This weekend’s opening of the Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center is a tremendous achievement and a credit to the many people associated with the Wyoming Heart Mountain Foundation, which raised $5 million in private donations for the project.

But it can be argued that the new museum at the site of the World War II internment camp for Japanese-Americans between Powell and Cody wouldn’t have been built if not for the open-minded leadership of two men more than 60 years ago.

I’m not talking about former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming and former U.S. Rep. Norman Mineta of California, who met as young Boy Scouts at Heart Mountain and whose friendship has been well chronicled. I’m talking about the men who made it possible for the two youngsters to meet in the first place.

In Simpson’s newly released biography, “Shooting from the Lip: The Life of Senator Al Simpson,” his brother, Pete, credits two men for taking Cody Boy Scouts to meet their confined counterparts at Heart Mountain: Glenn Livingston, their junior high school principal at the time, and their scoutmaster.

Before the Cody Scouts made their visit, Pete Simpson recalls, Livingston had a talk with the boys. Here’s Pete’s paraphrasing of what was said:

“Boys, we’re going to have a day with the Boy Scouts at the Relocation Center. They’re Japanese-Americans. They pledge allegiance to the flag just like we do. They swear the same Boy Scout oath. They use the same salute, and they wear the same uniform. We’re going there to learn more about them and to teach them some things about ourselves, and we’ll have a great day!”

At a time when fear and anti-Japanese hysteria pervaded the country, the Boy Scout troop’s visit was remarkable. The leaders managed to look beyond the fear and hate of the day and recognize the value of a cultural exchange between boys with much more in common than their differences. Certainly other people and organizations did as well, but none with consequences of the magnitude of this Boy Scout visit.

Al Simpson is quoted in the book as calling Mineta, whose family was forced to go to Heart Mountain from their home in California in May 1942, “a bright, curious, fun-loving, knot-tying, pesky, rambunctious young scout.” Their chance meeting, meanwhile, was one of the “profound lessons shaping my life,” the former senator says.

Their friendship was renewed years later when both were elected to Congress. Mineta went on to serve as secretary of commerce under President Bill Clinton and transportation secretary under President George W. Bush.

Without the support of the duo, it’s unlikely the Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center would be opening this weekend. Plenty of people have contributed to the project, but without the backing of Simpson and Mineta, it wouldn’t have happened this fast.

It’s also important to remember that both were co-sponsors of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided partial reparations to Japanese-Americans held by the American government during World War II. It’s questionable whether the law would have passed without Simpson’s support.

The incarceration of Japanese-Americans during the war is, of course, one of our nation’s dark chapters. It’s important that we remember those chapters, to help assure that we don’t repeat them. That’s why the Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center is so important.

I’m a believer in American exceptionalism. One of the reasons America is exceptional is that in most cases, we learn from our mistakes and take steps to avoid committing them again.

Part of that learning process involves examining the actions of those who fought against or rose above the nation’s injustices at the time they were happening. Al Simpson’s principal and scoutmaster definitely fit that description.

Do you have a question or comment for Editor Chad Baldwin? Reach him at 307-266-0545 or chad.baldwin@trib.com

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