Alumni's Presidential Medal of Freedom presented to UW

by: Deborah Horne Updated:

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SEATTLE - It is the nation's highest civilian honor.

Now the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded to Gordon Hirabayashi will reside at his alma mater. 

It is what his widow believes he would have wanted.

"The message he always had was ‘this story is not my story, it's an American story,’ " said Susan Carnahan.

Carnahan was at the White House in May, 2012, when President Barack Obama honored Hirabayashi's heroic refusal to follow tens of thousands of Japanese American citizens into the internment camps of WWII.

"As a student at the University of Washington, Gordon was one of only three Japanese Americans to defy the executive order," said President Obama.

Hirabayashi believed it was unconstitutional.

For his defiance, he was twice sent to prison. It took 40 years for the courts to undo that wrong.

At the University of Washington, Jay Hirabayashi performed a special Japanese-influenced dance in his late parents' honor. 

He said his father never talked much about his special place in history; so he had to learn on his own just who was this man he knew simply as Dad.

"I think he taught us through the way he lived," said Hirabayashi. "He taught us the importance of standing up for principles that you believe in and that principles are worth fighting for."

Gordon Hirabayashi died five months before he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Now his example will live on at the university campus where it all began.