A few weeks back, word started trickling in that a memorial housing the ashes of a deceased student was in the way of the upcoming expansion of an academic building – a multimillion dollar project years in the making, and already embroiled in controversy over the resulting loss of dozens of on-campus trees. The plans had already been made, bright orange lines spray-painted along the grass and front-loaders, presumably, ordered to start digging after graduation, when we started getting tips.
School officials, we were hearing , somehow didn’t realize until much too late that a garden in the center of the campus – one fitted with a plaque, a small statue, some plants and a tall cherry tree – had buried in it a tiny metal urn, placed there in 1999 by the father of Asako Mazawa, a Japanese international student killed in a motorcycle accident two years earlier.
After a few faculty members pointed out that the garden was more than just a memorial – one that could be dug up and replanted somewhere else, administrators started scrambling to make right. They called the Mazawa family in Japan through a Boston-based consulate, admitted their oversight, and sought the help of our on-campus chaplain to arrange for a proper removal and a future re-dedication ceremony.
I had panicked at first, worrying about the consequences might be, and, as always, began to imagine what our headlines might read when we ran with the story. In the end, though, we came to a realization: overlooking the significance of the memorial was a mistake, yes, but it could have been much worse.
By Friday’s paper, we no longer had an awful controversy on our hands. What we did have was an incredible story. I’d walked by that memorial almost every day of my college career, but had never really stopped to think about what, or who, it was for. Until now.
I spent the last week or so scouring the Internet and the FSU archives, learning everything I could about Asako – beginning with her journey to the U.S. and ending with the far-reaching impact of her controversial decision to become an organ donor. Asako, I learned, shattered a long-held taboo in Japanese culture surrounding organ donation, helping to save or improve the lives of six people who benefited from her donated heart, kidney, lungs and corneas. At her memorial dedication ceremony, those recipients made an appearance to pay their respects and to thank her family, who had flown in for the occasion, for Asako’s generosity. The story of her life, written by her father Yoichi in a book bearing her name, has been reprinted in Japan in English language textbooks. In 2000, her father founded the Japan Donor Family Club in her honor, and since 2002, Japan has recognized Bridge of Life day, dedicated to promoting and supporting organ donation in that country.
In short, for years, I had been completely unaware of the legacy of a remarkable student, and, just as school administrators had done, I had almost allowed the significance of the memorial in our midst to slip by. I’m glad I was able to spread the word about Asako in the last issue of The Gatepost – in what would be my very last GP article. And I’ll let this whole experience be a reminder that some of the most incredible stories, on a college campus or elsewhere, are right there in front of us, just waiting to be told.