Courtesy of Shelley Fredrickson
Monty, center, with his sister, Shelley, and his brother, Ian Dickson, at his graduation from the University of Alaska, Anchorage.
The family of Montgomery Dickson, a popular teacher in coastal Japan who died in the March 11 tsunami, has said a tearful goodbye to him in the town he came to view as his second home.
Shelley Fredrickson, Dickson’s older sister, said she and other relatives flew on April 13 to Rikuzentakata in the northeast – a city of 23,000 that was flattened by the quake and tsunami.
“The devastation was incredible. We are still trying to believe what we saw and we were there one month after the fact,” Fredrickson, a 44-year-old sales representative from Anchorage, Alaska, wrote to msnbc.com in an e-mail. “After the bulldozers and excavators began the cleanup, after the roads were opened, we were still speechless.”
The family knows little about the circumstances of Dickson's death. The last one to speak to the 26-year-old known as “Monty-san” was his girlfriend Naoko, who he called after his students had evacuated from the school where he taught.
Following evacuation procedure, Dickson - a teacher with the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET) - then headed to the Board of Education office on the third floor at City Hall, which was believed to be a safe haven. Instead, it was overrun by the tsunami generated by the powerful earthquake that struck offshore.
“Standing at the foot of the building he had been in and looking up at the roof was scary knowing the water was that high,” Fredrickson wrote. “I do not know how anyone lived through it but some have. I wish he had, too.”
An International Medical Corps team that visited Rikuzentakata soon after the disaster said it “was completely destroyed by the tsunami and no persons were present. Showing the depth of the tsunami wave and extent of the destruction, water marks were observed at a height of up to 10 meters (nearly 33 feet) on the sides of hills."
The family placed white chrysanthemums, a traditional funeral flower in Japan, where his body was found – a kilometer away from City Hall- as well as where his apartment once stood and at the building he was last in. They also met people who knew him, and visited the schools where he taught.
Dickson was the second American confirmed by the U.S. State Department to have died in the disaster in Japan, out of 12,554 confirmed deaths. The other American fatality, 24-year-old Taylor Anderson of Richmond, Va., also was a JET teacher.
“He was well known, loved, very popular, the kids loved him as well as his fellow teachers. There were many stories that touched us deeply as he made quite a mark on this town,” Fredrickson wrote.
'He truly was a bridge between our countries'
She said people spoke of his proficiency in Japanese, how he participated in cultural comedy skits and how he emceed the Christmas party. They also gave the family gifts, including pictures of him, things he wrote, and the mayor – whose children Dickson taught -presented them with a poem written by a famous Iwate poet.
“Monty truly was loved here and found a second home,” Fredrickson said. “I have comfort in knowing this.”
The family spread some of his ashes on a mountain that has a road where Monty loved to ride his bike, Fredrickson said. At the top of the road was a children's park.
"We felt it was fitting since the children loved him and here he could watch over them," she wrote. "Monty found a second home there so it felt right to leave a part of him there. We couldn't fully take him away from this town or these people since he was obviously much loved and missed."
Fredrickson returned home to Alaska on April 17 - but she said it was not likely to be her last trip to Japan.
“I wish I could have visited with him showing me his favorite places as I kept wondering if the places I walked had also held his steps,” she wrote. “He truly was a bridge between our countries. He will continue to be an inspiration to all who knew him and hopefully to those who did not for I believe the stories of my brother will carry on.”