Takashi Terami teaching a class.

Tales from the Archives: First Asian Professor at St. Thomas

As May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, this is a perfect time to highlight Takashi Terami, the first Asian professor at St. Thomas.

Terami was born in Japan and came to the United States in 1911 with the goal of continuing his education. But first, he worked as a farm laborer in California for several years to fund his ambition. He entered University of California, Berkeley in 1917, where he attained his bachelor's degree (1921) and doctorate (1925) in mathematics. After graduating from Berkeley, Terami made a shift in his career; he taught the Japanese language to American students at a private school in northern California for the next 15 years.

The entry of the United States into World War II caused a severe disruption in the lives of all Japanese Americans and persons of Japanese descent living in the United States. After President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 was issued on Feb. 19, 1942, over 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry were forcibly removed from their homes and interned in detention camps. Terami and his family were initially sent to the Merced Assembly Center, a temporary detention center for Japanese internees from northern California. While in Merced, he headed the education department which ran a non-compulsory summer school for elementary, middle and high school children, as well as a series of adult classes. In September 1942, the Terami family was transferred to Camp Amache near Granada, Colorado. During his three years there, he continued to work as an educator, teaching mathematics at the Camp Amache high school.

In the summer of 1945, Monsignor Vincent Flynn (then president of the College of St. Thomas) was made aware that Terami could be released from Camp Amache if he had a position to go to. With enrollment at the college ballooning and a shortfall of available professors to teach, Flynn made the easy decision to hire him. “We needed a math teacher with our expanding student body ... and he needed a job,” said Flynn.

St. Thomas Mathematics Department 1952.

The Department of Mathematics and Physics in 1952.

Terami was initially nervous about how the St. Thomas student body, composed in large part of veterans taking advantage of the GI Bill, would react to a Japanese professor. But he was able to create a rapport with the students by sharing his own experience during the war and telling them about his childhood in Japan. In a Nov. 16, 1945, interview with the student newspaper, The Aquin, he spoke of his hopes for the end of prejudice against people of Japanese descent.

The Aquin from Nov. 16, 1945.

The Aquin from Nov. 16, 1945.

Terami continued to teach in the Mathematics Department until his retirement in 1962. After his sudden death in 1963, the school received a bequest from his family and friends to help enrich a scholarship fund for students in financial need.