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A funeral home worker tracked down a family — and uncovered a decades-old secret

Mas Masumoto (left) and Shizuko Sugimoto in 2013.
Mas Masumoto
Mas Masumoto (left) and Shizuko Sugimoto in 2013.

This story is part of the My Unsung Hero series, from the Hidden Brain team. It features stories of people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else.


Growing up, Mas Masumoto was vaguely aware that he had an aunt who'd been separated from the family in the 1940s. Her name was Shizuko Sugimoto, and she had an intellectual disability. As was often done in those days, she became a ward of the state. The family never talked about her, and assumed she had passed away.

But one day in 2012, Masumoto received a surprising phone message from a funeral home worker named Renée Johnson. She wanted to tell Masumoto about a client in her 90s that he might know – a woman named Shizuko Sugimoto.

Johnson told him that his aunt had been living in an assisted living facility. She'd had a stroke and entered a hospice program, whose staff contacted the funeral home to begin preparations for Sugimoto's eventual death.

Typically, when the funeral home took on clients that were under the protection of the government, they would simply manage the last rites and take care of the body. But when Johnson discovered that Sugimoto seemed to have no family members, she made a special effort to locate them – and found her way to Masumoto.

"She looked up in the 1930 census, found Shizuko's name with my mom's name, and proceeded to phone me so Shizuko would not die alone," Masumoto recalled. "It was amazing for Renée to go through all that work when she didn't have to."

Mas Masumoto.
/ Mas Masumoto
/
Mas Masumoto
Mas Masumoto.

When Masumoto told his family, he asked them to sit down. "And I said, 'You remember Aunt Shizuko?' And they all said, 'Oh yeah, yeah, she passed away a long time ago.' And I took a deep breath and I said, 'No, Shizuko's alive.'"

His family was shocked.

"Everyone said, 'No, that can't be, that can't be right.' And then I told them the story of what happened. And they all paused and said, 'We need to see her. We need to go see her.'"

The family did get to meet Sugimoto; she lived another two years after they reunited. They were also able to thank Johnson.

Masumoto and his family continue to be grateful for Johnson's extraordinary efforts, which uncovered a larger story about the efforts to keep Sugimoto's existence hidden.

"Renée opened the door to a family secret," Masumoto said. "For my parents' generation and grandparents, this was a secret that people had. And it brought shame to a lot of people. And people were treated wrongly by becoming invisible and hiding these kind of facts."

Masumoto went on to write a book about his aunt's story, released in 2023, titled Secret Harvests: A Hidden Story of Separation and the Resilience of a Family Farm. It's now a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. And it all started with the quiet effort of a funeral home worker, Renée Johnson.

"We were forced to re-examine and probe our own family secrets, and I want to thank you for that," Masumoto said. "Because you have changed our family history, and also opened my own eyes to understand this is part of the legacy that I carry. And all thanks to you."

My Unsung Hero is also a podcast — new episodes are released every Tuesday. To share the story of your unsung hero with the Hidden Brain team, record a voice memo on your phone and send it to myunsunghero@hiddenbrain.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Kwerel