Lillie’s life: Full of heartbreak, joy

By David Stevens

Editor

Berna Jene Kreitzberg Sanders can rest easier now.
Lillie’s OK.

When Sanders died at age 80 in 2009, she was still wondering and worrying about her childhood Japanese American friends who were snatched from their Clovis homes soon after the U.S. became involved in World War II in 1941.

“All of a sudden ‘poof’ they were gone,” she said about her classmates’ vanishing. “… And we got so angry.”

David Stevens: Staff photo Lillie Kiyokawa watches a 2007 video in which a classmate, Berna Jene Kreitzberg Sanders, talks about Clovis in the days following Pearl Harbor. Sanders died in 2009; her children met Kiyokawa for the first time on Friday.

David Stevens: Staff photo
Lillie Kiyokawa watches a 2007 video in which a classmate, Berna Jene Kreitzberg Sanders, talks about Clovis in the days following Pearl Harbor. Sanders died in 2009; her children met Kiyokawa for the first time on Friday.

Sanders was particularly concerned about Lillie, who had given her a doll with a red kimono that Sanders kept the rest of her life. But she never found out where Lillie had landed after she left Clovis; she never knew if she had married, had children or even survived her time in the internment camps.

When Clovis turned 100 in 2007, Sanders loved to reminisce about Hotel Clovis in its heyday, about Miss Pearl Beck’s music classes, the time she was a rose in an operetta … and she always mentioned Lillie, and worried about whether she was OK.

On Friday, Sanders’ children learned that Lillie Kimura Kiyokawa has lived a full life — one full of heartbreak, but also one full of joy. And 72 years after she was forced from her birthplace, she was able to come home this weekend to find a community full of people that care about her.

Now, at 83, Lillie even knows how much Berna Jene cared all of these years; Neil and Jene Sanders made sure of that on Friday afternoon, sharing old photos from a scrapbook and even a letter their mom wrote about her childhood friend all those years ago.

Kiyokawa was among those Clovis honored — and offered its formal apologies to — during Pioneer Days this weekend. She said she’s lived a good life.
She and her brother were too busy packing to be too scared the night they were forced from Clovis to an abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps camp near Fort Stanton, she said. The men with guns who escorted them out of town were symbols of safety, she said. Bed bugs were some of the scariest things she encountered in those days that immediately followed her leaving Clovis.

From Fort Stanton, her family moved to Poston, Arizona, and then to Idaho where she became a potato farmer with her siblings. She learned to keep her head down, work hard and always respect others, sometimes when they didn’t deserve respect.

She married in 1947 and moved to Portland, Oregon, where she helped her husband manage a hotel. Then they entered the landscaping business. She worked in a restaurant for a while and even learned welding.

She had four children, celebrated a 50th wedding anniversary before her husband died, lost a brother to war in Vietnam and found herself in the middle of a controversy on an assembly line — her friends refused to work unless another worker stopped mistreating her.

She said she’s encountered her share of racial prejudice through the years, but has experienced more good than evil.

Some of the good happened in Clovis this weekend, she said. She was thrilled to hear from the Sanders’ family, excited to reunite with others who remember when Eugene Field school stood where the city bus station is today, and loved seeing the Lyceum Theatre exactly where it was when she ate 5-cent bags of popcorn at the Saturday matinees.

What happened to Lillie and her family and friends after Pearl Harbor was wrong. Those were complicated, scary days.

But Berna Jene Kreitzberg Sanders can rest easy.
Lillie’s OK.

David Stevens is editor for the Clovis News Journal and Portales News-Tribune. Contact him at:
dstevens@pntonline.com