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LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Catherine Payne

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Catherine Payne

 

Original air date: Tues., May 17, 2011

 

Creating Stability for Hawaii’s Teenagers

 

In this edition of Long Story Short, Leslie Wilcox introduces us to Catherine Payne, who recenly retired after a long careeer as one of Hawaii’s most respected educators. After spending her childhood moving from place to place with her Navy pilot father, Payne spent her adult life working to create stability for Hawaii teenagers – including many who lacked adults they could depend on. During a career that spanned more than 35 years, she worked as a teacher, vice principal and principal, never taking on the easy jobs. Instead, she led some of the toughest schools on Oahu and nurtured students with not only academic, but languages, socio-economic and behavioral challenges.

 

Catherine Payne Audio

 

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Farrington has to be a school, and the others schools that I worked in also, that does more than just provide education. We have to take care of many other aspects of the students’ lives. I just saw people that were really willing to do that.

 

Coming up next on Long Story Short, a woman who grew up in a close, stable family, and who devoted her career to young people in need of stability and support. Just ahead, this story of award-winning principal, Catherine Payne.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television programproduced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. In this edition of Long Story Short, we’ll get to know retired public school principal, Catherine Payne. She always wanted to teach, and she wasn’t satisfied with educating Hawaii’s middleclass students. She wanted to work with the young people who needed her attention the most. Starting with her first official teaching job in the 1970s, Payne took on some of the toughest assignments Hawaii’s public school system had to offer. As a principal, she steered thousands of students and teachers through tumultuous middle and high school years. In her thirty-five-plus-year career with the DOE, Catherine Payne was recognized by her peers and by national education groups as one of the stars of Hawaii’s public schools. This educator spent her own childhood on the move as part of a military family.

 

What was it like, moving again, and again, and again, as a youngster?

 

Well, I think what was stable about my life was my family. And so, as we moved, and we always drove, my mother always had lots of books for me to read. It was just a time when our family was always together. We would move in the summers most of the time, and get up at—this was before air conditioning in cars, so we’d get up at two or three in the morning and drive until noon, and we’d stop at a motel with a swimming pool. My father did mental arithmetic as we were driving along, so it was just really delightful. And that was the time when I was an only child, before my sister came along.

 

But you must have made some good friends, and then having to pull yourself away.

 

I think it wasn’t hard for me until I was a teenager. And it just was our way of life, and we moved, and we sometimes moved—I went to three different first grades. We moved a lot. I think I learned to get along with all kinds of people. And it really helped me as a teacher, because I was used to being flexible, and just adjusting to whatever circumstances we had. My parents modeled that, because they also had to leave their friends and move, and make new relationships. And yet, they stayed in touch with people. And so whenever we moved, we were always seeing old friends, and family that were all over the country. So it I had a whole world that was my neighborhood.

 

I’m surprised that there was never, until high school … rebellion or resistance, or unhappiness, or disappointment.

 

I’m sure there probably was some of that. [CHUCKLE]   My parents were fairly strict in what they expected of me. And yet, it was also a very loving and interesting life, too. My mother was alone most of the time, because my dad … because of his career, he was gone about half the time. It was just a very calm upbringing. I didn’t have siblings to fight with until I was thirteen when my sister came along, and we didn’t fight too much ‘cause she was just a baby.

 

What did your father do? Where was he off to?

 

Well, he was a career Navy man, and he was on ships a lot, because he was a pilot. And so, he was flying with squadrons. And I remember so many memories in my life were just getting ready to meet the ship, or say goodbye to the ship, and sending tapes. But he was always sort of far away. He was in Vietnam, and then when he came to Hawaii, he was home. By then, he was living at home with the family, and that was I think, at a time when we really got to know my father as a teenager.

 

Because he was gone that much.

 

He was gone quite a lot. And then, I was in boarding school my last two years also, because during those two years, they moved three times, and the last time was to Hawaii.

 

How did you get to Hawaii? Was it through one of your father’s assignments?

 

Yes. Hawaii was his last tour of duty with the Navy, and they moved over. We thought it would just be one year, and then he extended into a different job. And I had started college at the University of California up at Davis, and I thought, I should just spend a year in Hawaii, because it’s an opportunity I won’t ever have again. So I came here during my sophomore year, and never looked back. They actually stayed and retired here, and then in the late 80s, retired again to Texas. But I was firmly planted here.

 

What made you stay? What was it?

 

I just loved the cultural diversity. I made very good friends right away, and I just felt like this was a good place to be. But I knew that if I couldn’t find a teaching job in Hawaii—and when I graduated in the mid-70s, it was very difficult—my plan was to leave, because I knew I had to go somewhere and be a teacher.

 

Why did you know you had to be a teacher?

 

[CHUCKLE] I always knew I was gonna be a teacher, from the time I was a very little girl.

 

Do you remember anything that prompted that?

 

I think I was surrounded by teachers in my family. My grandmother had been a teacher, I had aunts and uncles who had been teachers. And as a reader, I loved so many stories about teachers. I read about teachers in the 18th century, and the 19th century, and teachers that did heroic things in the ghetto, and I just thought, that’s for me. I felt like the right place for me would be to teach in an area where kids were struggling. I did my student teaching at Kalani, and I loved it. I had a wonderful experience. But I felt my calling was either on the neighbor islands or in the country. And I was so fortunate to be hired in Nanakuli, and that’s where I stayed for nine years as a teacher.

 

Why the more marginalized kids?

 

I’m not exactly sure, because it certainly wasn’t my life growing up. But it was my life through what I read, and the kinds of people I admired were doing things like that. I thought about joining the Peace Corps, I thought about joining Vista. I came of age in the 60s, when that was a consciousness, and I just felt like I had something to give, to help. And the right things just happened along my path to make that happen.

 

Even for all your travels, you led a fairly sheltered existence in a stable family environment. What was it like getting to know some very tough situations in family in Nanakuli?

 

The main experience of Nanakuli for me was the welcoming aloha from the Hawaiian community. They taught me so much. The children there, from the little ones to the high school students, were just so delightful, and so eager to participate in life, and to learn. And the struggles that the families had were part of it, but it wasn’t the main focus of their existence. There was so much good that they had to share. It was kind of interesting, because I became the advisor for the Hawaiian Club in my second year. And the students and I thought that was pretty funny. We traveled to the neighbor islands, we did dances and performances, and they would introduce me to their kupuna. And I just fell in love. That was what gave me the foundation for the rest of my career.

 

And yet, the struggles were very much a part of who your students were.

 

They were. And I really saw my place. Part of it was to help them to see that they could lift themselves above that, and that education was the way for that to happen. Many, many of my students, who I am still in touch with, have gone on to do great things. They’ve become teachers, they’ve become doctors, they’ve become lawyers, or they’ve become wonderful family members that have stayed in the community and are still helping. Some are teachers at Nanakuli High School.

 

With a calling for teaching, you later went into administration. What was that like? ‘Cause it really does seem like two very different job requirements.

 

Yes. And it wasn’t ever my career goal to be an administrator. But what happened through my time at Nanakuli and through the principals that I had there, were opportunities to be a teacher leader. They saw something in me, before I saw it in myself. And that taught me that in the role of a leader, that’s part of your job, is to see things in your teachers and in the people who work for you, that they may not have discovered yet, and give them opportunities develop that side of themselves. So I kind of just was eased into administration. And my principal asked me to consider going through the training program, and I did. And then Waianae High School opened up as an opportunity for me to be a vice principal, and that just seemed like another good place for me to go.

 

Isn’t the vice principal usually the one who dispenses discipline?

 

Discipline is part of the role, but it’s really relationships and helping the students to know that you’re there for them, and you have expectations, and you really just want to help make their school experience positive.

 

So somehow, they knew that even though you were disciplining them, that you cared about them?

 

I believe they did. It’s not just the kids that you’re responsible for when you’re an administrator. You have to take care of the adults. Teachers need to feel supported, and they need to feel energized by the administrators. The Waianae teachers were just … they also taught me so much about relationships and caring, and how to take care of kids.

 

And yet, from the outer world, I mean, outside Waianae, Nanakuli, there are a lot of perceptions of the place as being scary and bad, and very, very troubled.

 

Yeah. In every school that I’ve worked in, that’s been a perception that people have had. Because when I taught in Nanakuli, and Waianae, and then Olomana and Farrington, people would always say, Oh, my goodness, it must be so hard there, you have all these difficulties. When you’re in that school, that’s not what you feel the most. It’s supporting these people, the teachers and the students, and helping them to see a vision that is higher than maybe what they had imagined for themselves.

 

Catherine Payne served at Waianae High School just two and a half years, until a new daunting assignment came her way, the job of principal of Olomana School in Kailua. Olomana is actually several schools for young people who aren’t making it in regular school. They have academic, social, or mental health challenges. Some have landed in juvenile detention or corrections. It’s a school for at risk and delinquent youngsters, young people essentially, a school of last resort.

 

It just fit again with my real conviction that we have to take care of these students while they’re still in school, and help them to find a different path. Because if we don’t do that, the cost to society, and to them as individuals, is gonna be really, really great. The teachers that were at Olomana inspired me so much, because they were teachers that would see a little bit of goodness in every child, and try to make that little bit grow, and grow. Kids need to have some adult in their life that they know cares about them. So it really requires a special person to be a counselor or a teacher, or an aide in a school like Olomana, or Nanakuli, or Waianae, or Farrington. Because you’re working with kids who may not have that in their personal life, in their family life. So we have to be willing to go that extra step.

 

Now, some would say, Oh, if only we’d caught them earlier. What can you do with seventh through twelve grades? What works?

 

What works is giving them hope. And I think for many children, even at the age of twelve and thirteen, they’ve started to lose hope. They see their parents in trouble, they see their siblings and their cousins. So it’s finding that little crack that you can get into, and give them hope. And we created different programs for the kids that stayed with us, where graduation could be a hope. And for so many kids who are in the dropout mentality, just thinking of graduation as a possibility changed their whole being. And we began to recognize these students, we had graduation ceremonies when they completed their requirements. These were kids that never, ever dreamed of graduation. And that’s so important for these kids.

 

Did you ever get physically threatened?

 

At Waianae, I did have an incident where perhaps I was a little too green, but there was a student who was intoxicated. And I was out patrolling the campus, and she went into the boys’ bathroom, so I just sort of followed her in to get her to come back out. And she did assault me, and tore my sweater, I remember. And she was arrested, and we did go to court. I wasn’t really hurt.

 

Did it make you gun shy, though?

 

No, it didn’t. ‘Cause I knew I wasn’t gonna be hurt seriously by her, and security came pretty quickly, so I just sort of stood my ground. The funny thing that happened shortly after that, I went to Olomana, where she then was. [CHUCKLE] And so, we met up again and made friends. But that was the only time.

 

When you’re dealing with such a troubled population, do you feel like your work will never be done, or you can never do enough?

 

Absolutely. You can’t ever do enough. You just do what you can do. We talk about planting seeds all the time. You’re planting seeds that may not germinate for quite a while, but you still keep doing it, never giving up.

 

In 1995, after ten years at Olomana, Catherine Payne accepted the job that would come to define her career, principal of Governor Wallace Rider Farrington High School. At the time, it was the largest high school in the State, with about twenty-five hundred students, including many immigrants just learning English.

 

As principal, you may be the top person at the school, but it doesn’t mean you’re in control, because there are so many factors and constituencies. What’s that like, when you have to maintain order, but you really don’t have all of the authority to do so?

 

I think one of the things that all principals realize is that you never know how your day is going to be. People that try to help us with organizing our time, and they talk about scheduling all these things, they really have no idea what a principal does. Because you don’t know, when you walk into the office, who’s gonna be standing there that needs to have some support. A principal of a large school, as Farrington was, cannot do it by himself for herself.

 

Twenty-five hundred students, staff of three hundred. Where do you find all the time to take care of all of these things, accreditation, and all of the things that are part of the job?

 

If you really sit down and list all the things, which I didn’t do until I was ready to retire, ‘cause I was doing it for the next principal, it’s just overwhelming. You can’t imagine doing all of that. And yet, when you’re in that day-to-day living of it, you just do it. You don’t do much else in your life, but you do that.

 

At times in the campus life of Farrington, gangs have been worse or better. I don’t know what it was like when you first arrived there.

 

Well, when I first got there, we were actually coming out of a really tough period with gangs. There had been an incident where a student was quite severely beaten the previous year.

 

I remember stabbings in the parking lot at the time.

 

Yeah. There had been a shooting. The late 80s and the early 90s were really, really rough times. Adult Friends for Youth helped us, the YMCA on campus helped us. We have so many partners in the community that, while we did have incidents where gangs kind of would burst forth at different times, it never felt out of control. We have social workers on campus that actually have a peace council made up of different gang members that would talk about their problems before it escalated into conflict. So just different ways of working with the students, not to eliminate that social phenomena that is pretty much ingrained in the community.

 

There was that notable period where Hawaii’s governor, chief of police, and city prosecutor were all Farrington grads. Keith Kaneshiro in his previous incarnation as prosecutor, Mike Nakamura, police chief, and Ben Cayetano as governor.

 

And they’ve all given back to Farrington. Ben Cayetano came and taught a class.

 

What was the class about?

 

He taught a class, and it was a political science type of group, similar to what he was teaching at the University. He wanted to give back and experience our students, and so he came and kind of co-taught the class with a teacher. Just an incredible opportunity for our students to experience him, and his wealth knowledge. I think it also opened his eyes a little bit to how challenging it is to be a teacher.   [CHUCKLE] This school is not just Farrington, or just for the immediate group of students. This belongs to the community, it belongs to alumni, and they need to continue to support it. And they have.

 

Do you think principals need to be educators? Can you just have a master of business degree?

 

I think a principal needs to be an educator. I think it would be great if you had a partner in the school that was a business manager, so that they could take care of whether the bills were being paid on time, and the budget. You have a fifteen-million-dollar budget that you’re dealing with, and I often wished I had some business background for that. But great educators have a passion for what they do, which is education. And if you are missing that reason for being in a school, that passion for helping children grow, then I think you’re missing a piece of what is essential as a leader of education.

 

Along the way, did you see some really special interactions between people that perhaps changed others’ lives?

 

It changed my life, watching teachers that so inspire me. What really would inspire me was when you would see something that was a problem or a tragedy, or some kind of situation with our students, and then to see how the staff would just coalesce to make that situation better. We had some suicides at Farrington, we had some other deaths of students, or deaths of students’ family members, and how does the school come together to support those that are left. We had a student once who was the oldest in his family, he was a junior at the time. And he had siblings at the middle school and the elementary school, and his mother had just given birth and had cancer, and died within days after giving birth. His father had to keep his job, and there wasn’t anyone in the family who could take care of this infant. And so, our eleventh grade student was going to have to drop out of school to take care of the infant. And his counselor found out about it, and the first thing that happened—‘cause it was at Christmas too, is they did a huge drive to support the family, and gathering supplies for the baby, and Christmas gifts for the younger siblings. And then, over the Christmas holidays, trying to figure out how we could have this child still come to school, and take care of the baby at the same time. And at that time, we had a childcare program for infants for our pregnant girls, and for the girls that had given birth. It was a contracted program, but we were able to get them to agree that even though it wasn’t his baby, he could bring his younger brother at six weeks, and come to school with his baby brother. And he was able to go ahead and graduate, because of that. It’s one of the things that makes Farrington so special, is that we don’t want anybody to fall through the cracks.

 

I can tell you are a believer, you’re an idealist, and yet, you have to be pragmatic to do your job and to be an educator. How do you reconcile the two?

 

Well, you never lose your idealism, because that’s what gave me the hope to keep going. But, there is the reality of the day-to-day operations, and how you keep the school running, and all the different people that depend on the leaders to take care of things. And that’s just a balancing act that I think any leader of an organization has to manage. I believe that a good leader doesn’t feel like they have to have all the power. They really have to give it away and empower others. And that’s how a system continues when you’re not there. And that was my goal. I used to tell them even years before I retired that if the school didn’t continue on and grow, and get better after I left, it meant that I wasn’t a very good leader.

 

Why did you retire?

 

I was actually out of school for about three months, because I was ill. And during that time, I think it gave me moments of reflection where I began to think about what other things that I wanted to do, and also know that maybe I didn’t have quite the energy to keep up that pace that’s required at Farrington. And Farrington deserves somebody that had that. I was there fifteen years, so who’s gonna do the next fifteen? And it just felt like it was the time to step back. It was hard. [CHUCKLE] I knew it was the right thing to do, but I’m still feeling connected to Farrington, and I think I probably always will. That’s the school where I’ve spent the most time of my life.

 

Are you good at doing less?

 

Not really. [CHUCKLE] I definitely want to keep my mind busy, and I want to keep involved in education. I think up until my last day on Earth, that’ll be what I’m most concerned and involved with. I have tried to step back, and see things in a different perspective. And I think that’s how I’m looking at the whole educational system now, is more from the balcony, instead of right in the middle of the fray. I know times are very hard right now, and I hope people will be patient with public education and public educators, because it’s just a really tough time. And the people who are working in those schools, in all our schools, are trying really hard to do a good job. It’s tough.

 

In retirement, do you have a different view of the job of principal? Have you shifted in your outlook at all?

 

I think, as I look at it now, it’s even harder than a year ago when I was there. It’s a very, very difficult and challenging time for public educators. And my heart goes out to all of them.

 

Have you talked with some of your former students to find out what it was, if they knew of any particular thing that was done that kind of turned things over for them?

 

The students that I still hear from, they just remember the teachers that were kind to them, and teachers that continued to believe in them and tell them, you know, you can do this, you’re gonna be okay. Maybe that’s what inspired them, when they were twenty-five or thirty, to go back to school. You just never know how you influence a child. I had a student come up to me recently in the shopping center out at Kahala Mall, who came running up, and he was an adult now, and he had been at Olomana. He recognized me, and he just wanted me to know that he was doing well. And he was in his mid-thirties, he introduced me to his wife, he has a family, he has a good job. And he just said, I remember you, and you helped us, and I just want you to know I’m okay now. And that’s what we live for. [CHUCKLE]

 

Catherine Payne retired in 2010, after fifteen years at Farrington and more than thirty-five in Hawaii’s public schools. She intends to stay active in education and community service. Whatever she does next, Catherine Payne remains a role model for Hawaii educators. Her work will live on in the teachers she has mentored and inspired, and in former students who are succeeding beyond expectations because they had a teacher or principal who believed they could. For Long Story Short, and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.

 

When they become difficult, it’s still being that same—coming back and saying, I’m still here for you. You can be obnoxious and you can swear at me, and I’m not gonna write you off. I’m still gonna be here for you. And that takes a special kind of adult that can do that.

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Dr. Ginny Pressler

 

Original air date: Tues., Oct. 8, 2013

 

Dr. Ginny Pressler

 

After 10 years of practicing surgery, Dr. Ginny Pressler took on leadership roles that would push for transformation in Hawaii’s health care system. Long before the start of her career, Dr. Pressler was simply Ginny, a girl from Hana who walked barefoot to school. In this conversation with Leslie Wilcox, Dr. Pressler recalls her childhood on Maui, points out the moment she decided to work in health care and reveals how artist Georgia O’Keefe changed her mother’s life.

 

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What rattles me … I get really irate with injustice and unfairness.

 

Well, the healthcare industry is full of inequities, and so there’s a lot of fairness to fight for there.

 

That’s absolutely right. That may be why I was so passionate about, even though I love doing surgery, actually leaving the practice that I loved so much in order to try to fix healthcare.

 

Hawaii healthcare leader, Dr. Ginny Pressler, next on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha; I’m Leslie Wilcox. Dr. Virginia Pressler is Executive Vice President and Chief Strategic Officer at Hawaii Pacific Health. At this time, it’s Hawaii’s largest nonprofit healthcare network, with four major hospitals and more than fifty outpatient clinics throughout the islands. Dr. Pressler, a one time banker turned surgeon, turned health industry executive, goes by Ginny. She’s a leader in the effort to transform healthcare in Hawaii. Throughout her career, she’s pushed for initiatives that encourage healthful habits, and improved the wellbeing of Hawaii’s people. Ginny Pressler’s story goes back to the small plantation town of Hana on Maui. There, a famous artist would inspire her mother, at age twelve, to change the course of her life.

 

My grandfather was the manager of the Hana Plantation. So, she lived in Hana; she grew up on the plantation there. And there was no place to stay in Hana, but lots of artists and other special people would come and stay at the plantation, and my mother was exposed to all these wonderful people. Now, Georgia O’Keefe came to Hawaii when my mother was about twelve, and she remembered my mom and my grandfather and grandmother talking about Georgia O’Keefe coming. And my mom was a voracious reader; she was homeschooled and read all the time. And so, she knew all about Georgia O’Keefe, and she was all excited about Georgia coming to visit. And then her mother, my grandmother got called away to California, where her mother was ill, and so my mother at age twelve ended up being the hostess with my grandfather to Georgia O’Keefe when she came to stay in Hana. And so, my mother showed her around for about ten days, and the Georgia O’Keefe in Hawaii, which is a book that’s out that has a picture of one Georgia’s paintings on the front was written by my mother.

 

Was she showing her the landscape for pictures, and did she hang out while there was painting taking place?

 

She took her all around. She drove her around and took her to places.

 

Drove her?

 

Yeah. [CHUCKLE]

 

At age twelve?

 

I think maybe Georgia drove and she was showing her where to go. I’m not sure. I guess that probably was how it worked.

 

[CHUCKLE] Although, you never know.

 

Yeah.

 

In the country, all things happen.

 

She got her license when she was fourteen, but I don’t know if before that, that she drove or not. But she showed her around, took her to the places to see her favorite flowers, and things like that. And Georgia O’Keefe developed a real love of the floral beauty of Hawaii.

 

Does your mom tell any stories about a particular place, or comment?

 

Well, Georgia O’Keefe sort of changed my mom’s life. I mean, she was living very isolated, really, in Hana, homeschooled, as I said, doing a lot of reading. And when she met Georgia, it sort of opened up her eyes to a whole new world. And it was after Georgia left that she told my grandfather; she said, You know, I know I’m gonna go to Punahou in a few years, but I want to go now. And so, she went in eighth grade, I think, to board at Punahou, which was quite a move for her from rural Hana to Punahou.

 

And she met her husband while a teenager at Punahou.

 

Yeah; when she was fifteen and was at a family mutual friend’s place. Alexis [INDISTINCT] in Kula would entertain the servicemen that were stationed on Maui, and that’s where she met my father. And my father was out here in World War II as a fighter pilot on an aircraft carrier, and he was from St. Louis. So, after the war, my mom and dad got married in St. Louis.

 

So many local girls married servicemen at that time.

 

Yeah.

 

Didn’t they?

 

That’s right. And in fact, when my dad met my mother, he was eight years older than she was. And he had told my grandfather that, When she grows up, I’m going to marry her.

 

Ginny Pressler and her four siblings were born in St. Louis. Like her mother, Ginny Pressler’s life would change at age twelve, when her father moved the family back to Maui. She says it was a welcome escape from the frills of St. Louis’ teenage debutante balls to a laid back lifestyle.

 

And you lived where, on Maui?

 

We lived in Spreckelsville, in a old plantation house. We were just renting it.

 

So, the nearest public school was Kaunoa.

 

Kaunoa School; right. So, I walked to school with my neighbors, barefoot to Kaunoa. And after school, we’d just hang out under the monkey pod trees, or we’d go and play beach volleyball, or go to the beach or … just hang out together.

 

You know, you and I are of that generation where there was no such thing as play dates or structured play.

 

Right.

 

What was childhood like as far as, how’d you spend your free time?

 

I was more the adventuresome type; I liked to go out and explore and find things. So, I liked to go out in the woods and in the streams, or the ocean, or the beach, and just explore and find things, build forts.

 

Build forts.

 

You know, climb trees. We used to do lots of fun things on Maui. Lot of fluming, hiking.

 

Fluming is something kids don’t get to do nowadays. It’s too dangerous, or the flumes have broken down, those water – carrying structures.

 

They were such fun. And of course, now you could never do that. Because we were on all the plantation property that at that time, you could get away with it.

 

And did you ever complain, I don’t have anything to do?

 

No.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

No. If I ever complained to my parents I had nothing to do, they’d find something for me to do, I’m sure.

 

So, you can definitely occupy yourself.

 

Right. We were expected to be self – reliant. And you know, I was one of five children, so we all kind of took care of each other. And I remember doing a lot of babysitting and fixing dinner for my younger brothers.

 

What were your parents like in raising you? Achievement, apparently, was important by virtue of the schools, I can tell.

 

M – hm.

 

What were they like?

 

Well, I remember my dad always saying, I don’t care what you do, as long as you do it well. And so, that was the mantra, was you always do your best, and there’s no excuse for not doing the best you ever can. At the same time, my dad was very loving and full of fun and adventure. We did a lot of fun things together, and he loved family. But hardworking; very hardworking, I remember.

 

What about your mom?

 

And my mom was a stay – at – home mom. She was very involved with others in the community, did volunteer work, did a lot of needlework. And so, when we moved back to Maui, she was volunteering. And then when I went off to college, my family moved to the Big Island, and she opened up Waimea Wool Craft, where she was teaching people in the community how to do needlepoint and knitting. And then, that expanded into the Waimea General Store, which she still has today, and my brother takes care of that.

 

Is that right? So, that’s a hub. So many people have shopped there for many years. What prepared her, you think, to run the store? She must have liked people.

 

She loves people. I think my whole family are entrepreneurs. I’m the only one who’s working for a company. Everyone else, all of my siblings, my father, my grandparents on both sides were all entrepreneurs.

 

So, you lived in St. Louis until you were about twelve, and then the rest of your childhood was spent on Maui. Has that neighbor island background informed the way you live your life today?

 

Very much so, I think. And it’s been very helpful. My memories really are that time on Maui as a child. And it really has shaped my attitudes towards healthcare in the State, as well as just the needs on the neighbor islands, and recognizing how different it is in the rural areas. That’s a very important thing in all the areas I’ve been in, especially in the last ten or fifteen years, where I’ve been on either the public health or administrative side of healthcare that we’re trying to provide throughout the State. Recognizing the different needs on the neighbor islands. And they’re very different from Honolulu.

 

That’s true; you can’t say neighbor island as a general thing when you’re talking about healthcare or growing up. Because every island is so different in its culture.

 

Yeah.

 

On Maui, Dr. Ginny Pressler attended H.P. Baldwin Public High School, then transferred to Seabury Hall, a private school in Makawao that her father helped establish. In fact, she was in Seabury Hall’s first graduating class of fourteen students back then. Her family then moved to Waimea on Hawaii Island, while Ginny Pressler left Hawaii altogether to attend Cornell University.

 

Well, I started as a math major, and then I got into social psychology. And I really enjoyed learning about how people form attitudes and their behavior, and how difficult it is to change behavior. Which to this day, I look back at things I learned so many years ago, and it’s so true still, although the science has changed quite a bit about attitudes and behavior change.

 

People haven’t changed. [CHUCKLE]

 

Yeah. And the group dynamics, and how group decisions are made. So, it was fascinating for me to learn how people think and work together, and I use a lot of that today in the work I do.

 

And in healthcare, you are trying to change how people behave, so you do draw upon that.

 

That is one of the most difficult things, when people know that something’s not good for them, but to get them to change behaviors is very, very difficult.

 

So before you got into healthcare, you’re graduating in social psychology. And what was the plan?

 

At the time, I was gonna go on to graduate school in educational psychology. And I came back; couldn’t wait to get back to Hawaii. But I wasn’t quite sure what I was gonna do with it. If I got a PhD, what would I do with that? And decided that I should probably just get a job. So, I started working at Bank of Hawaii as a management trainee. Was very fortunate to get into the management training program, learned a lot. I mean, it was a totally foreign field to me, banking. I was there for five years, and did the whole gamut of banking, but it never quite fulfilled my sense of — I remember one day saying, So, where do I want to be thirty years from now? I’m gonna stay at the bank, obviously, I’d want to be the president of the bank. Is that what I want to be? And I said, No. So, then the question was, Well, then why am I there? So, that’s when I started doing some soul searching about what I really wanted to do with my career. And medicine just kinda came up.

 

How did it come up?

 

Well, a relative who was in med school at the time, for some reason, I was visiting and went to see his med school and all. And he said, You know, I think you’d make a really good doctor. And maybe he knew I was soul searching, trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I don’t know why he said that. But it just … a light bulb went off in my head and I went, Yeah. There was the combination of the math and science that I loved. I always wanted to be a scientist when I was a kid. And I wanted to do something meaningful to help people, and I like to work with people. And it just all came together, and I realized, yeah, that’s what I should do. I was twenty-seven at the time. And the things I was reading said if you’re over age twenty-six, you’re too old to go to med school. [CHUCKLE] But that didn’t stop me.

 

Dr. Ginny Pressler went back to school and enrolled in pre-med classes at the University of Hawaii’s John A. Burns School of Medicine. She also gained hands -on surgical experience at a cardiovascular research lab. She was still a pre -med student when she decided she would become a surgeon.

 

You’re talking about cutting.

 

Yeah.

 

Cut, cut, cut in sensitive places. What prepared you to do that?

 

Well, I’m a very … oh, I don’t know how to put it. I’m a sensitive person, but I’m also objective, and I can sort of compartmentalize and not get emotionally distracted. When you’re operating on somebody, or even an animal, you’re focused on what you’re trying to get done.

 

You were in there for the duration. You were a surgeon. In fact, you started specializing in breast surgery, which at the time wasn’t usual.

 

That’s right. In fact, I remember interviews with you twenty years ago when I was a breast surgeon.

 

That’s when your hair was longer, and mine was shorter. [CHUCKLE]

 

That’s right.

 

About twenty years ago.

 

That’s right.

 

Did you have a scary moment in surgery?

 

I think the scariest cases were trauma cases where there was massive liver damage, because the bleeding from that is very difficult to find the source. So, I had some scary times when I was in the operating room.

But I’ve heard so many people say it takes so much to get you rattled. I mean, what does rattle you?

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

You’re very composed.

 

Well, I guess I’ve always been composed. What rattles me … I get really irate with injustice and unfairness.

 

What do you do?

 

What used to get me really upset when I was a kid was, my younger brother and I used to fight, and he would punch me or instigate me, and I’d fight him back. And I’d get him down on the ground, and he’d say, Let me go and I won’t hit you. And I’d let him up, and then he’d hit me. And I would get furious. It’s like that’s not fair. You said you weren’t gonna hit me back. So, when things aren’t fair, when I see people doing unjust things or unkind things to others, that gets me upset.

 

Well, the healthcare industry is full of inequities, and so there’s a lot of fairness to fight for there.

 

That’s absolutely right. That may be why I was so passionate about, even though I love doing surgery, actually leaving the practice that I loved so much in order to try to fix healthcare. Because it was wrong; it needed fixing.

 

That is a huge bite. I mean, you knew that wasn’t gonna be, Okay, here’s my three – year plan.

 

M – hm.

 

I mean, you knew that it might be a lifelong adventure, or less than that? What was your thinking?

 

I’ve always been an adventurer and a risk – taker; calculated risk – taking. And I was following my heart, my gut that healthcare was broken, and I could only do so much in private practice. Even if I brought in a partner and I tried to create this comprehensive care for patients, that I couldn’t do it on my own, that I needed a bigger system to do it, and that we needed, in fact, to fix the whole system of healthcare.

 

And you worked in government.

 

Subsequently; yeah.

 

How far did you get in that endeavor?

 

Well, I had actually been running a health plan for a while, and then worked at the Department of Health from 1999 ‘til 2002, and was Deputy Director at the State Department of Health. And it was just about the time of the master settlement agreement with the tobacco industry, so there was money coming in for the tobacco settlement. So, I was very fortunate that I was given the leeway to work with those funds and convince the Legislature and the administration that most of that money should go into healthcare. So, that’s when we created the Healthy Hawaii Initiative that was focused on physical activity, nutrition, and tobacco control. And obesity then — this was what, fifteen years or so ago, was beginning to be recognized as a major problem. And here we are fifteen years later, and it’s a bigger problem, but it’s finally being recognized as a real issue.

 

And that’s one of the eternal frustrations, it seems, of healthcare. We make advances, but sometimes you just don’t see the the results you want.

 

Well, I’ve always been an early adapter, so I’m always sort of a little bit ahead of the rest. I’ll read things and recognize trends and say, Yeah, it’s very clear that this is what’s happening, and this is what we need to do. But the rest of the world isn’t there with me. [CHUCKLE] I’m always looking out longer term.

 

Thanks in part to Dr. Ginny Pressler’s long – term vision, Hawaii Pacific Health is recognized as a national healthcare leader. Back in 2002, the organization was an early adopter of electronic medical records, an important piece in streamlining patient care. Throughout her career, Ginny has gone by the name Pressler; that’s her first husband’s name. She’s been married for almost thirty years to Andy Fisher, but kept the name Pressler for practical reasons.

 

Well, I got married the first time in college, and we were married for about ten years, and then we got divorced. And because I got married in college, all of my diplomas were Pressler. So, from undergraduate, and then my master’s degrees and my doctorate degree were all under the name of Pressler, and I was known professionally as Pressler. And I was thirty – seven or so when I met my current husband. And so, I already had that professional name and chose not to change it when we got married. I actually am legally Fisher, but I kept the name professionally. The funniest part about it is — my husband is such a great sport, because we’ll go places where he gets called Mr. Pressler. It’s bad enough if it were my maiden name, but it’s not even my maiden name. It’s my first husband’s name, and my husband handles it very well.

 

And your children are Fisher.

 

They’re Fisher; right.

 

Your little girl, your youngest child, is adopted.

 

Yes.

 

How did that come about?

 

Well, we had lost a child, and we wanted to have two children. When we lost our son, we felt that things were unbalanced having just one child, and we’d always wanted to have two kids. So, we tried to have another child, but I was in my mid – forties by then, and after trying some in vitro and other attempts to have another child, we finally realized we love every kid we see everywhere. It’s like it doesn’t have to be our genetics. And so, we decided to adopt. And I’m so glad that we did. It was a wonderful experience.

 

Now … mothers always say there’s no difference in how you feel about a adopted or a blood kid. But were there differences in her perspective or the way you raised her?

 

Yeah. When we had Katy, our youngest, I didn’t feel any different. I always felt the same about her as my own. And in fact, since we had lost one child, and I was there for Katy’s delivery, I actually cut the umbilical cord. It was an open adoption, and we’d been chosen ahead of time to be the parents. So, I was able to be there for the delivery, which was wonderful. So, I’ve always thought of Katy as — I forget that she isn’t my own natural born, although she’s a different ethnic makeup than we are. But it’s never really connected to me. It’s like, she’s mine, and there’s no difference in how I feel about her. And so, it was very interesting for me to find out as she was growing up how hard it was for her. She never liked the fact that she was adopted.

 

So, you did an open adoption. Does that mean there was any continuing communication with the birth mother?

 

Yes; we had an open adoption, and we did have a connection with the birth mother. But she stopped contact after a couple of years. So …

 

So, Katy never had a chance to ask her, Could you tell me about the circumstances of my adoption.

 

Right.

 

Although, sometimes information doesn’t answer a question of the heart.

 

M – hm. Yeah; she seems to be settled with it now. But you never know. I hear about an awful lot of adopted children who, even in their forties or fifties, still want to go back and connect with their birth mother or father.

 

Yes; I have an adopted child as well, and she did get to meet her birth parents when she was about twenty – one. And … that’s why I do think that even when there’s love and a chance to get together and get to know, there’s still questions that sort of are unknowable or answers that are unknowable.

 

Yeah. And I’ve come to understand as much as I can now, which I didn’t appreciate before. And that’s another thing that I’ve learned. I mean, you just take things for granted that, Well, we love her, what’s the problem here, you know.

 

Right.

 

But from her perspective, I can concede that there’s a loss.

 

Personal loss is familiar for Dr. Ginny Pressler. In addition to the death of her fourteen – month – old son, she also lost her father at age fifty – eight to a sudden heart attack on the tennis court. She calls her father the kingpin of the family, and a big piece of her life.

 

He and I had gone out to dinner the night before, and he’d stayed at my place. And I remember waving goodbye to him as he backed out of the driveway and went back to the Big Island. And later that day, I get a call from my sister saying, Dad’s dead. I’m going, No; how can he be dead? I just saw him. And so, it was very, very difficult for me to come to grips with that. ‘Cause it was so sudden and unexpected. So, that changed a lot of things and made me reflect on life, and what was important.

 

And how short it can be.

 

Yeah. And then, I think losing our son was a very tragic thing, and it made me really think about balance, and what are the really important things in life. And it makes you reprioritize things.

 

When you’ve had adversity, it’s been to show you about priorities in life, the value of time and family, and love.

 

M – hm. How precious our loved ones are, whether they’re family or friends, or whatever.

 

Do you feel too busy sometimes?

 

Sometimes.

 

Because healthcare is a busy thing. [CHUCKLE]

 

Yes. And in fact, I look at that picture that I have from twenty years ago when I was being interviewed by you. At that time, she must have been about six months old, Katy, our youngest, reaching for the TV set, trying to touch Mommy. That picture to me, it means a lot, because it was a time when I was so busy, and I never had enough time with the kids, and I would miss really important events because of commitments in my professional career. Usually, it would be because I had to take care of a patient, and that came first, regardless. And so thank goodness I had a supportive husband. But I always felt being torn, that I wanted to be with my children, and I hated being away from them. And so, that was a perfect example. I think it was an evening interview, and I wasn’t home with the kids, and so my husband puts me on TV so the little one can see me, and she’s trying to reach me, and she can’t, trying touch me through the TV set. I mean, those kinds of moments just are very poignant.

 

And again, some of the choices you make aren’t bad choices. I mean, choices between good values, family, work.

 

I don’t know that I would do anything differently. I really value the career that I’ve followed. My kids have turned out fine. I don’t think that I’ve neglected them in any way, and they are resilient, and they are proud of me, I think. And I don’t think it was a mistake.

 

And certainly, their mom hasn’t had just any job. I mean, essentially, you’re out slaying the beasts of things that drive up the cost of healthcare and bring down the quality of healthcare.

 

Looking for justice and fairness, trying to get the best to everybody.

 

I’ve heard so many people say that our healthcare system is broken, and there really isn’t authentic hope on the horizon. What do you think?

 

Oh, well, I agree it’s broken; that’s why I got involved twenty years ago to fix it. But I think there is hope on the horizon. And it hasn’t happened everywhere in the country yet, there’s big gaps across the country, and within Hawaii too, as far as the progress towards creating a system approach to healthcare for patients. But I am very, very impressed and pleased with the progress that we’ve made, at least at my organization. As I said earlier, some of the things we’re doing now, I never even dreamed we’d be at this point. And it isn’t perfect yet, but it’s moving in the right direction.

 

And do you think your job will ever be done?

 

No; no, I don’t.

 

And that’s okay with you?

 

Yes. Well, you don’t want you job to be done; right? I think one thing I’ve decided about life is, number one, we’re not expected to know why, and when, and where, and how long, and that it’s all meaningful, and it just makes it more precious.

 

Precious, indeed. And in case you’re wondering, if Dr. Ginny Pressler were a man, I would still have asked the question about work life balance. It’s not a single gender issue. Dr. Pressler is among those fighting for justice and fairness in Hawaii’s healthcare system, while making time for personal health and wellbeing. She and her husband are regular standup paddlers and outdoor enthusiasts. Thank you, Dr. Ginny Pressler, for sharing your story with us. And mahalo to you for watching. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go the Apple iTunes Store, or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

So, I’ve always had this sense of urgency and impatience, and as I’ve gotten older, I’m finally beginning to realize, slow down. Even at stoplights, it’s like, don’t get frustrated because that person didn’t pull out yet.

 

You can’t control it, so let it be.

 

Yeah. So, I’m becoming a little bit more patient as I get older, and I think children teach you patience.

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Sean Priester

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Sean Priester

 

Original air date: Tues., July 19, 2011

 

Creating Great Food while Making a Difference in the Community

 

This week on Long Story Short, Leslie Wilcox talks story with Sean Priester, executive chef and owner of Soul Café in Kaimuki. From his childhood in a military family, Sean learned to respect the communities where life and duty led them. With this mindset, paired with his culinary talent, Sean launched Soul Café, where he demonstrates how food can nurture community and supports others in overcoming personal adversity.

 

Among his volunteer work is a partnership with Next Step Shelter, where he prepares food for the homeless. Sean also opens up about his past internal struggles, which manifested as drug and alcohol addiction, beginning in his college years at North Carolina State. Fifteen years later, Sean talks about overcoming his vices and fears, and helping others do the same through the power of food.

 

Sean Priester Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Food is powerful, and it brings people together, and it’s a call to action. Put some food on the table, and people are gonna come running. Chefs have that, they have that power. It’s sort of like you use the skills that you have, and use the attention and notoriety that you have, and if you can use it to benefit to others, then give it a shot.

 

We’ve seen many examples of chefs working for the good of the community, especially here in Hawaii. But how about someone who started out with a larger mission of being responsible to the community, then along the way, became a chef? Next on Long Story Short, you’ll meet Sean Priester, a chef with true soul.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha. I’m Leslie Wilcox. If you could craft the perfect chef, what ingredients would you include? Well, maybe they’re well-traveled, influenced by many cultures. They should have passion for the food they cook, and the people they feed. They should understand that food can nurture community, and maybe it helps to have strength from overcoming personal obstacles. You’ll find all these ingredients in Sean Priester, executive chef and owner of Soul Café, in Kaimuki.

 

I understand you grew up all over the world.

 

Right. Well, I was born in Atlanta, and six months after I was born, we moved to Belgium; Brussels, Belgium. And that’s where life began for me.

 

Tell me about your parents.

 

Dad was in the Army for twenty years, he was a master sergeant in the Army. Mom’s been a schoolteacher all her life. And they were wonderful. I think I had a wonderful upbringing.

 

Were they protective?

 

Protective. Dad was always conscious of me being independent and being able to take care of myself. Mom, she was a protective mom, nurturing mom.

 

Did your parents sit you down to tell you life lessons, or how’d you learn from them things that matter?

 

I didn’t have any really life lesson talks until I was in my teens. But just because we were a military family and just traveling so much, and being placed in these different environments so frequently, it really just gave us opportunities to adapt and cope with new friendships, and losing friendships, and being in uncomfortable environments.

 

What are the other places you lived as a child growing up?

 

Child growing up, we moved to Cleveland, Ohio. I lived in Monterey, California, lived in Minneapolis. Savannah, Georgia was another place that we lived in, Munich, Germany. Ended up in, Fayetteville and Raleigh, North Carolina just before coming to Hawaii.

 

What’s the biggest payoff, you think, of all those military moves? Is there an experience in your life where you think, That really helped me, right there?

 

Wow; that’s a very specific question, I would say. [CHUCKLE]

 

Well, in general.

 

I’d say it just really made me aware of my environment, and made me want to really get to the core of people’s existence wherever I was, in order for me to feel comfortable and in order for me to integrate and just be on an even playing field with the rest of the community.

 

You’d try to connect quickly.

 

Tried to connect quickly. Exactly.

 

What did you choose to study at college, and where’d you go?

 

I went to NC State. I chose materials engineering. Sounded really good on paper. Through the process of being independent and on my own, I didn’t find that the curriculum sort of fit into what my goals were. And I really was seeking out a way that I could benefit society in a way that would be uh, a bit more powerful or more upfront, I guess you would say. Just kept looking for something that suited me, and I ended up in this course called Conservation of Natural Resources, which you would call ecology, and very young in its stages, as far as the course of study. And it seemed like a good way to contribute by working on solutions on how to protect the planet and protect our natural resources.

 

What’d you do after college?

 

After college, my dad had retired from the military and moved to California. So I ended up in California as well after leaving NC State. And I went into this organization called The PIRGs. And The PIRGs are … P-I-R-G. It was Public Interest Research Group. Sort of a consumer—sort of a spinoff of a Ralph Nader sort of a consumer group. And what it did was, it was a political action group that went and lobbied for clean air, clean water, pesticides, things of that nature.

 

And then, what?

 

Then the summer was over. And I was looking for where I was gonna go next. I was living at home, and I thought Northern California would be a nice place to go live, and I made contact with a buddy of mine from NC State who had been in Hawaii for a few years already. And he suggested that I come to Hawaii.

 

Belgium, Cleveland, Georgia, Germany, North Carolina, California, and now, Hawaii. Sean Priester had seen much of the world. He could have settled anywhere. Fortunately for us, he came here.

 

So when you got here, did your buddy give you some advice about living in Hawaii? Did he give you the lay of the land, tell you what you should know?

 

Well, it was my friend Todd from college, and he gave me enough information to sort of get me settled and give me time to acclimate to Hawaii. I’d say that the larger growth came from a guy named William, William Cineza. We worked together at Sunset Grill. Born and raised in Wahiawa, local boy, and he really just, you know, took me under his wing, this new guy from wherever, from all over, from all over, and he told me the ways of Hawaii.

 

So, what were the ways that he applied to you?

 

[CHUCKLE] Well, basically, he just taught me about—and it’s stuff that I knew from my own sort of travels, but just respecting the community, not judging the community.

 

Then, you moved to the Laniakea YWCA on Richards Street, the Wild Mushroom.

 

That was the birth of the Wild Mushroom. Yeah. I worked at this restaurant called the Fresh Market in Manoa, and that was that was a spinoff of that. The Fresh Market closed down, and then we reopened in YWCA. And when the proprietor left, Matt Lau left the Fresh Market at the YWCA, my thoughts were, you know, it was my food all along, and I should continue this on. And the Wild Mushroom became successful in a lot of ways. I’d worked for the Café Laniakea as well, as a general manager during the week, running their operations. And so, there just came a time when I needed to choose, so I chose the Wild Mushroom to continue to nurture and pursue. And when I did that, I started creating a business plan and things of that nature. And so I left the Y, and shortly thereafter, I ended up with an organization called Steadfast Housing, another nonprofit, who provided housing to people with mental illness and other things as well. And they actually had a grant to work with the State Hospital and create this little café that we actually opened it up, and it provided vocational rehabilitation for people with mental illness who had received treatment. And we had this beautiful little spot where we were serving most of the staff, and sometimes some of the patients. And there was a beautiful sort of synergy between my desire to teach and to sort of share my knowledge, and operate a business.

 

But didn’t stay?

 

I think I put in four years, and that seems like a long time in restaurant years. And I’d taken my staff to Tastes of Honolulu, which was a huge accomplishment for a community that a lot of stigma attached to it, and we performed well there. So, I had accomplished a lot in that realm. And what it came down to at the time when I left was, Top of Waikiki presented itself as an opportunity. A friend of mine was working there, and suggested I pursue that. And I was sort of at this—I’d worked for nonprofits for almost eight years, and I wanted to put myself in a position where I was accountable for the fiscal success of a restaurant. Top of Waikiki was one of those showcase restaurants. It had a lot of wow factor to it. My thoughts were, going to the Top of Waikiki turn it around, show my street credibility, show my ability to manage the resources, and then, take that education and pursue.

 

So, what job did you accept there?

 

Executive chef.

 

And so, you’re the top guy deciding what food should be served? Did you change the whole menu?

 

I did. I did. The Mau’s were very generous in allowing me to create autonomy in that respect. I really found that the best way for me to work is to speak with my own voice, and within whatever parameters I’m working in. And in order to just be committed to what I was doing, I needed the opportunity to sort of put my heart into it. And they allowed me to. Slowly, but surely, we peeled away the menu and started adding some of the things that reflected my culinary sensibilities and that the tourist community would find appealing. Ultimately, though, it was about the locals for me. My goal was to bring respect to the Top of Waikiki, and bring integrity to the menu, and be looked upon by our peers with some respect as well.

 

How did you execute?

 

I can tell you, within the first year, I cried a couple of times, and there were, clashes with management, clashes with staff. However, we were able to eventually, everybody got onboard, and we were able to take the ideas, and values, and vision that I had, and create something that was pretty fantastic, and I think, unique as well. So we made it happen.

 

Chef Sean Priester was on a roll. Under his guidance, the menu at Top of Waikiki had a nostalgic influence combined with fresh local ingredients. He also brought an environmental consciousness to the restaurant. Top of Waikiki was beginning to get the kinds of reviews that most chefs crave. Then, he left.

 

And then?

 

[CHUCKLE] And then, I ended up with a lunch wagon. The day after I left the Top of Waikiki, I was on the street.

 

So, why would you go from the Top of Waikiki to a street truck?

 

[CHUCKLE] Really, it just came down to, I’ve always wanted to move forward. I’m always looking for the next sort of challenge for me, what’s gonna be my creative motivation. It really just came down to I’d started to get more into the expression of my own, like I said, my own self. And I started going to markets and marketing this vegetarian black-eyed pea chili that I was doing, and I guess I’d done all these culinary sort of tests, where I’ve gotten to work with the best products, from Kobe beef and foie gras, and I’ve been in environments where I’ve gotten to cook and have Alan Wong taste my food, or Padovani. So there was a lot of validation that already had occurred at this point in my career. For me, the next thing was just to go and actually touch upon something that I’d been avoiding most of my career, which was my background. My family’s background is from the South, and I really just wanted to explore that and see, now that I’d done all these things that I felt like I needed to do be a chef, I was gonna go ahead and explore these things. So, through that process, there was a change of direction. I ended up with a lunch truck, and I wanted to explore that. And I was doing—

 

It’s very hard work, isn’t it? I mean, don’t you have to get up really early in the morning, and …

 

How’d you know that?

 

And the profit margin is thin.

 

Yeah. Yeah, it was all that. It was a surprise to me how invested you needed to be on a day-to-day basis in order to make things work on a lunch wagon. Yeah. And it was totally 5:00 a.m. for produce and the next two hours for prep, do the truck, clean it up, and go pick up your product for the next day. And, yeah, it was quite a learning experience for me to do that. Yeah, the Soul Patrol was just born out of my desire to see where, again, where my culinary exploration was gonna go next. And that romance with lunch wagon that I didn’t know about, that we know is different now, my perspective on it now, I just wanted to explore that as well.

 

So, now you have a truck. How do you decide what you’re gonna serve in your truck?

 

Pretty early on, like I so this black-eyed pea vegetarian chili. And—

 

That sounds great.

 

It’s delicious. And we also do a cornbread that we serve with honey butter that’s been the core of the Soul Patrol’s existence. And after that, we bring as much as the market will bear. I mean, I bring a representation of Southern cuisine, so I’ll do a pulled pork or Carolina pulled pork sandwich, or I call it Carolina Pulled Pork Adobo Sandwich. And I do ribs, and chicken gumbo, and fried chicken. And so, what I’m really doing is just representing sort of the Southern regional cuisine that I’m familiar with.

 

When you talk about food, it’s almost like you’re talking about values. You use words like honest and integrity.

 

Well, I mean, those are personal values that have challenged me, and that I think are important to society, and I think are important to how I leave the Earth, and how I represent myself to my kids. I’ve said before that cooking is my vocation, and it’s been my way of expressing myself.

 

Your life is difficult. One, it’s hard to operate a business. Two, restaurants are a notoriously short-lived business proposition in general. And three, you give your food away, what, twice a month. I mean, so you’re trying to make a profit with a young restaurant operation, and what do you do? Some of the time, you give it away. What’s that about?

 

I built a relationship with a guy named Utu Langi, and through meeting him and seeing what a generous spirit he has been, I was given the opportunity when I got the lunch wagon to go and feed the homeless. And because of my commitment to Utu and the values that he represents, I’m compelled to do that, to give a little bit as much as he does to the community. So, twice a month, the Soul Patrol goes to the Next Step Shelter, and we create this wonderful—I think it’s a wonderful breakfast. And I go get fresh berries, my volunteer team are whipping up whipped cream and we make fresh pancakes.

 

And these are kids who often eat canned food.

 

I’m not sure where they’re eating. I mean, they leave the shelter at a certain time. I’m not sure; maybe they’re getting their breakfast at school, or some other way. But I can only imagine that they’re not getting quite what we’re preparing for them. And it’s awesome to see these little kids, being little kids. ‘Cause, they’re not very much interested in the community service that we’re doing, they’re just running around the truck, and playing with each other, and things of that nature. But it helps, the parents and, you know, get them off to a good start of their day, and people going to their jobs and going to interviews. And again, it’s just my way of doing what I can. Food is powerful, so …

 

How many breakfasts do you serve on an average when you go to Next Step twice a month?

 

Well, I mean, their shelter is limited to a little over two hundred, so we’re flipping about two hundred pancakes, about five in the morning, and shuttling up there, and serving ‘em coffee, and juice, and like I said, turkey sausage and things of that nature. So, yeah, it’s two hundred, two hundred a visit. It’s a cool thing.

 

These days, even large corporations have difficulty supporting charitable causes. For a small businessman, especially a restaurant owner like Sean Priester, donating resources and time on a regular basis can only be described as challenging.

 

What does your family say about your contributions, all the things you do that don’t go to profit in a financial sense.

 

My young son is pretty resonant on what I do for the community. And you can just tell by his comments that he’s aware that having two kids and needing to get them to school on certain mornings, going out to feed the homeless doesn’t really support that process. My wife’s been really supportive of that as well. You can ask my mom anything, and she’ll be proud of me. So the family is like I said, you know, I’m conscious of a legacy that I have to leave, and …

 

How long have you been thinking about legacy? ‘Cause you seem young to be thinking about it.

 

It’s probably in the past few years. I really took some time to take some personal growth courses that really supported looking at the way that I responded to situations in my life, and how I viewed them as well, and looking at honesty and integrity, and things of those nature. So …

 

Did you have a problem with honesty before?

 

Yeah. I mean, honesty means you’re exposing yourself. Right? And you’re exposing yourself to rejection, and you’re exposing yourself to getting hurt in certain ways. I mean, a lot of that goes back to me, a lot of that was, before sobriety. A lot of that is hidden behind why I drank, and why I did drugs. So—

 

Okay; I missed that part. So when was that?

 

Well, sobriety happened ’96 for me. And so—

 

So how long have you had a drinking problem?

 

Oh, probably when I got to college, when I didn’t have the parents looking over my shoulder. I mean, I don’t know, if we called it a problem then, but I can’t say that I was being terribly responsible at the time.

 

But you worked, and it wasn’t a …

 

Yeah, I worked. I pursued my schooling, I got to Hawaii, worked quite a few jobs before I got sober. That kinda stuff. But all that was just, an exercise in me not being able to be open or confront feelings, or being completely honest with myself as well. So honesty and integrity has become huge, since becoming sober. ‘Cause you get sober, and all that’s still there.

 

What made you decide, all right, enough of this lifestyle, I’m changing?

 

I was sitting at the bar, drinking a beer at like, nine in the morning or something. And I kept a journal and a diary this whole time, too, and wrote down my thoughts and what was challenging me, what my turmoil was. Ultimately, I just said, if I don’t do something about this, then I just want to die. I just want to get out of this. And what the dying part was, when they look at my tombstone, they’re gonna say, Sean Priester died an alcoholic and a drug addict. And I said, this is not the way my dad and mom raised me. As a Priester, my last name, this is not how I want to go out. And it really came down to owning up to that realization, owning up to and respecting the fact that Mom and Dad raised somebody who was more responsible than that. And I made a call to detox that same day, and had a cab take me over, and got the detox and went to a class. And they said, over fifty percent of you aren’t gonna make it through this or stay sober. Well, that was all they needed to tell me.

 

Just challenge you, and you’re up for it.

 

Exactly. So, I believe my destiny was to be in this position. And again, as being an example, this is the scariest thing I’ve ever done. And like you said, there’s a lot of uncertainty in what I’m doing as well. And I wanted my kid to see that, you know, you gotta follow your heart, you gotta follow your passion, you gotta—

 

And face your fears.

 

And face your fears. And the results are gonna be good either way, ‘cause I did it.

 

The next time you sit down to a meal, you might want to think how that meal represents more than just food. It’s about family, friends, community. For Chef Sean Priester of Soul Café, every meal he serves is a reflection of his upbringing, his dedication to helping his community, and his day-by-day challenge to conquer his fears. For Long Story Short, and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.

 

Well, when it comes to legacy, I want to leave here, with people having a knowledge that, I did everything that I could to be a good family man, to run a fair business, and I served the community well. So another good day of service. Just served our two hundred. [CHUCKLE]

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Wayne Rapozo

 

Original air date: Tues., Feb. 12, 2013

 

Leslie Wilcox talks with Wayne Rapozo, an attorney and partner at Dechert, a top international law firm in London. Born and raised on Kauai, Rapozo knew he wanted to practice law at a young age. Though he lives in London, Rapozo keeps Hawaii close to heart. He helps Hawaii’s underserved youth through a scholarship fund, works closely with a Kauai charter school, and hosted Nanakuli drama students when they visited the UK.

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

I guess my grandmother deserves special mention. Because as a woman growing up in turn of the century Hawaii, and then being a child of the Depression, life was hard. And I suspect there was not the money available for her to go far away to school. So, I think the difficult thing for her of me not coming back home was … it reminded her of what she maybe could or could not have done.

 

The sacrifice of generations before us can never be measured, but the character, values, and principles that our parents and grandparents pass down to us live on, even if life takes us to the other side of the world. London-based corporate attorney Wayne Rapozo, next on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha; I’m Leslie Wilcox. We’ve all heard the term Brain Drain, how some of the best and brightest of our young people leave for college and never return. But you have to believe that Hawaii lives in the hearts and minds of everyone who leaves this special place, no matter how far they roam. Such is the case of Wayne Rapozo, a corporate attorney based in London, and handling big money mergers and acquisitions and leveraged finance transactions for international clients, far, far away from the Kauai plantation where he grew up.

 

I am far away from home. I ended up in London just in the sweep of time, and luck and chance that sometime happens in the modern world. But I began my life on Kauai, and a significant amount of time was in Pakala, which is the plantation village, which I’m associated with, sort of the Makaweli Plantation.

 

West side?

 

West side, Gay & Robinson. Part of my life was also in the household of my parents in sort of the Kalaheo-Lawai area, but the big part of my childhood, and where I identify with is a plantation village called Pakala.

 

You spent a lot of time with your grandparents. Were you raised by them?

 

In large measure, yes. And typical in the extended sort of hanai style family, you often have the aunts, and uncles, and grandparents involved in life. For a range of reasons, I ended up in my younger years being with my grandparents. I mean, I grew up with allergies. I was supremely allergic to pollen and mold.

 

Hmm.

 

And would sort of break apart in bronchitis attacks, and have a hard time breathing. And my grandparents lived in an area of the island that is fertile, but very dry, on the west side of Kauai. So, it could be in part the luck of nature that ended up involving me being more often at the home of my grandparents.

 

So, allergies take future international corporate finance attorney Wayne Rapozo to the west side of Kauai, an area where life is simple, and Hawaiian culture and values are rooted deeply in the people who live there.

 

At some point, as you become an adolescent, in the case I think of a male adolescent, you sort of start forming your own view of who you are, and want to choose things about who you are for yourself. And when I started reaching that point in life, I just realized so much of what I wanted to be was in the vision of my grandmother and grandfather, in a way that I thought I would never be as a child. I just saw the world the way they saw it. I took immense pride in the position that my grandfather had in being, a luna at Gay & Robinson Plantation, and the position he had, and he knew the land, he knew his job, he was respected for what he did. My grandmother was just the biggest social gossip, the family matriarch, and I really just liked that very much. It was just so much of who I was. And so, by the time I was in high school, I just wanted to just be just with them. And I think the extended family and people in the community just viewed me as belonging to my grandparents, and they did as well. And so, by the time I was eleven or twelve, I think they saw me as belonging to them, I belonging to who they thought I should be.

 

You stayed there all year, not just part of the time.

 

Exactly. I started just staying there all year.

 

Tell me about your grandfather; what was he like?

 

Stern, man of few words, man of immense authority, man of immense pride. He liked working a good day, he loved being patriarch and sort of being able to say he had a large and successful family. But he had a very stern hand, so when he said a few things and raised his eyebrow or frowned, that was code for, You should listen, and he would not compromise. Usually, he expected it to be obeyed.

 

What if he was tested? How far would he go in terms of his sternness?

 

There would never be, as there was, I suspect maybe in the generation before me, the threat of the slap across the face. But actually, he didn’t need to, because the mere threat of his anger was enough to actually frighten me in place.

 

So, you never saw him do worse than frown?

 

He kinda raised his voice.   No; Wayne, I told you no. You know, What’s your problem? Why are you being so stubborn? I told you no; is it a problem? He was like six-two, six-three, broad shoulders, deep voice, from smoking a good cigarette every day. So, that was enough to be intimidating.

 

And what about your grandmother; what was she like?

 

She was much more the softer touch, but in secret was actually the power behind the throne. She would always be warm and engaging, and want to know why, and why not, and be willing to change her mind, or would be not even phrasing things as though decisions had been made. She would just phrase things as a conversation, and always asked, Oh, how can I do this or that to be helpful? She would always be sort of warm and engaging. She would be the one who would crack the whip on money. No unnecessary spending; you spend on the family, you spend on education. If you don’t spend on education, you spend money to help the family with the business. The rest is excess, and you should eliminate excess spending. You should not be spending more than you need to.

 

And what should you do with the money you save?

 

And you save; you save for the day that life will be difficult, when you need to live off the savings. For them in my own life, their view was, you need to save for the rainy day. And the rainy day could be, you may be in a situation where you may not have a job, you may be on the political outs. And remember, they were in an era where if you crossed paths with powerful people, you may not be able to work for a chunk of time, and may need to live off of family.

 

Did you go to public schools?

 

I did. Well, I went to a Catholic elementary school, and then was the first big sort of, you know, stink in the family was, I actually wanted to go to Punahou or Mid Pac. And Mid Pac for a bunch of reasons didn’t work out, but the issue with Punahou — and I sort of talk about it now. But at the time, I was just devastated. Punahou closed their dorms. And then, although I immensely identify with being in and of Hawaii, I have no documented native Hawaiian ancestry, so Kamehameha was not going to be an option. Be that as it may, such was life when I was eleven or twelve.

 

Sounds like you were a very smart boy in public school, or in Catholic school.

 

I was smart. I was a bit rebellious.

 

You said Why, all the time, how come.

 

Yeah.

 

Why.

 

I loved challenging authority.

 

So? [CHUCKLE]

 

So, why? Well, that doesn’t make it right. Or, that doesn’t seem to be the fair outcome. So, in university, that worked out beautifully.

 

But not so much earlier?

 

But not so much in high school.

 

As a kid?

 

No, not so much earlier as a kid.

 

And Waimea High School is where you attended.

 

Waimea High School.

 

Early 80s, I think, is when you graduated.

 

Exactly; early 80s, I graduated Waimea High School, which is at the far west end of Kauai.

 

How did you navigate high school socially?

 

My goal was to talk to everybody. I think, and maybe this comes indirectly from my grandparents, and in just being in a plantation village. They lived in old style classic plantation village, probably the same way it was in 1840. It was the same way it was when I was growing up. And in playing the role of luna and being the small midsized rancher, they would also work on a day-to-day basis with the Hawaiian community, with the Japanese community, and more recently with the Filipino community. And I think as a result, grandfather and grandmother, they talked to everybody. Everyone was a business partner in small or big ways, everyone was part of their social circle in small or big ways. And that is very much of who I am. And what I do day-to-day in London as an attorney or socially, I try to ensure I talk to everyone. So at a dinner gathering or lunch gathering, I’ll be just at home with a group of Americans as I would with my best friends who are in Switzerland and Italy. I view myself as just as much at home, not in some contrived way, but in some very comforting, emotionally settling way, because I view them as colleagues and friends.

 

Talking to everyone; back in those days, before email and the Internet, that was the best way to find out what was going on in your community. Talking to everyone has served Wayne Rapozo well in a highflying corporate legal career that began with a prophecy from his grandmother.

 

At some point, your warm and engaging grandmother told you something that devastated you about going away.

 

She did. My senior year, they had the sit-down with me. My grandparents took the view that when you finished high school, they would help you do two things; start a business, or pay for your education. They viewed them as equal. Their view was paying for some fancy education was unfair for some of their kids who were a bit more technically astute and/or better businessmen. And so, they gave me the same bargain in life I think they gave their own children before me, which was, We’re gonna pay for you to start a business or we will pay for your university. And they said, We know you’re university bound, so what have you chatted about? And we talked about the range of things we could do. And I had been admitted to a range of schools, but the two favorite ones for me would have been Princeton and UH Manoa. And then, we said I’m likely to be law school bound, or business school bound. I thought eventually, I would go that path if I did well, and I was determined to do well. And we had settled on, I’ll go to UH Manoa. I’ll be closer to home, allow me and them to save up a bit. And they said, you know, and all limits go away to go off to law school. So, I got admitted, did well at UH Manoa. And when I was reviewing the law schools and where I would go, and they were all on the East Coast, in Washington, DC or in New York City, my grandmother goes, You are aware you’re not coming home. I mean, she seemed a bit angry for a bit, and I said, Why are you being so frustrated? Did I say something to offend you? She goes, No. She goes, But you are aware if you go down this path, you’re not coming home. I said, Well, why do you say that? She goes, Because I know it’s the case. She goes, Are you ready to be … you may become this person that you may not want to be, and once you become that person you may not want to be, you may be in a position where you may not be able to decide, you may have already made the decision without realizing it that you may never come home. And she goes, If you do that, all this time and money that we’ve invested in you — and she goes, It’s not just the money. She goes, In a small place like Kauai, we count upon our sons coming home. And she goes, If you don’t come home, a lot of the time and energy and hopes go with you. Are you ready to deal with that? I’m like, I’m only twenty-one, this is like a bit too much to lay on me. I said, I’ll keep that in mind, but, I know where I come from. I said, I’ll come back home at some point. But I said, This is not me — what’s the Hawaiian word, being snobbish or being haimakamaka. I’m like, No, I know, I know very much where I come from. And I said, I’ll come back home, but I won’t let go all this, I promise you. She goes, Okay, thank you. So, I end up going. For a bunch of reasons, I get accepted to all the law schools I applied to. The real favorite was to go to NYU. I wanted to be in New York. But money was gonna be tight, and New York University did not give a full scholarship. George Washington did give me a full scholarship. So, I talked to the dean at NYU at the time, and I said, It’s gonna be hard for me to swing it this year, just for a whole range of family financial reasons. And I said, But if I go elsewhere, can I come back in a year? He goes, Actually, you probably can if you do as well as you did in your undergraduate studies. And he goes, you do just as well with law school, if finances work out for you by next year, we might actually find more money for you at NYU, and you can come back and talk to us. So, I did my first year of law school at George Washington University and did well. I’ll be honest with you, did exceptionally well. And I applied again to NYU, and I spoke to the dean and he goes, You need to officially apply but, he goes, you’re basically gonna get admitted. And then, God from Heaven threw manna; He threw manna my way. So, the Hawaii Community Foundation gave me a big chunk of money, and NYU gave me a big chunk of money. So, in the process of applying to New York University and getting admitted to finish law school, I had managed to be — I never thought I would have this, but I ended up being completely financially independent. There was scholarship money for the entire amount of my law school tuition and living expenses on the table. And so, took the train from Union Station to Penn Station, and never looked back, other than with extraordinary pride for where I come from, but never looked back.

 

Local boy does good; starts off at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, attends law school on the East Coast. What then, for attorney Wayne Rapozo?

 

During, I think it was my first summer, I applied for my dream job. I applied to work at Carlsmith Wichman Case.

 

In Honolulu.

 

In Honolulu. This is what I wanted to do since I was eighteen, nineteen. They work with a lot of the establishment banks, they work with a lot of small businesses. They work both with the sugar plantations, they also work with government agencies. They have a good profile on Honolulu and on the neighbor islands and it was what I thought it should be.

 

You like all that engagement.

 

I loved all the engagement. It was plugged in politically, it was plugged in with the business community, it was one of the three or four most prestigious firms in Honolulu, some say the most prestigious. And I’m like, This is what I wanted. Grandfather was like, I’m completely behind you; in fact, I’ve already told everyone that you’re gonna work at Carlsmith. So, Grandfather was very happy about it. But at some point, I’m just realizing life may get uncomfortable in Hawaii, and that was just family and personal. I just thought, Maybe I’ll need to be away from home for a bit. But then comes the professional side. At the time, I grew up in plantation Hawaii, so I should have been prepared for this. But as I looked around in Honolulu, I just smelled a bit more of the notion of the plantation mentality, that there was a sense of discipline and hierarchy that was more than I thought would be the case, especially having spent three or four years on an elite mainland institution.

 

What didn’t you like about the hierarchy?

 

I couldn’t be who I wanted to be, in the sense of articulating fully a new idea, a political idea, something in the community that it was more than just waiting my turn. I have broad degree of respect for, in persona and professional life, you wait your turn, you don’t begin with everything on a clean slate. But I did want a bit more of intellectual independence, and I did want to have the opportunity, looking ahead, to do things in the community. And in the practice of law, I did want to have a freer hand as I started off my career in building something that I was gonna be more directly involved in. And I got the sense in Hawaii that I was going to be constrained. I actually thought if I did something too robust and controversial with a Kauai civic group that I respected all my life, will I in fact push back and not be as engaged as I would be —

 

They’ll think you’re an upstart.

 

Exactly.

 

Who the heck are you? In your home turf, you’re known as the Rapozo grandson, and you carry your family name. It’s not about you, it’s who you represent.

 

There was some of that. I think there was some of that. But I was kinda proud that that actually would be very helpful, that I was a Kauai boy who has done well, that I come from a big extended family doing the mix of things in plantation life with small businesses. I was immensely proud of that, and I kinda thought that wouldn’t be as much of a hindrance, even if I wasn’t a Honolulu boy. The thing that I thought would be a hindrance would be, would I be afraid of doing things for fear of being criticized on some community issue or some political issue which was, I don’t support X or Y in the State Legislature, in a manner that would be inconsistent with how a major law firm or its clientele may perceive things. I was a bit nervous that that might chill my wanting to be independent and have a view on all of those things, and still be able to be a vibrant part of the business community. I mean, in retrospect, I probably could have done a lot of that, and it would not have been a conflict. But I objectively think at that time in Hawaii there was still some of the strong hierarchy governing how people behaved, and I perceived it that way, and I was very afraid that that would just prevent me from being the best I could be, and that in New York, where I would be with a range of people as my contemporaries would be from across the United States, and that the law firm would be less concerned about the range of things that were happening in social or civic life. I always thought you do what you need to do, and the law firm would be not second guessing you. In Hawaii, I thought I would be second guessed. So in that summer at Carlsmith, when I decided I liked it immensely, I went back to Kauai and I told my grandmother, I said, I think you are correct. And she goes, I know I was. And she goes, But I think it’s the right thing for you to do. I said, Why? She goes, Because I think you’ll be better in New York. She goes, There are a range of things going on with the family, and she goes, you shouldn’t let that distract you. It’ll come to pass and just blow away, and so she goes, you go start off your life.

 

There’s a popular bumper sticker that reads: New York, Paris, Waimanalo. In corporate finance attorney Wayne Rapozo’s life, that bumper sticker would: Pakala, Honolulu, New York, Hong Kong, London; Pakala, Kauai being his roots. His education and career have taken him to big cities around the world. Today, he lives in Notting Hill, London and is the choice of many influential corporate clients in tricky big money buyouts and complex business issues. The boy from Kauai’s west side with the allergies is living the life he’d always dreamed of, but not in the place where his heart lives.

 

And so, as I say, it goes down as one of the big regrets of my life, and I think it was a direct consequence of choosing what I chose to do, and without realizing it, choosing what not to do, that I didn’t get to work as directly as I would with a range of people, personal and professional, on Kauai. And I feel a little bit like I let people down.

 

But you are giving back now, through your foundation programs.

 

I think so. Four or five years ago, it may have been longer, I stumbled on a savings book. And the savings book was probably created by my grandmother. It was her name and my name. And it was a bank account that I thought was probably put in place for my education, but I think she used it from time to time, and it just passed to me. It wasn’t that big amount, but it was emotionally a big amount to me. And so, I called the people who helped bail me out for law school. So, I called the Community Foundation, the Hawaii Community Foundation, and I said, I always wanted to give back to the community, and I’m far from home, but I said, I think I can do something. And I’d made small, and sometimes large, charitable contributions over the years to the Catholic schools, to various native Hawaiian groups, the Hongwanji Mission. These are all things that were important to me when I was growing up. But I said, I need to be more organized and systematic about it. I need to be more engaged. And so, I said, There’s some money here from my grandparents, and I said, I want to top it up in a meaningful amount. And they said, No, this is what we do. And they said, No, in fact, we remember you from years ago. Many did. And so, it worked out quite well. So, I set up several funds in the memory of my grandparents. So, one is the Rapozo Kamaaina Fund. It makes grants in the community for stewardship, for economic self-sufficiency, for education, and for cultural celebration, which I think are cornerstones of Hawaii. And there’s a George and Augusta Rapozo Scholarship Fund that gives a scholarship every year to a high school student, ideally from each of Waimea High, Kapaa High, and Kauai High. The goal is that over the course of time, a graduating senior from each of these high schools receives a grant for higher education, whether it be university, four-year college, or whether it be a vocational accredited technical school for vocational study. There’s a third fund which is the Rapozo Private Fund. I keep track of that. We make three to seven grants to a range of community organizations on Kauai and on Niihau. I’m very, very, very supportive of Niihau. And Niihau, of course, includes Niihau Island, and the Niihau community who live on Kauai, as they’ve straddled Kauai their whole lives even going back centuries ago. And sometime through my gossip — and I have extensive gossip, I picked up that from grandmother, so I call Kauai and Honolulu like every three or four days. And so, I have an idea of what’s going on in the community. And so, I suggest some of the grantees, sometime the Hawaii Community Foundation suggests grantees. And in addition to giving on Kauai, which it has over the past five to seven years, it also gives symbolic grants on the neighbor islands, Maui, the Big Island, and even Leeward Oahu which is kind of a neighbor island, on these four areas: cultural celebration, economic self-sufficiency, education, and land stewardship.

 

And so, the grandparents of London-based frequent flyer attorney Wayne Rapozo had passed on to him their values, their loyalty to the community, their passion for talking to everyone, and a savings book which helped him to give back to the place that means so much to him. But there was one more thing that his grandmother left him.

 

They did two things for most of their children. One was the big bargain one; you get to have your education, or starting your business paid for by us. The second thing is, when you get settled down, we’ll help you buy a house. I suspect in the early days, the big extended family would literally help you buy the house. I think in modern day times, they help you with the down payment. But they never lived to … one, see me settle down. Grandfather died when I was in my mid-twenties, Grandmother died when I was in my late twenties. I think I was just about to turn thirty. So, they never reached the point to be able to help me buy my house. And so, because I want to inherit as much as I can of their legacy, because it’ll help me carry on, so that one day when I have my own family, which I don’t yet, but one day when I do, that I’ll be able to celebrate some degree of continuity. So it was always the biggest blow to me that I didn’t get them to help me buy my house. So, when I worked my first summer in Hawaii, first law school summer at Carlsmith, that’s when I had the frank talk with my grandfather and grandmother. And my grandfather was like all supportive. You just go to town, go live your life in the big city. Grandmother was a bit more introspective. But she said, I know you need to do what you need to do. And she goes, I know you have managed your finances quite well, and I want to give you a few things. So, she hands me a few old books, a few crocheted items. And then, she gives me three gold coins. And she goes, I was given this when I was very young, that if there’s ever a crisis, I should use this. Of course, when you grow up in the Great Depression, nothing’s a crisis, so she kinda sits on these. I presume she just sits on three gold coins. I don’t know how she got them. I’m just guessing. Was it from some old ranch that they’d leased or sold out? I don’t know what it was. But, she has kinda three gold coins and she goes, This is the only thing of significance, other than money, I can give you that I think is valuable. And she goes, You use what you need to use it for, now or never, but I just wanted to say that you have this.

 

Mm; what a great gift.

 

It is. And so, I have these three gold coins. So, I’m buying my house. They are going to help me buy the house, because I’m going to sell one of the gold coins, which I thought never in a million years I will have sold, but I wanted to sell one of the gold coins, not very much but still valuable, and so that gold coin is gonna go to help with the down payment so that, I think, as a matter of historical significance in my little history of my life, they actually helped me buy my house.

 

International attorney Wayne Rapozo’s career is a story of power, negotiation, finance, and yes, law. But his life is a world where the love and devotion of his grandparents allowed him to leave Hawaii, while filling his heart with a love for this place that will always bring him back.

 

For Long Story Short, and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

Wait ‘til you have kids.

 

I know.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

I’m gonna probably have someone who’s like me, who will be completely self-righteous and obnoxious. And I’m gonna say, Why don’t you go to school here. No, I’m gonna go as far away from home as possible. Yeah. Yeah; I can see this happening.

 

And you’ll say, All that time and investment I put into you —

 

I know. I’m gonna have the script, right? I’m gonna be like, I spent all this time and money, but it’s not the money.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

You know, it’s the fact that we’ve invested our hopes and dreams in you, and you’re gonna go far away. And they’ll probably know me well enough by then to say, Is that from Grandma and Grandpa? And I’ll say, Well, not really, but yeah. [CHUCKLE]

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Neva Rego

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Neva Rego

 

Original air date: Tues., Apr. 1, 2008

 

Hawaii’s Voice Coach to the Stars

 

Neva Rego is known by many as Hawaii’s Voice Coach to the Stars, the wind beneath their wings, with a list of vocal students that includes Robert Cazimero, Tony Conjugacion, Jimmy Borges, Jasmine Trias and Jordan Segundo, and a waiting list with more than a hundred names.

 

Leslie Wilcox sits down with Neva to discuss how she followed her musical dreams, and how she shares her training and experience with her vocal students.

 

Neva Rego Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Aloha no and welcome to Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox with PBS Hawaii. We’re about to sit down with Neva Rego. Never heard of her? Neva is known by many as a Voice Coach to the Stars, the wind beneath their wings, with  a list of vocal students that includes Robert Cazimero, Tony Conjugacion, Jimmy Borges, Jasmine Trias and Jordan Segundo, and a waiting list with more than a hundred names. Neva Rego—next.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox – produced with Sony technology – is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in HD. High definition… it’s in Sony’s DNA.

 

Neva Rego is an extraordinary woman because she did an extraordinary thing. She followed her dream. Her wish was to be trained in a classical, Italian style of singing, the kind she’d been listening to on records since she was a child. So, at the tender age of 18, not long after World War II, she hopped on a freighter and shipped off to Italy to seek her destiny. She didn’t speak Italian and she didn’t even know the name of the technique she was seeking. It turned out to be bel canto.

 

It’s very hard to explain. It’s easy to listen to. What I think about it is, it’s so legato, meaning tied together; it’s all beautiful singing without pushing, without smashing those poor little notes. You know, it’s just gorgeous, beautiful singing; very legato. And free. I mean, if you’re singing bel canto, you’re not killing yourself when you hit a high note. It just—Pavarotti is an example of bel canto.

 

You know, my dad was a radio DJ and when I wanted to work in television I said, Dad, how do I use my voice? And he said, Do it the bel canto way. And of course, I had no idea what that meant. And he said, Take a candle and light it and put it in front of your mouth and speak, but make sure that you don’t blow that candle out.

 

Right.

 

No clue what he meant. And of course, when he spoke in front of it, he knew how to use his voice. But how does the candle relate to bel canto?

 

It doesn’t blow out. I’ve tried it so many times. It’s because your air is utilized with your voice, and no [BLOWS] comes out. No spurts of air or anything. It’s amazing.

 

And so that should help you as a performer to have a career over time, that you don’t destroy your vocal cords.

 

Oh, yeah. You don’t hurt yourself. And then it’s easier. Singing wise, you’re using your diaphragm and not your throat muscles to hold it up, you know, like some singers do.

 

So tell me a little about what life was like for you growing up. You were in Ka‘imuki.

 

Right; on 18th Avenue. And I’m still there. And I must say, we had a beautiful childhood, my brothers and myself. And at that time, there weren’t that many houses around us. You know, we had a lot of empty lots and little foresty-looking places that we built our clubhouse and all the kids would gather after school there. And I must say, it was a lovely time.

 

And you went to what school?

 

I went to Sacred Hearts Academy. And loved it. The nuns were wonderful, and I think they were a bit instrumental in my learning languages. Because all the nuns at that time were French, and I remember studying Latin and the teacher taught to us in French. How do you like that? And we had a lovely sister from Germany, Sister Polaneya, and she was a fabulous musician.

 

Now the girls at Sacred Hearts Academy are primed to go to college, and have professional careers. What was the goal in those days?

 

In those days, I do believe that a lot of the girls strived to be nurses or teachers. There weren’t that many kooky ones, like I was. [chuckle]

 

And how were you kooky?

 

Well, I wanted to something in music. I wanted singing; I loved it. And you know, here’s this little kid from Kaimuki, wanting singing. And you know, I don’t know why, but I felt it. As I recall, when I was seven years old, I heard this beautiful aria on the radio with this Italian singer. And I remember telling my mother that was the most beautiful thing I ever heard in my whole life. All of seven years, yes? And Mother said, You really loved it? I said, Oh, I love it, I just love it. Well, that did it. Mother went down to House of Music, at that time in Waikiki, and she kept buying all these records of Italian singers. And well, that whetted my appetite for opera.

 

What were the other kids on the block listening to? What kind of music were they listening to?

 

They were mostly in Hawaiian. And I loved Hawaiian; but there was something about opera that was for me, I felt. You know. And if nobody else liked it, that’s okay; but I did.

 

What appealed to you about it?

 

Oh, I loved the language, first of all. The Italian language is so beautiful to sing. You never have a bad sounding word in it.   You know, everything is so fluid and beautiful. And the drama, the music; I mean, it’s just glorious. Opera is complete, I feel. You have acting, singing, dancing, tragedies, happiness; everything all rolled up in one. You know? And that appealed to me.

 

So Italian opera was speaking to you from the time you were seven years old.

 

Seven.

 

And you’re singing at Sacred Hearts Academy.

 

M-hm.

 

And looking at graduation.

 

Yes. And then I said, I think I want to go and study more music. I was looking all over for it; I had seven teachers here, and they were wonderful; all seven of them. But it was not what I was looking for. I kept hearing this other thing in my head, and even though all my relatives told my mother that they were sorry for her, because they felt that she had only one daughter, and what a shame she was crazy.

 

[chuckle]

 

So I thought, never mind, they can’t hear what I’m hearing. So I convinced my mother and father that I had to go to Italy. So my mother said, Oh, my god. You don’t know Italian; what are you gonna do? But you know, when you’re 18 you think you have the world in your hand; you can do anything. So I said, I’ll learn it; no problems. So [chuckle] off I go on a on a freighter to Italy.

 

You know, some people follow their dreams to find fortune or fame or truth. Neva Rego heard a beautiful sound and followed it all the way to Milan, Italy simply to seek its beauty. Today, with air travel and cell phones and the internet, traveling halfway around the world, alone at that age, may not seem so remarkable. But to do it, at that time, seems so foreign.

 

Who did you go see? I mean, who did you know in Italy?

 

Well, before I left Honolulu, I was singing at the Hawaiian Village. And Rossano Brazzi, this Italian actor, he heard me singing, and he said, You know, senorina, you should be singing opera. And I said, Oh, I’m going to. And he said, Yes? I said, I’m going to Italy. And he said, Oh, wonderful. He said, I write to La Scala for you. And I thought, Well, that’s very kind, you know. But when I got to La Scala, I realized that [chuckle] it was so silly, because it was like shooting mosquitoes with a cannon; it was that ridiculous. I wasn’t ready for anything, except maybe to clean it.

 

[chuckle]

 

You know. And but the maestro was very nice, Vittorio di Sabato. He was very nice, and he understood my plight. And he told me, Oh, senorina, I will get you a teacher and this and that. So I got set up with this teacher.

 

How did you pay for this? Were your parents funding this uh, adventure?

 

Not really. I mean, they gave me a little in the beginning, ‘cause I didn’t come from a wealthy family. We were medium, you know. And so I had saved money when I was at the Hawaiian Village. And then just before I left, I was fortunate to get an Atherton scholarship, Atherton Foundation scholarship.

 

M-hm. They’re still giving –

 

–thanks to Bob Midkiff.

 

Still in business today, helping folks.

 

Still in business. So that really helped me. And I thought, Maybe I’ll stay a year and see how I do, you know. I think I’ll understand well after a year. Oh; after a year, I didn’t know beans yet. So I knew I had to stay on. And there was no more scholarships; my mother and father helped me a bit, without a doubt. But then I started to get jobs; little jobs. I’m not ashamed to say that I cleaned a few houses in the beginning, because I didn’t know the language. And then I started to teach English, which I think was horrible, because I didn’t really understand the grammar. [chuckle] And poor Italians would study with me, but they were mostly interested in speaking.

 

Conversation.

 

You know, conversation. And then later on, I got a job with the designer Pucci. And that started me working in haute couture. And I went on from him to Valentino and I was with him for seven years. And all the while, studying.

 

Now, were you dreaming of becoming a huge Italian opera star?

 

You know, I have to say no, I was not. Because I was so interested in this bel canto technique, that that’s what I kept looking for. I was trying to find it. And after two and a half years with this maestro from La Scala, I wasn’t finding it. And I was so embarrassed to tell my family that I didn’t find it yet, in Italy, two and a half years. So I didn’t tell them.

 

Did you think maybe you were chasing a phantom, that it really didn’t exist, it was something you heard, but you really couldn’t learn?

 

I knew it existed; I just couldn’t find it. You know, and I didn’t know where to go. And so I quit La Scala, the maestro from La Scala, and and then I must say, I passed about three months of sheer depression. [chuckle] I just said one fine day to the dear Lord, If you really want me to sing, you better show me the way, because I’ve exhausted everything. And so now, I leave it in your lap. If you want me to find this elusive little thing, you will let me find it. And so I stopped worrying. But that night, I had to get out of my little apartment, because I was getting stir crazy, you know. And so I went to La Scala to hear a concert. And I heard this girl singing. She was studying with me before at Scala, but she had left—she was gone about a year. And she was singing divinely; just what I was looking for. So I thought, How could that be; she must have found someone. So I was sitting in the opera house in the very top, which we call the chicken coops, yes?

 

M-hm.

 

And I rushed down, but somehow I was too late; and I missed her. So I was so upset and depressed, because I didn’t know how to get a hold of her. And I remember walking home; I couldn’t even take the tram, because I was crying. And so the next morning, I got up, still depressed. I said, I’ve gotta get out of here. So I went—in Milano, they have this big galleria in the middle of town, glassed in, and you have a coffee, you know. And it’s a nice diversion; people are walking to and from. And I was sitting down and all of a sudden, here comes this girl that sang the night before, walking down. Wow; I ran after her, and I said, Ciao; I said, I heard you sing last night; it was just beautiful. And she said, Oh, Neva; did I find a teacher. I said, I can hear it, I can hear it. And she said—I told her that I left that maestro, and she said, I wondered when you were gonna get smart. You know. I said, Yeah, but I didn’t know enough to know I didn’t know. You know? And so she said, What are you doing now? I said, Absolutely nothing. She said, Well, I’m going to a lesson; come with me. So I followed her to the lesson one-hour lesson, and I sat in a little corner, and I listened to lesson, and I cried for one hour. [chuckle] Cried. Because it was like there was so much emotion, because it was like something I was looking for, for so long and I found it. And so afterwards, the senora came over to me and she said, Senorina Neva, she says, are all Hawaiians so emotional? And I said, No, Senora, I said, you know, it’s just because I was looking for you since—I was trying to find you since I was seven years old. And she looked at me, and she started to cry. And we hugged, and it was love from then on; for 22 years, I was with her. Yeah.

 

What’s her name?

 

Her name is—was Magda Piccarolo. She was a lyrica leggiero soprano, and she sang all over. She sang at Scala and in America at the Met.

 

So you continued to have lessons with her for twenty-two years?

 

Yeah; twenty-two.

 

And you became a singer in Italian opera houses.

 

Italian opera. I first started off in concerts, because that’s what everybody does to get going; get your feet wet sort of thing. You know, and then you get a little role here and a little role there, and it just starts getting better and better.

 

What was your favorite role?

 

There’s so many. Gosh. Lucia is beautiful; Rigoletto is beautiful. I love La Sonnambula, but we never do it, because it’s very classical, it’s very bel canto, and maybe boring. But the singing is beautiful. And those are ones I love.

 

To sing in opera houses in Italy. To live and achieve a dream. Can you imagine? Neva Rego did what she loved and loved what she did. And that’s what I love about this story!

 

You know, I love the language. And I love the people; they’re so wonderful. You know. When I first went to Italy, it was not too long after the war, so people were still quite poor. And we didn’t have a refrigerator in the house. And there was no washing machine either. [chuckle] You’re looking at it. And you know, it’s difficult to wash sheets in the bathtub.

 

You did that for years?

 

I did all of that.

 

Ah.

 

Yeah, I really learned well. You know. And then I realized, silly Americans, when they complain; how beautiful our life is in America. And I think anybody who speaks against America should go abroad a while. Then you will how wonderful our country really is. You know. I know we are having problems now, but I mean, you know, the life is beautiful in America.

 

You stayed how many years; 26 years in all?

 

Twenty-six years. Really. It’s a lifetime, isn’t it?

 

Had you intended to come back? I mean, were you going to come back?

 

I think I might not have. The the thing that pushed me back was, in the late 70s, the man responsible for opera in Italy—he’s the one that subsidizes—that part of the government subsidizes opera. It was a Communist who got in. And when he got in, he decided no foreigners were gonna sing.

 

How high had you risen in the hierarchy of opera singers? Were you a big deal?

 

Well, I don’t think so. It was hard to get to be a big deal, because it was so political.

 

M-m.

 

You had to do so many things; you had to make sure an empresario liked you. [chuckle] And I didn’t wish to go further than that. So I just struggled along and sang and it worked well. But say that I got to the jet stream top; no.

 

And was that okay with you?

 

That was okay. Because I didn’t start off to be a big opera star. I started off looking for this technique. [chuckle]

 

And you found it—

 

I found it.

 

–and then you practiced it, and –

 

And now, I’m teaching it.

 

Neva Rego is a professional voice coach, teaching her beloved bel canto in her longtime family home in Ka‘imuki.

 

I never intended to teach. Never. But when I arrived home, after Italy, I thought, What am I gonna do? So I decided I was gonna go to Seattle. Because Seattle had good opera. And I was still young enough. So, then my father got ill.

 

M-m.

 

And had a stroke. And so that determined what I should do; I should stay home and take care of him. Because my brother was taking care of him all those other years, ‘cause Mother died so young. And so I stayed home, and this man came over and did an article on me in the paper. And the phone started ringing. And that’s the wonderful part of the story; it hasn’t stopped.

 

You have a waiting list this long. How many people are on your waiting list to take lessons?

 

Well, it used to be 200; right now, I think it’s down to about 100, 120. Which is nice; it’s security.

 

So the world started beating a path to your door; people wanted voice lessons from you.

 

Right. And one of the ones that came was Robert Cazimero.

 

How old was he then? Was he a young singer, just starting out?

 

This was in the 80s, early 80s.

 

In the 80s.

 

They were just from Manoa—

 

Sunday Manoa.

 

Sunday Manoa; and Robert came to me and said, You know, I’m having to lower my keys, and I don’t like that. He said, So I thought maybe if I studied a while, you’d help me. So 15 years later [chuckle]–

 

Now, why fifteen years?

 

Well, because he didn’t want to leave. He kept saying, No, I need it. I said, Robert, you don’t need lessons anymore; you know it so well. But we got on so well; he’s wonderful.

 

And this is not something that’s a quick fix, right?

 

No.

 

A student has to commit himself or herself.

 

Oh, yeah. With poppy music, I would say two years, two years and a half. Classical, forget it; six and seven. And you can’t learn it overnight; it’s not like you learn to play piano overnight. You know, you just need time. And anybody can learn to sing, if they wish it.

 

You are such a popular voice teacher. What kind of criteria do you have in accepting a student?

 

Just that they really want to learn, and that there’s a voice there.

 

So tell me some of the people you’ve trained over the years.

 

Well, as I said, Robert Cazimero. And I had Shari Lynn at that time too. She’s been great. And Jimmy Borges, and Tony Conjugacion. At one time, on Broadway, I had 17 people. Really. That was great for me, but it was kind of sad, because I wanted one at the Met.

 

[chuckle] Don’t ask for much.

 

And everybody was on Broadway. I said, Oh, my lord; what am I doing? You know. We even helped Richard Chamberlain study, Betty and I, and gosh; there’s so many.

 

Well, and just recently, American Idol came along and—

 

Oh.

 

Didn’t I hear your name with Jordan Segundo and—

 

Yes.

 

–Jasmine Trias? After the competition, though; not before.

 

After. And Anita Hall, Les Ceballos is one of mine too; a dear one. Jasmine, Danny Couch, and John Koko from Makaha Sons. You know. So there’s a long list, and they all are like children, like my kids that I never had.

 

How interesting that a lot of these people distinguish themselves in singing before they had lessons from you, but they were motivated to learn—

 

More. And you take Jordan, for example. He’s singing so well now. I’m so proud of him. And that he’s such a nice boy. And I really want him to get ahead. And he’s learned very well. He never misses lessons, he’s so enthusiastic. See, that’s—

 

Now, he didn’t win American Idol, obviously. Do you think he would have gotten farther if he’d had the lessons earlier?

 

Without a doubt.

 

How would his voice have changed?

 

Well, he would have—now, he has a complete range. He sings down the bottom, he goes all the way to a B-flat, and a high C. He never had those notes before.

 

How about Robert, because he had wonderful training at Kamehameha, I would think.

 

Yes. Robert can go to a B-flat like that too. You see, what you do with the technique is, you tie the voice together. Especially people like Jordan and Robert; you might sing with your chest voice here; but then the minute you get near what we call the break, the passagio, you have to have a different placement for those high notes. So you have to blend in the bottom to the top, and you learn to go over that transition very smoothly with study. And they do it; beautiful. Listen; listen to Robert. After all these years, he still sounds glorious.

 

And after all this time, it’s still bel canto for you.

 

Yeah, it’s still—

 

You’ve never heard another type of vocal technique that works as well for you?

 

No; I’m in love with bel canto.

 

And so your mother didn’t raise a crazy daughter after all?

 

No, I don’t think so. I hope not. I don’t know if others feel that way, but I’m in love with what I’m doing. I love it.

 

Mahalo to Neva Rego for sharing her stories with us today. And thank you for joining me for them. That’s all the time we have for this Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Ciao bella and aloha hui hou kakou!

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is produced in HD by PBS Hawaii with Sony technology. High definition. It’s in Sony’s DNA.

 

My name is not really Neva; it’s Aggreneva. And everybody gets all twisted ‘cause they don’t know who she is. But my mother named me after a Russian opera singer, and her name was Agraneva Schlovanskaya. I’m kinda happy Mother stopped after Aggreneva. Mother never told me that I had this name. I knew it was a kooky name; at school, they called me Aggrevacious. You know how school kids are. Anyway, all of a sudden, I said to Mother that I was in love with music and I wanted to do music. So Mother said, Well, you know, I think I’ll tell you about your name. And she told me about Aggreneva Schlovanska, who had come here years ago with some Russian group. And they sang at Hawaii Theatre. Isn’t that interesting?

 

And your mother obviously had a love for opera.

 

Yeah. But I was the one that was gonna make it my life.

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Skylark Rossetti

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Skylark Rossetti

 

Original air date: Tues., Aug. 12, 2008

 

Radio Personality

 

Leslie Wilcox sits down to share stories with a delightful woman with a beautiful voice – Honolulu Skylark.

 

This popular radio personality, whose real name is Jacqueline Rossetti, reflects on her early influences and what would become pivotal experiences in the Hawaiian cultural renaissance – visiting Kaho‘olawe with George Helm and others, co-founding the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, hosting the Merrie Monarch Festival for over 30 years, and being named Outstanding Hawaiian Woman of the Year (1984) and Hawaii Broadcaster of the Year (1991).

 

Skylark Rossetti Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Aloha no, and welcome to Long Story Short on PBS Hawaii; I’m Leslie Wilcox. The Honolulu Skylark. I remember the first time I heard her on the radio. It wasn’t just the beauty of her voice, or the image of a Skylark, that held me. It was her knowledge and understanding of Hawaii people, music, history, values. In the radio industry where companies and personnel tend to come and go, the Honolulu Skylark has made a lasting impression. We’ll catch up with her next.

 

The Honolulu Skylark is Jacqueline Rossetti. Her warm voice and warm personality became a fixture in island radio in the mid-1970s. Since then, she’s been named Hawaii Broadcaster of the Year and Hawaiian Woman of the Year. And today, she lives and works on Hawai‘i Island where she’s known simply as “Skylark.”

 

When people talk about you, they say, popular radio personality, Honolulu Skylark, or beloved personality. And they say something with you that I don’t hear about them saying with other DJs; it’s influential radio personality. What happened? What did you do?

 

I think I listened, Leslie. I had a passion and care for keeping our culture alive. I wanted to know why songs were written; I didn’t want to just hear the songs. I wanted to talk to the composers. And so I armed myself with going out and meeting them, caring about why they wrote a particular song, what inspired them. I wanted to hear about the careers of people that I had heard their music over the years. One of my favorite people, Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs, his big band, syncopated swing era; I loved that. And so he said, Why would you want to be interested in talking to me? I said, Because you did this, you were the ambassador of good cheer in the 30s. Why did they call you that, Uncle Alvin? And so I would sit with them, and they would tell me their stories.

 

Well, you’re going back to the 30s now. How did you know about them?

 

Well, because I had old 78s; I collected records. You know, Mom kept her collection, and that’s what started my collection. ‘Cause she would have to practice her hula to these old recordings. And so I started listening to them, and I loved the swing era, and I loved that sound of Hawaiian music with big band. And so, when I had the opportunity to seek these people out, I wanted to make sure that their stories were told, or that somebody could you know, share them with the rest of the audience so that we could all learn about that era of Hawai‘i.

 

At that time, was there Hawaiian music on the air?

 

There was one station, and that’s why I was so excited about getting an opportunity to work there, was KCCN. They were the only —

 

AM?

 

It was an AM station; it was from sunrise to midnight. And it went off the air at midnight, and it was an opportunity to share. And I have to laugh, because back then, it was the other side of Hawaiian music, as Krash Kealoha, who was the program director at the time, would call it. They were doing the Funky Hula, and they were doing you know, all this different kinds of hapa Haole, almost, music. And I wanted to bring back the Hawaiian, the traditional Hawaiian. I wanted to hear Genoa Keawe on the radio again, ‘cause she wasn’t being heard. I wanted to hear some of the traditional music.

 

And did they think that old school, it wouldn’t —

 

They did.

 

— draw an audience —

 

And they said —

 

— people don’t care.

 

No; and I kept saying, No, they do want to hear about this. I want to play chants; I opened my show every morning with a chant, because I felt that was important for us to hear that we came from, you know, beats and chanting before. And every program that I watched as a child growing up, with Aloha Festivals, you had a chanter come out and welcome everybody; and I wanted that when I performed and did my radio show. So I would open my shows with chants, and explain what those chants were about. And people started to listen, you know. They hadn’t heard the language translated in quite sometime.

 

And then you would get a chance to do something that radio executive Mike Kelly would say, changed the radio landscape of Honolulu forever.

 

 

Is that putting it—Hawaiian music—on the FM then?

 

Yeah.

 

You know, somebody didn’t want it; I don’t know why. They didn’t feel that Hawaiian music was worthy enough for FM, or something; I don’t know. Every format had been covered in FM, but Hawaiian music. And I said, Why don’t you put Hawaiian music on the FM band? And they said, Well, will you do it? I said, Absolutely. Why shouldn’t it be on the FM band? Well, what kind of music would you play? Hawaiian music. You wouldn’t put the chants on FM, would you? Yes, I would. You know. And so it was an opportunity to hear chanting, in stereo, and music that has been recorded in stereo for years but never on a stereo band. It was exciting. It was a wonderful time period.

 

A popular broadcaster today, Billy V, Bill Von Osdol, says you were his radio kumu, and he was so thrilled when you called him over to work at KCCN FM. And he said, basically, you folks built the studios.

 

We did. I mean, we hammered the nails, and we [chuckle] I mean, from the ground, up. It was nothing but an empty room and they said, Go put up a radio station in there; and that’s exactly what we did.

 

And once you got this traditional Hawaiian format going, how did it do?

 

It did really well, Leslie. I was amazed at how many people were listening. I had no idea that the young kids would gravitate to it so well. I thought, Okay, sure, we add a little color with the Jamaican music, and you know, that will keep the young kids. And then we get the kupuna and have their style of traditional Hawaiian music. But could it actually blend, and would it actually work? And it did. We did a concert at the Aloha Tower; it was the first of many which now has become the FM100 Birthday Bashes, right? And we took over Aloha Tower at the time, ‘cause it was gutted, it was empty. And I couldn’t believe how many kids showed up. We thought maybe hundred kids; there was three thousand people the first concert we threw. And it was Kapena and Ho‘aikane, and just our local bands. It was nobody, you know, fabulous to come and see; just kids that wanted to play music.

 

And pretty soon, we did these on a monthly basis. And we had to move out of Aloha Tower. We just — there was no room for us anymore. And that’s what started the first FM100 Birthday Bash at the Waikiki Shell.

 

Na Hoku Hanohano; you are a three-time award winner, and I always hear your name when people talk about the founding of the Hoku Hanohano Awards. Tell me about it.

 

It started as our small, little radio station promotion. We realized that, you know, in one year, we had double the amount of recordings. And I said to Krash, Look at this, we had thirty-six records this year recorded, and if next year it’s up to seventy-seven. And he said, We should do something about it; we should honor these people in the recording industry. And as a small, little radio station promotion, it turned into the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts, and we mimicked ourselves after the Grammy Awards because we thought that’s what we could be, a Hawaiian Grammy Award.

 

Did you have a budget for it?

 

Oh, yeah; all of three hundred dollars. [chuckle] We had to beg and barter, and back then, we you know, went to the Ala Moana Hotel and said, Do you want to have this event? And they looked at us like, Hawaiian music? Yeah, we want to honor our Hawaiian music. And it’s interesting, because people like Melveen Leed, they could walk down the street and nobody knew who they were. Now, Melveen Leed walks down the street, and she’s a star. You know, and we sort of, you know, did that; we made stars of our own entertainers that were just going unnoticed in our lifestyles.

 

You knew Brudda Iz, Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole very well. And I’ve read that you pointed out something about him, which is that he really didn’t come prepared to the studio.

 

Never.

 

And as a result, for example, in the song that has gone platinum all over the world, you know, you hear some incorrect lyrics and —

 

Lots of incorrect. [chuckle]

 

— consolidating lyrics. He changes chords.

 

Israel’s own interpretation of what the song is supposed to sing like. And it’s because he gets inspired, and you go into the studio, and he’ll just sing whatever comes to his heart. And he must have been thirteen or fourteen years old when I first met him. And they would call me up on the radio; I wasn’t at KCCN at the time. I worked at a station that — KNDI, at midnight played Hawaiian music when KCCN went off the air. And I think that’s what lured them to have me come to join KCCN, was I was doing a midnight to eight in the morning Hawaiian music show. And the entertainers were calling in and — and listening to me and —

 

And I bet Iz called you all the time.

 

He did.

 

[chuckle]

 

He and Skippy.

 

And he continued to —

 

And their group.

 

— do that most of his life, called —

 

Oh, he did.

 

— folks up, and had his say.

 

He did. He loved radio; that kept him entertained. And he said, Come on out to Makaha; I have this group, I want you to hear us. And I went out there, and there they were; just these kids in, you know, puka clothes, and just — but their harmonies and their voices, and their family unit was so endearing, and I just loved them. And I brought them to KCCN, and did their first recording, and we started playing — this was when we could play bootleg music on the air. And so that’s how they started their career.

 

And you went and sought them out, and they knew it.

 

Yeah; they did.

 

You gave them a voice they really didn’t have. But what would move you to go all the way to Makaha to talk to a couple of teenaged boys about their music?

 

Once I drove into their yard, and Mama and Daddy were out on the porch, I said, Oh, my gosh, I found myself home. And I just — you know, they were just this sweet family, opened up their hearts to us, and to me, you know, and I just, you know, I felt like home.

 

Skylark’s passion for the people and traditions of Hawaii resonated with listeners at a time that Hawaiian music and culture were going through a renaissance. That’s when she really found her “voice.”

 

Well, let’s go back –

 

Okay.

 

— ‘til way before the Honolulu Skylark emerged. Where’d you grow up? What was your growing up like?

 

It was a wonderful Hawaiian family. The Mahi’s are my mother’s background; she had ten brothers and sisters.

 

Are you related to Aaron Mahi, the —

 

That’s my —

 

— former band leader?

 

— first cousin. Yeah; his father and my mother are brother and sister. There were ten children in that family, and they all had four or five children each. And so we had a wonderful family home in Kalihi, where my grandfather lived, and our families built their beach house in some property that my grandmother had right across from what we call Baby Beach Park in Ka‘a‘awa. So our family spent weekends in Ka‘a‘awa and weekdays going to schools in the Kalihi area.

 

When you say it was a Hawaiian upbringing, what does that mean?

 

When you’re in a Hawaiian family, you learn nurturing of values and living off the land. And we did things like hukilau and did our own imu and kalua pig, and you know, fished. And it was just a warm, family thing. We all slept together in the same beds, and we all bathed together. [chuckle] You know, it was that kind of a family.

 

Rossetti doesn’t sound terribly Hawaiian.

 

No, my father’s pure Italian, and Mama and Daddy met in Pearl Harbor. And he just loved our family and became more Hawaiian, almost, than my mother. She wanted to be Americanized. You know how that was —

 

That was the —

 

— back then.

 

— generation, World War II.

 

That was that generation. And Dad wanted to be Hawaiian; he wanted to learn to fish and hukilau, and you know, do all of those things. And so he gravitated more to being Hawaiian than Mama did. And he loved the brothers and sisters, and just got along very well with them.

 

And traditional Hawaiian music; when did that come into your life?

 

I think it had always been surrounded in my life. My father — and I have to give him credit, because he loved things Hawaiian. And during our raising up, Dad was involved with something called Aloha Week back then. And he surrounded us with just wonderful mentors that were our aunties. I didn’t know that they weren’t really related to us, ‘cause we always had — everybody was aunty and uncle.

 

So your pure Italian dad —

 

Yes.

 

— and not your full-blooded Hawaiian mom introduced —

 

Thank you.

 

— you to this.

 

Yes. And he was, you know, hanai’d by Auntie ‘Iolani Luahine, and Auntie Sis Wiederman, and these wonderful pillars of Hawaiiana. And they nurtured my father in this business. I remember watching Auntie ‘Iolani dancing at ‘Iolani Palace in these beautiful Hawaiian pageants. And I said, That’s what I want to do; I want to keep our culture alive.

 

I never saw her dance in person. Is it true what people said, that when she danced, it was as if something else was inside her, living through her?

 

Absolutely. Auntie enjoyed an inu, and when we were at parties, after the big pageantry, she would have an inu or two. And then all of a sudden, she’ll hear a song that somebody’s dancing or singing, and she became a whole different person. And you’d look at her like, what happened, what possessed her. And she’d just start dancing or chanting, or — she was just a marvelous woman. And then after it was pau, it was like, Oh, where am I?

 

[chuckle] And she’s —

 

And she went back to —

 

— back at the party.

 

— hanging out —

 

Yes.

 

— at the party.

 

Absolutely. And she was just a gracious, lovely lady.

 

So your dad worked for Aloha Week, or volunteered for Aloha Week?

 

It was a volunteer thing for over forty years of his life. He’s director emeritus, if you look at the — well, I don’t know where we are with that right now. That breaks my heart terribly to see an organization like that starting to fall apart on the neighbor islands. But it got to me see what life on Kaua‘i was like, what life on Moloka‘i was like. Because we would go from week to week to the different —

 

M-hm.

 

— islands, meet some wonderful people who all cared about the culture. I don’t know if you remember; we used to spend time at Ala Moana Park when there was an Ulu Mau Village.

 

M-hm.

 

And they had all the little places that you could go and visit and learn your culture, and pound poi, and watch them weave. It was just a marvelous time to grow up.

 

And later, they moved that by He‘eia Kea.

 

He‘eia Kea; but it wasn’t the same as in Ala Moana Park, where it was closer to the people, and people could come and visit.

 

And that’s what Waikiki is trying to move toward now, having lost some of that authenticity.

 

Absolutely. Yeah.

 

So here we are; going to Kamehameha. Did they infuse you with Hawaiian?

 

I think there were wonderful people up there, like Auntie Nona Beamer, who was encouraging you to, you know, learn hula and to dance. And I had always been a part of the music scene. Mama was a hula dancer with Hilo Hattie, and she toured with the Al Kealoha Perry Show and danced at the Lexington Hotel in New York. And so she — you know, she always had her music with us, and she always taught us hula. And then we went to formal training in our neighborhood where we grew up in Foster Village with Auntie Rose Joshua. So we — at the age of five, we were dancing hula and chanting, and you know, uniki’d by the age of fifteen. And you know, I didn’t know what that was back then, but it was just a part of how we grew up. You know, and how brothers and sisters would drum and beat the tin cans or the cracker cans in those days for the Tahitian music. And it was hula schools, where you learnt ancient hula, auana hula, Samoan dancing, Tahitian dancing, and Maori dancing.

 

We talked earlier about the Hawaiian renaissance. One of the highlights of that period, besides the return of traditional music, was Kaho‘olawe and freeing the island from target bombings by the military. Were you involved in that?

 

Well, you remember the gentleman who started the theme and raised the theme of Aloha ‘Aina, aloha awareness: entertainer, musician, and a dear friend, George Jarrett Helm. In fact, I named my son after him; that’s how close we were. A wonderful family of Moloka‘i. And you know, he could sing, and his beautiful voice would transcend to the kupuna. And then when he would talk to them about aloha ‘Aina, they could relate to him. And then he started to say, This island is not a distant rock; don’t bomb it. I live right there; I can hear this. It’s paining me to just watch this smoke go up. Why are we continuing to do this? And it was his thought, his vision of freeing that island from the harshness of the bombing, and watching the red dirt surround the islands; it almost looked like it was bleeding, the island was bleeding of its red dirt. And he said, We’ve got to stop this. He went to the legislature. And I’m sure you know, people can look at the history books; he gave his life for that island. And I think we were in the early stages. Women were like Auntie Emma DeFries, who I was studying under at the time, a dear friend who I grew up with up. Auntie Frenchy DeSoto said, Do you want to go to the island? And this was in the days when nobody was going to the island; they had just arrested the nine protestors on the island, and they were giving us an opportunity to go in legally and to look at the island. And I was one of those first seventeen onboard. We were called the first warriors, as they call us today, but we went to take the kupuna to see so that they could see that it wasn’t just a rock. We weren’t bombing just a rock.

 

Did you feel any mana, or anything special on that island?

 

 

Oh, you could feel the island; you can still feel the island today if you to got Kaho‘olawe. It’s just chicken skin. You were there with your camera; you saw how beautiful that island is. And you know, to walk the ancient trails, and to see, you know, poi pounders and shell carvings that you don’t see on any other island except Kaho‘olawe; it was exciting. Dr. Patrick Kirch did this whole study that we were a part of, and we looked at how the sediments of the earth and how the people — it was just m-m, magical, wonderful.

 

You’re telling me something I didn’t know. Do you think it was George Helm who bridged, you know, he went from music to cultural –

 

I think it was. I think he had this magical voice that could attract people to listen to him, and then he could tell his story. He could say, Hey, this island needs to stop this bombing. And I think that’s the way he got the message across.

 

And that was a multi-generational protest and rally, and in the end, very successful.

 

And he —

 

Except —

 

— got; yes.

 

— now we can’t free the island of all the ordnance.

 

[chuckle] And you know, it’s sad, because here we thought that was what was going to happen with all that money being dumped into — we were gonna be able to get it all off the island. And when we were there, we had no idea we were tromping around with live ordnance on the island.

 

M-hm.

 

You know, and here we are, taking kupuna and flying them from districts. And Inez Ashdown, who was raised on the island, you know, was in our party, and she was telling the story of how the goats were here, and this water tank was here. And you know, we had no idea that we were tromping her through live ordnance. But we were so passionate, and we were so excited at the time to document these stories. And Uncle Harry Mitchell being with us, and you know, him sharing his passion for the island, because his son and — yeah, it was a wonderful time.

 

Rich cultural experiences have shaped Jacqueline “Skylark” Rossetti’s life. Today she’s a single mom living in Hilo – she wanted more a country lifestyle for her children. She’s still broadcasting and still promoting the Hawaiian culture.

 

You’re still the Honolulu Skylark, but for the last almost twenty years, you’ve had a neighbor island perspective.

 

You know, it’s interesting, because I grew up on O‘ahu in a rural area, right across from Radford High School in a little village called Foster Village. And we had cow pastures in the back yard, and chickens, and so to me, moving to Hilo where my mother is from, it was almost like I had to because that’s what I wanted my children to grow up knowing, was a rural area where we could have dogs and cats, and not live in an apartment or you know, the hustle and bustle of how Honolulu had changed so. And I could go down the street, wave to my neighbor, and he would wave back to me. I mean, that’s what I grew up knowing. And that’s what I still look at Hilo – as a wonderful place to ensure that the foundation for my children was there.

 

Are you happy with the state of Hilo radio?

 

I think it’s unique; it’s growing, it’s changing. You know, we don’t command the advertising dollars that we could get with Honolulu, but we’re a unique market. And I enjoy, again, like I did with the old kupuna, going out and meeting who these people are, what they’re doing. We have wonderful farmers like Richard Ha doing some wonderful things; Barry Taniguchi, who’s had this store in Hilo forever. And you know, bringing that into the mix, where people can understand who our community is, is just endearing to the listeners.

 

Well, how optimistic are you about this Hawai‘i nei?

You know, Leslie, I am very concerned about where we’re going. I work – another hat that I wear, Leslie, is economic development. And I find that isn’t that odd, as a Hawaiian being in economic development. But if I don’t get involved and make sure that the culture is okay, then I don’t feel that I’ve done my duty here. And Hawai‘i Island Economic Development is into sustainability, is into getting back — instead of shipping everything in, growing it, making sure that our island can be sustainable. And it’s hard. You know, there’s lots of stuff going on that are influencing, lots of pressures with Mauna Kea issues, lots of pressure with water right issues. And we just had an earth shake in October of ’06 that devastated water on our island to get the cattle fed. You know; fresh water. I mean, who is going to replace those ditches? You know. It was a wake-up call for us, on the neighbor island folks – that we’ve got to ensure, you know, that we’re strong and healthy. You know how they say you’ve been at the right place at the right time? I think I was very lucky enough to be at the right place, at the right time to be able to have mentors take me in and want to train me, like Pilahi Paki is one of my – a very stalwart woman who I just admired, and who taught me so much about who we are, and what we are as a Hawaiian, and made me proud of who I was. I endear myself to people to like Moe Keale, who you know, was this big, old bear, you know, but just had that love and aloha for people, and it transcended through his music. There’s just so many people who are – influence on me, that I want to thank them for helping to shape me. Because if they didn’t share their stories, I wouldn’t have them to share with other people.

 

Of all of the musicians, the entertainers, and others you’ve come across in your career, who’s impressed you the most?

 

You know, it’s funny you would say that. There were people, like I mentioned earlier, Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs was a dear man who had that 30s and 40s era. And then in the 50s and 60s, I would have to say there were people like Ed Kenny and Marlene Sai, and those people and those voices that shaped Hawaiian music that I’ve gravitated to as dear friends. And then in the 70s, it would have to be my friend Gabby Pahinui. I loved Pops. He just transcended this down-home earthiness about him, with that little kolohe style like Israel, always getting himself in trouble with his wife. But just this raw, loving, caring person. And then, of course, my friends from when I went to high school, Robert and Roland Cazimero, and you know, we were all at school at the same time. Keola and Kapono Beamer, they were all much older than I am, but you know, that era of music too.

 

Skylark continues to share her voice and her stories, hosting radio shows and, for 30 years, the Merrie Monarch Festival of hula. She has a beautiful voice. And she is a beautiful voice, speaking with understanding and love of the islands. Mahalo to fellow broadcaster, Skylark Rossetti and you for joining me for this wonderful Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. A hui hou kakou!

 

How would you intro a new show that you’re doing?

 

How would I intro? How about, From the snow-capped mountains of Mauna Kea, to the warm, sunny shores of Waikiki, you’re listening to Hawaiian music that will transcend your heart and deepen your soul. I don’t know; I just made something up. I didn’t know what you wanted me to do! [chuckle]

 

I wanted you to keep going! [chuckle]

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Keali’i Reichel

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Keali’i Reichel

 

Original air date: Tues., Oct. 16, 2007

 

In the premeire episode of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, Leslie sits down with Keali’i Reichel – composer; performer; teacher and an icon in the Hawaiian music and culture scene.

 

Keali’i Reichel Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Aloha kakou. And welcome to the premiere episode of Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. We hope that PBS Hawaii’s newest television program entertains, informs and perhaps even inspires you through conversations with some of the most interesting people in our community. And through our website at pbshawaii.org, you’re invited to take part in our program. Log on and see who some of our upcoming guests are. Suggest questions for them. And make suggestions for other people you’d like to see featured on Long Story Short. Your involvement in our programs – and support of our mission – will help us to make our community even more diverse, informed and perhaps even inspired. We’re about to sit down with Keali’i Reichel – an icon in the Hawaiian music and culture scene. But in this conversation, we’ll try to draw out the character behind the musician, chanter and kumu hula.

 

How do you define yourself? Songwriter? Kumu hula? Recording artist?

 

I’m Hawaiian. First, for me personally, first and foremost, I’m Hawaiian. And so I try to do things that connect myself to my ancestors, my kupuna; and find my way today through my music, through chant, through hula. I think that’s first and foremost, and everything else just happens, I think.

 

I recall reading a while back that you were surprised when you had these hit songs because you never considered yourself a good singer.

 

No. And I think most singers don’t think they can sing. I know I can hold a tune, but I’m not sure that I would go see me in concert [chuckle]. But no. I’m thankful for what we have and I’m thankful for the gifts that were bestowed upon us. And so we try to utilize them as best as we can without being too pushy about it, you know?

 

Are you a perfectionist?

 

Yes. We rehearse lots. We do a lot of practicing, making sure that songs are correct, the chords are correct, the language is correct, the ano or the feeling is correct, as much as possible. Because you know, people are – especially if they’re coming to see you in concert or at a performance, you know – they’re paying money to come see you. You know, you don’t want to disappoint. And you want to make sure that people leave happy and worth their time to come and see you.

 

Are you tougher on yourself or other people?

 

Probably. Maybe little bit of both, depending. I think we try to pick and choose of those who are around us, who have the same kind of mindset. You know, where excellence is up here. We try to reach that. We’re never gonna reach it, we’re never gonna be perfect, but at least we have something to strive for, every single time.

 

You mentioned to me before we got started here that this situation is a little odd for you, because—

 

Mm hm.

 

— as a kumu hula, you like to be in charge and in control; and this TV setting is not quite your way of doing things.

 

Yeah, it’s a little um, different [chuckle], for lack of a better word. But you know, insofar as, you know, being a kumu hula, we are responsible for everything to do with the education of our students when it comes to the hula. And when you think about the hula, you know, there’s so many different parts of our cultural fabric that’s in the hula itself. You know, within the hula you have language, you have gesture, you have dance, you have mindset, poetry, you know. And within all of that, you have little sub- things like history and cultural aspects like different kinds of practices. You know, fishing, farming, kapa making. All – everything comes under that particular umbrella of – that we know of as hula. So it’s not just dance. And so when you’re a kumu hula, we believe that you are the singular source for your particular brand or thought process of – I shouldn’t say brand – thought process of hula. And so you have to be strong. You have to make sure that your students um, follow everything to the letter as best as you can, because that’s what our kupuna did. Yeah it’s – how I teach is how I learned.

 

Not a democracy.

 

Absolutely none. Yeah, yeah. If we say jump, you ask how high. You know, that kind. But …

 

And you feel comfortable with that, being the source of all the direction?

 

Yes, yes. Because I started with that. You know, this singing thing, as I like to call to it sometimes, ‘cause sometimes it’s – you know, it just happens, is – it actually came out of my hula training and out of my oli training and chant training. So yeah, that’s always where I’m gonna go back to, no matter what. ‘Cause I know that this ‘career,’ for lack of a better word, is – you know, it’s fleeting. It can be. You know, these things don’t last forever. But our culture is much more grounded than that. Yeah. And that is where I derive – we derive a lot of our strength and um inspiration.

 

When you say ‘we,’ is it the ‘royal we’ or ‘halau we’?

 

Yeah, I know [chuckle].

 

Or your—

 

I get asked that a lot. You know, I don’t like to use the word, ‘I.’ And so sometimes it’s kinda weird when I say ‘we’ ‘cause it sounds like the ‘world we.’ But it’s an uncomfortable thing for me just to say. So kalamai, if it sounds weird.

 

[Chuckle] You know, I hear through the coconut wireless that you began life as a kid named Carlton.

 

Mm hm, yeah. That’s my English name. Carlton Lewis Kealiinaniaimokuokalani Reichel.

 

How did you become Keali‘i Reichel, much in demand recording artist and performer?

 

I don’t know. I don’t think you start off anything in your life with that kind of thing in mind. Maybe some people might, but I know that we didn’t. You know, oftentimes for us – and I can only speak for myself, you know. We work at bettering our chant, our hula, learning about our language, you know? And as you move along on this particular path, and you affect others and you teach, and you learn yourself it’s a give-and-take process, every once in a while you look up and you see what has happened. And some people go, ‘Ah yeah, yeah. Good for you.’ And you know, that kinda thing? You get all these accolades and stuff. But you know, we just put our head back down, and go back to work. So I don’t know how we got here. All I know is that we’re here, and we do what we can while we’re here in this…

 

There was some adversity in your background. You went to prison.

 

Um, almost. Not quite; almost. We – I used to hang out with a group of people that – we were very competitive. And it’s probably part of my personality where, you know, I always have to strive, yeah, to be the best at what you do. And so long story short, uh, I was convicted of grand theft. Yeah, when I was in my mid-twenties, I think.

 

What did you do?

 

Um, took some money from the company that I was working for. And uh…

 

Why did you do it?

 

Uh, why? Let’s see. In our little group, it started off small. It started off with, you know, taking a pencil, and then a pen, and then something – it just escalated. And so it was a little competition between all of us. And I had to be better. And so mine was the biggest one.

 

Grand theft.

 

Yeah [chuckle]. Gr—

 

That means, what, two hundred fifty dollars or more, right?

 

Oh yeah. I guess so; I don’t know. But you know, I was convicted. And the interesting thing was, you know, at the time, I was living with my grandmother. And I was kinda known on Maui as a kumu hula and – or at least an advocate of cultural, Hawaiian cultural things. And I received a phone call from my – at my grandmother’s house from the investigating uh detective. And he said, I’d like to come and – you know, I’d like for you to come and talk to us in Lahaina. I’m like, ‘Okay.’ So we went to Lahaina, and…

 

You weren’t scared, like, oh-oh?

 

I kinda knew. I kinda knew. And so I got there and immediately was arrested. And so I sat down with him and he was – he knew my family, he knew that I was living with my grandmother. He didn’t want my grandmother to see this at all. And so we sat down and he – after I signed all the papers that I had to, he said, ‘Okay, you can go home, and we will contact you.’ I was very lucky. A few months later I had to go to court and the judge at the time was again familiar with my work as a kumu hula. And so was the prosecutor. And they were very, very staunch supporters of what I was doing, even though they had to you know, uh, punish me for what I had done. And so they felt that it would be better if I stayed out of prison and worked towards bettering myself culturally than actually going to prison. So that was a huge turning point for me.

 

Was that community service in lieu of prison time?

 

Yeah, yeah. And I had to pay all the money back. You know. And I speak freely about it, because if I can provide one example of what you can do, how you can change your life. And it was because of the things that I was doing within the Hawaiian community that prevented me from going to prison. I had to, in my mind, turn around and pay back. And from — it was from that point forward that it became even more imperative for me to strive for, you know, cultural excellence as much as I could. So that as a huge turning point for me.

 

Overcoming adversity. That seems to be a prerequisite for success in the music industry. And Keali’i Reichel undoubtedly has found success – as a composer, performer and teacher. We’ll ask him what he thinks about being Hawaiian, being creative, and being a celebrity… next.

 

Do you think your life would have been different if you didn’t get caught?

 

Maybe. Uh, I think so. You know, if I hadn’t gotten caught, I probably would have done more. Who knows? I really don’t know. But I think, again in retrospect, you get to – you know, if you’re lucky enough, you get to look back on that path that you took, and all the paths that you could have taken. And so yeah, I think I did the right thing at the right – or the wrong thing at the right time.

 

You know, you say you are first and foremost in your life a Hawaiian.

 

Mm hm.

 

So traditional Hawaiian roots very important; but you live and you succeed in a contemporary society. How do you bridge the two worlds?

 

I don’t know. I think – you know, again, it’s like of those things. You don’t work at bridging the two worlds; you just work at survival and being as comfortable in your own skin and in your culture, as possible. And I think that’s it, really – you know, I enjoy electricity, I enjoy my TV. But I also enjoy waking up and doing ceremony, doing protocol, reliving and reviving, and re- articulating Hawaiian things either through chant or hula or whatever the case might be. I think it’s being comfortable in your own skin and just doing it.

 

You express your creativity through music, through—

 

Mm hm.

 

— the hula. Do you do art, do you do creative writing as well?

 

Oh, I wish I could draw [chuckle]. But I can’t.

 

You could do your own album covers if you drew.

 

M-m-m …

 

[Chuckle]

 

I – no, I don’t do a lot of that. I – most of my creativity is – it really is channeled or funneled through the hula itself. I think that’s imperative for a kumu hula to be creative. That’s what we do – we create. We create um new avenues in which to plug back into our history. And to meld ourselves with our kupuna, and to make it viable for today. That’s what kumu hula do. That’s their creative process. And they will always be doing that. Every generation of kumu hula will bring their experiences of that particular time to the forefront, couple that with their training. And their training usually comes from –not always, but most of the time, comes from a long line of kumu hula. And so those particular gestures, those particular thought processes always break through to the modern world, through that that particular person, through that kumu hula. So yeah. For myself and for many other kumu hula, that’s our creativity. And everything else just kind of gets – it’s like shrapnel [chuckle] uh, for lack of better word. And so the singing thing is kinda like shrapnel, almost for me, because it was through the hula and through chant and that particular training that the singing kinda branched out of.

 

You know, as I listen to you, you don’t seem caught up in the recording artist, celebrity part of it all. You really are into the hula and the halau part of it, aren’t you?

 

Yeah. I’m actually uncomfortable with um, this kind, you know [chuckle]. But I – there’s certain people, there’s certain times that I think it’s important. And this is one of them. And so we, you know, you’re right. We’re not comfortable. We’re not caught up. And I think once you get caught up in it, it becomes a dangerous wave to ride. It becomes distractive. And I think that, you know, whatever success we’ve had with the singing career happened in a later time in my life. I think I was thirty-two when this happened. And so I already went through the evil twenties, you know? [Chuckle]

 

Mm hm.

 

I got a lot of that stuff out during that particular time. I think, on a personal level, had this success happened when I was twenty- one, twenty-two, twenty-three, I think it would be different. And so I’m thankful for that.

 

And you don’t seem to have trouble saying ‘No, that’s a great opportunity, but I don’t want to do that.’ I mean, I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘Oh, it’s really hard to get Keali‘i Reichel, he’s tough to get.’

 

Right. Um, you can’t say yes – we learned early on, after the first or second year of this, that you cannot say yes to everything. You have to build parameters around what it is that you’re going to do.

 

Even though you’re asked to do a lot of good things.

 

Right, yeah, there. And everything is good. That’s the thing; everything is good. But once you start to spread yourself thin – um, I’m gonna quote something. It’s – you feel like too little bit butter on a large piece of bread. You know? You get spread so thin that it doesn’t taste good anymore. And so you want that butte. I like butter, yeah? So butter gotta be thick, and right on top that piece of bread. And so yeah. And so we’ve learned to build parameters to say no; and to say yes to the things that are

important. Because otherwise, you become useless to the ones that you want to help if you’re doing too many things. Especially in this community, in Hawaii. It’s a small community, and you know, you only have so many venues to perform. And you can

only perform so many times. You know, after a while, it becomes too much.

 

Your island is the first island I think of when I think of a lot of newcomers with new ways, and different expectations.

 

Um, like how you mean?

 

Transplants.

 

Okay. You’re correct. Yeah; the demographic is changing on my island.

 

And the demographic changed probably for Maui, earlier than other islands.

 

Yeah. And actually, it’s still different, very different.

 

Is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing? Can you work with this? [Chuckle]

 

Well, we have no choice. Yeah; that’s the thing. It’s difficult, because you see things changing right before your eyes. And very, very quickly on Maui. You know, a lot of you know, local people from the neighbor islands, you know, they criticize Honolulu, the city. Oh, it’s the city – all the traffic and the freeways. But you know if you look at it, if you look at Oahu as a whole, you still have these old neighborhoods that have mom and pop stores. There’s lots of them on this island. Um, mom and pop restaurants, where the waitresses are grouch, you know? And you get, you know, fat and gristle in your saimin. You know, that kinda stuff. And that is almost all gone on Maui. You know, because it’s a different kind of movement. It’s a different kind of… for lack of better word, maybe ‘progress.’ I’m not sure. It’s difficult to see and difficult to be around sometimes. But you have no choice. You have to work with it and stand your ground when you have to. And some people don’t like it. They think that it’s either unwelcoming or it’s even racist.

 

What does it mean to stand your ground?

 

 

Stand your ground, meaning, you know, that this is how we do things here. This is our mindset. You know, we – you know, I wouldn’t presume to go anywhere else in the world and change how that community thinks. Yeah, ‘cause that’s not my job. You know, my job is to meld into the community. And there are, you know – and I’m sure it happens all over the world, and there are people that just can’t meld – they just want to make it how they want to make it. And that happens yeah, kinda often on Maui. It’s just different, yeah?

 

Sentiments that probably resonate throughout Maui and all of our diverse communities. Coming up… Keali‘i Reichel tells us what he does to stay grounded and keep his focus.

 

One of our PBS Hawaii viewers has a question for you.

 

Uh oh.

 

[Chuckle]

 

Okay [chuckle].

 

When you need to recharge your creativity—

 

Mm hm.

 

–what do you do? Where do you go?

 

I stay home… and I work in the yard.

 

And where is home, and what is your yard like?

 

Well, I live up in Piholo.

 

Which is upcountry Maui?

 

Upcountry. It’s in the ahupua‘a. It’s namoku of Hamakua Poko. And it’s about thirty-five hundred feet above sea level. So it’s kinda cold. And you know, I do a lot of yard work. As much as I can while I’m home, anyway. You know, mow da lawn. You know, I get four dogs. We – I just planted, you know, forty ohia trees on the property. So you know, all those—and I have kalo and uala, and all of those kinds of things. So um, for me, if I’m getting just a little bit too bombarded with this kind of work lifestyle, it always feels good to go back and get your hands dirty. And I had to clean my fingernails before I came, because I didn’t realize my fingernails were so dirty. Before I got here, I was like, ‘Eh, brah! Clean your fingernails!’ But yeah, that’s where– that’s how I recharge.

 

And where do you get the strength from to go on? I mean, ‘cause we’ve talked about how people in the public eye tend to get criticism, or you get people pulling you on different sides. How do you find strength?

 

You find—I think there’s a lot of different ways you can find that, and for everyone, it’s different. I have a great family. I have really, a small – very, very, very small group of close-knit friends. Yu know, halau keeps you grounded ecause you are responsible for so many people that you can’t be you know, flitting around too much. And you have to be grounded. Your students are direct reflection off of you. So you have to make sure that you are strong enough for them to be able to be grounded, because of you. Yeah. So that – there’s a whole bunch of stuff. I don’t think it’s just one thing.

 

And now you’re releasing a high definition DVD. Is that a new creative challenge for you?

 

A little bit. You know, when we do our – every year we have a show. We have three or four – three concerts on Maui. And we’ve been doing it for a few years. And it has become the venue in which not only to – for us to be – to sing. And for our fans or for those who like our music to come and watch us sing. But also it becomes an avenue for our halau to perform. And because that’s part of the learning process, that’s part of the cultural learning process – is learning how to get on a stage, learning to how to take your craft that you learn in your – in class and actually bring it to fruition in real time. Yeah. That’s a huge part of learning for halau. And so these concerts become that avenue for us. And we do interesting stuff. We try to bring in as much modern technology into the concert itself ‘cause I think that from a performance level, that you know, we can keep up with the Joneses anywhere else in the world if we utilize video, we utilize high def, we utilize different kinds of things that you normally wouldn’t see, I think, in a local performance.

 

But not cellophane hula skirts.

 

Absolutely not [chuckle] ‘cause – and you know, there’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s where you are at the moment and if that’s what you’re doing, that’s fine, yeah. We haven’t done that. That’s not to say that we won’t in the future. But right now, no.

 

So you’re a traditionalist, but you can see yourself – you don’t rule it out in the future doing wacky cellophane hula skirts?

 

I wouldn’t rule it out. But I don’t think so [chuckle].

 

I thought so.

 

[Chuckle]

 

You’re just being generous, right? Don’t want to criticize the next kumu hula.

 

No, no, no. Because everybody has a purpose. Everybody has a place in this huge fabric. Yeah, and you put one – you pull one thread out and everything unravels. Yeah. So there is value in everything that every kumu hula does. Whether you agree with that kumu hula or not, it’s the entire whole that you have to take a look at.

 

What is next for you, do you think?

 

I don’t know. And that’s a good question, because I think I never knew. Even in my – in retrospect, you know, there are certain things that are definite. I know that halau is definite. I know that my family is definite. I know that where I come from is definite and the community that I associate myself with is there. I think that’s it, really. And whatever you do – and I’ve been lucky in my life, and sometimes not you know, that – to take whatever comes your way and roll with it and try see what happens. You know, I’m known for being able to jump off the cliff and seeing where you going land. Or if you land. Sometimes you don’t. And sometimes you fly, sometimes you crash. You know? And it’s okay. But I don’t think – I don’t know what’s next [chuckle].

 

Stay tuned, right?

 

Yeah, maybe. Yeah, I have no idea, I have no idea. And I think maybe if I was in my twenties, I’d be more definite. But you know, let’s see; I’m forty-five. And I think that you know, I’m feeling real settled with a lot of different things, you know? I think it’s time for the next group to start, you know, doing stuff. And I see it happening. I see it happening with a younger generation of Hawaiian musicians that are you know, speaking Hawaiian and singing and reviving old songs and writing new songs in the old fashion. You know? So yeah, it’s wonderful to see. And I’m glad to have been a – to be a part of that, of course.

 

Constantly learning … creating new challenges … and reinventing himself. Perhaps that’s what defines Keali‘i Reichel. I hope you enjoyed getting to know this man who calls himself – first and foremost – a Hawaiian … who has faced adversity and change, and remained true to his roots. Mahalo to Keali‘i – and to you – for joining me for this Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou!

 

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Marlene Sai

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Marlene Sai

 

Original air date: Tues., Aug. 18, 2009

 

Hawaiian Music “Diva”

 

Singer and actress Marlene Sai tells Leslie Wilcox about growing up in the golden age of Hawaiian music, of her early years as a recording artist, her unusual after-hours recording session in a bus barn, and her iconic portrayals of Queen Liliuokalani on stage and on television.

 

Marlene Sai Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

So now, this Kainoa. [PIANO] I have to honestly say that I have never learned the words, because I believe that your recording is classic. No one else should have to ever record it again; and yet, at the same time, we do want the song to live. And that’s why this is such a great night, because we get to do it just one more time, and I get to play for you.

 

Yes; that’s my act.

 

When you think of walking through Waikiki at night, what images come to mind? Maybe traffic congestion, street vendors? Well, how about live music? Marlene Sai grew up in the golden age of Hawaiian music, a time when Kalakaua Avenue was full of the songs and voices that beckoned the world to the romance of Hawaii. Marlene entered that magical world at the early age of eighteen, and never looked back.

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Welcome to PBS Hawaii’s Long Story Short. There are only a handful of true divas in Hawaiian music, women who wrap their powerful voices with grace, elegance, and beauty. You can add to the list, Marlene Sai. This product of Kaimuki and the Kamehameha School is quite comfortable in a business setting; but she was destined first to be a singer, an actor, even to inhabit the role of queen. This regal performer started out life with the most undignified of nicknames.

 

You know, one time, I was kind of on the fringe of watching what you were doing, and uh, and somebody called you Goofy, and I was just offended on your behalf.

 

[chuckle]

 

Little did I know that all of your friends and family call you Goofy.

 

Yeah; I’m Goofy.

 

Why is that? How did that get started?

 

Oh, gosh. There is a story to that. When I was little, I had very curly, curly hair, and as my parents would say the Hawaiians would always comment, and they would say, Oh. And the older folks would say, Pupuka, referring to me. Instead of saying, Oh, she’s cute, oh, she’s pretty, oh, she’s this, they would say, pupuka. Pupuka means goofy.

 

Because they didn’t want you to get conceited?

 

No, because that’s the way Hawaiians are; you don’t compliment in that fashion. So you say the opposite.

 

You say the opposite.

 

You say the opposite. So as time went on, and of course, it just kind of stuck, and the personality became goofy oftentimes, you know.

 

[chuckle]

 

And of course, my father would always say, Oh, gosh, she’s so goofy. Well, it was he who kind of left me with that uh, nickname. But then our entire family, we all have nicknames, you know. I have siblings; I have three brothers, a sister, and myself. I’m—

 

Okay; what are the—

 

—right in the middle.

 

What are the nicknames?

 

My oldest brother Ronald, his name is Jiggy.

 

Jiggy?

 

Jiggy. And he works for Kamehameha Schools; he’s a retired fire captain, and he’s on the gate. So you drive in, you say, Hi, Jigs.

 

[chuckle]

 

My second brother Dennis, he’s retired from the telephone company; and his nickname is Big Head.

 

Oh-oh.

 

Because when he was born, his head was a little bigger than the rest of his body. But then as he grew up, they all kind of blended in together. And, of course, then it’s me. And my sister just below me, her name is Yvonne … Peewee.

 

Does that mean she was big, or she was small?

 

She was tiny.   The story goes that they could fit her in a shoebox, she was so small. And ‘til today, she still is very tiny. And she still works at Kamehameha Schools. And my kid brother, Gary, retired from the telephone company, he loved Hopalong Cassidy. So his nickname became Hopalong.

 

[chuckle] And nowadays, the new generation probably wonders …

 

Yeah.

 

What is that?

 

Yeah; oh, yeah.

 

You know, you lived in Kaimuki.

 

Right.

 

Nowadays, we would consider that town, but in those days, it was a bedroom community to—

 

Oh, yeah.

 

I mean, what was it like living in Kaimuki in those days? Because now, it’s such prime real estate, because it’s so close to town. I don’t know if you considered yourself town folks, though, right?

 

No; it wasn’t town, but it was a family community. And what I liked about it is, because as I was growing up, I loved the ocean. So I paddled a lot, I used to go surfing.

 

Did you catch the bus?

 

No.

 

HRT? [chuckle]

 

[INDISTINCT] or you walk it, you know. But no such thing. And, you know, we had our own little path. Made our own, because 4th Avenue never went all the way through, so you would just kinda make your way through the bushes and everything.

 

[chuckle]

 

Did all of that. Yeah. Good memories, though.

 

Off to uh, Kuhio Beach—

 

Off to Kuhio—

 

—pier?

 

—Beach. Well, you know, the wall?

 

M-hm.

 

Okay; we used to swim over there a lot; the wall. I would go to Ala Moana to paddle, because I paddled for Hui Nalu, Hui Kalia, uh, Healani.

 

And that’s a whole other kind of subculture and culture of Hawaii, the paddling community. So you were very much involved uh, in your life, first in paddling.

 

Yes.

 

And then music. And not one of the others went into showbiz.

 

No. None of them did. I was the only individual from the group. And I think because it—you know how in life, if you’re there, and things happen, and it’s meant to be, and it just develops in that fashion—and see, we were always surrounded by music as we grew up. Always.

 

What kind of music?

 

Hawaiian music and a variety of them, really; a variety of music. But I remember our house on Kaimuki on 4th Avenue; it was our grandfolks’ old house and my mom and dad took it over. And I remember every New Year’s, we would have um, a luau. And we would—Mom and Dad would uh, kalua pig and uh, you know, dig the hole and do the whole thing. And everyone would, you know, make something, and we would have a uh, a feast. And Uncle Andy and his musicians—that’s Uncle Andy Cummings, and musicians, and I remember Uncle Sonny, another aunt’s—my mother’s sister’s husband, got on the piano. And it was music … always. You know, it was continuous.

 

It was your own live music, you’re—

 

Oh, yes.

 

talking about?

 

Oh, yeah.

 

Oh.

 

So we kids were exposed to this all the time. As we grew older, Uncle Andy would be traveling, and we developed into our own music and besides hula, you know, we’d try to sing a song or two. But at some point in time in my growing up years, uh, I remember Uncle Andy and the Cummings family moved to the mainland. But when they moved back for just a spell while they were looking for a place, they stayed with us. And I remember attending Kamehameha Schools, and Uncle Andy would say uh, when he’d see me coming home from school, he’d say, Come, sit down over here. This was before doing homework. This was before doing anything. So I would sit on the steps with him, and he’d have this ukuele and he’d be playing a song, or whatever instrument. If it was a mandolin or—you know, ‘cause he played so many.

 

Was he—

 

So many.

—known at that time as a composer?

 

Yes. And he was I think this was my sophomore year at Kamehameha or even my fresh—I can’t remember. But in my early years. He was going to the Big Island, and he was working with a composer by the name of Jimmy Taka. And Jimmy Taka had the song, Kainoa, but he didn’t know how to write the music, to actually write it in music form. So Uncle Andy was helping him by putting it in meters an—and writing it and structuring it for him. So he was making these trips back and forth. So Uncle wanted me to listen to the song; and I said okay, and I would come home from school, sit me down, and uh, on our steps outside of the house, and he’d play the song. He said, Now, I want you to learn the song. And that’s how I started to learn Kainoa, which was the song that started me in the business.

 

It’s the signature song—

 

It’s one of—

 

—for you.

 

—the signature songs. Yeah.

 

How does it go?

 

[SINGS] I’m waiting on a warm and sunny seashore, yearning for the one that I adore. My heart is true, I’m thinking of you; forever I will love you, Kainoa.

 

Absolutely—

 

Yeah.

 

—beautiful.

 

Yeah.

 

Now, Andy Cummings is a heck of an uncle to get started—

 

Yeah.

 

—in the music business with.

 

Yeah.

 

Now, I have to ask you something about him. He was, of course, one of the greatest hapa Haole composers, ever, um, and he wrote Waikiki, which is another song you are known for.

 

Signature; yeah.

 

But I heard that he also tended to write songs about causes. I think he might have been against—

 

The puka in the Pali.

 

—statehood. Yeah; no puka in the Pali, right?

 

[chuckle]

 

‘Cause he didn’t want to see the Pali Tunnel built.

 

Yeah. He did all of that.

 

Do you remember all that?

 

Oh, yes; I do. And I remember him singing it, too. You know, I—

 

How did it—

 

—don’t know—

 

How did it go? I’ve never heard it sung.

 

Oh, gosh; I can’t remember it right now. Oh; it was the puka in the Pali. But when we would have these gatherings, you know, his group, which was made up of uh, Gabby Pahinui, Uncle Andy, and Ralph Alapai, and all of these old folks, and they would come to the house, and they would jam, and they would practice. And you don’t know all of this wealth of talent that’s right there with you.

 

You don’t realize these are—

 

And you—

 

—very special people. You think—

 

Exactly.

 

—everybody’s got uncles like this.

 

Exactly. Yeah, it was Uncle Gabby, and it was Un—uh, Uncle, Uncle, Uncle all over the place, which is the way we are, right? And then as you grow older, and then you realize all of this talent that’s right there with you, and how privileged you’ve been through your younger years.

 

I don’t think Uncle Gabby was at a whole lot of backyard—

 

No.

 

—luau. I think he was pretty selective.

 

Yeah, but you know, he was the baby in that group. So he was so kolohe. So when he played, you know, he was playing always from the soul, and the heart, and the seat of his pants. And he would just go into, you know, one song, and the rest of them would just jam. But it was um, it was a nice experience through those young years.

 

You know, when um, Uncle Andy would call to you on the uh, front porch—

 

M-hm.

 

—um, did he pick any of the other kids, or did he sense—

 

No.

 

—something in you?

 

No one else; it was just I. And I don’t know why. And because I would try to sing around the house, and I guess he would, you know, hear. Oh, maybe there’s possibility here, you know, with this child. Or nothing in particular for him to just pick me out of the—

 

He never said anything to you—

 

No.

 

—about—

 

Never did.

 

M-m.

 

Never did. But all he said was, uh, he would help me with the phrasing. Then, if I wasn’t hitting the note, he’d make sure that I’d get up to it, and we’d go over it, over and over again.

 

What did he tell you about phrasing?

 

Like, I’m waiting on a warm and you don’t take a breath until, seashore.

 

M-hm.

 

You’re waiting on a warm and sunny seashore.

 

M-hm.

 

So we say you see what I’m saying? You see what I’m saying?

 

It’s the thought.

 

It’s the complete thought. So you’re waiting on a warm and sunny seashore, yearning for the one that I—so you don’t break up your phrases. Okay; okay. So here you are [chuckle], tenth grade, ninth grade. Okay, Uncle. But this would go on, sometimes for a couple of hours. Then my parents would step in; she has to do her homework, and she has chores to do. And so … things of that sort.

 

Did you have a—

 

—that’s—

 

—disciplinarian family or—

 

Very.

 

—or structured?

 

Oh, yeah; Dad and Mom were very much the disciplinarians. Yes. You know, with five kids, I guess you would have to be.

 

You went through Kamehameha Schools, and then what?

 

M-hm. You know, with all of the music besides all of the complete education that one gets, but the beautiful music that the students do learn, and that’s all the choral singing and that became a learning process too for me.

 

Yes, but I think you were doing it at a time when Hawaiian language was not in favor at Kamehameha.

 

Exactly; exactly.

 

So you got the music, but not necessarily the Hawaiian lyrics?

 

You would—

 

Or the meanings?

 

—get the lyrics, but we didn’t have, in those days the Hawaiian language was not taught at Kamehameha. This is my fiftieth reunion this year, so it’s been—’59, so 2009. So this will be fifty years for me. And back then they didn’t speak Hawaiian.

 

So you would sing Hawaiian songs, and not know what they meant?

 

Exactly. Or you would have to sit down with my parents or kupuna, and ask, you know, What does this mean and what is this all about?

 

M-hm.

 

Because the language wasn’t spoken, because the language wasn’t taught. You know.

 

Did your parents think you should learn the Hawaiian language? Probably not in that generation, right?

 

No, because they hardly spoke it at home. Rarely, did they speak it at home. It was hush-hush.

 

You’ve seen it come a long way.

 

I’ve seen it come a very long way.

 

Have you learned to speak Hawaiian since?

 

No. And I would love to.

 

You must hear it all around you now.

 

I do, I hear. And you know your phrases, and you know some things about Hawaiian, but that you can relate to. And yes; that, I know. But to converse; no, I don’t. And I would love to.

 

But you grew up at a home and at school in an environment that uplifted music as a value in life.

 

Well, and at that time too—well, when I graduated from Kamehameha, and during that period uh, my later years at Kamehameha as I said, you know, with all of the choral singing the music that came from there, I thought it was just a natural.

 

M-hm.

 

And so you apply it to oneself, and as you go to parties, and you’re with friends, and you’re sitting with an ukulele and you’re playing along with someone else, who has an instrument, and you’re carrying on; you’re singing all of these songs, knowing basically what they all mean, but not completely and totally. But you’re also bringing out what you’ve learned at the school.

 

M-M-hm.

 

All that was taught you. Because there’s music appreciation, and so therefore, you’re learning all different facets of it.

 

 

So at this point in Marlene’s life, the building blocks of her singing career are falling into place. A family that embraced the concept of kanikapila, the musical craftsmanship of her famed Uncle Andy Cummings, and an appreciation for music nurtured at the Kamehameha Schools; now, Marlene Sai just needed to be discovered.

 

 

It was when I came out of Kamehameha, and the plan was to go, because it was full-on business courses that I was taking at Kamehameha, ‘cause that was my intent to go on and further my education in business. And that was the concentration. I was working during that summer uh, in travel. Matter of fact, Uncle Andy had gotten me a job, ‘cause he was with either Aloha or Hawaiian Airlines. So he got me this job in this travel agency, and I would sell tours and do all of these things and earn some money during the summer. Well, my friends got to have jobs in the industry too, and so we would meet every Sunday. A good friend of mine, Vicky Hollinger, and this other gal, Norma, and I would meet at Joe’s in Waikiki. Because we were low on the totem pole, so we had to carry all of the Sunday work, and everyone else was home with their family. But we didn’t care; we were young. So we pulled the Sunday duty. And when we were done, we always planned, Okay, let’s meet at Joe’s, let’s have lunch and everything, and then plan from there what we’re gonna do. This one particular weekend, we’re at Joes, and in comes—and the beach boys would always come over.

 

Because you were attractive young women?

 

And because I used to paddle, so I knew a lot of them too. So, you know, they always—you know, Hi, Jessie, hi, you know, Rabbit, hi, hi, hi, and all of this. This one day, they were sitting around and everything, and said, Hey, uh, you want to come down to uh, this place. Our friend has a bar, restaurant bar, club on the other side of the island, Kaneohe. He’s taking care of it for his mom, and he manages the place. You folks want to go down next week? They have nice music, good music. Okay. So the next Sunday, we plan, and we all meet, and we all get in the car and we’re driving down. So one with the ukulele and another with the guitar, and the top is down, and we’re singing on our way down to Kaneohe from Waikiki. And we get to the other side of the island, and we get into this—park in the back, walk into Honey’s.

 

Honey’s.

 

Honey’s. And he’s giving us the lowdown on who this guy is, he’s a beach boy, and oh, they got great music. Sonny Chillingsworth, Gary Aiko; oh, these guys, they’re good, good. So we get there, and we’re hearing this music. Oh, my gosh. So this guy comes over and he says, I want you to meet Don Ho; I want to meet—this is Marlene. Eh, this wahine can sing; she was singing in the car. You gotta call her up to sing. And this is her friend Vicky. So we sat there for a little bit, and we were having our libations, and having a nice time. He calls me up to sing. I said, Oh, gosh. Do you know Kainoa? If I sang it, do you think you could play it? Sing it to us. Sonny. So I hummed a little tune to him, and he says, Oh, I can get it, sure. So I sang Kainoa, and they asked me to sing another song. I sang another song. And then I went and sat down. Before we left, he came up to me and he said, Can you write your name and your address, and your phone number, just you know, so I can get in touch with you? I said, Okay. He says, What are your plans? I said, Well, I’m planning to go to the university, and I want to get my degree. Well, maybe you can make some money; extra money. Think you might want to sing here? Sing? Really? Oh, my gosh; how much am I going to get paid? And I’m asking all of these questions. He says, I’ll call you. One week went by, two weeks went by; and I didn’t hear from him. And I thought, oh, gosh; put it out of my head completely. And I thought, okay, that guy was just all wapa. One day, I’m driving down Kalakaua, and I’m looking in my rearview mirror, and it looked like a Thunderbird, and the top was down, and I see this car darting in and out. And it’s approaching me. And this guy’s hair is blowing; no shirt on, and he’s coming up closer to me. And I’m getting nervous. So I roll up my window, roll up this window, and I’m going further, and he comes and he’s telling me to pull over. So I pulled over, and I’m looking at this—and I’m thinking, Who in the world is this? ‘Cause he—I didn’t recognize him. He got out of the car, came over to me, and he—I had the window up, and he’s knocking on the—

 

[chuckle]

 

—window, and he’s saying to me, You remember me? I was playing the organ for you; you remember me? And I’m thinking, What church is he talking about? I gotta remember organ? Where—and then he said, You came to my place with Jessie. When he said Jessie, my play—and I said, Oh—

 

Don Ho—

 

—Don Ho.

 

—is at your window.

 

And I’m looking at—so I rolled my window down, and he said, I lost your number. He says, I don’t know what happened to the paper, I lost that. He said, I’ve been trying to get your phone number. So he asked, Can you come down to the um, to Honey’s tonight or tomorrow night? He says, I’d like to know if we can get some songs together. If you’re still interested, I’d like for you to sing, and maybe make some extra money. And that’s really how it all started.

 

Singing at Honey’s. And your boss was Don Ho.

 

And my boss was Don Ho. Yeah. But things happened so fast. Because that night that I got down to Kaneohe, and there were these men that were sitting there; Bill Murata, George Chun, and I didn’t know who they all were, and they were all recording individuals. Herb Ono and I’m not sure if Jack DeMello was there too. And they were there to hear Sonny Chillingworth.

 

Because they were gonna make a recording of him?

 

Right; right. Sonny pulled me over; he told me what was happening. And he said, Don’t worry about it and just be comfortable, and we’re just going to rehearse. We went through rehearsal, and at the end of that time, Sonny said that a couple of the individuals wanted to talk to me about recording. I mean, it all happened that fast. So I said, What do I do? He said to me, Don’t worry; he said, just meet with them, and we’ll get a lawyer or somebody that you trust. And it just escalated from there. And in a matter of a short time, I mean, I was meeting Lucky Luck, and Jimmy Walker, if I remember correctly.

 

Who’s Jimmy Walker; another radio guy?

 

Yeah, he was a radio guy. And then J. Aku Head Pupule.

 

The uh, top paid disc jockey in the world—

 

Yes.

 

—as they said.

 

Yeah; yeah. But—yeah, and things really started to escalate, and really happen very fast.

 

And here you were, how old; nineteen?

 

No; seventeen, turning eighteen. I just got out of high school. And it was just that quick.

 

Quick, indeed. What began as casual conversations with her Uncle Andy had now turned into the opportunity of a lifetime. In Part 2 of our Long Story Short with Marlene Sai, we’ll hear the story of a highly unlikely recording studio that was the setting for one of her iconic songs. And we’ll hear advice for anyone aspiring to pursue a career in music. Until then, thank you for spending this time with us. For Long Story Short and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.

 

I enjoyed Donald; and you know, his nickname is Quack.

 

Donald Ho?

 

Yeah; you knew that.

 

No, I didn’t. [chuckle]

 

Yeah; he was Quack.

 

You were—

 

And I’m Goofy.

 

—Goofy, and he was—

 

Yeah; yeah

 

—Quack.

 

Yeah. Uh, matter of fact, all of the uh, beach boys, everybody, all of his close friends called him Quack. Many of the songs that he recorded for all his beach boy days songs, lot of it you know, all of the different songs that he sang. And he would just sing it over and over, and over at his shows. I loved them, because they reminded me of my paddling days. So it was good fun. [SIGH] And I didn’t mean to interrupt you; I’m sorry.

 

Not at all.

 

As we’re talking, all of these different stories are just popping in my head.

 

Well, just the idea that you call him Donald, and if you don’t call him Donald, you call him Quack.

 

[chuckle]

 

This is Don Ho we’re talking about. [chuckle]

 

Yeah; yeah. I miss him. Yeah.

 

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Joe Rice

 

Original air date: Tues., Mar. 6, 2012

 

President of Mid-Pacific Institute

 

Leslie Wilcox talks with Joe Rice, president of Mid-Pacific Institute. The genial private school leader opens up about his childhood, marked by abuse and poverty. Joe is writing a memoir of his experiences – a catharsis that stings long-open wounds. Now nearing retirement, Joe supports programs serving orphans and foster children, while nurturing the 1,500 students of Mid-Pac and a family of his own.

 

Joe Rice Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Some days, we’d just eat the one meal a day, and make it last. My mom and I, we … always last to eat, make sure the others … in our family, it started off with my dad first, any of his friends second, then the babies, and then all the way up to my mom and I. And sometimes, there wasn’t that much to go around.

 

It’s a story that you can identify with if you’ve been poor and abused, wondering when you’ll have your next meal, or your next beating. For the down and out, bouncing from a car to a tent, and back again, this is your life, a hard scrabbled life. But surely, not the life of the leader of a distinguished private school in Honolulu. Indeed, that was Joe Rice’s life. Join us, as we get to know Mid Pacific Institute’s president and CEO, Joe Rice, here on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. In this edition of Long Story Short, we’ll meet an affable executive who laughs easily, travels in prominent circles in education, and is on first name basis with many influential people. You might guess that to achieve this level of success, he must have been born to comfort and attended Ivy League schools before eventually settling into his position as president and CEO of the Mid Pacific Institute in Manoa. Who would guess that he was dealt an incredibly tough start in life? It’s a long way from the migrant farm camps of California and Washington State to a graceful Manoa home and the leadership of a well-known Hawaii college prep school. But that’s the journey of Joe Rice.

 

You’re a distinguished headmaster of a respected school, and you have this very comfortable demeanor and openness about you. And yet, you’ve had this very dark and troubled childhood.

 

Yeah.

 

How much does that childhood play with your life now?

 

Almost every day. I’ve probably been spending too much time thinking about my past lately. I’m in the midst of writing a memoir about it. People have been encouraging me to, so I’ve been remembering a lot the past couple of years.

 

Is it painful?

 

Yeah. That’s why it’s taking so long to write the book.

 

Have you come to new conclusions and had new epiphanies, thinking about this as an experienced adult?

 

A lot of people ask me, yourself earlier, and others have asked me how did I end up getting where I’m at. And a lot of people think I was born with everything, and especially the nice house I live in and things. But, I reflect once in a while on how it is that I got into a position where I can help a lot of kids, and I can help a school. And I kind of trace it back to my beginnings and how I became appreciative of education and what it could do for you. And I’d have to give it all of the credit for getting me through to my position now. And I believe I’m a good example for kids who think there is no chance for them, that if they hear my story, they would say, Well, if he can do that, I can do it.

 

So much of your life … I know you had a loving, hardworking mom.

 

M-hm.

 

But in many parts of your life, adults you should have been able to trust simply weren’t there for you, or weren’t telling you the truth, or hurting you. How do you get over that?

 

Well, one, you come to those conclusions later. When you’re living your life, you’re pretty much focused on your brothers and sisters, and even though you fight and you do terrible things to each other all the time, they still care about each other, and they cared about me, and I cared about them. My mom was always somebody I could depend on that, if I needed an ally or somebody who would stand by me, she would be the one. And she took a lot of hurt for doing that, and she could have turned her back on me, and she didn’t. And so I gained strength from all of that. But I would be the first to tell you, and I’ve done this a number of times talking to young kids at other schools and things about there are so many people willing to help you, and giving you the hand of friendship, are willing to lift you up, but you don’t see them or you won’t take it when it’s offered. And at various times in my life, there had been people who have done that, whether it was a teacher, Salvation Army helping us out at Christmastime and bringing you a gift so that you could give your mom something. Or the local store where you go down, and you’ve been caught before for stealing food for your family, and this time, they just come in and say, What do you need?, and they give it to you. So, there have been those folks all along in my life, and I know they’re there for other kids. And sometimes they don’t see them, or they have too much pride to take it when it’s offered. But for most kids, it is offered, and they just don’t see. So I try to talk to them about that, because I certainly didn’t get to being the president at Mid Pacific on my own.

 

You’ve managed to navigate through very different worlds.

 

I learned early about getting up at four-thirty in the morning, and going to work, and dragging yourself to the car, getting your brothers and sister bundled and throw ‘em in the car, go. Either watch them while your parents work, or get out in the fields and work. Come back, work ‘til noon, one o’clock when it gets too hot to work. Go to school in the tent, go home, help cook. Take care of people, hope you don’t get hurt, make it through the day. I learned those lessons young. So, when you’re in college and you’re living in your car, and you’re eating the six burgers for a dollar at the Arctic Circle, and you drink Diet Coke or a cola, or whatever. I think it was Tab in those days, because I didn’t want to get too fat. I forgot that lesson.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

But, I did that day-in and day-out. It was all better than when I was growing up.

 

 

If you worked your way through college, you have an idea of what it’s like to hold down a job and still do the required studies. Surely, Joe Rice’s rough upbringing in the fruit orchards gave him the work ethic to do whatever it was going to take to graduate from a university. But he needed to do more than work for a living and study for a degree. He needed to rise above the emotional scars, the terrible uncertainties created by lies and abuse. It’s a legacy that haunts him to this day.

 

Tell me about your early life.

 

Ah, well, let’s see. [CHUCKLE] I was born to a mom who told me she was fourteen when she had me, but I found out later she was probably around sixteen. And I only found that out when I figured out what her birthday was, ‘cause she kept that hidden. I’ve often told people I’m two years younger than I actually am, because that’s what my mom told me, that she lied about my birth, among other lies that she had and gave to me to protect me, for some reason or another. But I’m the oldest of twelve. I can even name them, if you want.

 

What are their names?

 

And it’s Joe, Jessie, Joyce, Judy, Jimmy, Bobby, Dale, Harold, Denise, and Homer. And the one that died about three days after birth was Haley. So we had a bunch of J’s in a row, and then a bunch of H’s, and then a few odd names, uh, in the mix, like a Denise or something.

 

And you were the oldest, so I assume your responsibilities grew as the family grew.

 

My parents, both of ‘em, had an eighth grade education, so it was clear they weren’t going to get good paying jobs unless they went back to school. And my stepfather, I learned that he was my stepfather. I thought he was my father in the beginning for many years, they became migrant workers. And so, the first time I went to a school steady, I was starting um, eighth grade. I went to half a year at one school, and then ninth grade, I finally went to Series Union High School in California. And I finished my four years there, living in a house. The rest of the time, we were migrants on the road. I went to school mostly in the tent out in the fields and they’d send a teacher out to us. We worked in the mornings, go to school in the afternoon.

 

So you had spotty childhood education.

 

No. Actually, not spotty, because you’d still go to school.

 

But you said half a day, or …

 

Half a day. But it would start like at one o’clock, and go to four, five o’clock. I actually started when I was three and four. My mom wouldn’t have anywhere else to send me, so they let me to go and sit with the older kids in the schoolhouse, which was just a large—

 

At three or four.

 

Large tent. But all multi-aged, so they had an elementary school tent, and a high school/middle school tent. So I just sat in the back and listened, and actually learned how to read real early that way. Went to school. One year, we lived in Hood River. I actually went one year, fourth grade, in Hood River, Oregon. I remember that. Couple other times, we went about a half a year where we lived in one place, and got a rental. But the other parts, we were on the road and went from Lancaster, California up to Wenatchee, Washington, picking apples. So wintertime you’re up North, and summertime you’re down South. We did that for many, many years. I took care of the younger ones when I was younger. You’re sitting out on the blanket under the tree, and then when they move from tree to tree, they pull along, and you sat there and stick the bottle in the kid’s mouth, or something like that. Soon as I was able to work, I was picking fruit, and got pretty good at it too, to where it was better my mom start watching the younger ones than me, ‘cause I’d do so well. That was pretty much my younger life. My dad was an alcoholic, very abusive person.

 

To whom?

 

To my mom particularly, and me second.

 

Because you as the oldest, or you as the stepson—

 

Me as the stepson, me who liked to read. Me, who … I just didn’t go and do all the stuff that the other kids were doing. I’d stay at home, I’d take care, I’d clean the house, I’d help my brothers and sisters. I did those things, and I was about as different as he could have been.

 

But that’s a good thing, what you were doing. Right?

 

Yeah.

 

Every member of Joe Rice’s large family suffered abuse at the hands of his stepfather. One night, in Joe’s senior year of high school, his stepfather gave his mother a particularly bad beating. The oldest son decided it all had to stop; and the events of that night would change the course of his life.

 

You mentioned how you were going up and down, up from lower California, up to Canada in a car, and sleeping in a car and tents.

 

Big station wagon. [CHUCKLE]

 

You got yourself to college, working your way fulltime through college, but you used your car … you were still living in your car, but you were going to college and living in your car.

 

Yeah.

 

How did you get to college from the big station wagon with all the dysfunction?

 

My dad did another horrible thing to my mother. And it was in my senior year. I was seventeen, and around November of my senior year. And he came home, and he beat her real bad. And left her bloody, and my other brothers and sisters were gathered around her, scared. And I was hiding in a closet. Just hiding. And I heard it. After he left, I went out and I got my mom, and I took her in the bedroom, and cleaned her up, and I told her that it won’t happen anymore. And so, I uh, kept my mom with my sisters in their room, and I had them barricade the door. And then, I went and got a knife, and I went to my room, and I waited. And when he came back, he was yelling for me. And—

 

He was going to beat you up?

 

He had been looking for me after he beat my mom, and I was hiding in the closet. It was one of those closets, if you don’t lift up the door, and if you turn it you can’t get in. And so, he gave up, and he left, and I was just sitting there. So I waited. And he came home about four. And he came in, stood there in the doorway and took off his belt, and he started hitting me. And I got the knife, and I went after him. And they said I stabbed him probably like about twenty-some times, and my family came in and held him down and said, Go Joe, go. And I ran away and hid in a vineyard near our home we had in middle of California. And I stayed there for about three days, and they said he went around looking for me. I didn’t hit anything, I just mangled him arm and his shoulder. And I turned myself in to a local grocery store, a little mom & pop, and I asked them to call somebody, and they called. And they put me in foster care for the rest of the year, and I finished high school, and nobody came. And then, I worked picking beans in the summer, and I bought a bus ticket for Washington. And I went there, and I went to the local welfare office and I asked for help. And they said, Why’d you come here? And I said, Because it’s you guys who’ve helped us all along, and we’ve been on welfare most of our life. And I said, It was either you or the Salvation Army. [CHUCKLE] And so, they found me a place to stay in this … it was like a redone house that had been put into little apartments. And they had a bathroom that they rented out, and there was a bed. So you had your sink, your toilet, and the bed. So you needed to climb over all that stuff to get to the bed. And I did that. And they got me a job at … working for the City of Tacoma on a survey crew. So I did that for six months, and they worked out a deal that a certain percentage of my pay would go into a fund, and this group called Neighborhood Youth Corps would match it if I would go to college. And so, I did. And they started me in at Tacoma Community College. So, I got a job working at a garage, and I worked an eight-hour shift after school. I got up in the morning and I went and I cooked at the cafeteria, and they fed me in the morning. Then I’d go to classes. And you’d only take like three or four classes, so it’s not like it is now where you got six or seven classes. And then, I’d go to work, live in the place. Did that for the first year. Second year, I went to work for Button Veterinarian Hospital, and they gave me a little room off of the vet hospital, and I cleaned pens and washed all the poop up, and all that junk. And they gave me a place to stay, and I did that, and still continued—that was my nighttime work after I finished at the garage.

 

And what kept you going as you were doing this? ‘Cause that you must have been exhausted.

 

Yeah. You get up in the morning, and you go to your job at the … cook breakfast before you go to school. Then you take PE for your first class, so you can take a shower and stuff, and then you go to class. It was all about I’d made up my mind that I wasn’t going to be like my parents, and I was going to show my brothers and sisters that it didn’t have to be that way for them. That even though I ran away and left them, I would show them that there was a way for them too.

 

When you’ve been through so much, how do you put it behind you? For many, catharsis is found in writing. In 2012, nearing retirement age, Joe Rice has been writing to tell his story, and to purge himself of the demons of his past. It’s been a challenging process. Sometimes, when you rip off the bandage, the wound reopens.

 

So, you’re writing a memoir about your life. How do you put all of this in context, and process it all for your book?

 

Well, it’s going on three years, because I start writing, and you won’t believe this, Leslie. But when I graduated from high school, troubled as I was, I was voted in the yearbook most likely to succeed as a writer. And because my mind was in the clouds, and I lived a fantasy life as you’re living the bad news, you’re dreaming of something different. And I wrote. I wrote lots of poetry.

 

Did you keep it?

 

Not too much. [CHUCKLE] I sent many things away to see if anybody wanted to publish. But I wrote a lot of things that told the truth too much, and people would read it and start getting worried about what’s happening at your house. And so I did that, and I wrote short stories and things, so people thought I would one day be a writer. And of course, after that, you’re working every day, and you’re trying to go to school, and you write lots of assignments, but you never do writing uh, like this. So as an adult, people said, Joe, you should … I know you want to help people, maybe this would help. And so, I’d start writing, and I’d get all gung-ho. And then my very first chapter is about hiding in the closet to kill my dad. And then I can’t write again. And the ending chapter of the book is when I actually do try to kill him. [CHUCKLE] And I fill in the middle with all the other stories. Some of ‘em are humorous, and this and that. So, sometimes, I can go and write a couple chapters and keep going, and other days, I break down and I then I can’t think. And I just get worried about things, and that maybe it’s all going to turn for me.

 

Even after all this time?

 

That this is not really me.

 

Yeah. You must have something very strong inside you, to have been able to handle all of what you did, and then all of what came later that was positive. I mean, not to minimize it, but you handled a life that was so negative, and now you’re handling a positive life. It seems like two different skills at play there.

 

I don’t know how to answer that one. I’d just get up and do it. I just think that someday, I’ll make a difference, I’ll do something.

 

Did you—

 

I don’t know what, but something.

 

Well, you already have, haven’t you?

 

Well, um …

 

Peace Corps, teaching, you know, molding minds.

 

I know, but those are all just stuff. Those are just stuff. It’s not like … excuse me. I … I don’t know what it is I’m supposed to do.

 

Do you feel like there’s something else—

 

Something.

 

–you need to do?

 

Something. I don’t know what.

 

While he gets up every day, goes to work, nurtures some fifteen hundred students at his school, minds his own children, and cares for his wife, Joe Rice still struggles with the legacy of a childhood filled with emotional and physical pain. Maybe that’s why he reached out even farther to the Future Light Orphanage in Phnom Penh.

 

Well, you’re supporting an orphan, right, in Cambodia?

 

I have a boy in Cambodia that I started supporting maybe nineteen years ago or something. He’s now out of the orphanage, and he graduated from high school, and he’s in a university in Cambodia, and I’m helping him. And he’s going to be in information technology. And so, that’s good. And I’m a member of Family Programs Hawaii, and we deal with orphans, and foster children. And I think that’s helped me a little bit.

 

But you still feel self doubt. Right?

 

I don’t know what it is. But I don’t feel like I’ve done … what it is.

 

You know, you had a life of such unrelieved pain. How did you learn how to feel joy, and just find joy every day?

 

The best times—[CHUCKLE], I don’t know, when your children are born, and you see them, and you watch them grow up. That is a great joy. To wake up with your wife, and know that she loves you, and you’ve got something good going. That’s a joy. It’s hard to express. It’s kind of like you feel like something not going to go well, or something’s going to happen. And so, do good, and ward it off.

 

What do you enjoy most about being the head of Mid Pacific?

 

Well, believe it or not, my best times are when I go to the preschool. And you go over there ‘cause if you’re having a bad day, just go to the preschool or kindergarten classes, and they … about three years ago, I must have come dressed in green, kinda like you are. And they called me Mr. Gecko.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

And so now—these are three-year-olds. And so, they surround me and sing a Mr. Gecko song that they make up.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

Now, these kids are like second grade, and they still call me Mr. Gecko.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

And that makes you feel good.

 

There were times in this conversation that I could hear student crew members sniffing, fighting back tears. There were times when Joe Rice and I shed tears. The abused child who watched out for his mother and siblings grew up to have many fulfilling moments and chapters in his long, successful educational career. Yet, he’s not sure this is his ultimate calling in life.

 

To the head of Mid Pacific Institute in Honolulu, we say mahalo for all you’ve done for the young people in your care. We wish Joe Rice the best in his personal quest, and we’ll be on the lookout for his memoir.

 

For Long Story Short and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.

 

A lot of people think I was born with everything, and especially the nice house I live in and things. But, I reflect once in a while on how it is that I got into a position where I can help a lot of kids, and I can help a school. And I kind of trace it back to my beginnings and how I became appreciative of education and what it could do for you. And I’d have to give it all of the credit for getting me through to my position now. And I believe I’m a good example for kids who think there is no chance for them, that if they hear my story, they would say, Well, if he can do that, I can do it.

 

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Pat Saiki

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Pat Saiki

 

Original air date: Tues., Sept. 16, 2008

 

Former Hawaii Congresswoman

 

Pat Saiki, Hilo-born public school teacher, wife and mother of five, became a U.S. Congresswoman and head of the nation’s Small Business Administration.

 

Not one to let racial discrimination, gender bias, government bureaucracy or social injustice get her down, Pat worked to put them down and was elected, as a Republican, to serve in the State House of Representatives from 1968-1974, the State Senate from 1974-1982, and the U.S. Congress from 1986-1990.

 

Today, Pat continues to advocate for women, minorities and those less fortunate, taking a special interest in elder care. And she continues to inspire those she meets.

 

Pat Saiki Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Aloha no; I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. In today’s Long Story Short we get to chat with a former Hilo girl, public school teacher, wife and mother of five who became a U.S. Congresswoman and head of the nation’s Small Business Administration. A conversation with Pat Saiki, next.

 

Patricia Fukuda Saiki is not one to let racial discrimination, gender bias, government bureaucracy or social injustice get her down. She’s worked to put them down. Obstacles she faced early in life and early in her career motivated her to take action. And to hear her stories, you can see why.

 

My parents were, well, let me put it this way. My father was the original feminist. He had three daughters. There were three of us; I was the eldest. And he said, You can be anything you want to be. But look at school teaching and look at nursing as the first two priority occupations. But other than that, you can choose to do whatever you want to do. And he wanted each of us to be a star tennis player, like he was. He was a tennis coach at Hilo High School. So he trained each of us to play tennis, and he called us Sonny Boy; ‘cause he had no sons. [chuckle] But we felt a sense of independence, and my father gave us that. My mother, of course, was a seamstress; she worked with her hands. And she supported us all the way.   So growing up in Hilo was nice.

 

When your dad said you can be anything you want —

M-hm.

 

Did he truly mean that? Because —

 

He really —

 

– he did direct you to teaching and nursing.

 

Well, he thought those were two honorable professions. But, he said, if there’s anything else you want to be, go for it.

 

And were other parents of that age saying, Find a good guy, get somebody to support you?

 

[chuckle] I don’t know. I would suspect so. But he was very independent, so he made us feel very independent.

 

Why do you think he was so independent with his girls?

 

I don’t know what it was. But he was a sort of a trendsetter in that he wanted to excel, and he wanted to push us into competing, and you know, that sort of thing. Even if we were girls, just girls, he felt that we could win. So he was a champion, in my book.

 

Did you feel racial prejudice?

 

No, not at all. No racial prejudice. Maybe some sex bias. But other than that, nothing that we couldn’t overcome.

 

What kind of sex bias?

 

Well, you know, girls are not supposed to march forward and speak up too loudly. You have to sit at the table on the ocean side, instead of the mountain side, because men are higher than women. That sort of thing. And that’s old, old style Japanese folklore, I used to call it. And I broke all those rules.

 

And what —

 

It was okay.

 

– happened to you when you broke those rules?

 

Nothing. Because my daddy backed me up. [chuckle]

 

Okay; so you became a teacher.

 

M-hm.

 

And you thought that was what you were gonna do for the rest of your life?

 

Yes, I really did think so. I found it challenging. I graduated from the University of Hawaii. And the interesting thing is, because we were not a wealthy family, we knew that we had to help each other—my two sisters and myself, we knew we had to help each other. And because I was the eldest, and I stayed in the dormitory for one year, at Hale Laulima, which is right across the street from your studio. And I was able to stay there for one year. After that, I said, the sister below me wants to go to the mainland to school, we don’t have the money, so give to her; I’ll work. And so I got a job with Rudy Tongg, who started Aloha Airlines. It was called TPA, Aloha Airlines. And we had those propeller planes, the D6s, you know, propeller planes. And we worked—there were five of us from the University of Hawaii who were the weekend girls that came down and took over from the regulars.

 

Back before they were called flight attendants; you were a stewardess.

 

I was a stewardess; that’s right. And we worked weekends, holidays, vacations, and we got double pay when the volcano erupted. In those days, we’d fly right into the crater. Of course, my parents almost had a heart attack every time I took that flight. But it paid my way through school. And so my second sister—my sister just below me—got to go to Teachers College in Iowa. And we both helped the third one to go to school. So it was an adventuresome period, a fun time, and we earned our money, worked hard. Oh, and then my first job was at Punahou School. Dr. Fox, who was then the principal of Punahou, came up to the University and looked over the flock of people that he could hire, and he said, Well, Pat, why don’t you come over and teach at Punahou; we need some local girls. So I was one of the few local girls, the first ones, to be on the staff at Punahou. And it was exciting, because you know, here, you’re breaking ground and you’re forging ahead into an arena where nobody else had been.

 

Were you sort of a quiet groundbreaker, or were you pretty flashy?

 

[Chuckle] some people would say I was flashy.

 

Because you spoke up quite a bit?

 

Oh, yes; because I was outspoken, and because I said my piece. And I enjoyed the years at Punahou. And after that, of course, I got married to my dear husband who was an obstetrician gynecologist. We went to the

mainland, I taught there in Toledo, Ohio. And that’s a whole new and different adventure, because the people in Toledo had nothing, no idea about what Hawaii was. And now here I was, teaching their kids. So I—for discipline purposes, what I did was I told the—my children—I shouldn’t say children, they were eighth-graders, eighth and ninth-graders. I challenged them to behave and perform, and I will teach them the hula. Now, I was not exactly what you would call a connoisseur of the hula. But I had watched it enough to know —

 

[chuckle]

 

— what to do. [chuckle] And we would put on a May Day program, and we rehearsed, and we got those kids in line. And I’m telling you, I never had a discipline problem. In fact, at the same time, the parents invited me to their homes, because I had never been exposed to the bar mitzvah, I had never been to a Polish wedding, an Irish wedding; I had never been to any of these ethnic celebrations. And so I was exposed. First time I went to a Jewish store and ate those nice, big pickles. And it was wonderful teaching there and meeting these kids and these families while my husband was doing his residency in OBGYN.

 

Sounds like you got a chance to introduce them to Hawaii and break some of the misconceptions about this place.

 

Exactly; right. Of course, they thought we lived in huts and —

 

Mhm.

 

— wore hula skirts all the time. But we were so dynamic in our May Day presentation, that the chamber of commerce of Toledo, Ohio invited us down to put on a performance in middle of town. And the school was very happy; they got a bus for us, and we went down there, parents all came and joined us. And you’re right; they were exposed to what Hawaii really can be like, or is like.

 

So at that point in your life—you eventually had five children –

 

Yeah. [chuckle]

 

And you’re married to—he became chief of staff at —

 

Yes.

 

– at a hospital. You could have just settled into a life of raising kids, and done a wonderful job being a wife and mom.

 

Oh, I could have; yes. Except —

 

Im not saying you didn’t, but you also did other things.

 

Yeah; I could have done a lot of things. I had many, many choices. But there were several things that pushed me into the political arena.

 

Pat Saiki was a woman of action and the arena she chose in which to take action against social injustice was politics.

 

The one thing that really hurt my feelings was when we came back from the mainland, and we wanted to buy a house in Aina Haina. Well, the Aina Haina association met, and denied us.

 

Because?

 

We were Japanese Americans. People forget that this kind of prejudice existed, you know, just fifty years ago, sixty years ago.

 

So this was in the 50s?

 

Yeah.

 

Wow.

 

We came back, and that didn’t set well with me. Okay; that was one reason.

 

 

So what did you—where did you relocate? Did you take no for an answer from Aina Haina?

 

We had to. So we rented a house on Crater Road, and then eventually bought a house in St. Louis Heights. But the other reason is that, as a schoolteacher, I was teaching at Kaimuki Intermediate then; today it’s the Middle School. Here, we had a different set of rules that were dictated to teachers by the central office of the Department of Education. And I’m sure the old-time teachers will remember this. We were told what to teach, when to teach it, and how to teach it. And we had to teach history from the beginning of the book, to the end of the book. No skipping; no idea of doing team teaching with a teacher who was teaching English. I wanted to join up with

 

English and history

 

M-m.

 

— and we could time it so that we could see American history growing, along with English literature. No, no, no, they said, you can’t do that. I mean, you have to stay in your classroom and do what is supposed to be done. Well, I said, Is that right? Is that how we’re going to teach here in Hawaii? And as an eighth grade teacher then, I began to realize that I had the thirty children in my class in my hands. I could determine their destiny, because I had to track them. I had to say which ones could go to college, and which ones can’t.

 

Because they—in those —

 

They tracked them.

 

– days, you were in different tracks?

 

Tracked them. That’s right.

 

Oh.

 

Different tracks And so I said, That’s not right. You know, who am I to tell a child, that child can never go to college? Forget it. We’re gonna give that child every opportunity to excel, and go as far as he or she wants to. Well, this was not according to the rules. So I had a few difficulties with the principals and district superintendents, et cetera, et cetera. So then, I organized and got other teachers who felt exactly like I did; and we formed ourselves into a loose association. I went down to the HGEA office, and talked to the leadership and said, What you need is a teachers’ chapter of the HGEA, because we have no unions around here.

 

Was that before the Hawaii State Teachers —

 

Before —

 

– Association?

 

— the HSTA, before the AFT, before anything. No other organization existed. So HGEA created a chapter for teachers. And I said, Under those circumstances, I want to sit on the board of directors and have an equal vote. And I want to be able to lobby the legislature on behalf of teachers. And Charlie Kendall was the big boss then. There’s a building named after him today. But he was farsighted; he and I sat on my patio and drafted up the charter for the Hawaii teachers—the teachers chapter of the HGEA. And that kicked in to a very vibrant organization, and we gathered many, many members, about three thousand teachers all signed up. And we became a force. Then, the HSTA was created through the HEA at the national level. And that’s when I said, We are going to disband because the HEA, Hawaii Educational Association can lobby in Congress. Whereas, the HGEA cannot. And we need Congressional help. And so I disbanded the whole organization. [chuckle]

 

You ever heard of an association being disbanded? Well, it did happen. And then the teachers came to me and said, Well, why don’t you run for office, you can represent us in the Legislature, not through the organization but as an independent. And so I did run for the Constitutional Convention, though, at first.

 

Was that a nonpartisan race then?

 

Nonpartisan race.

 

1968?

 

Yeah; 1968, and I got elected.

 

Mhm.

 

So then, I was approached to run for the State House of Representatives, and by the Republicans.

 

Now —

 

And I decided, well, that would be a challenge, wouldn’t it, in this state.

 

Well, you know, I’ve always wanted to ask you that.

 

[chuckle]

 

I mean, you were probably a young teacher at the time of the Democratic revolution of 1954, where AJAs, got into power.

 

Yeah.

 

And you weren’t among them; instead, you went against the grain a little later and —

 

That’s right.

 

– ran as a Republican.

 

Because I saw what was going on in the State, and I knew that we had to have alternative choices. We had to have representation from both sides; not just one party, but two-party representation. And I felt very strongly at that time, that the Republicans were not doing well at all, and the Democrats were running roughshod in many ways. So I decided that, Hey, what I’ll do is, I’ll run for the other party, and make a few more waves.

 

Did the —

 

Which I did.

 

– Democrats try to woo you?

 

Oh, yes; oh, yes. Oh, yes; they did. But they were not successful. [chuckle]

 

Because you wanted to shake things up.

 

Yeah; yeah. That’s what I wanted —

 

But it was a lonely job much of the time.

 

Lonely, and difficult.

 

Mhm.

 

But you know, people can—people who believe in you don’t care about your party; they care about you as a person, as an individual, what you stand for; and they’ll vote for you no matter what party you’re in. And that’s what I learned, as I ran for public office.

 

Pat Saiki was elected, as a Republican, to serve in the State House of Representatives from 1968 to 1974, the State Senate from 1974 to 1982, and the United States Congress from 1986 to 1990. Thanks to her efforts and the work of many others in her lifetime, we know the truth of the cliché, “You’ve come a long way baby.”

 

In the State House, you were able to do some things that when women look at what they have in society now, it’s hard to believe that all of these things occurred just in the last thirty, fifty years.

 

That’s right. It’s been —

 

Certainly within —

 

— very recent.

 

– your adult lifetime.

 

Absolutely. When I got involved in politics then, President Nixon appointed me to the National Association of Women.

 

Mm.

 

It was kind of an interesting organization at the national level. And so I was, of course, pleased at being appointed, and went to Washington and sat in on many of the meetings, and watched the Congress perform, et cetera, et cetera.

 

This is while you were in the State House?

 

This was when I was in the State House. And at that time, the whole interest of women being equal rose up.

 

And you had—you remember some of those women who were really outstanding in what they were—they burned their bras and, you know, they marched around and they did all their things. And they were stunts, but they called attention, the media’s attention to what was going on. And it aroused my curiosity to come home and take a look at the laws that we have. And by golly, with Pat Putman’s help in the Legislative Reference Bureau, I asked her to review all the laws that were on the books, and see where there may be discrimination. At the same time, I asked her, and the lawyers, to draft up an equal rights amendment; because this is where the national effort was going. And so we prepared this package of twenty-eight bills, and the Equal Rights Amendment. And I had some good friends in the Legislature—I didn’t work alone; I mean, this was a bipartisan effort, although a lot of people didn’t know it. But people like Senator John Ushijima from the Big Island, his wife Margaret; we had Pat Putman, we had quite a few others —

 

Mhm.

 

— who were Democrats, and committed ones. John Ushijima introduced a companion –

 

In the Senate.

 

In the Senate. And I told him, If you can do this, I’ll do the lobbying in the House. And we did; and we were successful.

 

Well, what are some of those bills that came into law as a result of your steering things through?

 

Well, there was so much. I don’t think the young people today remember. A woman could not have a credit card in her own name. She couldn’t own a mortgage in her own name. And if she were divorced, she had all kinds of problems; her husband—ex-husband had to give permission for her to be able to have access to the bank account. I mean, these were crippling things that held women back. And the private sector, as well as the public sector, could determine the wage of a woman according to the lowest wage of a male in the same job.

 

That was all legal.

 

All legal.

 

And people took it for granted?

 

 

And took it for granted. We changed all that. And a woman who was pregnant couldn’t get maternity leave, with pay. You just couldn’t do it. And we had to change that. We had to change—oh, and if a person wanted to use her maiden name for whatever reason, professionally, or whether when—after divorce, she wanted to retain her maiden name, can’t do it. We changed it; so that today, a woman can use any name she prefers. But the Equal Rights Amendment went flying through our Legislature, because people here understood. The legislators knew that this was the right thing to do for all the women in the world, especially in Hawaii. And you know, we had the very highest percentage of women who were working.

 

Mhm. That was in 1972, when the ERA —

 

Right.

 

– passed here.

 

Right.

 

In fact, a Star-Bulletin columnist, Richard Borreca, did a column a year or so ago where he said an intern in the office couldn’t believe that it was such a big deal when you steered that —

 

M-hm.

 

— that bill through, because —

 

M-hm.

 

— it just seemed like that should have happened, you know, a hundred years ago. But it didn’t.

 

It didn’t.

 

It happened in 1972.

 

That’s right. And that wasn’t that long ago.

 

Mhm.

 

And those were fun years, because we had interested people, concerned people, thinking people, who looked at what Hawaii should be, and how people should be treated. They weren’t that concerned about the petty little things that today, sometimes, take up too much time.

 

Why do you think that is?

 

[SIGH] I don’t know. It’s partisanship gone to the edge, to the far end. It’s the lack of appreciation, I think, of what legislation could do, instead of holding back and trying to constrict and sort of confine people. You don’t have the big thinkers anymore. And in those days, it was fun to work with Jack Burns, Governor Burns. And we had Tadao Beppu, who was really terrific.

 

Youre naming Democrats here.

 

Yeah; they were all pals. I mean, we used to fight like heck on the floor of the House, or on the floor of the Senate, but after that, we went out and had saimin, you know, and we talked about legislation. But I will tell you, the most fun I had, really, was when we joined up with a rascal group of Democrat senators and formed a coalition. Dickie Wong, Cayetano was involved in this, and so was Abercrombie. And we took the power away with half Republicans, half Democrats, and joined the coalition for two years.

 

And that was called the dissident faction —

The —

 

— by the media.

 

— dissident faction by the media; right. And I was fortunate enough to head up the committee on higher education. And it was at that time that we created the Kapiolani Community College up at Fort Ruger. I worked with Joyce Tsunoda —

 

Mhm.

 

— who was chancellor at the time, and we not only drafted up the legislation to make this exchange, which was acceptable to people like Jack Burns, who really wanted that area for a medical school. And we plotted out the parking spots; we wanted to make sure that we had enough parking, so the neighbors would not have to put up with students parking in their streets. It was —

 

And it happened within a fairly —

 

Two years.

 

– compact period of time.

 

Oh, Fudge Matsuda was president of the University at the time. I called him up; I said, Fudge, two years, that’s all you’ve got, because that’s all I’m going to be chairman of this committee; let’s do this in two years, and get it done.

 

And look how long it took to get the medical school and West Oahu University.

 

Right; right. But we did that—oh, and the same year, we built the law school library. So in those two years, we accomplished a tremendous number of things.

 

Okay; and what do you attribute that to?

 

Again, to the coalition; we had the power, we had the votes, and we could move it through. We had Governor Ariyoshi who was open-minded about things.

 

So it wasn’t about, as you said, partisanship to the max; it was about bridging gaps.

 

Right; it was bridging gaps.

 

And it was people who liked stirring up a little dust too.

 

Yeah; that’s what it was.

 

[chuckle] What was it like working with the media at the State House? I mean, you saw the advent of television and now we talk about how there isn’t a lot of time given to television news in terms of digging out stories.

 

M-hm.

 

Have you seen a change in media news coverage?

 

Oh, yes; oh, yes. Because I remember Jerry Burris when he first started, and Borreca. You were there. Lynne Waters was there. I mean, there were many, many people who were part of the legislative scene. And you had a role to play, and you played it well. And we could talk to you. I don’t know what it’s like today. I thought you people did more in-depth.

 

Mm.

 

And you came to seek answers.

 

And you took some hard questions, right?

 

Oh, always; always take hard questions. And tried to be very honest, and straightforward. And so I congratulate you too, for all you did.

 

Thank you very much. You’re from a neighbor island and —

 

M-hm.

 

– you made it in the big city of Honolulu. And then you distinguished yourself representing Hawaii in Washington. How do you look at where we are as a state, and how do you feel about Hawaii today?

 

I think there’s hope for all of us. People in Hawaii are real. They’re true, they’re honest, they’re straightforward, and they’re sympathetic. They believe in this State, they believe in each other, they believe in family. And they’re very close. And this is something that no one can take away from us. And so we will meet the challenges of the future.

 

You say that, but look at the big dispute we’re having over rail. You know, people saying the city can’t handle a big job like that, I mean, we have some major issues that we can’t seem to solve, or get together on.

 

We will. We will. It’s an issue that has come to the forefront; it’s an issue that is going to be dealt with people — honest people, thinking people. And in the final analysis, it’ll be solved.

 

Why do you think we’ll triumph over this? What makes you think that?

 

Because people are going to realize that—it might take time, though, but people will realize that we are not solving any problems by taking these partisan stances and by being so negative about things, and not having an overall view of what is in the future for us. And I have every faith that they will; no question about it.

 

And you’ ve always had faith, haven’t you?

 

Oh, yes; always. Always.

 

Pat Saiki is a get-it-done sort of person – a believer in cooperation across the political aisles;- and not, as she puts it, partisanship gone to the edge. She says she’s pau running for elective office. But she is working for improvements in how Hawaii faces another social issue: eldercare. More on that as our conversation continues with next week on Long Story Short. Please join me then. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. A hui hou kakou.

 

Were you good at everything?

 

No.

 

What werent you good at?

 

My golf game has gone to pot. [chuckle] It’s not as good as I would like. There are things that I would like to do. I’ve never learned to play the piano, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. I haven’t yet done it.

 

Do you plan to?

 

Yeah, I think so. I think I’ll pursue that. So I have other goals.

 

Aloha no; and welcome to Long Story Short on PBS Hawaii; I’m Leslie Wilcox. Last week, Pat Saiki recalled a time in Hawaii’s history when there was bi-partisan collaboration in the State Legislature, instead of what she calls “partisanship gone to the edge.” A Republican, she served as a State lawmaker, U.S. Congresswoman and head of the nation’s Small Business Administration. More with Pat Saiki next.

 

Pat Saiki, wife, mother of five, and public school teacher, entered politics in order to open doors for people, especially women and minorities. And though she was another kind of minority in Hawaii, a Republican, she was able to work across the political aisle to get laws changed. When collaboration failed, the former Hilo girl could be a fierce opponent.

 

Did you ever look at yourself as others might be seeing you, or did you do a lot of introspection that way, or did you just say, Whatever?

 

Whatever.

 

This is who I am.

 

That’s right; exactly.

 

And you didn’t—did you look for mentors or people who could show you by example?

 

There weren’t any. [chuckle] You know. There—I hope that the women who follow after me will pursue their goals and find the successes I did. And like I say, my life with my children, though—I mean, throughout this whole thing, the five kids were raised well, I thought. And my husband was a big help; he was the kind of support that you don’t see or get very often.

 

Ive heard you credited for co-founding the Spouse Abuse Treatment Center.

 

Oh, yes.

 

Is that right?

 

Sex abuse; yes. You know, I have to give credit to my husband for this one. My husband was an obstetrician gynecologist. And he was involved as chief of staff at Kapiolani Medical Center. And he knew about these cases of violent abuse of women, for whatever reason. He wanted to give them help. If they were raped, at that time, they were sent to the morgue to be—shall we say, examined by the pathologist in the morgue.

 

Wow.

 

He just didn’t think that this was right. So he came home one day and he told me, You know, we’ve gotta do something about these women who are being abused, these women who are suffering, not only at the hands of their husbands, but at the hands of those people who really care less about the value of women, respect women. And so he said, What do you think we can do? I said, Well, you’re at Kapiolani Hospital, it’s a medical hospital, it’s a women’s medical hospital; isn’t there something that you folks can do there at the hospital? I said, Why don’t you talk to Dick Davi, Richard Davi, who was then —

 

Who was the head of —

 

— CEO —

 

– Kapiolani, right?

 

Yeah; Kapiolani. So he did. He chatted with Dick Davi, and then he came home and told me, You know, Dick Davi understands the need for this; we have to provide some place where women can feel safe, where women can come in and tell us their story, that they can be examined by physicians, and be given the sympathy and the help with very sympathetic people. He says, But how are we gonna do it? We need money. I said, That’s when I come in. We’ll see what we can do to add this program to the budget, as an add-on. [chuckle]

 

And you were a Republican in the minority.

 

Oh, yes; Republican in the minority. But you see, it’s very easy to tell the story of distressed women, or it could it these legislators’ daughters, it could be their wives, it could be their aunts, it could be anybody close to them in their family. They understood. As long as you presented it to them on a personal basis, these legislators, whether they were Democrats or Republicans, understood the need.

 

Are you saying —

 

And they supported me.

 

 

Are you saying nobody did any horse trading, that they didn’t say, Well, I’ll support that if you support this? But, otherwise, you’re not gonna get my vote on that one.

 

Not on this one; not on this issue. You can horse trade on something else, but not on this one. This is an emotional issue. And there is no need to do any horse trading. And I made it personal to these people. They understood; so they funded it, and it became an add-on to the budget. Later, we wanted to include it as part of the Health Department’s budget. And today, there’s an organization that really promote—the Sex Abuse Center. And, they’ve done their own fundraising, and they’re making themselves more independent.

 

But back then is when rape victims stopped having to go to the morgue to be —

 

Oh —

 

– questioned.

 

Yes.

 

And —

 

Can you imagine —

 

– counseled.

 

— that? I mean, thirty-five, forty years ago, that was it.

 

They werent being counseled, actually, now that I think about it.

 

Not counseled.

 

They were simply being—their statements were being taken.

 

That’s right. And they were sent down to the morgue, and they were examined there, and the police went there, and got the report, and that was it. So I think the Sex Abuse Center of today has done much to help the women who have been caught in this situation.

 

You know, being a Republican in Hawaii at the time—you were serving in the State House—in the minority in the State Legislature. But on the other hand, you were a Republican in a time of Nixon, followed by Reagan, followed by George H.W. Bush.

 

M-hm.

 

Did that help you?

 

Yes, I think so; because I got good ideas from the national level, as to what was available, and I could bring that home. And let’s go back. Let’s go back to Ronald Reagan—when we passed out of the Congress the Reparations Bill.

 

For Japanese Americans?

 

For Japanese Americans who were interned during the war.

 

Did you have a personal connection with internees?

 

My uncle.

 

Mhm.

 

My uncle and aunt; my uncle was an alien, and he worked for a cracker company in Hilo. And he ran also a taxi company. He left those businesses in the hands of my father, because he was taken away and shipped out to Topaz, Utah.

 

Mm.

 

My cousins then had to go up to Topaz and be interned with their parents. So ‘til today, I have a cousin; we call him Topaz. [chuckle] But this Reparations Bill had been sitting in the Congress for years, and years, and years. And Republicans were especially hesitant about passing a Reparations Bill for a minority group; until I got elected. I got elected to Congress, went into the Republican caucus room, and I said, What the heck are you guys doing? Do you know what this means? Do you know it happened? Do you know why it happened? And I’m going to lay on the biggest guilt trip you ever had, and I want you to pay attention, because I’m going to do it now. And I laid it out to them. Newt Gringrich, all of these people were there at the time; he was —

 

This was when you were a —

 

— the leader.

 

You were a brand new, fledgling —

 

Congressman.

 

– Congresswoman.

 

Freshman. Who pays attention to freshmen Congresswomen? But Hawaii never had a Republican in the Congress, so my Republican colleagues paid attention. If I could make it through this State, I must have something that I could share with them; which is what I did, and laid it out on the Reparations Bill, and I got their vote. And so the bill passed the Congress, and then we had to deal with President Reagan. Is he going to sign, is he not going to sign? And the White House people called me and said, I think he’s going to need a little nudging here. So I went down the White House and talked with the president. And I’m not saying that I did it; you know, I’m not claiming that. But I’m saying that maybe I helped move it along.

 

Well, what did he say when—or did—was he aware of the issue when you spoke with him?

 

 

Yes, he was aware of the issue. But he had to think twice, he said, about giving reparations to one segment of the population; there are many, many others who have been discriminated against for one reason or another, and so forth. And he had his arguments, but in the final analysis, he did sign it. So I’m proud of that because I feel the Japanese Americans who were interned—it happened so –

 

Mhm.

 

— unfairly, and unjustifiably.

 

Former President George H.W. Bush said this about Pat Saiki: “She’s an effective, compassionate leader whose voice gets heard, who makes things happen.” The first President Bush appointed Pat Saiki to head the U.S. Small Business Administration. That, after she gave up her Congressional seat to make a run for U.S. Senate against Dan Akaka and lost. She served two terms in Congress.

 

I got to see you in Washington, DC when you were the fledgling Congresswoman. How would you describe how you carried yourself? I mean, you had a big learning curve; anybody who enters —

 

Oh, yes.

 

– Congress does. But were you feisty, were you statesman like, or how did you handle yourself?

 

Well, I don’t know how people looked at me, except that they knew this was a strange kid from Hawaii, the little island in Hawaii; Oriental. They called me a freshman person who needed to be trained, you know. And I bowed my head, and I said, Yes, I’m here to learn.

 

Because seniority is considered everything.

 

Seniority is considered everything. And I’m here to learn, so I need for you to teach me. And I think I could work with those people, and we got a lot of things done. It’s amazing how much was done with this kind of attitude, where you don’t strut around and say, Well, hey, I’m the new kid on the block, and you know, I’m gonna show you a thing or two. Instead, it was, I’m here to learn; teach me, and we can share things.

 

And did you like that job? Did you want to stay in office for quite some time, as it seems like everybody who runs for the Hill wants to stay forever. Did you want to stay in the House for longer than you did?

 

No. [chuckle] No.

 

You ran for Senate.

 

Yes. The House is made up of four hundred and thirty-five people. In order for you to get anything done, you have to deal with four hundred and thirty-four people. And you have to do it every two years, while running a campaign. And I had to run here every two years. And it’s a struggle. I wanted to go in the Senate, where at least you had six years.

 

Mhm.

 

And you had only a hundred bodies there; you had to deal with only ninety-nine. I figured the math is for the Senate. And the opportunity came, of course, unfortunately, when Senator Matsunaga died.

 

Mhm.

 

And so I felt—and my husband did too; he says, Look, you’re not in this game, this political game for any self- aggrandizement or motivation, you’re here to do a job, and you have to do what you think—you have to do it the way you think you can, and do it most effectively. So if you feel that you want to run for the Senate, hey, run. If you win, you win; if you lose, you lose. You haven’t lost anything.

 

Although you had a pretty sure thing hanging on your—you would have hung onto your Congressional

job.

 

Well, so I was told by my Republican colleagues who wanted me to stay. But you know, life is too short; you have to do what you feel you have to. And so that’s another reason that I decided to go for the Senate.

 

So you launch yourself into a Senate race against one of the most beloved men in Hawaii, Daniel Akaka.

 

Yes. He was. Danny is an honorable man; no question about it. But when Matsunaga died and created that opening, I felt that I should go for it. So after discussion with my husband and my campaign people, I decided that I would make a run for it. Well, it also caught the attention of the White House. And this is now George H.W. Bush. He called me, and asked for me to come down to the White House; he had something to discuss.

 

Was that a kick when he called you, or was that just sort of life on —

 

It’s always —

 

– Capitol Hill?

 

— a kick when the President of the United States calls you. And it, you makes you—well, you gotta go.

 

You don’t say, Oh, I’m busy.

 

[chuckle] No, you can’t say, Well, make an appointment. No; so I did go down to the White House. And George Bush was very interested in my running for the United States Senate race. And I said, Well, yes, but it’s going to be a tough race, because Hawaii is a Democrat state, and Senator Akaka, who is now the incumbent, because he was appointed to that position by Cayetano —

 

These jobs just dont come up very often.

 

They don’t come up very often. And it’s gonna be a tough race, so I am thinking it over. I’m looking at possibly running. He says, Well, is there anything I can do? Well —

 

Mhm.

 

— yes, Mr. President, there is something you can do. What is it? I said, Well, the first thing you have to do is stop the bombing of Kahoolawe. He says, Kahoo what? He calls in John Sununu, who was Chief of Staff – he says, John, come in here; now Pat, will you spell this out? Kahoolawe; I did. I did for John Sununu. And I said, Mr. President, it’s very simple. I did my research, and the bombing was permitted by executive order of the president. Therefore, the president can rescind the executive order, and the bombing can stop; it’s part of the RIMPAC exercises.

 

And the military desperately wanted that island because —

 

Oh —

 

– it was a great —

 

— they wanted it.

 

– place to target —

 

To do —

 

– bomb —

 

Yes.

 

– practice.

 

But I explained to him the dangers of the continued bombing; how our state is populated, how the tourist industry has grown, especially on Maui. And when the bombs hit Kahoolawe, the windows shake in Lahaina, and in the whole island. And one day, a bomb is going to go astray, Mr. President, and I don’t think you want to be responsible for that. I think it’s time for us to return that island, a sacred island, to the Hawaiian people. They have wanted that island back, because it is a place where they pray, and they have their history of that island. So he says, the president says, Well, I don’t see why we can’t do this. We’ll have to tell the Navy to go find someplace else to bomb. Well, it didn’t take two months. I called up Hannibal Tavares; remember Hannibal Tavares?

 

The mayor of Maui County.

 

That’s right. And he was chair of the Save Kahoolawe Project.

 

And there was a group; lots of folks who’d been fighting the target bombing for a couple decades at that—

 

Decades.

 

– point.

 

Decades. And I don’t know if they ever did their research to find out that it was a presidential —

 

Mm.

 

— order; because it would not have been that difficult, I think, except maybe they were all Democrats, and we had a Republican president. But Hannibal was a Republican. So I called Hannibal, and I said, Here, this is the news; we’ll see what happens. Two months later, John Sununu called me and said, The president just rescinded the order. I said, Where are you gonna bomb? He says, Well, I don’t know yet, but that’s up the Navy.

 

And

 

[chuckle]

 

And that was—at that point, you were already in a fight for Senate with Daniel Akaka?

 

No, no; it was at that point that I determined that I would run.

 

And you had something to hang your hat on —

 

Yeah.

 

– as far as —

 

That’s what I thought.

 

– I got the president to do this.

 

I thought so.

 

That was a tough race.

 

It was a tough race because Dan is so beloved, you know, and he’s one person that you really don’t want to defeat. And although I ran as —

 

Well, it must have been hard —

 

Oh, yeah.

 

– attacking him, because he is so —

 

I couldn’t attack him.

 

– genuinely nice.

 

Yes; I couldn’t attack him.

 

But you did very well, when you launched. You were —

 

 

Yeah.

 

You were ahead in the polls.

 

It was circumstantial. It was the year when the president had said, Read my lips, no new taxes, and he went back on that word, and everything began to crumble after that.

 

We also saw excellent Democratic feet on the ground —

 

Oh absolutely.

 

– helping —

 

Oh, yeah. The marchers —

 

– Congressman Akaka.

 

— came out. Yes. The unions came out, the marchers came out; they got their act together, and, although I was doing real well in the polls and everything, I was defeated. And it was an honorable defeat; it was an honorable try. I don’t regret it at all, and I’m glad that Dan Akaka is still healthy and well, and working hard for us.

 

And you’ ve always been for the Akaka Bill, haven’t you?

 

Oh, yeah.

 

Are you surprised it has not gone anywhere? Not far enough, anyw ay.

 

Well, no, I’m not surprised, because of the way the voting is going on there. I mean, it’s so partisan, and it’s caught up in that whole mishmash of emotional bills. And this one has, of course, all kinds of nuances.

 

Pat Saiki has been able to make her voice heard and make things happen, especially for women and minorities. She’s a political veteran and risk taker who’s quite familiar with both victory and defeat.

 

Youve won some big races, you’ve lost a couple of big ones.

 

Big ones, yes. [chuckle]

 

The Senate one was a big one, and then the race —

 

The governor.

 

– for governor was a —

 

Yeah.

 

– big one.

 

That was a big one; right.

 

What was that like?

 

Well, that was tough; that was a real tough race, because it was a three-way race between Cayetano —

 

And Fasi jumped in.

 

Frank Fasi jumped in, myself; and Cayetano won.   But he did not win with a huge majority of the vote. And Fasi leaked off quite a few of my votes, and that’s the way the cookie crumbles, I guess. It was one of those things. I don’t know if the State was ready for a woman governor at that point. They are now, because they elected Linda Lingle after that, and she was reelected after that.

 

Do you feel it was a timing thing?

 

Politics is all timing. Everything about politics is timing. It’s who you run against, when you run. It’s like Kirk Caldwell situation with the Office of the Clerk, and when he resigned his House seat, and when he got his papers ready for the Senate race, and all of that. I mean, it’s all a matter of timing. If Ann Kobayashi had announced earlier, if this and that; if, it could have been different.

 

And so—but you say you don’t have any regrets. You—it must be hard when you don’t really have control over these elements and these factors that can completely bash your chances.

 

Well, it’s—but you know, I go back, and I reflect on the times when I was in charge. Like when I was the head of the SBA.

 

Okay; this happened after, right?

 

Oh, yeah.

 

Okay.

 

So I lost the race for the Senate. And George Bush, the president, called me at home, and asked me to come back to Washington, and take —

 

How many—how many times did the president —

 

[chuckle]

 

– call you?

 

Do you know, I got a call from President Reagan, who wanted me to go, and I did, to the Contras in Nicaragua. I took that flight because he asked me to. George H.W. Bush wanted to talk to me about the Senate race. And he also called me after the race was lost, and asked me to head up the SBA.

 

Were you the first Asian to ever head a federal agency?

 

Yes. And the first one from Hawaii too.

 

And a woman, at that.

 

And a woman, at that. And I loved it; it was wonderful. I mean, there you are; you know, you’re heading up this agency, you’ve got four thousand employees, you’ve got a six-billion-dollar loan capability, you have almost a four hundred-million-dollar budget, and you can direct things. You can get things moving.

 

Did you enjoy that more than politics? Although, I know there are politics in those high level government jobs; but did you miss the elective politics?

 

No; at that point, you know, I sank everything into this job. I had to fight with Dick Cheney at one point; he was Secretary of Defense. And I wanted that ten percent of all federal contracts in the Defense Department to come to Small Business. And he was a little hesitant about that, but he finally gave in. And so ten percent; ten percent of all federal contracts had to be referred to minorities. And so we had to control all that, and make sure that, truly, they were minority corporations.

 

Lots more accountability as the —

 

Right.

 

– head of an agency than in a place with four hundred thirty-five votes.

 

That’s right; that’s right. It was—that’s a different job. You know, you go out and you try to get the votes to support your stances. In this other case, you have to be responsible and prove that what you’re doing is right. Oh, remember when we had Hurricane Andrew in Florida, and Hurricane Iniki within a couple of months.

 

Mhm.

 

Iniki was in Hawaii, I got a call from the White House. They said, Pat, this is your state; your state is going to be in the middle of this huge hurricane. I think you’d better get over there right away. So I handled that and tried to get loans for those people on Kauai. But you’re in charge; you know, so it was a different experience. But it was enjoyable; it was fun. I’m glad I did it.

 

And why did you leave it?

 

Oh, I had to. Change in —

 

Oh, change in — uh-huh.

 

Yeah; Clinton came in.

 

Okay.

 

Remember?

 

Thats right.

 

George H —

 

So there’s no way you were gonna say —

 

No.

 

– Excuse me, Mr. President —

 

No.

 

– I’m a Republican, but I —

No, we all had to turn in —

 

– really like this job.

 

— our resignations at that point. So after that, I came home.

 

Oh. And then I’m sure a lot of folks said, Pat, I’m glad you’re back, ‘cause we want you to do this, and—

 

[chuckle]

 

will you run for that, and what about that?

 

Yeah, but you know, I feel like I’ve done my job; I’ve done my duty. I enjoyed every minute of it. I hope that I contributed something that’s worthwhile. And I think I have, with help from a lot of people, Democrats and Republicans.

 

Is there something

 

And I have no —

 

– you would have done differently?

 

— nothing to regret.

 

No regrets?

 

No regrets; no regrets at all. And so today, I sit on the board of governors of the East West Center, which is an institution that I really believe in. I helped to move it along in its early stages when it was developing. And I have another cause, and that is to try to get help for the elderly, for those who are in need. I took care of my father, who died two years ago. He lived with me, I took care of him at home. That’s when I found out that we need to have home care. People want to stay home when they get old; they don’t want to be stuck in an institution at the costs that are exorbitant. And so we have to find ways to give them the kind of life that they deserve, after they’ve worked so hard.

 

Excuse me; but that sounds kinda like a stump speech.

 

Well, no, no. It isn’t.

 

 

Youve ruled out politics?

 

I’ve ruled out politics, but I play politics from a different position now. I’m trying to influence people to think like I do, and think ahead. Because the biggest tsunami that’s gonna hit this state yet is the elderly; the care of the elderly. People are getting older, and we’re not ready.

 

Pat Saiki went from Hilo to Honolulu to Washington DC, always a change agent. Now she’s set her sights on improving Hawaii elder care. From her record, we know that her voice can be calm, persuasive, collaborative; and it can be feisty, even fierce. I’ll be listening for her in the eldercare debate. Mahalo to Pat Saiki, and to you, for joining me for this Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. A hui hou kakou.

 

I just have one more thing to ask. You know, I got to see you in your office, in Congress, on Capitol Hill, did a couple of news reports about you then. And then many years later, after you retired, and I think you were taking care of your father at the time, you had girls’ night out, and you and some —

 

[chuckle]

 

– women friends were at the Blaisdell watching a show. And I was sitting, I think, in the seat—oh, the row in front of you. And you guys were having a ball; you were passing around kaki mochi, and —

 

Yeah, yeah.

 

– li hing mui, and —

 

[chuckle]

 

– you said, Hey, Leslie, you want some? You just looked like you were having a great time.

 

Oh, I do. I did, and I still do.

 

 

 

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