By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
In the mid-1940s, two boys from very different backgrounds began what would become a lifelong friendship.
To honor the lasting bond between former U.S. Sen. Alan K. Simpson of Cody and the late Norman Mineta, former U.S. Transportation Secretary, supporters of the Heart Mountain Relocation Center between Powell and Cody plan to build an institute dedicated to peace on the grounds of a former internment camp that once divided two cultures.
Aura Sunada Newlin is the interim executive director of the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center, which tells the story of more than 14,000 Japanese Americans unjustly incarcerated in Wyoming from 1942-45. Newlin said the proposed Mineta-Simpson Institute is the centerpiece of a twofold expansion of the existing facility located on the site of the former internment camp.
“We’re building a new wing that will enable us to host groups at a greater capacity than we currently are able to,” Newlin told Cowboy State Daily. “The addition is also giving us expanded collections capacity and research capacity, more exhibit space, more staff space.”
But the other aspect of the expansion is broadening the organization’s mission of promoting understanding between opposing viewpoints, Newlin said.
“We already have this tremendous museum that educates about the history of Japanese American incarceration,” Newlin said. “But we see the Japanese American incarceration history and its legacy as something that is not just about Japanese American history, but is about American history – and there are also lessons that need to be learned in terms of democracy and problem solving in times of great division and in times of a lot of fear.”
Norm and Al
The friendship between the Simpson and Mineta began when Simpson’s Boy Scout Troop from Cody met with the Heart Mountain Boy Scout Troop for combined activities.
“We tied knots and did all those things you do when you’re a Scout and you make those little lanyards for your handkerchiefs and all that stuff,” Simpson told Cowboy State Daily in May, shortly after Mineta’s death. “And that’s when I met him, and we were paired together in some events.”
Simpson said although they kept in touch sporadically through the years, when both were elected to Congress in the mid-1970s – Mineta as a representative from California and Simpson a senator from Wyoming – they reconnected.
“I told him, ‘It’ll be great for the country and for us,’” Simpson said.
And despite the political divide between them, the pair’s ideals never got in the way of their friendship.
“We never, ever had an argument about politics,” Simpson said. “A bill would come over from the House, and they’d say, ‘Mineta’s on this, it’s about transportation.’ And so I’d call him, I’d say, ‘Norm, that doesn’t have anything, it doesn’t help rural areas, you know, you’re doing something for San Jose (California, which Mineta represented),’ and he’d say, ‘I understand.’ We never got into any scraps at all.”
On June 11, Simpson gave the eulogy for his lifelong friend at a church in Washington, D.C.
Bridging An Ideological Divide
Newlin, herself a descendent of incarcerees at Heart Mountain, said that the friendship between Simpson and Mineta carries a lesson that is especially relevant today.
“We are using the models of Al Simpson and Norm Mineta as a way of showing us a way forward, Al Simpson being a conservative Republican and Norm Mineta being a liberal Democrat,” said Newlin. “Yet they were lifetime friends who worked together across the aisle on things that they could agree upon – core ideals of democracy and civil dialogue and civic engagement.”
Newlin said staff at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center have already begun to use the story of Japanese American incarceration and what she called “the power of place” to bring together people who might not otherwise agree with each other.
“We envision bringing groups of political leaders here, or groups of educators, groups of scholars or legal professionals,” said Newlin. “Have them come to our site, learn about our history here, experience the power of place – but use this as a place where people could come together and really try and sit down and work on how we can get along with each other without tearing each other apart.”
Show Your Love
Groundbreaking for the Mineta-Simpson Institute was part of the Foundation’s July 30 Pilgrimage. Al, Ann and members of the Simpson family joined Deni Mineta, Norm’s widow, and members of the extended Mineta family at the event.
In honor of Simpson’s recent 91st birthday, as well as his wife Ann’s upcoming birthday on October 10, a fund drive is underway to support the construction of the Institute.
The goal is to raise $8.25 million, said to Deni Hirsh, membership and development manager for the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center.
“Probably over $6 million of that will be specifically for construction,” Hirsh told Cowboy State Daily. “And then the rest will be for staffing the new institute as well as operations for the new institute, creating a reserve fund for the institute’s programming, and also development of our programming goals for the institute.”
Hirsh said more than $7 million has been raised so far, and the remainder is being backed by a $500,000 challenge grant from the Hughes Charitable Foundation. Hirsh said the challenge grant is in honor of Al’s birthday, as well as his receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in July.
“They have offered us a matching challenge of $500,000 so that we can encourage our donors, and also people across the state and nationally who know Al and Ann Simpson, to give to one of their dearest and nearest charities – which would be Mineta-Simpson Institute,” she said.
More information about the Show Your Love campaign can be found here.