So many heroic citizens perform their exemplary ethical acts in near obscurity, never receiving widespread recognition or praise, never seeking it, and never missing it either. These are the best role models of all, but we learn about only a tiny percentage of them.
One such exemplar we learned about when he died this week is Bob Fletcher, a former government agriculture inspector who changed the course of his life to help his neighbors, who were in the midst of being abused and betrayed by their country.
In one of the darkest moments in U.S. history, the government of President Franklin D. Roosevelt responded to Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 by arresting 120,000 loyal American citizens of Japanese descent and confining them to internment camps. Through his work inspecting fruit crops, Fletcher knew many of the Japanese-Americans who suddenly found themselves prisoners, farmers who had worked the land around his hometown of Florin, California since the 1890s and before. One of those farmers, Al Tsukamoto, approached Fletcher in desperation with a proposal, asking him to manage his farm as well as the farms of two similarly imprisoned friends, keeping the farms operating and paying taxes, mortgages and other bills until the Japanese-Americans were released. In return, Tsukamoto said, Fletcher could keep all the profits.
The New York Times obituary notes that Fletcher and Tsukamoto had not been close friends, and Fletcher had no experience growing the crops involved. Nevertheless, he quit his job and took on the challenge of running three farms to help out near strangers. Many of those interned during the war, especially farmers, were ruined financially, because they could not pay their bills or earn a living. But those victims of fear and the U.S. betrayal of its core values didn’t have Bob Fletcher looking out for them.
He worked 90 acres on the three farms for three years, toiling 18-hour days. He kept the farms operating, and paid the bills of all three families. In order that the Tsukamotos, the Okamotos and the Nittas would have some money to rebuild their lives when they returned, Fletcher kept only half of the profits for himself. When the Tsukamotos returned to their farm in 1945, they discovered money in the bank account deposited by Bob Fletcher, and a freshly cleaned home.
The persecution of the Japanese Americans didn’t end with the war, and Fletcher continued to do his part to fight it. “I did know a few of them pretty well and never did agree with the evacuation,” he told The Sacramento Bee in 2010. “They were the same as anybody else. It was obvious they had nothing to do with Pearl Harbor.” Tsukamoto found that some merchants in Florin would refuse to sell him provisions; when that happened, Bob Fletcher would buy them for him. Bob got his share of snubs and personal attacks for helping his Japanese-American neighbors during and after the war. He refused to let the abuse stop him from doing the right thing.
That is the essence of ethics heroes like Bob Fletcher. Doing the right thing is no big deal to them. He didn’t seek honors for doing what he thought any fair and caring individual would and should do for others. The Golden Rule came naturally to him. How does someone get that way, I wonder? If only we could bottle that innate ethical impulse and sell it.
The Times obituary concludes:
“He was never much for celebrating his role in the war, and he noted that other Florin residents had helped their Japanese neighbors. “I don’t know about courage,” he said in 2010 as Florin was preparing to honor him in a ceremony. “It took a devil of a lot of work.”
Good job, Bob Fletcher.
Pointer: Scott Jacobs
Facts and Graphic: New York Times