Robert Coombs

Name Robert Coombs
Born May 26 1918
Died May 13 2009
Birth Location Visalia, California

Teacher at Hunt High School, Minidoka. Robert William Coombs was born in Visalia, California, in 1918, along with a twin sister. He grew up in Sacramento, California, where his father sold radios in a department store. After his father died in a boating accident when Robert was nine, his mother supported the family working as a food demonstrator for Heinz. Robert went to graduate from Sacramento High School, which had many Nisei students. Not knowing what he wanted to do, he attended junior college, where he decided he wanted to be a schoolteacher. He transferred to Stanford in 1938, studying progressive education and getting his teaching credential. Returning to Sacramento, he was hired at his alma mater for the duration of the war to replace teachers who entered the military. (Robert had been classified 4-F due to a thyroid condition.) He taught English and social studies starting in February 1942. But when the forced removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast resulted in large drop in enrollment at the school, he found himself out of a job. Unable to find another teaching job nearby, a former Stanford professor pointed him the direction of the War Relocation Authority. He applied to teach at Minidoka.

Just nine days later, he was instructed to report for duty at Twin Falls, Idaho. Arriving in August 1942, he chose to live in the Minidoka and helped set up the school and design the curriculum. For the next two years, he taught large English and social studies core classes to 10th and 11th graders at Hunt High School in Minidoka. Being just a few years older than his students, he became a favorite of many students and served as counselor and confidante as well as teacher. He urged students to be prepared for the postwar world and to be ready for the changes that will come. Teaching social studies in a concentration camp, he told students, "'Well, you know, tell me about something that's perfect.' And that was a strange question for me to ask them. There's no such thing as perfection. You do the best you can with what you have, and what's going on. And I, as a counselor, and teacher, had to put it to them that way. Because that was their only way that they could get some kind of peace is to realize that this is an imperfect world, this is an imperfect time." He also helped students apply to college and served as the adviser for the school newspaper and yearbook.

He left the camp in November 1944 due to health problems and shrinking enrollment as more Japanese Americans left the camp for resettlement away from the West Coast. Returning to Sacramento and intending to leave teaching to see what else might be available, he took a job at McClellan Air Force Base where his twin sister worked. But he was contacted by a former supervisor from the school district who convinced him to take a job at Sutter Junior High School starting in the fall of 1945. He remained a teacher and counselor there for 33 years until his retirement in 1978. He married Marguerite Askew, a fellow teacher at Minidoka, on Christmas Day 1945, and the couple had three children. Coombs attended several reunions starting with the first Hunt class of 1943 reunion in 1983 and remained friends with many of his former students for the rest of his life.

Authored by Brian Niiya, Densho

For More Information

Coombs, Robert. Video life history by Alice Ito, August 2, 2003, SeaTac, Washington. Densho Archive.

———. Oral history interview by Henry Yui, June 3, 1993. Florin Japanese-American Citizens League Oral History Project.

———. Oral history. Time of Remembrance... an Elk Grove Legacy web site.

Siegel, Shizue. In Good Conscience: Supporting Japanese Americans During the Internment. San Mateo, CA: AACP, Inc., 2006.