is in a name?
My Adoption Story
People do a double-take when I introduce myself as Tom Yamaguchi. How
did a white guy get a Japanese last name? They usually ask if I speak
Japanese, and I have to admit that I do not. They may also ask if I am
Caucasian, to which I reply, "No, my ancestors are from Ireland,
not Caucasia." I took the name at the age of nineteen when I was
adopted by Tadashi and Alice Yamaguchi.
In 1950, I was born Thomas Francis Campbell, Jr. in South Jersey, named
for my father Thomas Francis Campbell. I am actually the second son in
the family. My older brother is named Joseph, which is the first name
of our maternal grandfather. My father Tom Campbell was a union carpenter
from a large Philadelphia family. His father, Thomas Sylvester Campbell,
died when he was very young, and my dad was forced to quit school early
to learn the carpentry trade and support the family. He built our first
family home in Barrington, New Jersey. One problem with being a construction
worker in New Jersey was his employment was frequently affected by the
weather. It was always a big deal if Dad had an "indoors" job.
That meant he was able to work if it was raining or snowing that day.
If the construction site required him to work outdoors he had to stay
home when the weather was bad.
One of Dad's brothers was an ironworker who moved his family to San Diego
in the mid-1950s. He told Dad about San Diego's warm, dry climate, making
it an ideal place to do construction work. Dad expressed interest in moving
there, too. My brother, two sisters, and I enthusiastically supported
the idea. "Swimming pools, movie stars," as they say on TV.
I especially wanted to go to Disneyland and was jealous of my uncle's
family who had visited the park a number of times.
In late 1963, just after the Kennedy assassination, my family made the
move to San Diego and found a house just a few blocks from my uncle. Mom
was pregnant when we made the move, and my younger brother John was born
shortly after we settled down.
Things did not turn out the way my father had hoped. San Diego was just
going into a recession when we made the move. In addition, my father,
a union carpenter, discovered that the carpenter's union in San Diego
was much weaker than my uncle's ironworker's union. Unable to compete
with nonunion labor, Dad found himself looking for work outside the area.
He went up to the San Francisco Bay Area, then to Portland. Finally, he
ended up back in Philadelphia, leaving us in San Diego as he worked to
keep a roof over our heads. My mother was not too happy about this. She
was homesick for New Jersey as soon as she arrived in San Diego. She had
few friends and felt isolated. She finally had enough and decided to sell
the house and move back to the East Coast.
When the house was sold in 1968, I was still in high school and had a
year to go. I would have graduated that year if I had not repeated the
second grade. My older brother was 21 and attending San Diego State. He
was able to stay by renting a room from a State teacher he met at the
La Jolla Quaker Meeting. I wanted to stay because I had made a number
of good friends at Mission Bay High. Reluctantly, I returned with my family
to South Jersey.
As soon as I returned, I wanted to come back to San Diego. I hated my
high school, especially the gym class where I was humiliated and gay bashed
by the other boys. Gym class itself was more like boot camp. We were all
being taught how to march in formation and take orders barked at us by
the Drill Instructor/Coach. I figured the school was preparing its male
students to be drafted into the Army and then shipped off to Vietnam.
I pleaded with my brother Joe to help me get back to San Diego. He relented
and intervened on my behalf with my parents. My parents gave me $2,000
to help me get established in my new independence. In January of 1969
while the Nixons were moving into the White House, I was on a jet flying
back to California.
My brother arranged for me to stay with cousins of my father's family
who lived in Del Mar, just north of San Diego. They operated a convalescent
home for jockeys of the Del Mar Racetrack. I earned my housing by caring
for the jockeys at the home. Some were retired, and others were recuperating
from job-related accidents. I was able to attend my old high school by
catching a ride with a teacher who lived in Del Mar. This worked very
well for a couple of months, but then my cousins decided they needed my
room to board another injured jockey. Suddenly, I needed a place to stay,
and I was placed in a boarding house in San Diego's North Park neighborhood.
I was able to get to school by public transit. The boarding house was
run by an older married couple. I could never see what they saw in each
to stay married for so long. They had nothing in common. The husband was
a gentle, political liberal who loved watching the Smothers Brothers on
Sunday night. His conservative wife was a sourpuss who henpecked her husband.
She charged me $400 a month for the room that I shared with another young
man. Not having an income, I was quickly burning through the money my
parents gave me.
Things were not looking good for me. That is when Alice and Tad Yamaguchi
came to my rescue. They found me thanks to my brother Joe. I had been
asking my brother to allow me to attend Quaker meetings with him. At first
he turned down my request. Then on Easter Sunday, he asked me if I would
like to attend mass at the old San Diego Mission. I had stopped attending
mass when my family moved back to New Jersey, but I took him up on his
invitation. We drove out to the mission in the Joe's VW Bug. After about
a half hour of the mass, Joe turned to me and said, "I'm bored. Would
you like to go to Quaker meeting with me?" We got back into the Bug
and drove to La Jolla Meeting.
I loved silent worship and persuaded Joe to take me there every week.
One Sunday after worship, Joe told me that he was speaking to Tad and
Alice about my situation, and they wanted to help. At first sight, the
two looked like a mismatched couple themselves. Tad was a short Japanese-American,
unimposing and shy. Alice was a large-framed woman with big glasses, a
big smile, and a big voice that spoke in a strong southern accent. I learned
that her parents were divorced, and she grew up in both Philadelphia with
her father's family and in North Carolina with her mother.
When Alice found out about my situation at the boarding house, she knew
she had to get me out of there. I would move in with them. We went with
their young son Mark Nathan to get my few possessions from the boarding
house, but the first stop was an afternoon at Balboa Park where we watched
male Flamenco dancers in tight pants. Alice was so excited by the dancing
she broke into big tears of joy. She was not afraid to express her feelings
both verbally and physically. Next stop was the boarding house. Alice
was particularly upset that my landlady was rationing how much milk I
could drink each day. After collecting my things, we hopped back into
their Toyota with the windows rolled up. As we drove from the curb, the
landlady stood on the sidewalk and waved. Alice waved back and with a
big smile exclaimed, "Goodbye Shit Face!" Rescue complete, we
drove off to my new home in Poway.
In addition to Tad, Alice, and their son Mark Nathan, there were two other
young men living in the house. This was my first experience with communal
living. The two young men, Bernie and David, were students at UCSD in
La Jolla. Tad worked as a nuclear chemist at General Atomics located near
the college. The three of them carpooled to La Jolla each day.
I was still intent on graduating from Mission Bay High. I found a ride
with a teacher who lived in Poway. That was my morning commute. To get
home after school, I took the bus to UCSD and waited in the library of
the Physics Building for the carpool back to Poway. I frequently had my
homework finished when Bernie and David arrived at the library.
Life was never dull at the Yamaguchi house. Alice enjoyed hosting dinner
parties where I met very brilliant and talented people. Alice loved to
cook Japanese cuisine, introducing me to such delights as tofu and sashimi.
They had one friend, Ben Wright, who was an English teacher at San Diego
State. At one party, Ben brought the Spanish writer, Juan Goytisolo who
did not speak any English. I regretted my failure to learn Spanish in
school. I regretted it even more when I learned Goytisolo was one of the
first gay activists in Spain.
I did graduate from Mission Bay in 1969. That summer, I got a job washing
dishes at a restaurant in Rancho Bernardo, just north of Poway, and got
to work on an old one-speed bicycle. I was accepted to attend San Diego
State in the fall, but there was a problem. Being under 21 years old,
I was not able to claim myself as a resident of California. As far as
the California State University system was concerned, my residency was
determined by where my father lived. My father, Thomas F. Campbell, was
living in New Jersey. If I wanted to attend college in California, I was
expected to pay out-of-state tuition. I did not have the hundreds of dollars
I would need to stay in school and was very afraid for my future. There
was more than college at stake. I had the draft breathing down my neck,
My high school had failed to report my attendance to Selective Service.
Even before I graduated that spring, I received a notice that I was classified
1-A. That summer I was ordered to take a pre-induction physical in Los
Angeles. This was the first time I considered coming out of the closet,
but I was too afraid of the consequences of revealing my homosexuality.
The Stonewall riots happened just a few weeks before, but the news did
not get to me in conservative San Diego County. I kept quiet about my
orientation and passed the physical.
Another solution was needed for my college and draft problems, and, for
Alice, the solution was simple. "We'll adopt you," she said.
Then my father would not only be a Californian, but a native Californian,
having been born and raised on a farm in Cucamonga. During World War II,
Tad and his family were interned in a camp along the Colorado River, but
that is another story.
In addition to me, Tad and Alice wanted to adopt Grizzelda, a young woman
from Mexico who prefers being called Gracie. David, one of the college
students, was her off-and-on boyfriend. She moved in with us while she
was being threatened with deportation. She was brought to the U.S. as
a child by First Day Adventists. She attended an S.D.A. boarding school
and worked in the school's laundry. Alice said the school abused her and
called her a "dirty Mexican." Like me, Gracie was ready to be
rescued. Alice learned that, even though she was 21, she was still legally
adoptable. Adopting both us at the same time, we could do two for the
price of one.
Unfortunately, the adoption did not work out for Gracie. She was told
she would still have to return to Mexico and wait for her residency to
be approved. She ended up solving her problem by marrying a U.S. citizen.
The adoption process took longer than we thought, as well. It was not
complete when I showed up to register at San Diego State. The attorney
decided I was still not a resident. So I had to give up on State. Instead,
I enrolled at Palomar Junior College as Thomas Yamaguchi and lied about
the adoption being finalized. The adoption was complete shortly after
I started school, and I earned my college deferment. When the draft lottery
was enacted, I received a number so high I no longer needed the college
deferment. Still, I know that if I had not gone to school that fall, I
would have ended up in the military and possibly Vietnam.
At first, my parents were supportive of the adoption. They were willing
to do anything they thought would help their son make it on his own. I
thought they understood the legal implications of the adoption, but unfortunately
they later changed their minds and felt betrayed. They even accused Alice
of unethically stealing me away from them. I considered changing my name
back to Campbell, but by then I had a daughter Dharma with the Yamaguchi
last name. Changing it back would have been more complicated than keeping
In time, I was able to resolve the issue with my parents. We became closer
as I visited them toward the end of their lives. They moved to Biloxi
to be near my youngest sister Eileen. My father was dying of lung disease
as a result of his exposure to asbestos, both in the Navy and as a civilian
construction worker. He smoked cigarettes most of his life. He quit when
he was in his sixties, but the damage was already done. He told me he
had started smoking when he was eight. He would run errands for the neighbors
in Philadelphia who would then pay him in cigarettes. He joined the class
action suit against the asbestos manufacturers and shared in the settlement.
Sadly, the payments have been structured so that we are still waiting
for the rest of the money years after Dad died.
After Dad left us, I knew Mom would follow shortly. Mom lived totally
for him. Without him, she lost her will to live. She kept a photo of him
as a young man on the mantle and told me she had lengthy conversations
with him as she sat by the picture. "I can see his lips move,"
she told a number of times. Even before Dad died she was homesick for
New Jersey. Mom had no friends in Biloxi and was overly dependant on her
My relationship with Tad and Alice changed through the years, as well.
Alice bought a house in Burlington, Vermont. Eventually, she and Tad divorced.
Tad lives in Del Mar, but has not communicated with me or anyone else
in our family for many years. Alice became a Quaker peace activist and
world traveler. She returned to using her maiden name Wiser. Her son Mark
Nathan dropped the first name and the Yamaguchi name, as well. Today,
he is Nathan Wiser, a geologist for the EPA in Denver. If it wasn't for
Nathan I would have lost track of Alice forever.
Before computers, I was a very disorganized person. I lost Alice's phone
number and address in Vermont. A decade after I moved my family to Berkeley,
we were riding our bicycles along Telegraph Avenue, jut a few blocks south
of the Cal campus. I rode past a car with a personalized license plate
that read IM WISER. What a coincidence, I thought. The car owner is named
Wiser. The car was stopped for the light. As I rode past, I looked into
the car. The woman in the passenger seat looked like Alice. Immediately
I realized it was Alice. She was visiting her son who was just about to
graduate from Cal with a BA in geology. She was surprised to see me, as
well. I was surprised to learn that, after her divorce from Tad, she married
Bernie, one of the young college students we lived with in Poway. Bernie
is a Canadian who earned his Ph.D. in physics at UCSD. He now teaches
at the University of Guelph.
Alice took Dharma with her to Friends General Conference and other cross-country
adventures in the summer of 1990. I stayed in her house in Burlington
while they were gone. Shortly after that, she moved to a recently deceased
uncle's house in Springfield, just outside of Philadelphia. She helped
Dharma get into a Quaker high school that specialized in assisting students
with learning disabilities. Dharma lived with Alice in Springfield while
Reconnecting with Alice became my motivation to return to Quakerism. I
stopped attending La Jolla Meeting as my family moved around San Diego.
After relocating to the Bay Area, I had thought of attending Berkeley
Meeting, but no one else in my family was interested in coming with me,
and I did not want to attend alone. With Dharma interested in Quakerism,
I started attending Strawberry Creek Meeting in Berkeley. Dharma and I
are now members of that meeting.
Alice died of breast cancer in 1995. Her marriage to Bernie allowed her
dual citizenship and access to Canadian health care. Sadly, she lost her
battle with the disease before she could enjoy old age. Still, she packed
more living in her half century on Earth than most people do in 80 or
90 years. She had traveled all over the world and earned a Ph.D. in Psychology
from Oxford. Her ashes are buried in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
Alice's favorite movie was Auntie Mame. It has become one of my favorites,
too. Alice was my Auntie Mame. She opened doors for me that I never knew
existed. I will always be grateful. She gave me life experiences that
I will never forget and a last name that makes it easy for others to remember
Thomas Campbell, Jr.