By TOM LAVENTURE
AAP staff writer
ROSEVILLE, Minn. (May 16, 2011) – For more than half a century Donald S. Maeda has been making dental crowns – and is still making them at age 86 in his own Roseville dental lab. He prefers work to idle time and says he won’t slow down as long as he can do the job.
Maeda’s extraordinary longevity is just part of a lifetime of stories set during the tumultuous twentieth century. Starting out in Seattle, then subjected to internment as a teenager in Idaho during the World War II, he tells of post war life in the Twin Cities, where he would marry, raise a family and build a reputation with Maeda Dental Lab.
Maeda was born in 1924, in the Seattle, Washington area to Toshishige and Kan Maeda. Toshishige was a dental technician and was able to support his family through the Great Depression in a middle class neighborhood.
An uncle ran a grocery store and the family could charge what they needed until the end of the month.
“We didn’t really feel the Depression,” said Maeda.
His immigrant parents discouraged anything Japanese and raised him to blend into mainstream America. He spoke a little Japanese but never did learn to read or write the language. His boyhood friends were mostly white.
“That didn’t matter growing up. I was still a ‘Jap’,” said Maeda.
He never gave it much thought until his later years when Maeda said he began to appreciate the company of his fellow Japanese Americans.
World War II broke out when Maeda was 17 years old. He recalls the internment beginning with temporary billets at the Western State Fairgrounds in Washington, where hastily created barracks were added as some people wound up in the empty stalls of the Puyallup horseracing track.
“We stayed there from March to August 1942, while the camp in southern Idaho was built – one of ten camps around the country,” he said.
Camp Minidoka was about 20 miles out of Twin Falls, Idaho. He described it with a grimace as a remote outpost with barbed wire and armed guards in the middle of dry sage country. He said there was an irrigation ditch that was like a river around the camp with a guard at the gated bridge entrance.
Maeda would have been a senior in high school, but chose to work rather than attend the camp school. He worked on a coal crew at the Minidoka relocation center, loading trucks at a central location and then delivered the coal to some 30 mess hall kitchens in the camp.
“He was especially fond of the driving part of the job and the special food the crew got from the cooks who liked the quality of the coal the crew ‘picked’ out for them,” said his daughter Janet Carlson.
Maeda and the other teenage boys also worked as field laborers for local farmers at harvest time. They were paid little and lived and worked with Mexican laborers brought up as temporary help.
The youth in the camp hung out together and developed a summer softball league. He said it was odd to suddenly have so many Japanese American friends for the first time. He joked that his social life was better than it was in Seattle where he encountered difficulty with the parents of white girls.
“I met some nice girls and I tell my kids I was having a nice time,” he added. “My parents kept to themselves and with the other adults.”
In March 1944 the Maeda family was authorized to relocate to Minnesota, where Don’s elder sister Jane (Mizuno) worked after finishing college at Hamline University in St. Paul.
By 1943 many of the men in the camp had already volunteered or had been drafted to serve as replacements in the 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team. Maeda was drafted into the U.S. Army just as the family was relocating to St. Paul, and was granted a ninety-day extension to help the family resettle.
The family lived for a year in a rooming house near Hamline University. Toshishige quickly reestablished himself as a skilled dental technician and his income made it possible to buy a house near Fairview and Iglehart in St. Paul in 1945. It remains in the family with a granddaughter to this day.
Maeda reported to the in-processing station Fort Logan, Colorado, where he was given a more thorough physical. He said the Army discovered that his body had permanent damage resulting from an accident he had at age six. He said a laundry truck had backed up and struck him and his mother on a crosswalk.
The doctors thought Maeda might not survive the resulting concussion and internal injuries. When he pulled through doctors used tension mounts to pull his broken hip bones into place. He said the Army doctors determined that the injury did not heal well enough to endure military service and awarded him an honorable medical discharge.
“I was disappointed,” he said. “All the people were in the service and here I was walking around. Mom was relieved. This was before the end of the Pacific War.”
The Army gave him a discharge lapel pin that servicemen and women wore to indicate completed service. The bird is actually an eagle but reportedly looked like a duck. The term “ruptured duck” reportedly relates to exiting service members “taking off like a ruptured duck.”
The pin allowed Maeda the comfort of serving honorably and not having to explain it further in public. He keeps the pin in the same box that holds his late wife’s wedding ring.
Early years in Minnesota
Maeda had some interesting jobs as a young man. His first in 1945 was with Booth Cold Storage on Kellogg and St. Peter in downtown St. Paul. It involved moving large cartons into refrigerated railroad boxcars to ship around the country.
“I worked there for about two weeks,” he said. “I wasn’t strong enough to lift the heavy cartons stacked up in the cars.”
From there Maeda went to work for Cudahy’s in Newport, across from Armour & Swift on the South St. Paul side of the Mississippi river. Together with Mexican and African American workers he worked below the meat cutting room covering hides with rock salt and shaking them clean to ship off to leather makers.
“I’d come home smelling like crap you know,” he said. “I didn’t last there.”
He enjoyed the next job as a floor worker at Goodyear Tire on 4th and Washington Street in downtown St. Paul. He was one of four Japanese American teens that worked for Mr. Deindorfer, a manager he described as a very good man from Ohio.
When Deindorfer was recalled to Ohio, Maeda said the replacement manager let the Japanese workers know right away he did not care for them and concocted an excuse about customer complaints to let them all go the same day. They went over to Rosen Tire and U.S. Oil, where they were hired on the spot by their former foreman at Goodyear to do the same job at the Jewish owned business.
Becoming a dental technician
Maeda was content changing tires, however, his aunt encouraged him to learn a trade since he hadn’t graduated from high school. It would be the only way to advance out of dead end jobs and into a skilled position.
His father, Toshishige, was working at the time for Dr. Irwin Epstein, and he became acquainted with the other dentists in the Lowry Medical Arts building. Two dentists, Drs. Garvey and Branstad referred Don to their own dental technician, Ed Carlson, who agreed to train him as a dental technician.
Maeda started with entry-level “scut work” and slowly learned the trade over nine years. When Carlson started his own shop in the Medical Arts building he took Maeda there with him.
“He and I basically opened this lab and eventually expanded the lab over time to twenty-five staff,” he said. “We ran a pretty good lab over time and because I was with him so long I was his right hand man and when he was gone I kind of managed the place. He treated me well and paid me well.”
Maeda and his wife Katheryn (Kay) raised five children together. She passed away from cancer 11 years ago.
Maeda met Kay at a youth group event at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church at 22nd and Blaisdell in Minneapolis. It was organized for Japanese American young adults by Father Daisuke Kitagawa, who also held services for Japanese elders.
“It was hard to make friends and they started a youth fellowship center and that is where a lot of us met our mates and where I met my wife,” he said.
Kay (Kubo) was from Lingle, an eastern Wyoming town about 40 miles from Scottbluff, Nebraska. Her father emigrated from Japan to the United States around 1900 and worked on the railroad. The family was not interned because they were living inland from the west coast. Grandpa Kubo lived to age 90 and died in 1966.
Kay was a medical technologist who graduated from the University of Wyoming and trained for a year at the old Minneapolis General Hospital. She and a friend worked for a year in Baltimore and then at St. Barnabas, an Episcopalian hospital that co-existed with Hennepin County Hospital for a time before closing in the 1970s.
Maeda’s sister Jane is five years older and married in January 1950. Don and Kay Maeda married in August that same year. There is also a younger brother who is sixteen years younger.
Don and Kay Maeda moved into their first home near Hamline Avenue and County Road C in 1954. Kay continued working as a medical technologist at St. Barnabas until her first child, Janet, was born.
The new three-bedroom house was small and they lived there until their fifth baby was on its way. Their second home was built in a new Roseville settlement that is now a full neighborhood. He lives there still.
Roseville was much different in those early days. Maeda said he watched a junior high school replace a golf driving range. The Snelling Hub shopping center expanded to become the Har Mar Mall.
The expansion required the Countryside Driving Range to relocate to Highway 61 near County Road D. A Costco now stands there but there is a Countryside Drive. The Rosedale Mall was mostly farmland until it opened around 1969.
Maeda said he was “pretty much the only Asian guy” and enjoyed being recognized by the community as he shopped in the Roseville area.
Starting his own lab
When Ed Carlson retired at age 70 to care for his ailing wife, he offered Maeda and two coworkers the opportunity to buy him out. The Chinese American coworker, Bill Lee, was the only one who could come up with financing and that situation put Maeda back in the lab working for Lee as a technician.
Then Maeda met the Joseph and Edward Grayden, two brothers who made it possible for him to open his own dental lab.
“These young dentists knew that I wasn’t happy and so they helped set me up,” said Maeda. “They were just nice guys.”
Dr. Joseph Grayden, DDS, is still a client of Maeda. They met in 1973 when Grayden and his brother Edward were dental students at the University of Minnesota and working summer jobs at Edco Dental Lab, where Maeda was working under Carlson.
Grayden said that Carlson, a master technician, appointed Maeda the office manager when he was out.
“Ed loved Don,” said Grayden. “I worked nights and Saturdays, and Don was always the last one out after starting at six in the morning.”
Maeda enjoyed informal relationships with the dentists at a time when both the doctors and laboratories were all together in the Medical Arts Building.
“There was some extremely talented and famous dentists in that building that he worked with, and they looked upon him as someone who was eager to learn – and they shared a lot of information,” said Grayden. “It’s easy when the doctors offices are an elevator ride away from his lab.”
Grayden said Maeda was very driven and is among the last of a rare breed of dental technician – they type that conduct every part of the process themselves. He said labs today have senior technicians to do the difficult work, and delegate the rest to less experienced people.
“They are still not in the same league as Don,” he said. He is always careful and has a high standard of what it should be when it leaves his place.”
Dental milling technology is constantly changing along with new computer 3D modeling. Grayden said that the area of ceramic and porcelain crowns and caps is growing but requires large labs and a lot of expensive equipment.
The gold crowns that Maeda focuses on exclusively still require more human labor.
“He is so good at it that he focuses on that,” said Grayden. “The thing with Don is that since I’ve known him his work has just gotten better. He takes extra time in doing it and that is the difference from the other labs where it is more of a business.”
Maeda said simply that he moved away from porcelain crowns because it takes too much time to make corrections on shading to match the other teeth. This gets in the way of new work and so he stays exclusively with the tried and true material and three-hour process of making gold crowns.
“Once you make it there is no problem,” he said.
Early on Maeda Dental Lab had steady work from three dentists. He would seek out and contract with four more dentists and also delivered the work on his own.
Grayden said the two are longtime friends and that Maeda is someone who has lived a hard life but has a good sense of humor and has a positive outlook on life.
“When his wife was sick he was always there for her and he never really acted like it was taking toll on him but I know it did,” he said.
Maeda has slowed down just a bit since his heart operation in 2010, and Grayden said they are joking to see who will retire first. Ed Grayden became an anesthesiologist and sold his dental practice to Dr. Kent Cassidy, who is also a client of Maeda.
“It has been a lot of fun,” Grayden added. “I will miss him when he quits.”
Raising a family
Janet (Carlson) is the eldest daughter. After she earned a doctorate she was on the faculty of Macalester College for many years. She has a grown son, Matthew. The second daughter, Joan, is a writer who earned a Master of Fine Arts degree. She also manages a bookstore and has five children, Nate, Megan, Brynna, Eben and Jonathan. The third daughter, Donna, has a Ph.D and a law degree. She lives in California, where she teaches at Occidental College.
The eldest son, Bruce, has a Masters degree and is the PreK-8 Principal at Minnehaha Academy, a private Christian K-12 school in Minneapolis. He has thee children, Caleb, Micah and Laura. The youngest son, David, is the City Clerk of Minnetonka.
Maeda also has a great-granddaughter, Amara.
Cars and family drives
Maeda has a passion for cars and driving. He recalls owning a series of Dodge cars, starting with a post-war model in 1946. He ordered it and waited for the factories to catch up with the demand after four years of war production halted all civilian vehicle manufacturing. It was also their honeymoon car.
He bought other Dodge models in 1951 and 1958. In 1969 he bought a used Plymouth 88 station wagon with three rows of seats – the parents in the front, the girls in the middle – and the boys facing the rear in the back.
“We always thought that was the perfect car,” he said, assuming that the boys loved being back there on their own. It was not until years later that he learned differently.
“They hated the jump seat,” he added. “They said, ‘You always got to see where we were going, and we always saw where we’d been’.”
In the 1980s Maeda switched to Honda cars and drove his 1992 model for 18 years.
“I bought a Civic now and that will last me the rest of my driving days,” he added, noting that he has 9,000 miles logged in just the past nine months.
Maeda said he and Kay enjoyed driving and taking the family on road trips to visit Grandma and Grandpa Kubo in Mitchell, Nebraska. Grandpa Kubo passed away in 1966 at the age of 90. They would also visit Kay’s two brothers who worked at newspaper in a small Kansas town until around 1997.
As the kids moved out he and Kay continued their road vacations out west, or took weekend drives through northern Wisconsin back roads – an outing he still enjoys on his own.
Reflections on life
Sometimes Maeda wonders what his life would have been like had he and Kay moved back to Seattle. When he visits his daughter in Los Angeles, he notices all of the diverse people and thinks about how different it would be to be around more Asians
Initially reluctant to join the Twin Cites chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, he did so in later years at the encouragement of his children. He says he enjoys the events and meeting with other JACL members of his own age and that have shared a similar experience.
Maeda was recently featured in a TC-JACL Oral History Committee video of Nisei internees. Produced by the Twin Cities Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League as a step toward recording and preserving the stories of its ‘greatest generation’, the video was made with the support of a grant from the National Park Service and the help of award winning documentary filmmaker Bill Kubota. Maeda was one of just over a dozen internees out of just over 100 still living in Minnesota.
Today, Maeda reflects that most of his friends have died, and with Kay now passed on, he said it is work and family that keeps him busy and in the present. He and Kay built a good life in Minnesota, though, and in the end he said it is family that is what matters most.
(Special thanks to Janet Carlson, the Maeda family and the Twin Cities JACL chapter for assistance in organizing and revising this story for accuracy and for making several photos available.)