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Original DLI Instructor Dies

In August 1980, I arrived at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, CA, 17 years old, still crew-cut from basic training, ready for a year of Russian language studies. DLI was and hopefully always will be a special place -- a beautiful setting above Monterey Bay with an environment more like a college than a military school. The Monterey Peninsula is an upscale area, not endless streets of fast food shops, paycheck loan outlets, and pawn shops like the typical military base town. 24 years later, I still look back on the year I spent there as one of the best of my life -- the time when I really grew up. (Well, as much as I'm likely to grow up, anyway.) And of my closest friends in life, one I met there in my class and another I met through a classmate some years afterwards.

So, though I didn't know him, it was with a twinge of sadness that I read in my DLI alumni newsletter that the last surviving founding instructor of DLI had just died. From the Monterey County Herald's story:

Shigeya Kihara, the last surviving original instructor of a language school for American soldiers that later became the Defense Language Institute, died at his son's home in Castro Valley on Sunday. He was 90.

Born in Suisun on Sept. 27, 1914, Kihara was raised in West Oakland and earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in political science at University of California at Berkeley.

Kihara was one of the first four instructors at a school that was the first of its kind and had no budget. Soldiers trained there proved to be an invaluable asset during World War II and the school itself led to the establishment of the well-known institution on the Monterey Peninsula.

Classes began in November 1941 in an airplane hangar at the Presidio of San Francisco's Crissy Field. Five weeks later Pearl Harbor was attacked and the language school was moved from the unstable West Coast to a safer location in a small town in Minnesota.

When the war ended, 6,000 linguists had graduated from the original school.

In 1946, Kihara moved with the school to its new location, the Presidio of Monterey.

While Japanese-Americans and Japanese immigrants around him, including his parents and two siblings, were rounded up and taken to internment camps during the war, Kihara taught American soldiers how to speak Japanese.

"The Nisei helped win the war," Kihara said in 2001.

(Incidentally, I didn't know until reading that story that DLI had temporarily been located in Minnesota. Whoever made the decision to move it to Monterey, wherever you are, thank you.)

So, Kihara-san, from this student who never knew you, thank you for making DLI happen.

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