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Video: The gift of education

TODAY contributor
updated 12/24/2007 9:13:01 AM ET 2007-12-24T14:13:01

Claiborne Deming quietly made his hometown a promise this year. All the high school graduates who have been in the El Dorado, Ark., school system since ninth grade can attend any college in the country on his company's dime. Up to 6,000 bucks a year. For five years. He's challenged kids to dream big — Harvard, Yale. Public or private universities. Doesn't matter. 

Deming persuaded his company, Murphy Oil, to invest $50 million. Enough to keep his promise to 5,000 kids for 20 years. That could mean as much as $120,000 dollars for Mary Allen. She's got two sets of twins. Moved to El Dorado along with hundreds of others when she heard about the promise. The population is booming, reversing a decades-long decline. Home sales are up 14 percent, compared to a 5 percent drop statewide. Says Deming, "Education is the one thing that you can provide people that permanently changes their lives."  

History teaches us hope. Hope does not float back into the past. It's never past. Every day the things people did long ago gather invisibly around us, urging us to complete their unfinished business.

When World War II was a gathering storm, the Nazis arrested Otto Orenstein in Vienna.  Tossed him in a concentration camp. He escaped. Fled to Belgium. Was caught again when the Germans overran that country. Spent more months in an internment camp. Managed to escape again. Made it to London. Asked where he could go to get away from war.

Someone suggested Pearl Harbor.  

Orenstein and his pal, Alfred Preis, were picked up ...  in the first long breath after the Japanese bombed Hawaii. 

"We were brought down into a darkened city at a snake's pace," Preis recalled.  "Dead silence.  Interrupted by shots from time to time."

Preis was taken to police headquarters. Thought he was needed as a translator. He could speak several languages. But he felt a sharp, cold object against his back.

"A bayonet," said Preis. "And a voice said, 'Go ahead.'"

He was pushed through a door into a darkened room. All around were little glowing lights at all different heights. People sitting on bunk beds. Smoking cigarettes.

The former conductor of the Honolulu symphony was there. So were most of the chefs of Hawaii's great hotels.  U.S. citizens from Germany, Italy and Norway. 

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The next day, Preis and the others were herded onto Sand Island.

"No floors," recalls Preis. "Cots without mattresses. Mud on the ground. When we lay on the cots," he said, "they started to sink. And kept on sinking."   

They virtually slept in the mud.

Preis — a newlywed — caught a glimpse of his wife, who was being held with other women behind a chain-link fence on the other side of the island.

"The guards heard me trying to yell to her," Preis said with tears in his eyes. "They took my wedding ring away. They told me they didn't want me to use it to bribe my jailers for a chance to be with her."

To keep mentally active, prisoners formed "The University of Sand Island." Theirs was no ordinary group. One of them knew — by heart — nine of Anton Bruckner's symphonies. He could hum and analyze each one. A violinist from Germany added to their knowledge. Others taught city planning, anatomy. During the blackouts at night, the group studied astronomy. 

The camp got so crowded; some people were transferred to detention centers on the mainland. When they pointed out that few other Italian-Americans or Austrian-Americans were being held, they were released. But soldiers met them at the gate, transported them back to Hawaii and locked them up again. During the war, the islands were under military rule, so it was all perfectly legal.

"From Sand Island, I could see my house," Preis said. "By the time I was released, months later, I had lost it because the mortgage went unpaid." Still, Alfred Preis stayed in Hawaii after the war, even though he could not find work.  

Eventually, he did.

Twenty years later — not far from his island prison — Preis offered a simple tribute to those who fell at Pearl Harbor.  He is the architect who designed the USS Arizona memorial. 

Telling such stories on television is a bit like writing on smoke. It soon drifts away.

But not always.

Help me tell the stories that telling. Drop a note in my mailbox. 

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