Bob Norris’66 was only 18 when he checked a box on his Beloit housing application indicating he’d like to room with a student from a foreign country. Paul Sandro’66 also checked that box, then forgot about it until he arrived on campus and met his new roommates in Haven Hall.
Takashi Nagata’66, from Japan, was the student assigned to bunk with Norris and Sandro that year. The friendship that grew among these freshmen opened up the world to all three of them.
“I had not known anyone from another country at that time,” Norris says. “Getting to know Takashi was a lesson in how we’re all more alike than different.”
Sandro was surprised and delighted to find Nagata as one of his roommates. “In my smallish world at the time,” he says, “I think I had imagined a European roommate and someone my age, but here was Takashi, a Japanese student, and a man.”
What he means is that Nagata was older than Norris and Sandro, both in years and experience. He had lived through World War II as a boy, followed by the occupation of Japan by U.S. forces, and he worked for a number of years before coming to Beloit. He started thinking about college in the United States after meeting a U.S. soldier in Japan, his first American friend.
Nagata chose Beloit because he wanted a liberal arts school with a strong academic program in the Midwest, because he’d read that Midwestern English is more standardized and easier to understand. He asked for two roommates, reasoning that if he couldn’t get along with one, the other might help referee. But that was never necessary.
“I think we hit it off with each other well, right from the beginning,” says Nagata.
Nagata became a friend to both his roommates’ families, staying with them over breaks and visiting them in later years.
“I began to understand how American people think, act, and what they value most,” Nagata says. “I came to think that people, whether they are Americans or Japanese, are more or less the same.”
As a result of knowing Nagata, Norris sought out other international experiences. He attended an international summer school in Oslo, Norway, in 1965, meeting students from 38 countries and rooming with a student from Spain. In graduate school, he gravitated toward people from other countries.
Through their children, both Beloiters, Norris and his wife, Kathleen, became interested in foreign exchange programs. The family has hosted nearly 40 students.
Norris traces much of his involvement with international people and causes back to his Beloit days and his first international friend.
“I’m not sure how much of this would have happened without the decision I made as an 18-year-old,” he says.
For his part, Sandro recalls many cross-cultural discussions with Nagata as a student.
“We talked about anything and everything, even once or twice about ‘the bomb’ and its devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” says Sandro. “Takashi was easy to like because he made an effort to get to know us. He had a great sense of humor and an infectious laugh.”
Once, during the first few weeks of school, Sandro recalls a group of friends purchasing Beloit sweatshirts. Someone had the idea of asking Nagata to write “love” in Japanese on the back of all of them with a felt pen.
“Takashi was careful to tell us that the word might not mean the kind of love we had in mind,” says Sandro. “It is interesting that even the necessity for that qualification, made subtly but clearly by Takashi, was an important part of my education at Beloit.”
In 2012, in honor of 50 years since he met Nagata, Norris and his wife flew to Tokyo for a guided tour, visited another friend in Japan, then spent a few days at the home of Takashi and Sayoko Nagata in Osaka.
“We were treated to incredible hospitality and more good food than I’ve eaten for a long time,” says Norris.