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Mineta-Simpson Institute breaks ground during Heart Mountain pilgrimage

Longtime news anchor Tom Brokaw (right) interviews former U.S. Sen. Al Simpson and former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta Saturday during the Heart Mountain Pilgrimage. Simpson and Mineta became friends in their youth, when Simpson was a Boy Scout from Cody and Mineta was interned at the Heart Mountain camp. (Photo by Don Cogger, Powell Tribune)

By Mark Davis
Powell Tribune
Via- Wyoming News Exchange

POWELL — More than 300 people, including former incarcerees and a slew of high-powered politicians, celebrated the groundbreaking of the Mineta-Simpson Institute at Heart Mountain Saturday during the annual pilgrimage to the interpretive center designed to preserve what remains of the World War II Japanese American confinement site.

Already staked out with wooden markers and red flags, the project is dedicated to the friendship of former Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta and former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson.

The construction project will offer space for workshops and programming specifically designed to foster empathy, courage and cooperation among our nation’s next generation of leaders.

“It’s a physical building that we are constructing, but it’s much more than that. It’s the expansion of our ability to reach a national and international audience with the story of our past here, but also the dynamism of our present and the vision that we have for the future,” said Aura Sunada Newlin, interim executive director of the center, who opened the ceremony after a catered lunch.

Mineta and Simpson met while they were Boy Scouts in the 1940s. Mineta, who is of Japanese heritage, was incarcerated at the site with his family for more than two years after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The two continued their friendship until this past spring, when Mineta passed away at 90 from heart failure on May 3.

Simpson had a plan to make it through his remarks at the podium without an emotional breakdown; sticking to written notes.

“You can have your cry when you’re writing [your speech] so you don’t have to cry when you’re giving it,” he said prior to his turn at the podium.

“There were so many great times and jokes and things that we shared with each other that we wouldn’t dare share with anyone,” he said of their friendship. “Norm was a living vessel with all of the ancient truths of life, loyalty, patriotism, friendship, humor, fairness, openness, guts, courage, transparency and no tricks,” The 92-year-old Cody resident said.

It was Mineta who was charged with restoring confidence in air travel in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks. He oversaw the hasty creation of the Transportation Security Administration, which took over responsibility for aviation security from the airlines.

Had Mineta made it to the groundbreaking, there would have been three Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients in attendance at the ceremony, including Simpson and former Vice President Dick Cheney. The three dignitaries have a long history of friendship.

Cheney pushed to keep Mineta as Transportation Secretary during the Bush administration after first serving in the Clinton administration.

“He had said of Mineta at the time, ‘We don’t care what party he’s from, we know he can do the work,’” said Shirley Ann Higuchi, associate executive director of legal and regulatory affairs for the American Psychological Association and chairwoman of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, during her opening remarks.

Simpson joked that he broke his Medal of Freedom, which he was presented by President Joe Biden in July, while trying to pin it to his “pajamas.”

Rep. Cheney, currently in a primary election battle with Harriet Hageman for the state’s only seat in the House of Representatives, stepped to the microphone with tears in her eyes after she was received with a long and boisterous standing ovation.

Cheney has rarely received such a welcome during this campaign, especially in Park County, where officials of the Park County Republican Party voted overwhelmingly to “fire” her.  They informed Cheney they would no longer recognize her as “the official Republican Congressional representative” after she was one of the few Republicans in the House voting to impeach former president Donald Trump.

“That’s the first time that somebody has made me cry twice before [getting to] the podium,” Cheney said.

She did not campaign during her speech, instead honoring the Mineta and Simpson families and her father, who in a rare appearance in Park County, sat in the front row of the event.

“The friendship of Norm and Al really represents what this nation can be and what this nation should be. And represents two people who had policy disagreements, but had a bond that went beyond that,” she said.

Mineta’s wife, Deni, and several family members were present for the groundbreaking of the new center.

“It was the land where his parents came and his brothers and sisters came to be incarcerated because they look different — because the United States had the misfortune to fear them,” Deni Mineta said, adding “his spirit will be here. He revered this land.”

She spoke fondly of Simpson, saying the new center was an appropriate place to remember their friendship.

“This institute will be named for boyhood friends who looked past the prejudice and hate around them. And they were to serve in Congress together in Washington — from different political parties — with dignity and respect.”

She demonstrated the pain of the loss of her husband when her voice broke during her speech.

“No one would have been more proud,” she said of him. “And I know that he is dancing in heaven.”

She also spoke of her husband’s friendship with Simpson.

“Eighty years ago their friendship was a beacon of light in the darkness. And for decades, it was shown in the halls of Washington, D.C., for others to see what’s possible,” she said.

Ann Simpson and Deni Mineta are co-chairs of the building committee.

Erika Moritsugu, deputy assistant to the President and Asian American and Pacific Islander Senior Liaison, represented the Biden administration at the ceremony. “Secretary Mineta broke many barriers for myself and all of us to be where we are today. He believed with all his heart that America can accomplish anything when we come together,” she said.

This year’s Pilgrimage to Heart Mountain included a hike up Heart Mountain, two film screenings, workshops and discussions, tours, the groundbreaking and a “Sayonara” dinner Saturday night.

The Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation gained National Historic Landmark status for the confinement site in 2007 and opened the center Aug. 20, 2011.

The building to house the Mineta-Simpson Institute is expected to be finished in 2024, Newlin said.

“We’re building the additions, but we’re already moving forward with the work of the Institute within our existing space,” she said.

Plans for the addition were solidified two years ago, and Norm Mineta’s death was a shock for all involved, Newlin said.

She pointed out that the presence of politicians — especially Liz Cheney — was not intended to be a sign of support for their campaigns, but due to the friendships forged between the Mineta, Simpson and Cheney families.

Prior to his death, Norm Mineta planned to be at the groundbreaking.

“It was a shock to us all,” Newlin said.

Al Simpson said despite Mineta’s death, “He is here.”

“We never lost an election and we irritated a lot of people, which is the purpose of leadership — just to piss somebody off. And we did it beautifully,” he said in his closing statements.

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