had given me for graduation, was all I had to cover room, board and tuition.
On the long, treacherous drive to Michigan, I learned that the stranger’s name was Dr. Joseph Nozaki, a young physician serving out his residency in a local hospital. He hadn’t slept for three days and was having difficulty staying awake. We stopped the car several times and ran in the snow to stay awake. During one of our runs around the car, he lost his wallet, but we decided to continue on to the university anyway.
Many challenges awaited me: working half days, going to class half days, living on government-surplus peanut butter at times, surviving without adequate clothes in frigid Michigan winters, and being saved once by the financial intervention of Dr. Nozaki when the college threatened to suspend me for lack of funds. Somehow, scratching my way and generally depending on the kindness of strangers, I graduated from Kent State University where I’d transferred during my third year.
Unfortunately during this time, I lost all contact with Dr. Nozaki, even though I visited the alumni office of his alma mater several times for updated addresses. The letters I sent to China, to Singapore, and to Hong Kong always came back a few months later stamped “address unknown.”
After teaching high school in Canton for three years, earning a doctorate, then teaching at a liberal arts college for 20 years, my family and I moved 3,000 miles away from Ohio to Fresno where I began teaching at Fresno State. Miraculously, through a series of improbable events, I rediscovered Dr. Nozaki, who at age 79 is still a practicing surgeon. He had spent many years as a missionary on several continents before returning to his practice in Fresno. Dr. Nozaki and I had lunch together just yesterday—as we do weekly—at the church where we both are now members: Fresno Asian and Community Seventh-day Adventist Church. After 40 years I rediscovered my education angel. Providence lives in Fresno.