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LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Nora Okja Keller

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Nora Okja Keller

 

Original air date: Tues., Sept. 9, 2008

 

Finding a Voice Through Writing

 

Nora Okja Keller, born to an American father and a Korean mother, has written two critically-acclaimed and important novels, Comfort Woman and Fox Girl, based on the almost unspeakable experiences endured by Korean women during World War II, and the lives of Korean-Americans that came after them.

 

Nora Okja Keller Audio

 

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Transcript

 

If you’re a reader of ethnic books, books about women, or books by local authors, you may be familiar with the writings of Nora Okja Keller. But even if you aren’t, you’ll be delighted to hear Nora’s stories about finding identity and a voice through writing. Aloha no; I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. Welcome to another Long Story Short. Please join me as I sit down with author Nora Okja Keller next.

 

Nora Okja Keller, born to an American father and a Korean mother, has written two critically-acclaimed and important novels, Comfort Woman and Fox Girl, based on the almost unspeakable experiences endured by Korean women during World War II, and the lives of Korean-Americans that came after them. Although Nora’s stories are very dark, she herself is a personable, local hapa girl with a supportive husband and two little girls.

 

You know, if I had read your books without having ever seen you or heard much about you—

 

M-hm.

 

I would be expecting to come to this table today, and to see somebody very dark, with the mileage carved

 

[chuckle]

 

–in her face. Because you conjure up such brutal imagery, and some difficult themes, like abandonment. Where does that come from?

 

You know, I get that all the time. You know, people say, Oh, I thought you were gonna be like, so dour and, you know, like intense. And I think writing allows me to express—we all have that duality. You know, the light and the dark. And I think in part, writing is my outlet for that darkness. So that in the daytime when I’m with my kids, and I you know, go about my daily life, I can release that into the writing, and live you know, very lightheartedly.

 

So by day, in the sunlight—

 

Yes.

 

–you’re a happy—

 

My secret identity.

 

–mom with kids. [chuckle]

 

[Chuckle] I know; I get people say, Oh, I thought you would write like children’s books about you know, happy bunnies in a field or something.

 

[chuckle]

 

[chuckle]

 

And instead, it’s violence.

 

Yeah, so they pick up something like Fox Girl thinking, Oh, it’s gonna be a happy story about, you know, a fox and, you know, woodland animals. [chuckle] And instead, they’re, Oh; that is—it’s something that I do struggle with, and I think in part, that’s why I took a break after writing Fox Girl. The intensity of that. That was a—

 

Yeah, I—

 

–tough, tough one for me.

 

You are a nationally known author, but you’ve lived here, how long?

 

I’ve lived here since I was five. Well, I was born in Seoul. And then my family left Seoul when I was about three, and we traveled a little bit through the U.S. and arrived here when I was five. My dad’s from Ohio, so they went back there, and they went through the Midwest. And then my mom was so unhappy, you know, and especially this was in the 70s, so feeling very isolated. And she knew some of her friends had settled in Hawaii, and she just begged and begged, and they moved here. Basically —

 

So she could feel more comfortable?

 

M-hm. You know—

 

How did they get together? What’s the story of your dad and mom?

 

Let’s see. I’m not quite sure. I’ve heard several different versions. My mom’s a storyteller as well, and so I’ve heard one version that she was a famous singer in Korea, and was singing at a club, and my dad saw her and fell in love. So that’s one version. And then another version I got was that they had met in her village outside of Pusan while he was there for the war, during the war.

 

What does he say? Does he have a version?

 

He just says, Well, what does your mom say?

 

[chuckle]

 

Whatever she says, okay. And I go, well [chuckle]. He says, Ask her. [chuckle]

 

And she had never been here before, but had heard it was a nice place to live?

 

Yes. Well, she had friends, and then her friends would tell her, Oh, you have to come; come visit, come try it out, live here for a little bit. And so that’s what she did. She ended up staying, but my dad ended up go—they ended up divorcing, and he’s now living in New York.

 

I see.

 

Yeah. And she loved it, because she found like a community. And since then, she remarried and moved to Seattle. But she never found that community in Seattle, and since her husband passed away, two, three years ago, she’s moved back, and she’s, you know, reformed the friendships that she’s had for thirty years here. And so this has really been the place that she calls home.

 

And yet, we don’t really have a large Korean population. It wasn’t that, was it—

 

No, no. But my mom has a lot of friends. You know, she’s very gregarious, and so [chuckle]–

 

Are you that way too? Are you very social?

 

I am to a certain extent, but not as much as my mother. I definitely like to have my alone time. And I think most writers do. You know, you need that time to reflect and to think, and to kind of exist in this other world that you’re creating. And to do that, you need some isolation, moments of, moments of quiet.

 

Is anybody allowed to intrude? Can your husband—

 

Oh—

 

–interact with you then?

 

My kids can sometimes; but my husband, no. I’m like, I’m writing. [chuckle]

 

Did you have periods in your life where you felt like you had to choose between your ethnicities?

 

No, not—

 

Or did you have difficulty feeling accepted, or—

 

Well, in adolescence. And maybe that’s just a mark of adolescence, where we’re all struggling against something and rebelling against something. And for me, it was being Korean. And partly because I didn’t know very many other Koreans, except for my mother’s friends, who were first generation.

 

M-hm.

 

And I did go through a period as a teenager saying, Oh, I don’t want to be associated with anything Korean. You know, it’s like, oh, nothing that my mom is—you know, I don’t want to learn any—I don’t want to learn the language, I don’t want to eat the food, I don’t want to—

 

Was that a mom thing?

 

I think in part, that’s a big thing. And so that’s why I say, maybe all adolescents go through that. But I would say, like if people say, W hat ethnicity are you? And I’d say, Oh, I’m a little bit of everything.

 

Ah.

 

You know.

 

You didn’t have to choose sides?

 

I didn’t want to choose.

 

Or pick one.

 

I said, I’m everything. Yeah.

 

Nora Okja Keller has lived in different worlds – from Seoul to Honolulu. Struggling with identity, she found her voice as an author. She began writing during her early school days at Ala Wai Elementary, Hahaione and Punahou. Today, Nora’s works are translated into Korean and published internationally.

 

When did the writing bug hit you?

 

Oh, you know, I think I was always writing. I remember scribbling little poems—in elementary, I would start. And I would do little poems, and I would read something and think, Oh, that’s so wonderful. And I would try to mimic the language in the book, and think about how the writer, you know, put the words together to get that effect, to make it sound the way it did. So I was trying to do that, even in elementary.

 

And were you also looking for a time alone to think about things like that?

 

Oh, I had time alone, because I had to catch the bus home. And so that was my time alone, and I’d write, and then sometimes I’d get so involved I’d miss my stop and end up, you know, having to get—you know, call from the bus station for a ride home.

 

Do you remember what you wrote about in your early years?

 

Oh, I think I wrote—yeah. I do. I wrote about kids I might have, you know, met, and I would form little stories around people. Or I’d see something going on, like maybe somebody walking down the street, an older woman picking flowers or something. And I might write a story about that, or animals. You know, I had lots of pets growing up. We—I grew up partly in W aimanalo, so we had quite a few dogs and cats running around, so I’d have little animal stories.

 

M-hm.

 

Things like that. But you know, all that—when I look back, I think, well, of course I became a writer, because I was doing it since I was a kid. But all that time, I never thought, Oh, I’m gonna grow up to become a writer, I’m gonna do this for my career. I never thought of that.

 

And that was never featured on career day, right?

 

Oh, never. And talking with my mom and my parents, It was like, Well, no, try to you know, do something practical. You know, have something that’s gonna support you for your life. You know, nobody’s gonna listen to you tell stories. You know, that’s not gonna—you know—

 

Did they—

 

–anything like that.

 

–think you were kind of an absent-minded or dreamy girl?

 

Oh, of course. Yeah; definitely. I mean, I missed my bus stop several times [chuckle], you know, just daydreaming, and I’d be, you know, and my family would be having conversations, and I would be somewhere else, you know, thinking, oh, about the characters that I was gonna write about. So they say, Of course, you know, you did that all the time. But that was never—I never considered it an option, you know, that I would become a writer.

 

So when you—when you went to Punahou, what were you thinking in terms of what you were gonna do, and how you were gonna do it?

 

Oh, I don’t—when I was in high school, I don’t—if anything, you know, I was drawn to arts. But the visual arts, so painting, drawing. I loved biology, so I thought maybe I can—maybe I could become that doctor my mom had always—

 

[chuckle]

 

–you know, envisioned. That lasted until calculus. After calculus, I realized, no, I can’t—

 

Back to arts.

 

Yeah; back to the arts. [chuckle]

 

College?

 

UH. I got my undergraduate degree in English and psychology. And even there, I was not sure what I wanted to do. It wasn’t until much later, I would say really, my fourth year—I took five years for that double degree, that I said, Oh, I have enough credits for English, I might as well get a double major, you know, along with psychology, I might as well add English to it.

 

Well, were your teachers not telling you, You should—you’re a writer, you should go into this.

 

My English teachers would say that, but—and I was always encouraged. But it was more like maybe go into teaching, or go into—I mean, I was always encouraged with writing, like You’re a good writer, but—

 

How are you gonna use it? What’s the—

 

Yeah.

 

–paycheck gonna be?

 

It was like, well, what about law school, or you know, how will this translate in the practical world?

 

What writers have you loved along the way?

 

When I was in high school, we had the classics. You know, Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck. And back then, I was drawn to Hemingway for his—you know, the very clean lines, the straightforward. Now, I’m thinking, oh, you know, I can’t bear those, you know, another war story and another—you know, another manly man point of view. When I was in college, I took an Asian American studies course, and one of the people that we read was Maxine Hong Kingston. And that was actually the first time I read something and I thought, Oh, you know, this is someone who has a background similar to mine, and we can write about this? You know, we can write about stories that talk about ethnicity, and we can write about stories that talk about girls? It was a really a moment that I thought, Oh, there’s room for a voice like mine. And so she was a strong influence at that time in my life. Cathy Song, who I read in that class as well, has been as a friend now, a big influence in my life.

 

So she influenced you as a writer—

 

Yeah.

 

–and you got to know her, and she’s a friend?

 

Yeah. It’s so funny, because in that class, I remembered asking—going up to my professor after class one day and saying, Well, you know, I’m thinking about writing, and do you—can you recommend any—are there any Korean Americans that we can read? Because we had read, like, Chinese American, Japanese American, and Filipino American. You know, those very—the big ethnicities at that time, I guess. And so I said, Is there any

 

Korean Americans that I could look to as role models? No.

 

[chuckle]

 

[chuckle] I went, Oh, oh. I was like in shock, and I didn’t know what—and I was like, Oh, there’s nobody for me to follow.

 

Did you find Cathy Song on your own?

 

No. And the next day, she said, Oh, I was thinking, and you know, Yes, yes, there are. You know. And in fact, Cathy Song is one, but she’s only half Korean. I said, That’s okay. You know.

 

[chuckle]

 

[chuckle]

 

So am I.

 

Yeah; exactly. So then I read her works, you know, Picture Bride, and I wrote part of my thesis on Cathy. And didn’t meet her until after that. And now, we’re—we ended up, she’s one of my best friends. And so it’s fun how things kinda circle around.

 

Nora Okja Keller has found a small group of writers, including poet Cathy Song, with whom she feels comfortable sharing her work. And, in Comfort Woman and Fox Girl, she was able to eloquently and vividly depict abandonment, abuse, survival, redemption. The term ‘comfort woman’ is a euphemism from World War II, referring to a woman forced into sexual slavery.

 

When you wrote Comfort Woman, what kind of research did you do to find out these just horrible scenarios that happened?

 

Yeah. W ell, when I first heard about it in ’93. There wasn’t a lot of information on it. You know, I had thought I knew a lot about Korean history and Korean culture because of my mom, and her stories about growing up, and just reading about it. But when I first heard about it—heard about it through a symposium at UH. Keum-Ju Hwang, a former ‘comfort woman,’ came to speak there. And as she spoke, I just remember thinking, Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe this. You know, this is such an important part of this history, and how come I didn’t hear about this? You know, kind of like—

 

How come you didn’t?

 

Well, I think in part—and I had asked this of my mom. You know, you told me so much about this history, you knew so much about culture, and I ask you for all these stories. Where are these stories about these women? And she said, W ell, you know, it’s such a painful thing to talk about, for Koreans in general, I think, and for her generation, that they just didn’t speak about it. And even my older sister, who didn’t leave Korea until she was a teenager; she said she remembers like there might be some reference. Like on the Korean soap operas, there’d be like this mysterious woman, veiled in black, going through the background. And the reference would be, Oh, you know, do you see that woman? Something bad happened to her during the war. And so it would be understood, but never talked about. And I think there was so much pain, and so much shame surrounding that event. And Keum-Ju Hwang said it herself, that so many of the women—well, the women who survived—you know, I’ve read statistics since then that maybe ninety percent of the women did not even survive the camps. But the women who did survive felt like they couldn’t even return to their family, and they carried so much of that shame within them, that they couldn’t even speak about it, and they didn’t talk about that part of their lives.

 

What was the reality? What were the lives like of the Korean women who were taken captive, and then forced to act as comfort women?

 

Oh; oh. Well, there was probably, you know, hundred, two hundred thousand women—Korean women, not to mention the Chinese women, the Indonesian women, Filipino women. These were women between the ages of eleven or twelve, and thirty-five, forty, who were taken forcibly by the Japanese army, taken into small camps. And they were, in some cases, taken out of the classroom, taken away from families, and forced into these, you know, camps where they were kept to service the Japanese soldiers.

 

And what kind of hardships did they go through; they were raped?

 

Right; repeatedly. You know, forced to service maybe thirty to forty men a day, abortions. And I think, to add insult to all of that, is that the women who survived these camps were not—were treated as like as invisible, you know, by the Japanese government afterwards. And you know, as nonexistent and that there were no camps. You know, that was the parting line right after the war; Oh, no, there was no such thing as these camps, and there was no such thing as these women. If these women were there, they wanted to be there, they volunteered. It was, you know, that they did it to support the army. You know. It was—that was the attitude. So I think maybe that was one of the most hurtful things for these women. And added to why it was so difficult for them to speak about their stories, you know, along with the shame and along with the trauma, is that they had to deal with you know—the official line was they did not exist. Yeah.

 

So either they didn’t exist, or they had to define themselves as what awful things happened to them.

 

Right; right. Yeah.

 

And you said most of them couldn’t go home?

 

Yes; so many of them, did not return to their families. Some—you know, in their families’ eyes, they were dead, they didn’t return from the war. And they—the families might not have known what happened to them.

 

Why didn’t they go home?

 

Keum-Ju Hwang said, because the girl that she was, was now dead, and that she could not bear to shame her family with what had happened to her.

 

Thats one of the themes in both books.

 

M-hm.

 

It’s what it takes to survive.

 

Right.

 

And how do you move on?

 

Right; how do you move on, how do you continue to form connections with other people, how do you continue to love? What do you pass on to the next generation?

 

How do you be open to other people, when you’ve seen this just dastardly horrible side.

 

Right. Exactly. Exactly. So that’s something that I circle back to again. And the strength and the fortitude that it takes to be able to do that, to not just give up and say, I’m—that’s it. [chuckle] You know.

 

Well, in both of your books, I think your characters just put their minds in another place. They just detach from their body. Which might work as a short term strategy, but how does that affect them later in life?

 

Right; right; you know. Well, I think there’s always gonna be a disconnect that you are in some ways present for your children or the people in your lives. But there’s always that part of you that is held back. And for something as horrific as those experiences and the prostitution in the comfort camps, it’s not something that they would share with their children. So there’s always something hidden, and something withheld, and that’s a type of pain as well. You know, not to be fully open.

 

And if you do share, as your children might want you to, you’ve just given them just—

 

Yes.

 

–terrible images

 

A burden.

 

–to live with.

 

Right. You’ve passed on your burden.

 

M-hm.

 

You know, some readers have come up to me and said, Oh, you know, after I read, you know, Comfort Woman or Fox Girl, now I feel like I have this burden, you know. And I said, Well, then I’ve done my job as a writer.

 

M-hm.

 

You know, I—

 

The burden of—

 

–felt like I was—

 

–history.

 

–carrying that. Yeah; I was carrying that burden writing it, so now you know, you’ve read it. It’s—you know, you share that burden—

 

What has your mom said about your taking up this burden of history?

 

Oh, you know, she’s proud. You know. And one of the most moving things for me after Comfort Woman was written and published in Korean, I got to take my mom and my kids to Korea. And she hadn’t been back for twenty-five years. And to be there with—when she was reuniting with some of her family that she hadn’t seen for that long, and to—at the same time that was my book was coming out; I mean, it was just really—it was so moving. And to be able to share that with her. So I told her, The book’s an apology for all the times that I said I wasn’t Korean—

 

[chuckle]

 

–and I didn’t want to, you know, participate in culture, and wear the hanbok—

 

[chuckle]

 

–dress, and so we laugh about it now. I was so blessed at that time, and—

 

And timing is good too, isn’t it?

 

I think—

 

There was a—there was a desire to see this material come out.

 

Yes. Because that was just about the same time that the first—that the comfort women first began speaking about it, and first breaking their stories, you know. Keum-Ju Hwang said she’s talking about it now, after all these years because she—before she dies, she wanted the story to be known, this history to be known. And so I think a lot of the comfort women were coming out—coming forward with their stories at that time. The struggles that I portray in the book are so intense and so—you know, most of us will never have to experience something, but we all go through our struggles, and we all strive for redemption. W e all strive to make connections, and to open ourselves up, and to find that grace in life. And so I feel like that’s just as important to write about.

 

You know, you said you showed chapters you’d written to fellow local writers, and of course, you had an editor in New York. What’s it like when you know, these words are you baby, and the crafting belongs to you. When somebody wants to change it, what’s that like?

 

Well, first I do a lot. I try to get my vision down as closely as I can on paper first, before I can even bear to show it to somebody in my writing group, even. But these are people I trust. And I know, like, they’re such good people that I feel like I can trust them with my work, and that they’re gonna look at the work and say, This is what it needs. This is what I think needs to be done. Or even if anybody says, I don’t like it, it’s for the good of the piece. And I know it’s always with the good intentions of how can we make this writing better. And in fact, when I teach classes, that’s the attitude that I go in with. And I say, You know, it might seem like I’m gonna write all over your paper, and I’m gonna say, This doesn’t work here. But my intention is always, How can I make this piece better, how can I make something become what it should be, or closest to the vision that you have in your head.

 

So it’s like artists who—or sculptors who start with a piece of stone or wood, and they say they’re freeing something from that material.

 

I think in some ways. I always you know, I started out thinking I was gonna be—if I was gonna be any artist, it would be in the visual arts, like drawing or painting. And so when I think of, you know, crafting a story or crafting a novel, that’s kind of the terms that I think of it as. Like, a rough sketch, you know. Doing the background wash, you know.

 

And what does it—

 

Adding the—

 

–want to be. Yeah.

 

Yeah. You know, what form is emerging from this, you know. So it is, that is somewhat. And trying to communicate that to my writing group first, and having another eye look at the piece, and saying, Well, this form is still a little bit hazy, you know, can you sketch it, you know, bring it forward a little bit. Or this character should not be a background character; you need to make this character—bring him into the foreground. You know, so it does help. And so you know, I’ve been so, so lucky to have people that I trust, you know, first reading it, being first editors for my work.

 

M-hm. I think I remember you saying this is gonna be a—

 

M-hm.

 

–trilogy. And there hasn’t been a third book yet.

 

I know.

 

Whats the third book going to be about?

 

It will take place in Hawaii more so than the other two books. But still follow the theme of—you know, Comfort Woman dealt with the comfort women during World War II. Fox Girl, Korean War, but took place mainly in Korea. This next book will kinda jump forward another twenty years or so, and reflect more on Korean Americans in Hawaii.

 

So there’s more to come from this talented writer, mining a rich, largely unexplored cultural vein – the Korean-American experience in Hawaii. Mahalo to Nora Okja Keller for sharing stories; and to you, for enjoying them with me. Please join me next week for another Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. A hui hou kakou!

 

You’ve become a teacher part time—

 

Part-time.

 

–recently. What’s that like, creative writing?

 

Oh, it’s fun. And I’ve been teaching students younger than I’ve taught before. And it’s so fun. It’s something that I’ve found that I really enjoy. And I enjoy teaching the younger students, because you know, they take them— they don’t take themselves as seriously, I think. And they are more willing to take risks with their stories, and they’re more willing to explore different things. And I find that refreshing, and it reminds me a little bit about what writing, creative writing should be; you know, a little bit of risk taking, a little bit of exploration, a little bit of saying, I don’t know what this is gonna turn out to be, but I’m willing to go along with this story in the time being. So I just enjoy them. They’re so funny.

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Quinn Kelsey

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Quinn Kelsey

 

Original air date: Tues., Mar. 17, 2009

 

From Hawaii to the Metropolitan Opera

 

Hawaii born-and-raised Quinn Kelsey has grabbed the “brass ring” in the opera world – a major role at the New York Metropolitan Opera. Critics have described his voice as ” a beautiful instrument notable for its flexibility and warmth” with a “honeyed timbre and an ability to plumb expressive depths.”

 

Quinn Kelsey Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

At the ‘ripe old age’ of thirty, Hawaii born-and-raised Quinn Kelsey has grabbed the ‘brass ring’ in the opera world—a major role at the New York Metropolitan Opera. A baritone, Quinn played Schaunard in the Met’s production of perhaps the most beloved opera of all time—Puccini’s La Boheme—which also reached a nation-wide audience on PBS’s “Great Performances At The Met.” It is just one of the highlights of a whirlwind career for the humble, soft-spoken, Native Hawaiian who attended Stevenson Middle School and the UH Lab School in Honolulu. We’ll sit down and chat with Quinn Kelsey about his journey from Manoa to the Met—next.

 

Aloha no, I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. This episode of Long Story Short features Quinn Kelsey, who’s a rising star in the intensely competitive world of opera. Critics have described his voice as “a beautiful instrument notable for its flexibility and warmth” with a “honeyed timbre and an ability to plumb expressive depths”. Growing up in Honolulu, Quinn seemed destined to become an opera star. Both of his parents, Chris and Debbie Kelsey, are accomplished singers who performed in many Hawaii Opera Theatre productions. For Quinn, an interest in music was a given—a natural part of childhood.”

 

My folks actually met, singing a duet at the University. And uh, uh, I—I always love to say, you know, be able to brag and say, Oh, uh, my—my—my folks met in music, and you know, I get—I get certain kinds of music from my father, and certain kinds of music from my mother. And so—

 

How does it break down?

 

Um, well … my—my mother studied—studied uh, piano, and—and she was the one who listened to a lot of classical music, and um, sang in church. And so I guess everything else, I got from Dad; um, folk and rock, and—and uh … and um, and then, you know, I guess—I guess my general appreciation for music sort of—sort of um … you know, smashed together with those two.

 

What was—what do you—what was your—were your parents singing when they met?

 

Oh, shucks. Was it Lei Aloha Lei Makamae, I think? Yeah; one that they still do. So [chuckle] there’s a lot of history in that. [chuckle]

 

So was the—the music appreciation for you effortless, or did they have to kinda say, Come on, let’s—let’s do your music now?

 

No, no; it—it—it was very much effortless. I mean, you know … we—we are very much the—the—the tight knit family, because—because of our music. My sister and I grew up, and—and our parents together, with music everywhere. My mother was a choir director, um … she still—she—she—she is a choir director um, at the uh, at the Laboratory School, and she ha—she’s also a choir director at a Baptist church in Manoa. So … as—as soon as my sister and I could—could carry a tune, it was, Oh, okay, now, now come and join Mom’s choir, or go—you know, go and sing there. And … and um … and my father sort of did that too. He—he was a member of—of the adult choir at my mother’s church. And um … you know, and then opera chorus came along, and my mother was the first one to go do it, because she’s the one who had the background. And—and then she sort of dragged my father into it. And um, as soon as my sister and I were old enough, we joined the chorus as well. And … music was just … it was—it was so common, common sense for us, you know, that we didn’t think twice about it.

 

Any particular kind of music you liked when you were younger?

 

No, uh, you know, I—I … I—I sort of pride myself when I—when I say that my—my type—my tastes were pretty eclectic from—from a very young age. Um … you know, I … uh … definitely lots of Hawaiian music, growing up. You know, I mean, oh, I was talking to my father this morning about the old KCCN jig—jingles, you know, with—with Auntie what’s her name, and you know, chiming the every quarter hour or—

 

M-hm.

 

–whatever it was. So it was just … there was just so much going on that, you know, we—we pretty much ran the gamut of all the different genres in music. And you know, I still enjoy them all. I like to say that … music ha—music is sort of like a mood, you know, for me. That however I’m feeling at a—at an opportune moment, you know … parallels with some kinda music. You know, and so that’s—that’s when I’ll—I’ll listen to …

 

Punk rock.

 

Or something, you know. You know, working out; okay, punk rock and heavy metal. Or … or … relax, you know, soft jazz or—or you know, some kinda nice symphonic music. ‘Cause I mean, it—it all just kinda fits into a specific moment.

 

There’s no kinda music you just don’t like, just hate to hear it?

 

Um … [chuckle] I … for whatever reason, I just haven’t been able to … get my brain around country western.

 

Really?

 

Sorry to say that for people out there who—who really enjoy it. I … I—I … I like a lot of different things, and uh, I don’t know. I don’t know; maybe it’s just a specific kind. But—

 

Well, it has a lot of themes like opera, you know. Just … you know, the … the deep sadness of the human condition.

 

You’re right; you’re right

 

Lots of emotions.

 

Sure. So … I don’t know, maybe—maybe I need to give it another try.

 

[Laughs]

 

I have to admit that I am a neophyte when it comes to appreciating opera, and Quinn was very patient in explaining the rudiments of the art form to me—things like a singer’s range. Quinn is a baritone, so he is considered for certain roles—usually NOT the romantic leads, which are traditionally written for tenors. Range is not typically a choice one makes—it’s something one discovers, and Quinn discovered he was a baritone at that awkward age known as adolescence.

 

…it’s just that age where the voice kinda sounds funny. It’s because, you know, puberty is taking over, and the body’s changing. But … because I’d been singing at such a young age, my … you know, the whole vocal mechanism … um, I guess … uh, began to mature or change earlierfunny story. I was um—there’s a—there’s a duet that my father and I sing at Christmas. And … until my voice dropped, I sang at a range that was above his. And that’s just what I knew. And somebody recorded it, and then I think the following year, my voice dropped. And so we had to get a new arrangement of the music … and I—I—I began to get used to singing in the lower range. And then I saw the video, and I was going … That’s just wrong, there’s something wrong about that; I don’t do that anymore. You know, the—it didn’t feel comfortable, because—because my voice had—had made that huge transition. I dropped from a boy soprano, all the way down to probably … a bass, or a bass baritone, which is pretty low. And I stayed there for a while um, until I started um … to begin actual, you know, formal training in—in uh, voice techniques and thing.

 

When did opera come into your consciousness?

 

M-m … I guess … well, um, as I say, my—my father—my father went uh, went into opera chorus um, after my mother; my mother dragged him into it. Um, and so that was about the late 80s. So my sister and I were finishing—were at the end or finishing uh, elementary school. And there just—there wasn’t a whole lot of opportunity for us to get into opera. We—we would have expected to just follow Mom and Dad, and go sing with them in the chorus, but we were way too young.

 

What did you think of it when you heard opera? I mean, for some people, it—it’s off-putting, it’s hard to understand off the top.

 

Well, um … we—we didn’t understand everything about it, but—but we understood the music part of it. That oh, this is just music. You know, it’s just notes, like everything else we’d do. You know. Um, you know, no, it’s—it’s not in Hawaiian, no, it’s not in English with—you know, with uh, singing a hymn or something, but—but it’s still notes. It’s still notes, and it’s still words, and we’ll deal with the words later. But it’s still music. And so—

 

Did you get a sense it was telling a story, or was that to come later?

 

That sort of came later. It was just that it was music, and it was—that’s what we—that’s what we knew how to do, and … everything else—everything else just fell in. I mean, first of all, that it was music, and—and that’s what we knew how to do, and so … you know, it—it uh … there—I mean, the appreciation for the actual art form came later. But right away, first of all, it was that Mom and Dad are doing it—doing this, so we should do it too.

 

By the time Quinn was a teenager, he had been exposed to all kinds of music. He had no idea he was destined for a life in the opera, until he experienced it for himself on the big stage.

 

… one small realization was um, the first time I stepped on the stage at Blasidell. You know, and before then, you know, the—um, the symphony had always had school programs where all the public schools and all the private schools come in, you know, for a day or two and—

 

M-m.

 

–and you know, they’ll play Star Wars, and they’ll play Indiana Jones, and all that kinda stuff. And you go—

 

M-hm.

 

–Oh, wow, you know, I know that. And it—and it was—it was so exciting, because here’s all this movie music, but it’s—you can actually see them playing all the instruments. And um … then that’s all I’d ever known of the Blaisdell, was the stage and the way it looked from the house. And … the—first day that … that we were um, we were at the Blaisdell after rehearsing at another hall … you know, to be able to walk out … walk out on the stage, and … take a look at all the scenery and everything, and where we were supposed to be, an—and just to have that perspective, looking out into the audience and remembering, Wow, you know, I used to sit up in the balcony over there, and … and how different it was. And … I don’t know; I guess—I guess I was just … uh, from then on, I was hooked.

 

Didn’t get scared of all the people looking at you, and what would happen if you made a mistake; nothing like that?

 

There—there—there was always—th—there was—there was a lot more of it, definitely, in the beginning. But … but that um … that uh, my sister and I had been—had been in front of audience, my folks and I, you know, we’d all … um, performed in front of people. So it wasn’t that much of a … of a problem.

 

M-hm.

 

In fact, it was um, for a bunch of years from then on, until … gosh, probably … probably up until about five years ago, um … it was easier to perform in front of thousands of people, than it was to perform … for a group of … twenty or twenty-five.

 

Because you could see faces in the group of twenty or twenty-five?

 

Yeah; that was a lot of it. And—and you knew that there were a ton more people out in the Blaisdell, but that you were far enough away. [chuckle] That the open space was—you know, was enough.

 

M-hm.

 

So …

 

Well, when did opera become your number one dream?

 

Probably—probably at uh … in the middle or towards the—probably in the mid—in the middle of—of—of college. Um, that it was still—it was still sort of uh, just a—a novel—a novelty kinda thing through the end of high school and in the beginning of college, and … and then it—you know … probably about the middle of my undergrad, I—I … I realized that I had to—I had to really decide, well, what am I gonna do?

 

Were you majoring in vocal performance at that time?

 

I did. Um, I—I declared my major um, by the—the spring—it was either the spring of my first year, or the fall of my second. Um, I actually tried, because—because music is just, you know, so me, so us, I—I tried—I tried other things. I tried um, I tried visual art. You know, I love—

 

M-hm.

 

Um, I did a bunch of that in high school, and I really liked it. I had really great teachers. Um, I tried um, I tried marine biology, because you know, I love looking at fish tanks all day long. I could—yeah; I could do that forever.

 

[chuckle]

 

Um, you know, besides the fact that, oh, my gosh, we live in the middle of, you know, the biggest ocean in the world. Um … I tried uh, I tried … um … um … Hawaiian studies. You know, I—I have a huge respect and love for—for my culture and everything that it’s about. And um … you know, just—just to see if there’s anything else, because there was a—there was a part of … of going into music that sort of felt like—like I was shortchanging myself, that I was just kinda … slacking, because I knew—I knew that I—I had such a hold on it already.

 

M-hm.

 

So I—I tried; I tried to just give other things a chance, just see if there was anything else that would—that could be as strong as music. And there wasn’t.

 

M-hm.

 

And so that—that’s when I said, Okay, you know, let’s—let’s do this, and … met with—with my advisor, and that was sort of the beginning of the end, per se.

 

And when did the opera part of the vocal performance come along?

 

It—it came—it came pretty—pretty much right away. I mean, there was uh, there was a lot of classical music, besides opera, but that … you know, there’s um, you know, so many of the—of the faculty uh, at the music department at the University, um, are—are professional musicians themselves. And so there was just no way to—to get away from it, you know. And um, until I’d come to University, I’d seen so many of them on stage or in the pit, or backstage, and you know, was already familiar with so many of these folks. And it was just a matter of taking that next step and saying, Okay, this is what I want to do, and you know, finally being able to—to um … take advantage of those connections that I’d … sort of made already, growing up in uh, in opera chorus.

 

Isolated in the middle of the Pacific, Hawaii is not exactly the first place the world’s leading opera companies would think to look for budding young talent. Fortunately for Quinn, Hawaii Opera Theatre created an apprentice program that eventually led Quinn to a job with the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

 

Um … well, um, the Hawaii Opera Theatre started … a program, uh, about the same time that I declared my major at the University. It was a small studio. Um … I don’t know how they were able to—to latch onto all the—all the list of—of professionals that they did, but they did. And they—I mean, they brought—I … I went to s—the San Francisco program, because I—I met them, I met uh … I met Mark Morash and Rick Harrell. Rick Harell was the director of—of the Merola program in San Francisco at the time. So got to know them. Uh, they—they came out uh, two or three summers. Got to know my uh … my eventual boss at uh, the Chicago—the Lyric Opera Chicago apprentice program, Richard Pearlman.

 

Through here at the Hawaii Opera Theatre?

 

Through here at the Hawaii Opera Theatre.

 

One thing led to another, and Quinn now finds himself near the top of the heap.

 

When you hit the big time, were the—were people skeptical about this Hawaiian guy?

 

Of course. Who is he? You know, we’ve never heard of him before. You know, looking at my resume and … oh, he studied in Hawaii, ooh.

 

[chuckle]

 

Oh, an—and it was—it was um, it was refreshing, though. It was—it was uh, it was scary, you know, it was—it was um … it was nerve—terribly nerve wracking. But that … it um … I guess it—it just … it really just put—it—it just put this impression on me that, you know, well, you know, this is what you’re gonna have to deal with. You know. This is—this is the kinda pressure you’re gonna have to …

 

The pressure to perform to a very high level, or the—the—the perception that if you’re from Hawaii, you—you might not really get this opera thing?

 

Both; both. You know, that—that people will expect so much more.

 

M-hm.

 

You know, because you know, who is this kid, thinking he’s gonna come in here and do that? And it wasn’t al—it wasn’t ever that bad. But th—there was—you know, there was that sort of undercurrent.

 

But you know, my experience um, with a television station that presents opera performances is that opera buffs are very exacting and discriminating.

 

M-m.

 

And uh, they don’t have a lot of patience with imperfection. I mean, they—they root for you, but they want real high quality.

 

Well, they—you know, be—because—because it’s—it’s just … you know, not just anybody can do it. You know, and … and … you know, I mean, I—I agree. Y—you—you—you want somebody that—you want somebody in the parts singing the roles … that you can count on. You know, because—because it’s not—it’s not like getting up … getting up in front of—in front of, you know, the Saturday night group at—at … whatever little mom & pop bar or something to—for—for open mic night. You know, this is serious music, and if you do it right … it’s just this beautiful thing, you know. So I—I—I understand that they just—they get really picky, because—because they—they do understand what the possibility is for the outcome.

 

Quinn is an imposing figure onstage. One critic compared his physique to that of a professional linebacker. I assumed the power of Quinn’s voice might have something to do with his build, a big diaphragm controlling his lungs and breathing. A newcomer to opera, I wondered if a large frame is necessary to excel in this field.

 

Are there any skinny opera singers?

 

Of course. And—

 

Who are really good?

 

And they—they … [chuckle]. Why are you asking me this kind of question? Um, no, I—I—I know a handful of singers, um, a handful of colleagues who—who are just in really great shape, and they’ve—they’ve um … they’ve learned—you know, they’ve—they’ve developed their technique, you know … um, utilizing their—you know, their own physique, and—

 

Doesn’t it seem to you—

 

–it works.

 

–though, that most are bigger?

 

Well—

 

An—and why is that?

 

Um, I’ve … i—in—in my own experience, uh, with—with colleagues, with colleagues who—who are, you know, bigger physically, um, because … well, that um … your bo—your body is—is tuned to—to being able to handle all the—the—you know, the bulk and the weight. And um … you know, that—that you have a larger lung capacity, you know, that uh, that your circulatory system has to be able to work to, you know, to … provide you know, all the extremities and things with blood, so it’s used to, it’s used to—your body is used to performing in—you know, at that physical level. And … and so, you know … better—better lung capacity is a great thing for singers to have. You know, when you—when you know that you can ha—that you have all this extra breath, you know, and it helps—it helps um … it helps to know that—that, well, you can hold this line out a couple more seconds—

 

M-hm.

 

–because this—this will sound really good, or that you can give a line much more shape because you’ve got the extra air.

 

Do you do anything to develop your lung capacity?

 

Uh, it’s—it’s—it’s all a part of training. You know, uh, certain kinds of warm ups, um … just ways—ways of—of … always making sure that you sing—sing things a certain way. And it’s just the … it’s more—it’s more so—the kind of thing that you have to do, that you can’t—you can’t study. I mean, studying—studying, yes, in terms of, you know, working on a piece, and—and always remem—remembering to—to prepare for that one phrase that needs the extra air. But that’s—that’s about it; there’s nothing that you can do outside of … singing the actual music. But you know, that … that uh, we have advantages like that, that uh … that a more slimmer body style wouldn’t. But I mean, you know, that’s not to say that—that the—that uh, the slimmer person can’t sing. You know.

 

New York City seems to be the home of so many public venues that represent the pinnacle of different performing arts. For the musician there is Carnegie Hall. For the stage actor there is Broadway. For the opera singer, there is the Met.

 

…the Met holds, what, four thousand people?

 

Right; about four thousand.

 

What’s that like, facing the Met audience?

 

It was—it—it uh … it was magic. It was magic, uh—

 

Can you see faces in the crowd?

 

Some; some, if—you know, if you get down close to the edge of the stage and—

 

Are you really looking, though?

 

No. But uh … I mean, you know, that’s—it’s—it’s—it’s the one company that … so many singers aspire—aspire to. And uh … I remember it wasn’t the first day; it was the second day. Because at the end of the first day, uh, I went to get my—my—my little badge, and it’s got—you know, it’s—it’s got a little magnetic strip on it, because you can actually swipe it. Um, one door—uh, one door takes you to the corridor that takes you down to the—the dressing rooms. Which is nuts in itself, because you—you walk through—you walk through the corridor to the dressing rooms, and you’re walking in the footsteps of Pavarotti, and all these other huge—Sherrill Milnes, you know, all these people who are just—you think of opera, and you know, you list these people. And here you are … walking in their footsteps. You know, and the—the … you know, all the—all the—the décor in the dressing rooms hasn’t changed; it’s all the same stuff. You know, it hasn’t—I mean, they’ve kept it clean and they maintained it, but you know, they haven’t overhauled it all, so it’s all the same chairs and pianos, and bathrooms that—that all these big names used, and it—and—

 

Presence of greatness

 

Oh, my gosh. And it was that second day when I—when—when I walked in, and nobody gave me a second look, because I just pulled out my badge, and I went, wh-sh-sh. And it was like they were saying …

 

You belong.

 

Exactly. Ah, you know, the door—the door opened, so he must—he must belong here. And it was … chicken skin. You know. I mean—

 

And did you feel, I do belong here?

 

I really did.

 

I’m this good.

 

Well, I—I didn’t go that far, and I’m—I never will. But just—just that—just to know that, you know, you walk down a hallway, and … people don’t look at you if they don’t recognize you. They just kinda look at you and, Okay, well. The same way the security guard said, Ah.

 

You don’t like—you don’t like the star treatment?

 

Oh, I—I—I lo—I love—don’t get me wrong; I love the star treatment. You know, I—I love … I love the Mr. Kelsey this, and the Mr. Kelsey that, and it’s—it’s—you know, it tickles me to no end. But um … no, I’ve … I’ve always considered myself very easygoing, and so I—I just—I don’t like to make a big deal about it. So I—I just—you know, I don’t. You know, I—it’s … it feels good, it feels good to be able to … to know that my um … my professional reputation is like this, and … that I can—I can turn away an—and … and uh, and so you know, I—I … I always—I always sort of shrug it off when people say, Oh, well, you know … you know, this and this, and this, and this. These reviews were so wonderful, and you know, we—we love listening to all this, you know. You know, did you hear what they said about you? And I always go, No, no; no, that’s not me. Oh, yeah, it is. Well. Then I just—you know, I … and I tell them—I tell them, I just—I let you enjoy it, and you—you say all you want, and thank you very much. And it’s just—I just … I don’t ever want to be that person. You know, I don’t want to be that person going, Well, well of course, yes, you know, where’s—where’s my first class ticket, and—you know.

 

You must work with a lot of egos.

 

Well, i—in—in the business, there can be a lot. Um, you know, I’ve—I’ve definitely seen a handful of them, you know, in the last … especially in the last uh, five years.

 

You debuted at the Met. I mean, that’s uh, that’s a wonderful stamp, and you’ve been getting a lot of work. But um, how much do you worry about the future, and what do you—what do you hope the future will hold? What’s the goal?

 

Well … um … five years ago, when I first moved to Chicago, I … I didn’t know what to think, you know. Uh, I—I knew where I had to go, I knew I had this job that I had to go to, I—I—I knew I had to do things like find an apartment, and … live. But you know, now, I can sit back and … think about things like, oh, I don’t know, moving back home to Hawaii. You know, that um … five years ago, I … I’ve—if you’d have asked me, you know, you—when you—when are you coming back home, I really wouldn’t have even been—even been able to have … thought about it.

 

Why? Because you couldn’t afford it? Or you had too much invested?

 

I—I knew—I knew—I knew I couldn’t afford it. I knew … I—I knew I couldn’t afford to live at home, because nobody would—nobody would hire me, being that they would have to fly me from Hawaii to wherever they were—wherever they were.

 

But now, you can think about it; people would fly you?

 

Not now. But that I know—I know that there—you know … it—it’s out there, that—that it is plausible, that—that … if nothing else, if—if I can maintain the—the level of success that I’m at now, uh, down the road … maybe fifteen, twenty years, I might actually be able to … you know, sit down and say, Okay, let’s—let’s go … look for a place back home. You know. Um … yeah; just so much has happened in these five years, I mean, that my eyes have just been opened so much to … to … working on these huge stages that I never thought I’d—well, I—I dreamed of getting to, but … I mean, Chicago, the Metropolitan Opera, and San Francisco in one year, in one calendar year. You know, and I—and I—I go—I go home, and I—you know, I—I talk to my folks on the phone, and I—and we giggle and laugh about it, and you—you know, they say, Oh, you know, you know, this was—this was gonna happen. And I’m like, Well, sure, but … it’s happened in one year, and … and who’s to say what—what—what comes next.

 

Quinn Kelsey lives in Chicago. He dearly misses Hawaii, but he doesn’t mind Chicago’s biting cold or the city’s proximity to meaty opera roles. Here’s wishing this rising young star from Manoa continuing success in the opera world. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. Mahalo to Quinn Kelsey and to you for joining me for this Long Story Short. A hui ho kakou.

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Harry Kim

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Harry Kim

 

Original air date: Tues., Mar. 18, 2008

 

Hawaii’s ‘Maverick’ Mayor

 

When you call Harry Kim “Mayor,” he says, “I’m Harry.” And when you learn how humble his beginnings truly were, you can begin to understand his true nature.

 

Although his early years were defined by poverty and toil, Harry Kim’s love and respect for the beauty and power of nature would lead to a long career with County Civil Defense. Now in his second term as Mayor of Hawai’i Island, Harry Kim sits down to visit with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Harry Kim Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Aloha! I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. Last week on Long Story Short, we sat down with a man who says, “I’m just Harry.” He’s the Mayor of Hawai‘i Island, Harry Kim, who grew up in poverty just outside Hilo, the youngest child of Korean immigrants. He shared his deep admiration for his mother’s courage, his father’s gentleness, and he spoke of his respect for nature. This week, we’ll continue to talk story in Part 2 of a two-part conversation with Harry Kim.

 

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.

 

For 24 years, Harry Kim worked in Hawaii County’s Civil Defense system, protecting people and property spread over 4,000 square miles – that’s more than all the other main Hawaiian islands put together. He retired as Director, after getting citizens through many powerful visits from the forces of nature.

 

You know, we think we control our destiny, so to speak. And when you look back, you probably had one percent influence over it. We had a mayor by the name of Herbert Matayoshi. I was the Director of Law Enforcement Agency at the time. And I used to get different kind of assignments. On that day in 1975, we had a major earthquake of seven-point-two. And it caused a lot of destruction, obviously. Unfortunately, a fatality from the tsunami. And county government got criticized for lack of proper response. And the person in charge told the mayor shortly thereafter that he would not like to keep the job. He was temporary anyway. And the mayor called me in and said that I want you to fix this agency. Just ensure me that when I leave this job as mayor, nobody else’s death is on my conscience. And that’s how I fell into the job. I thought I didn’t want the job. I thought maybe two years, and I’d leave. I wanted to go teach at the college level. And that’s how much of a slow learner I am. You know, two years, stayed ‘til 24. It was just one of those things that so many things happened thereafter in regards to storms, in regards to fires, in regards to droughts, in regards to volcanic eruptions, you know. You just kept going, and before you know it, 24 years passed.

 

After “falling into the job” and enjoying a long career at County Civil Defense, Harry Kim entered the race for Big Island Mayor. That was just two weeks before the Primary Election in 2000 – and his bumper stickers read, “Applicant for Mayor.” Kim won the election and took the General Election with 50% of the votes, nearly twice that of his closest rival. He became the first mayor of Korean descent in the United States. Now, Harry Kim is nearing the end of his 2nd term.

 

You know, I’m sure everybody remembers your remarkable candidacy for Big Island Mayor.

 

Uh– [chuckle].

 

The $10 limit on campaign contributions, no campaign network to speak of. And I’m wondering what it was like when you entered the mayor’s office. I mean, clearly, you knew county government. What made you think, I can do this, I can do this mayor’s job, and of this very diverse island facing so many challenges?

 

I worked for county government at that time thirty years. Every job in county government was of administrative level; just the way it turned out. The job before civil defense was the director of law enforcement system administration, of working with State, County, Federal and private sector. Civil defense, basically the same, but in a concentrated field. I knew where we were financially from cabinet meetings and projections of gover—and shortage of revenues. I was typical of a lot of people, of seeing things not being done, but you know, you don’t say anything, ‘cause it’s not your role. Saying things didn’t matter anyway. I went in it totally aware of what uh, problems I wanted to address. That was one side. The other side of it was simpler. I think I represented a lot of people that felt of a growing detachment from our government, of even distrust. Of that this government which was supposed to be for us, was not for us. So you went with that kinda philosophical thing. But you also knew to do what you wanted to do, you had to run a certain way, you know, to give you that kind of independence, and tell people to no more than that. No fancy speeches or brochures of I’m gonna do this, and I’m gonna cure the, you know, ills of the island and the state or whatever. All I said was one thing; I will apply for this job, and I promise you to do my best to do what is right by law. And that’s all I promised; no more than that. And I knew I could do it in regards to two reasons. I really felt I knew government, I really felt that I knew what the problems were, and I really felt that my jobs of past gave me the needed experience of having people work together to address it. I didn’t have no magic answers, you know, in regards to how solve the problem. I just knew that confidence within because of job experience that I could—I knew these people, I could try to get them together to address the problem.

 

And you’ve spent a lot of time working to get people together. Not management by fiat, but hey, let’s get a group together, and let’s really talk about this, and let’s come together.

 

And that’s the job, you know. The hardest part of the job is this, without any question on that answer to that; is no matter what you do with some, they don’t trust you. They question your truth. And I don’t care what you do. And when you know 100% of what you did is of truth, of openness, and they still question you. That is hard.

 

And you haven’t had any scandal or—I mean, that’s one of the things that’s said throughout all segments of the island; that basically, you’ve dealt with truth and sincerity, and good intentions. And some things haven’t worked out to some people’s satisfaction, but not because of any ill effect or mismanagement by you; it’s just a different vision.

 

I think we all look for people that we can trust, uh, all look for people that you know, will be of truth. And we worked hard to be that. I’m so lucky that I surrounded myself with good, smart, you know, maybe the words are wrong, but I call ‘em pure people, of what they want to do. And every day, I think, they convey that. And as they were told from day one, that’s all what we got to try to do. And the only way you’re gonna have people trust you is to be 100% all the time. You mislay them one time, then all your 99 times is for naught. And I don’t think I’m any different than anybody else of what I want from my leader. And I’m gonna really try to be that.

 

So let’s talk about the different figure you cut in office. Um, you—you’re a hard guy for lobbyists to get to, because—

 

[chuckle]

 

–you don’t have lunch, you don’t play golf.

 

Yeah; I know. But isn’t that great?

 

[chuckle]

 

No, no. You know, lobbyists—I was asked many years ago what’s my attitude on developers and I have always said you know, they’re my only hope, they’re my greatest hope. And they have been, and they are in regards of addressing problems. I just came back from the legislature prior to this, asking for them to help us fund a transitional home, and telling them of the private sector. The land is from the private sector, the people who’s gonna run for as a private nonprofit, people who are of community gonna help us develop it. And I think that uh, I know this is gonna be misinterpreted, but I’ll say it. It was us in power and us politicians that created the atmosphere that you’ve got to do this, and butter this hand, you know, before this hand reacts. I know that’s not true of most. But the atmosphere was created that way, you know, by us politicians. And so they learn they have to do that. But we created that situation. If all of us created a situation where—no, they wouldn’t do it; they’re not fools; they’re not gonna do something that’s gonna hurt ‘em. They’re doing things that they feel they need to do. And I think because of what transpired in the past seven years of, you know, all we’re interested in is the issue, I think they welcome it more than anybody else. You know, I joked with them; I said, you know, any money you had to spend on me, just give it to charity on this island. And I wish they would do that, and they probably did; and a lot of people have. You know, I’ll mention Castle & Cooke; I mention Stanford Carr. You know, I just told the Legislature, I said, Stanford Carr you know, built for me brand new, a safe place in Kona and paid for everything. You know. And that was his contribution, on his own. We didn’t ask for it; you know, he donated it.

 

I know you don’t mind getting your hands dirty when it comes to work; but did you ever felt like your hands were starting to get dirty in politics?

 

Never did.

 

Nobody ever tried to grease your palms, or line your pockets?

 

I think during the election, there were you know, offers for financial help. But you just later, you know, [INDISTINCT] what will or will not be, and from day one, I think it didn’t take long before everyone knew to just address the issue.

 

It’s just not gonna work to do it that way.

 

Yeah. And it’s been really good. You know, like I said, I’ve never had you know there’s a lot of disagreements, obviously. But as long as we stick to the issue, and then they stick to the issue, and it’s been good.

 

Have you had any disappointments? I’m thinking of that five-year land dispute over Hokuli‘a, the housing—gentleman’s housing subdivision. Any disappointments during your term in office?

 

Oh, yeah; you know. Lot of disappointments; this guy trying to get some things done. Because you find out all the hoops that must go through. Everybody knows about EIS, for example. You know, I mean, the average EIS takes a year, you know, and the rules that the private government as well as any private developer to build a highway, a major highway, you find out the average is eight to nine, to ten years. And the average person cannot obviously understand that, why does it take so long. And it does take long. The Hokuli‘a issue that you brought up, you know, you get tied up in court and this and that. But if you step back from it, you know, why, and you can understand it. You understand it, you accept it. You don’t have to like it, but you know, you can accept it. The problem is trying convey that to public, of why it’s taking this long, and try to curtail any kind of hostility towards anybody. And I still continue to try to get there. But that kinda disappointment always there. There’s lot of other kind of disappointment in us, in government not addressing or focusing on certain kind of problems, and more fixated on things of roads and parks, and those things.

 

Harry Kim serves a big island where there are big differences in what citizens want to see happen. But he says the differences tend to be misunderstood or overblown.

 

And you’ve served so many different constituencies, and of course, many people still believe Hawaii Island should be Hilo and Kona side, ‘cause those effectively act like two islands sometimes.

 

Kona and Hilo side conflict is exaggerated, grossly exaggerated in regards to the differences, so to speak, is very understandable if you are not of history of Hawaii. And Kona bloomed and blossomed and boomed—whatever word you want to use, in the past 10, 15 years at the most. All right. If 15 years ago I said to anybody in Kona—a little more than 15 years—that someday you’re gonna have a Walmart, Costco, Home Depot, Lowe’s, traffic problems, I guarantee you every one of ‘em would have asked me, What have you been drinking, Harry?

 

[chuckle]

 

You know. The growth factor—people don’t even know that Queen Ka‘ahumanu Highway was not finished until 1973 or 74 or so. Governor Ariyoshi coined that, I think, the Gold Coast. Because Kona was just a small, you know, quiet place, and all of a sudden this growth came, like the world—and the world did discover this beautiful place of Kona and Kohala. Naturally, the infrastructures did not keep up; naturally there’s impatience; and naturally, when you see the amount of money they contribute to the whole property tax of 65, 70%, and they see what they had versus what they perceive Hilo to have, they’re gonna say, Look, that’s not fair. So if you understand that, your job is twofold; to try to catch up as best as you can, but being fair to the whole island based on need, not how much you contribute. But the other part is to try to make people understand, and I really believe most of them do. And I believe, like most things of controversy, there are a few that will make a lot of noise. But I really believe there are few. I can feel that when I go to Kona. I have never had anyone mistreat me in any kind of tone, I don’t care where I go. And the controversy of east and west of Hilo, Kona, I don’t think is what people think it is. There was about a year, maybe longer, maybe shorter period where people were asking me if I was gonna run for governor. I don’t think I ever really seriously considered wanting to run. My ego was, I think, getting to me, because people were saying, you know, we want you to run for governor and do what you’re doing of government. And it came to the point where I felt that that was something that I should do, you know, to be responsible for, as they say. And then you know, time came where I knew I had to make a decision. My answer was no, I would feel you know, like I’m betraying the commitment I made and who I am.

 

But you were interested?

 

Interested?

 

M-hm.

 

You know, I don’t know if I can use the word interested, Les, because—

 

You didn’t dismiss it out of hand.

 

No, it was about the job, about doing the job. I didn’t want to be mayor. And I know—I really didn’t want to be mayor. I had my life set out; I was gonna—I did retire, you know. And even running for second term—and this is the total truth; I didn’t want to run second term, much less run for governor. And I wanted to do certain things of personal, and maybe learn to play enjoy the fish a little more, and the birds a little more, and the sun, and the ocean. My wife did not—I committed to everyone, I will tell you what my decision is by Monday; a certain Monday. Because I promised this reporter. You know, just to put him off three, four weeks earlier, I said I’ll set this date, and I just picked a date. He didn’t forget. [chuckle] So as the date approaches, all right, I said, okay, you know, I made a commitment. I did not know ‘til four o’clock that morning; no one knew. My wife, staff, cabinet; nobody knew. I had a cabinet meeting set up for eight o’clock that morning to tell them what I’m gonna do. ‘Cause their jobs depended on it. And it was at four o’clock in the morning, sitting by myself in the dark in the quiet, that you know, I felt I knew what I was gonna do. That’s shows you the political ambitions I had, which was nonexistent. Yeah. As far as governor’s race, you go through all the things you would like to see the government focus on that I don’t think we are. There are certain social issues that I really wanted to see if could be done.

 

But decided your obligation was to the Hawaii Island.

 

I’ll tell you what my thought process went that morning. Regardless if I ran for governor, regardless if I won, regardless if I lost, I would have a real difficult time looking at Hawaii’s people in the eye again, because I would feel like I betrayed ‘em. Because when you run for office, it’s automatically without say anything; you’re committing yourself for four years. Nowhere did I ever say, maybe two. You know. It was an understanding I was gonna be here for four years, and I felt that if I left, I’ll be leaving in two. And that’s a betrayal.

 

From a sense of loyalty he felt he owed the people who elected him to office, Harry Kim chose to serve out his term rather than resign to enter the race for Governor. He’s now getting ready to wrap up his second term. Harry Kim’s approach to politics and governance has been called, “unconventional.” He doesn’t “do lunch,” he avoids the dinner event circuit, and his dress-up clothes are pretty much his everyday clothes.

 

Everybody knows you as the guy who wears jeans—

 

Hey, I buy the better looking jeans.

 

[chuckle]

 

I hope you appreciate it. [chuckle]

 

I do.

 

[chuckle]

 

Have you ever worn dress slacks in office?

 

Yeah. I think um first day, when I got inaugurated. [chuckle]

 

And then? [chuckle]

 

Second time when I got inaugurated the second time. I think that’s about it.

 

And no need, otherwise.

 

Yeah, I mean, you know, I don’t feel comfortable wearing certain kinda clothes. You know, obviously, I have ‘em. I’m sure people wish I wore ‘em more. But I just wear what I feel comfortable.

 

It’s funny, isn’t it; lot of people who grew up without a lot—their dream is to have the material comfort they didn’t have. But that’s doesn’t seem to be true in your case.

 

Oh, I like comfort. I like clean water. I don’t want to worry about food. One of the things that is uh, scar that’s there for whatever reason I like a dry place and a dry house, ‘cause we had so much leakage. Walking to school every day, whether it be couple of miles and back, not owning an umbrella and many times caught in the rain, wet and cold. You have that. I was talking to you earlier; above everything else is a quest for peace. You know, what brings—what makes you feel good. Nature makes me feel good because I depended on nature. I love you know, a kid with macho problems, you don’t say it publicly, but I love touching and staring at flowers and beauty of flowers. I love wildlife, I love fish. I have pet fish that I call names in the ocean. You know, and they grace me with letting me touch them, or they touch me. I have a high impatience of people that have very low tolerance of people. I have a strong, strong uh, dislike of people of violence. And you know, that’s what stuck with me. I always know the hardship of my mom and dad, of their loss of family because of war, of man’s—and I’ll say it I’ve said it many times, Les. I consider man’s greatest failure is that of war. And I will always feel that. To me—I’m not talking about wars of country, I’m talking about any individuals. When you resort to say, I don’t like you, so I gotta kill you. You know, what else can you say but that it’s gotta be our greatest failure. You know, that that’s the only way we can resolve something. And I think that all reflects on why we try to do the things the way we are doing and why I have a love of our cosmopolitan past. I think the Hawaiian people is our greatest gift, the natural warmth and beauty about them. And that’s innate with them. And all of those things which I grew up that are special. The problems will always be there; the only difference is how do we resolve them. And that’s what I just want to dedicate the rest of my time for, you know, in regards to a better way to resolve problems. It doesn’t mean that people are gonna be happy, you know, [INDISTINCT]. Because I learned something long time ago; if you have a problem, I don’t care how many people are on each side and the two sides, you can get ‘em together, but one side come together with the total confidence, are we gonna get everything we want. You have nothing. Yeah. You have to come to the table with an idea that you’re going to listen. And that’s our biggest task, just to talk to them. Will you at least come and listen. You know. Not to give your side; will you just come listen to the other side, and then talk.

 

Takes a lot of time on your part, doesn’t it?

 

Oh, yeah. It but you know, with the faith of mankind, you find that most of the people, they want that too. I really believe they want that too.

 

So uh, when you leave office, uh, you’ve said a couple of tantalizing things; that maybe you’ll go back to teaching, or maybe you’ll devote your life to peace and resolution of war.

 

I would like to do that, I don’t care how small a scale. And I’m not, you know, putting myself on any pedestal level. Okay. It can be on any level. What greater way to spend your life than that. And I want to see what else I can do. And this job ends in less than 10 months, and I’ll see what else I’ll do after that.

 

Does that mean you’re not gonna take up golf, that you’re not gonna learn new hobbies, or any hobbies?

 

You know, once uh we went on a vacation. I asked what do the kids want to do. Everybody named one thing. And I told them what I wanted to do, and I’m gonna show you how limited my—how easy it is to make me happy. And my family knows this. I said, I just want to find me a beautiful stream in Oregon—that’s where we were gonna go—and take off my shoes, and I’ll wade knee-deep, stand there and feel the freshness and coolness of the water, listen to the water, listen to the—look at the beautiful trees. And that’s all I want to do.

 

You’re a cheap date.

 

[chuckle] Yeah. But really, you know, you give me a choice of what I want to do, and I love that; I just love that.

 

We can only speculate about what retirement will mean for Harry Kim. He has no hobbies – and he doesn’t enjoy traveling. Will he make a run for Governor in 2010? He says he has no yearning to be Governor. That’s not exactly a definitive answer. As you recall, he also said he didn’t need to be Mayor. And he didn’t seek out his Civil Defense job. I’m glad you could join me for another Long Story Short. Mahalo to you and Harry Kim. Please log on to pbshawaii.org each week to see who’s coming up with their stories. Keep sending us questions and suggestions by email. And please tune in next week for another Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A 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.

 

Every single day, I touch a flower. Every single day. I need it; I don’t do it because of any other reason than I need it. The staff knows that. They catch me looking at the sky, or you know, takes me sometimes 10 minutes to walk to my car, to my house, because I stop and look at the trees you know, listen to the birds, you know. I need it every day; I need my medicine, and nature is my medicine.

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Samuel P. King

lss_king_sam_mez_2

 

Original air date: Tues., Mar. 4, 2008

 

The Late Samuel P. King was the son of a Hawaii Governor and he lived a life of public service. His father, Samuel Wilder King, served in the U.S. Navy during two World Wars and as delegate to the U.S. Congress and Governor of the Territory of Hawaii.

 

In 1997, Judge King found time to coauthor a lightning-rod newspaper essay with three other highly regarded Hawaiians and a law professor. The essay, Broken Trust, charged gross incompetence and massive trust abuse by the trustees of what was once called the nation’s wealthiest charity, Bishop Estate, responsible for the Kamehameha Schools.

 

Samuel P. King Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Aloha and mahalo for joining me for another Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Today we get to hear stories from Senior Federal Judge Sam King.

 

Samuel P. King was the son of a Hawaii Governor and he’s lived a life of public service. His father, Samuel Wilder King, served in the U.S. Navy during two World Wars and as delegate to the U.S. Congress and Governor of the Territory of Hawaii. Judge King is now in his 90s and he’s still a working judge, still hearing cases. In 1997, he found time to co- author a lightning-rod newspaper essay with three other highly regarded Hawaiians and a law professor. The essay, Broken Trust, charged gross incompetence and massive trust abuse by the trustees of what was once called the nation’s wealthiest charity, Bishop Estate, responsible for the Kamehameha Schools. More recently, King and law professor Randall Roth wrote a book with new details of unchecked power.

 

It occurs to me that you’ve grown up in the hallways, the corridors of power. Your dad was a naval officer, and then he was an elected officeholder; he was the Territorial governor. Maybe that’s why you’re so comfortable with power.

 

No, I think I owe a lot of that to my mother who made sure that we kept our feet on the ground. And she taught us we were just as good as anybody. And people who had power never bothered me. I guess I never ran into negative power, where they did really do something to me that I didn’t want to have happen. That just didn’t happen to me, so I was lucky. And Hawaii was a very good place to grow up. We moved out to Halekou, which was across the street from where the cemetery is now on the way to Kane‘ohe. And we lived there; I grew up there. It was just wide open spaces. And Kane‘ohe Bay is such a beautiful place. The family we were in the line of inheritance from Mokapu. In fact, when the Army—when the Air Force or the Navy or the Marines, whoever it was, came along, they condemned it. But the King family wound up owning Mokapu when the intermediate people died. I think we got $75,000 for it.

 

When you were a little kid, did you have to choose between your Hawaiian heritage and the Caucasian side? Was that ever an issue?

 

No, but we had more Hawaiian influence. My mother’s brothers had formed a Hawaiian group themselves, just when they went with the National Guard to mainland and so forth. So my Uncle Tom played the steel guitar. He took the steel guitar to South America, and then my Uncle Doc played the ukulele, and Uncle Kane played the ukulele, and Uncle Luther played the guitar. So we used to have—at least once a week we’d have a gathering and they’d all play music and sing Hawaiian.

 

Both of Sam King’s parents were part-Hawaiian. The family traveled extensively to follow their father’s Naval career, which is how Sam King happened to be born in China. Once the family returned to Hawaii, King attended Central Grammar, Punahou School and Yale University. He earned a law degree from Yale as well.

 

When I came back, let’s see, what happened? Of course, I went to work for the Attorney General and then the Land Department and then for the City and County of Honolulu. I was a prosecutor at the City and County of Honolulu. There were only three of us when Pearl Harbor happened. And the military took over, so we didn’t have a job. So then I applied to go into the Navy, which was a little bit of a problem, because I only have one eye.

 

Why do you only have—you have a glass eye, right? How come?

 

Well, it’s plastic now; used to be done in glass. I got a little piece of steel in it when I was about six years old.

 

I can’t tell which eye it is. Okay.

 

It’s the one with emo—they always said—the story about the banker. You look into his face—the banker with the glass eye; the one with the emotion is the glass eye. And you know, the Lord did that. Because if He hadn’t done that, I would have gone to Annapolis, and my class would have been the one on those cruisers that got sank, sunk in the bay off of Guadalcanal. And so luckily, I survived that. So after the—when we got bombed in 1940, I applied to go back in the Navy. But I had to go to Washington to get a deferment for this. Because they were taking anybody into things that didn’t need two eyes. In fact, I don’t need two eyes anyway. And I got a waiver, and was put in—they wanted to put me in the legal end. I said, No, no, I don’t want to be a lawyer anymore. So I was in Naval Intelligence, and they sent me to New Orleans after training. Well, New Orleans, you didn’t know a war was on. Then I got a notice that they wanted people to study Japanese. Well, I’d gone Japanese school here, Hongwanji Mission on Fort Street. So I knew a little Japanese, so I boned up, and I went to Washington and got interviewed. And the expert who was clearing us, he handed me number one book that we used, Naganuma one to twelve or was Ambi number one. And he said, Read the first sentence. Well, I don’t know if he did that on purpose, but he gave it to me the wrong way. So I turned it over. And opened it from the back, you know, and kept going until I found the first sentence. And I could read Katakana, which was in Katakana. Kore wa kanji desu. So it had to be; this is a book, you know. So I said, Kore wa hon desu. I was on my way.

 

And that was to be fateful because that’s where you met the woman who would become your wife.

 

That’s right. Ann was in Washington, DC after she graduated from Smith, working for the Army. And she found that a little boring. So she applied for this, and she goes and sees the same guy. Well, she had to be about this close to see; she wore very thick glasses. So they took her glasses off and said, you know, Read the chart. So she walked up to it about his far. You know, A, E, I, O, U. Oh, well; he said to her, You’re Phi Beta Kappa? Yes. What did you study? Greek. You’re in.

 

So tell me about that first meeting and what happened?

 

Well, I was the only person that wound up at Boulder, who was already an officer. So I was a Lieutenant JG. So they thought I’d been sent there as a spy, actually. And so when the WAVs came in, I was assigned to drill them in Japanese. You know. So she was in the group. She looked good going and coming. I proposed in two weeks. And she said, Maa, which is the Japanese word for heaven forbid, you know. She said, Ask me again Wednesday. This was a Sunday. So I did. And she accepted.

 

How did you know? How did you know that should be your life mate?

 

Well, she was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate, I was looking for. And she was nearsighted. Now, she doesn’t wear those glasses anymore. And that’s what I wanted; brains and beauty.

 

Sam and Ann King have been married since 1942; and they have three children. After the war, King went into private practice and later made the move from lawyer to judge. Appointed to the State’s First Circuit and Family Courts and U.S. District Court, Sam King presided over highly-publicized cases like the notorious double murder on Palmyra Island and the conviction of reputed syndicate crime leader Wilford ‘Nappy’ Pulawa on income tax charges. Despite the seriousness of the issues, Judge King could generally be counted on to bring a little levity to proceedings.

 

You know, I didn’t see you in court until you were a Federal judge. And I know as a reporter who covered courts that you were the judge people wanted to cover at that time because you would make these wry remarks. And you were so comfortable in that courthouse, and backed by law, and it was fun to see justice take place.

 

Judicial humor has got to be very carefully used. I never used it at the expense of the parties or their lawyers. Because that’s a no-no. It’s serious business to them. So when I was able to make a wisecrack, it was about something else.

 

As a judge of character and a Federal judge, do you size people up pretty quickly in court?

 

Not too quickly. I give ‘em the benefit of the doubt.

 

But are you usually right with your first impression?

 

M-m, usually.

 

What made you decide to be a judge? You’re a lawyer.

 

Well, that’s an interesting point. Bill Quinn was governor.

 

M-hm. And he was—in fact, he was the governor after your dad was governor, right?

 

Yes. And he was the last Territorial governor and the first statehood governor. So, and I was going home across the the greens outside of the Capitol. And Bill Quinn was going home; he was going the other way. So he said, Sam, Sam. I knew him. He says, You want to be a district judge, a circuit judge? I said, Well let me get back to you. He said, Well, I need to know pretty soon. I said, Well, I gotta ask my wife first, and then I’ll get back to you. So we talked it over, and I told him yes, Monday morning.

 

You flirted with public office; didn’t you?

 

Well, I got involved with politics, of course, because my father was involved in politics. Back before I had become a judge, I ran for the House. And I didn’t get elected, but we elected three Republicans. So then when I was a judge—Burns had appointed me. When I came up for reappointment, he appointed me again. So then I decided to run against him. But he wasn’t going to run; it was going to be Tom Gill. When I left the court and announced for governor, he ran.

 

How important to you was it to be governor?

 

Well, I thought there were important things that had to be done, but I knew the world wasn’t gonna come an end. I don’t believe government does everything for you anyway. So what they do is—the whole purpose of government is to keep the place safe and take care of the little people.

 

You know, it seems as though you were very comfortable with the role of judge. Was there anything that really taxed you or was very challenging along the way?

 

Well, I always had a hard time with criminal cases ‘cause I’m very doubtful about the criminal system and the putting people in jails or one thing or another. I haven’t come up with a better solution. So when I went senior I said, No more criminal cases.

 

Cause you have sentenced plenty of people to prison.

 

Yeah.

 

Did you ever experience threats on your life, or did you start looking behind you and locking the doors, and—

 

No, no. There’s nothing much they can do to work up a hatred of the judge. The judge is only doing what the law says. As I always told them—the guards—I said, The people you gotta guard are not the jury and the judge, but the witnesses.

 

In 1997, King was approached by University of Hawaii professor of trust law, Randall Roth, with a draft of an essay for publication. It harshly criticized the trustees of Bishop Estate/Kamehameha Schools and fanned the flames of a scandal that would drive the trustees from office and lead to a wave of reform.

 

He asked me what I thought. I said, Well, yeah, it’s good stuff. But it won’t go very far if you’re the only person putting it out. And he said, Well, will you join with me? I said, Well, I have to ask my wife first. And she said, Absolutely. So I said, Yes, I will. But I said, Just you and me is not enough. Well, he said, who else do you recommend? I said, Well, Gladys Brandt. And she said, you know, Sam King’s with you? And he said, Yes. She said, Count me in. Because she was already trying to do something. And she said, And I’m gonna bring in Monsignor Kekumano, who also was involved in the ongoing problem. And then a little later, he called and said, Well, Walter Heen has been suggested. Oh, I said, that would be beautiful. He was head of the Democratic Party, I was head of the Republican Party.

 

So the idea was to present this very credible group of people with stature in the community.

 

Yes. The five of us got together and went through this, edited it and so forth. And then said, Let’s get it published! And we knew Randy had an ongoing relationship with The Honolulu Advertiser. But they weren’t ready to print it. They had to change this and they had to do that, and so forth. So we went to the Bulletin, and they printed it the next day.

 

Makes you glad there’s a two newspaper town.

 

Yeah. And the introduction is written, you know, by—

 

Yeah; Dave Shapiro, who said your—

 

Yeah.

 

–essay, your joint essay was a bare-knuckled attack on a powerful institution.

 

It was. But the reason we got out there was because the Kamehameha ‘ohana had already marched on the trustees for similar reasons. And it all but started by Nona Beamer who printed the first letter that complained about it.

 

Your essay and the work of others before you triggered enormous investigations.

 

That’s right.

 

Prosecution.

 

Yes.

 

And did it go far enough?

 

One of the problems was that the Supreme Court was appointing the trustees. And it became pretty obvious that they were picking people without going into enough publicity and public input. But the present system is unstable. The Supreme Court could take it back or the Probate Court could say, Well, I’m not gonna bother with all this nonsense.

 

What’s a better idea?

 

Turn it into a not for profit corporation with directors elected by the ‘ohana or a majority of them.

 

Why do you think that’s not happening?

 

Oh, I don’t know.

 

Kamehameha will

 

Everything has to get worse before it get better.

 

Kamehameha points that out that, after all of that happened, and the trustees departed, they’ve really amped up their education outreach, they’re doing a lot more things, they’re more responsive. They went out and got a hold of folks who had been cut off by the previous trustee system, and they were welcomed back in. And so there’s a rejuvenation and a new direction, and I think a lot of people at the school say, Why dwell on this—let’s not worry about making—

 

Well—

 

–the past—

 

–I don’t know—

 

–people accountable.

 

—who’s dwelling on what. And I suppose there’s an honor in being a Bishop Estate trustee which would not apply to a person who was a director of a not for profit corporation. But every provision of Princess Pauahi’s will has been violated. Her will says there should be two schools; one for boys, one for girls. Now, there’s one school, although they call them the Kamehameha Schools. Probably a good idea. But you know, that’s not what her will said. And she said they should be taught the basic reading, writing, arithmetic. Well, they’re a college preparatory school. So where are the ones way down at the bottom? Now, it is true that wills that are passed for eleemosynary purposes, over a period of years change, because times change. But her will has not been changed. And the one way you could get it a little wider is with a not for profit corporation, as Robert Midkiff has pointed out. But of course, then you won’t have these individuals who call themselves, I’m a trustee.

 

You heard what former trustee Henry Peters’ comment was about all of the work that you did with your partners on this. He said, The group of Hawaiians who wrote Broken Trust are country club, high muckety-muck Hawaiians.

 

Well, his most famous saying that I know of is, If I did the things they wrote about in the book, I should be in jail. And my answer to that is, I agree with him.

 

What were—

 

They violated every provision of trust law that they could.

 

I think it was referred to as a personal investment club atmosphere.

 

 

Yeah; well, they were investing in the same things as the trust. Which is a no-no; and they kept that all in a secret safe.

 

There’s a lot that hasn’t come out about what happened in those days, isn’t there? A lot of sealed pages.

 

Well, there can only be so much in the book, you know. If that book how many pages are there; three hundred something? Including the index? If it were a thousand pages, nobody would read it.

 

Roy Benham had a very interesting quote—

 

Yes.

 

–in your book. He said, you know, Hawaiians are funny in a way, that if you waste their money, you steal their money, they let that go. But you try to hurt their children, and – watch.

 

That’s what happened. Especially the eliminating the outreach program. They fired people in two weeks for no—said they didn’t have the money. What do you mean they didn’t have the money? They had plenty of money.

 

You know, you’ve gotten some distance now. When you look back and you see what was done in those times at the old estate, what was the worst thing the trustees did?

 

The worst thing they did was they ran it as a personal, personal property. Raised their fees, they were getting a million dollars apiece. They said, Well, the law permitted it. Well, there was a provision in the law that limited the amount of fees that a trust could take; but overriding the whole thing is the law of trusts, which says you don’t get paid more than you are worth. And not a one of ‘em was worth what they were getting paid.

 

Only trustee Oswald Stender emerged from the furor with his good reputation intact. At the time, the estate of Princess Pauahi Bishop was estimated at $10 billion and its trustee appointments were paying nearly $1 million a year. In 2006, Judge King and Randall Roth, a UH professor specializing in trust law, followed up the newspaper essay with a book titled Broken Trust: Greed, Mismanagement and Political Manipulation at America’s Largest Charitable Trust . Today, King maintains a watchful eye.

 

More recently, I saw in the paper where they said they were going to help the homeless. There’s nothing like that in her will. Maybe as a not for profit corporation, they can do that; tie it onto something. But you know

 

So you still don’t think they’re going in the right direction?

 

They don’t seem to be aware of what they’re doing. It’s all right with me; I’m not gonna heckle ‘em anymore.

 

And that’s what your book shows; it shows the degree to which the power structure was interlocked with the old Bishop Estate trustees.

 

Yes. But get it away from the courts by having a not for profit corporation, where it has directors appointed elected by the ‘ohana, by the graduates.

 

Do you think that’ll happen in your lifetime?

 

No.

 

Think it’ll happen, ever?

 

Well I don’t know. It should. The one force that could handle it would be the IRS, which says, You’re not carrying out the provisions of your trust.

 

You know, your book has created a sensation in trust circles, you know, trust lawyers. I mean, you’ve gotten a very prestigious award, and so has Randy Roth. You know, they consider it a bible of what not to do—running an organization like that as a feudal empire. Do you think it’s gotten the attention and the action it deserves in Hawaii?

 

I don’t know. I haven’t followed up on that. But it is true that we got told by the University of Hawaii that a college had ordered several hundred books direct from them. Don’t know what they’re gonna do with them, but somebody thinks it’s useful for some purpose.

 

You’ve been in Hawaii working in the trenches and seeing the corridors of power for a very long time. When you look at what you know and what you think may be ahead, what’s your vision of the future? Are we doing all right?

 

We’re going to be more and more influenced by California. Both by people and by law. So eventually; that’s why I’m really a backer of OHA, because that’s one place where they can protect the future for our Hawaiians. And I interpret Hawaiian as real Hawaiians; not like me. What do I have; three-sixteenths? You know, I got an eighth from my mother, and a sixteenth from my father; three-sixteenths. I’m not talking about myself. Although emotionally, I’m with them. And naturally, I’m an official of the Federal government too.

 

So you see OHA as being an institution that—

 

Yes.

 

–can’t be touched.

 

Yes.

 

Except there are a lot of people who want to see those entitlements go.

 

Yes. There always are. I mean if we’re talking about a bunch of goodies going to be given to a bunch of people of which I’m not a member, well, I’m opposed to it.

 

And you’re still vigilant, hoping Kamehameha Schools changes its governance.

 

Oh, they’re okay. I’m not spending any time losing sleep over it. I think they’re spending more time opposing the idea, than I am promoting it.

 

When’s the last time you lost sleep worrying about something?

 

Gee, I can’t think. I guess it was between Sunday and Wednesday, when I was gonna call and she said, Ask me again Wednesday. So between Sunday and Wednesday, I lost a little sleep.

 

When you didn’t know whether your intended wanted to marry you.

 

Right.

 

She kept him guessing for a few days. In his 90s, Judge Samuel King continues to preside over federal court cases in Hawaii and California. I’d like to thank Judge King for sharing his stories with us. And thank you for visiting our website, emailing us with comments and suggestions and for joining me each week for conversations on Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. ‘Til next time… a hui hou kakou!

 

What were your family names in Hawaiian?

 

Family names?

 

Mhm.

 

I’m the only one doesn’t have a recorded Hawaiian name. My sister, Charlotte, is Charlotte Lelepoki. And then my two brothers. And the youngest sister is Nawahine‘okala‘i. And in between is my two brothers, Evans Paleku‘ukana‘iaupuni and Davis Mauleolake‘awe‘ahe‘ulu.

 

You said you don’t have a recorded Hawaiian name. Do you have a nickname?

 

Kalani‘olumohi‘ikai.

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Terence Knapp

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Terence Knapp

 

Original air date: Tues., Oct. 18, 2011

 

Hawaii’s Adopted World Class Actor

 

Leslie Wilcox sits down with Terence Knapp, “Hawaii’s Adopted World Class Actor.” Terence is perhaps best known for his title role in Damien, the Aldyth Morris play and PBS Hawaii special about the Kalaupapa priest.

 

Terence reflects on key roles he has portrayed, his childhood during World War II and his global travels. Now professor emeritus with the University of Hawaii at Manoa, he continues to mentor up-and-coming Honolulu thespians.

 

Terence Knapp Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

My feet have always been a problem. Well, ever since I’ve been to the islands, that is. Oh, not when I was a boy in Belgium; no, I was as good on my feet as anybody in those days, running around the countryside, helping out on the farm, driving the cows in at night, skating on the River Dijle. Why, the night before I left home for good, I walked fourteen miles to say goodbye to my mother at the Shrine of Our Lady. Twelve years I promised her.

 

This studio at PBS Hawaii has been the scene of many wonderful productions. From music specials, educational and informational programs, to shows about the arts, our cameras have captured them all. But in 1976, over a series of several days, a high water mark in local television was set. Journey with us to that time, as we look back on the career of actor Terrence Knapp, 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, you’ll meet a man who is considered by many to be a cultural treasure of Hawaii, a devoted teacher of the dramatic arts, who chose to relocate from the British Isles of Shakespeare to an island home of a very different kind, an actor who has performed with Sir Laurence Olivier in the National Theater of Great Britain, and who mentored Booga Booga’s James Grant Benton. Now, that’s quite a range. Join us, as we take you from the King’s English to Pidgin English with actor, director, professor, Terrence Knapp.

 

Did you grow up in an august theatrical family?

 

No. I grew up the oldest of a family of seven. I had only sisters; I was the only boy, I was the oldest. And my mother—

 

You sound like you were spoiled by seven younger sisters.

 

Spoiled, my eye.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

I did the spoiling of them, if anything—

 

Aha.

 

—right. Because my father, of course, was in the British Army practically all of my young life until I was about fifteen. And my mother—this was during World War II, 1939 to 1945. And we were forcibly evacuated from London in 1940 into a Welsh mining village, which had no running water, no electricity, bla-bla-bla. My mother got fed up with that, and managed to get us over to Dublin by boat. But things were just as bad there, because there was no rationing, see. In Britain during the war, everybody got a fair share, even though it was only that much, right? And my mother’s great advantage was that even children were given an allowance of tea. Tea leaves, right, two ounces a week, something like. Well, she could barter for all kinds of things, because we children didn’t drink tea much; water would do, or milk, yeah?

 

What could she get for the tea leaves?

 

Well, canned food, for example. And people who had an allotment and grew their own vegetables, right? Just kind of whatever they wanted. If she had something to offer, then it was tea. The British like their tea.

 

Did you go hungry sometimes?

 

I don’t remember being hungry. But I do think it was the fittest generation that ever grew up in the United Kingdom, yeah. I was seven when the war broke out, I was fifteen when it was all over, as it were. I was a very healthy youngster without an ounce of fat on me, if you follow me. And I think that was true practically of the whole population. In 1945, when the war came to an end, all the young men who had been taken from the schoolmasters, yeah, returned. So there was a wonderful new energy at the Anglican Grammar School that I won a scholarship to. The parish priest was very annoyed that I was then going to go to a non-Catholic high level school. But my mother said, no, she wanted me to take the opportunity, because it was given within a kind of education area, if you follow me, and she knew that I’d get enough of a Catholic upbringing with her and my sisters at home. So I was very lucky. A three hundred year old Anglican grammar school with a marvelous tradition of excellent teaching, especially of literature, and that turned me on. I’d always been an enthusiastic reader of my own accord. We used to go to the public library and look for books, the Count of Monte Cristo, whatever it might be, and if I enjoyed it, within a year I probably reread it, yeah. There was no television in those days, none at all, but there was a wonderful BBC Radio service, and one of the things they did were short plays and stories, and that kind of thing. So there was much to educate and inform, as well as entertain.

 

How did you qualify for that scholarship?

 

I had to … well, actually what happened was, we did a play at school, Macbeth. And I was cast as Lady Macbeth.

 

You were cast as Lady Macbeth.

 

Yeah.

 

Were there girls in the play?

 

No girls in the school.

 

No girls in the school; okay. So how did you be the one to get the Lady—

 

Might I remind you that in Shakespeare’s time, when he wrote the play, there were no women in the theater at all, apart from tarts.

 

All right; all right. Point taken. [CHUCKLE] So how did you feel about playing the role?

 

I didn’t have to worry about it, because she came and haunted me at night. And I don’t mean in a frightening way. She just came to me. In other words, as I became more familiar with the text, and with the situation of the play itself, she formulated herself in my imagination. And then, because nobody interfered with me and my natural response, right … apparently, I knocked them for six.

 

Wow.

 

And the headmaster, the classics master immediately told the board of governors that I should be given a scholarship, or at least to audition for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Which I did, and I was accepted, and I got the scholarship. But I just had such a jolly time pretending using my imagination.

 

Did you ever pretend in real life to get through situations?

 

Yeah.

 

For example?

 

Going into the Royal Air Force. I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for. So, I went through the three-month training period, an intake of twelve hundred young men, boys of my age, eighteen or so. And I passed out as best recruit of the entire wing, and I was offered a commission. Because I pretended I was somebody like Richard Todd. Do you know Richard Todd?

 

I don’t know who Richard Todd is.

 

A soldier in a film.   And yeah, I just pretended to be somebody else. And that’s how it worked, yeah.

 

In 1978, the PBS Hawaii production of Damien won top national honors, including the coveted Peabody Award. But it might surprise you to learn that Dr. Terrence Knapp discovered Father Damien, not in the 1970s in Hawaii, but in the middle of World War II, in a little Victorian chapel in a borough of London called Hackney.

 

And that’s where you heard of Damien?

 

Yes.

 

In this church?

 

At the back of the church, there was a magazine rack, little books that people paid the equivalent of fifty cents to buy, and go and read about this, that, or the other. Well, I read every pamphlet [CHUCKLE] in between masses, waiting.

 

Sure.

 

And I was fascinated by this character, Damien. Yeah. And—

 

He’s Belgian, what did you relate to?

 

Yeah, Flanders, rather. So, I absorbed the story for myself. In fact, I still have that two-penny booklet.

 

Do you really?

 

Yeah. I should have brought it with me to show you. So he was part of my psyche in a sense, because I’d read about him so much.

 

And what did the story tell you about him? What did you know at that young age?

 

That he was a man of very little education, who was filled with the idea of loving God through other people. And not minding doing the dirty work. Because he was used to doing it with the pigs and the cows, all that kind of stuff, yeah. And he wasn’t in any sense really educated. And he had a brother, Pamphile, who decided he was going to be a priest, an older brother, so he went off to be trained as a priest. And, Jef De Veuster, later to be Damien he thought he’d like to be a priest too. [CHUCKLE] So he went trotting after his brother. And then his brother was ordained but fell sick, some type of chickenpox, right, and he could not go by boat to the Sandwich Islands, as was arranged. So the head honcho in Belgium said to Jef De Veuster, later to be Father Damien, Well, you take your brother’s place. And he said, Yeah, all right, yeah. And he went. Now, when he arrived, the French Bishop who was here said, You’re not even a priest? And he said, No, not yet. So the Bishop ordained him, then sent him to Hilo to build a church and Catholicize the community. That’s how he got going. It’s a remarkable story, really, because he wasn’t to know that he had anything like the capacities that he exhibited as the years went by. But I think the simple answer is that he’s a man of the soil. There’s no pretension about him, he never pretended to be anything other than he was, which was really a simple God-fearing young man who wanted to be of help to other people. And then when I went to talk to Aldyth Morris about doing something for the bicentennial, and I mean, I knew that Damien was the patron saint of Hawaii, as it were. There was this Marisol statue that I’d also seen in Washington earlier. So we wrote a multi-character play about him. And then, I thought, well, we should develop this more, because he’s part of Hawaii in an extraordinary way. Anyway, I thought it’d be a lovely part to play. [CHUCKLE]

 

And you were talking right to the camera in this studio—

 

Yeah; yeah.

 

All those years ago.

 

Yeah.

 

Wade Couvillon was the cameraman, and he—

 

Yeah, that’s right.

 

He said he felt you were playing right to him.

 

I did. I did. ‘Cause I wanted a pair of eyes, yeah, and he was on a crane, as you probably know better than I do. And so, when he would come in for a close-up, yeah, I would look, as it were, past the lens into his face. And I enjoyed it. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience. It really was.

 

The University of Hawaii at Manoa was to be Professor Terrence Knapp’s home for a long career, where he taught and mentored generations of up and coming actors. It was also the site of a most unlikely pairing; the works of Shakespeare, and the local comedy group Booga Booga.

 

I had met David Friend, who knew Dr. Ernst, who was the founder of Kennedy Theatre. And I had tea with Dr. Ernst in Japan, and he said, When you come to Honolulu next, please let me know. So I did. And first thing I saw at Kennedy Theatre was called The Magi—Russian play. Russian play, a comedy, translated. And I simply could not believe, six hundred people sitting in that wonderful auditorium, having such a good time, and enjoying the play. Then I trotted back to England in due course, then I got a letter from Dr. Ernst to say, would I be interested in coming out and being a guest director. And I thought, I would like that. [CHUCKLE] And he wanted an English Season. We were going to do The Importance of Being Earnest, Shakespeare’s Scottish play Macbeth, and then …

 

You didn’t play Lady Macbeth, though, right?

 

No, no, no. Hay Fever, Hay Fever by Noel Coward, a lovely threesome. And I enjoyed it. And Joel Trapido, who was the vice chairman at the time, came and said, Are you enjoying yourself? And I said, Yes. He said, Do you like it here? And I said, Yes. And he said, Would you like to stay? And I said, Yes. [CHUCKLE]

 

That’s nice and neat, isn’t it?

 

I didn’t have to apply for the job, it was offered to me.

 

And so, along the way, thirty-five years with the University of Hawaii at Manoa, you taught students in acting.

 

Yes.

 

You must have seen all kinds of ranges of raw talent. What was the most needed thing for these students?

 

There was a man called Jim Benton who was one of my earlier students, and it was through him that something like Kumu Kahua came into being.

 

That’s James Grant Benton.

 

That’s right; as he later became. He was Jim Benton, right. And there was knock on my door, and I’d been there only for about a year or so, and he put his head—rather, this man put his head in and he said, Eh, you Shakespeare 101?

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

And I said, How dare you?

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

It was Jim. He came in, and we became buddies very quickly. And he said, could I help him understand Shakespeare. And I said, Yes, you can register as a student in day classes, can’t you? He said he couldn’t afford to do that. So I said, Well, if you like, we’ll have some Shakespeare readings in my office. And he came, and brought, the Booga Booga lot. [CHUCKLE]

 

That’s an interesting assortment of people in your office.

 

And they were sitting on the floor. There must have been fifteen people in there, as well as on the sofa and on the stairs.

 

And what attracted you to do that? ‘Cause you didn’t have to do that.

 

His delightful personality, as much as anything else, and a kind of Cheerful Charley quality about him, which I liked enormously. And so, we read Twelfth Night, okay. Blow me down if just something like two or three weeks later, [KNOCKING] on my door. He walks in, he’s got papers in his hand. He has rewritten Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night into Pidgin.

 

And what was your reaction to that? Could have been very negative.

 

No, I loved it.

 

You loved it.

 

Well, I was enchanted by Jim himself. I thought he was such a delightful spirit, and he was mad about performing and comedy as I am, if you know what I mean. And we read it. I got a cast. And there were people who were wetting themselves with laughter. They really were. So I decided to stage it in the Lab Theatre, because the main stage season was already, set up. And they were hammering on the doors to get in. Then we became, as it were, bosom friends, and I decided to—the Lab Theatre, they liked it. Then we took it out to one of the community colleges which has a big, big auditorium, about six, seven hundred.

 

Leeward Community?

 

Leeward. The walls were shaking. The walls were shaking with delight, yeah. So that was simply a lovely thing to have happened, yeah.

 

What a great cross-cultural mix.

 

Well, yes, it was. And me, with my great love and respect for Shakespeare itself, right, it was simply a matter of idiomatically transferring that into this other gorgeous language, right, Pidgin. Of course, it’s English with Hawaiian flavor. But it was great fun. It was great fun.

 

The same man who enjoyed watching the locals rolling with laughter in the theater at Leeward Community College has certainly seen it all. In his long career, Dr. Terrence Knapp can count among his friends and colleagues some of the most distinguished actors that Great Britain has ever produced; and he knows a thing or two about taking a show on the road.

 

Well, there’s Laurence Olivier, for a start. [CHUCKLE] The Lord Olivier of Brighton Stone, as he was. He became a peer and sat in the House of Lords on behalf of the theater arts. I was with him for almost four years in his company. He was founding a company in Chichester in South of England, a beautiful theater like the one in Canada, open stage. And I auditioned for him, I was taken into the company, and then when he founded the National Theatre, later to be the Royal National Theatre, he invited me. One of the greatest joys of my life was playing Osric in Hamlet with Peter O’Toole as Hamletm and Rosemary her name fails me momentarily. But it was a stunning, stunning cast, right. And he had me play Osric as the kind of runabout boy at the court of the King, right. So I was often to be seen doing this or the other, offering the Queen a handkerchief. But enormous fun. And I was well noticed in it, in the production, and Larry was very pleased with me.

 

What did the critics say about you?

 

Well, they just said I was kind of a quicksilver. And that was the one word that I was very flattered. Light on my feet, and I mean, Hamlet doesn’t like Osric for those reasons; he’s like an annoying fly, right. But I enjoyed myself enormously.

 

Judi Dench; you know Judi Dench, right?

 

Oh, Judi, I know. Well, Judi and I were part of a British council touring company to West Africa. Now, this was one of the most exciting things that ever happened to me in my life. We played out of doors usually, to audiences in Ghana, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, and on one occasion, we were playing to two and a half thousand people sitting on the southern edge of the Sahara. And because it was so dry, the acoustics was perfect. And as I was saying, I was playing Feste, and I had a trio of musicians who would give me the note, and I’d go. And on this particular occasion, I got the note, and I sang, but they weren’t accompanying me. [CHUCKLE] When we got off, I said, What’s the matter with you? And they said, You took the wrong key. I said, I did not.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

I said, I took the one you gave me. Apparently, what happened was, there was a train whistle twelve miles away which went, beep. And it traveled all that distance, and I took that as the …

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

That’s quite a memory, isn’t it? Yeah. And Judi and I became chums, because she liked to paddle around in the swimming pools, right. And so we formed an aqua ballet. [CHUCKLE] It was very hot, altogether in the Sahara, but we had such a lot of fun. And then, two years later, I was invited to do a similar tour of Southeast Asia, and I was looking forward to being with Judi again, but for whatever reason, she wasn’t able to do it. But by then, we’d become fast friends, right. And so, I see her when I go back to England, and her daughter Finty and her grandson Sam. And I knew her husband, Michael Williams very well. He sadly died of lung cancer after only about ten years. But it was a closeness and conviviality, and a liking.

 

In the 1970s and 80s, Hawaii was a hotbed of television production, and the industry needed the best of Hawaii’s acting talent to line its casting sheets. Although he filled his share of guest slots, Dr. Terrence Knapp might hope you might forget some of his appearances on the small screen.

 

What do you think about acting in that venue? Do you enjoy that?

 

Not much.

 

Not much.

 

Not really.

 

Not much.What did you play in Hawaii Five-O?

 

Oh … a kind of middle aged English twerp. [CHUCKLE] Fully suited and ties, and so on, and visiting something or other. I did do one that—I’ve forgotten what it was called. Something Hawaii, and I was cast as an attorney. And I had to do something like a twelve-minute speech and I knew that I probably would have a hard time memorizing it with certainty. Do you follow me? So I asked the director if he would put it on the thing, and I would read it off. And he was very dubious. And I said, Well, this way, I won’t falter, I can time it according to … All right, he said, one take. And I got a standing ovation from the entire set when that one had done. Because I was so relaxed, I didn’t have to try to remember, I could just … and then I said, [INDISTINCT].

 

Now, you know the Twelfth Night in Pidgin? That never rubbed off on your speech. And after how many years in Hawaii, more than thirty—

 

Yeah, well—

 

You still have your—

 

If I want—

 

—English—

 

—I could do a good—

 

—accent.

 

—imitation, sort of, yeah. I can slur. [CHUCKLE] I don’t have the vocabulary; I mean, that’s what gives the Hawaiian dialect or form such joy, their version of certain words, right, and the way they’re used. Oh, I’ve been a very lucky man.

 

Hawaii’s world class actor, Dr. Terrence Knapp, a man who’s rubbed shoulders with English lords and UH Manoa undergrads, who made a huge contribution to the legacy of this TV station, PBS Hawaii, with his performance in Damien, continues to live in Honolulu in retirement. As professor emeritus of theater, he spends his time traveling, mentoring students, and occasionally performing. 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.

 

As the eldest of seven kids, the rest of whom were girls, what can you share with us about growing up with girls? What kind of insights can you tell us?

 

You learn to be very patient, first off. [CHUCKLE]

 

You never got to use the bathroom for any length of time, I bet.

 

No, no. I don’t remember that, but the three elder sisters, as it were, Sheila, Eileen, and Patsy, were only about a year apart, right. So they were almost like triplets, in fact, yeah. And I remember them sometimes losing their temper when they were little girls, and pulling each other’s hair, for no good reason that I could think of. And my mother told me never to interfere. [CHUCKLE] She said, Just let them do it. [CHUCKLE]

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Nanci Kreidman

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Nanci Kreidman

 

Original air date: Tues., Oct. 4, 2011

 

Advocating for Victims of Domestic Violence

 

Leslie Wilcox talks story with Nanci Kreidman, CEO of the Domestic Violence Action Center. A New Yorker who moved to Hawaii over 30 years ago, Kreidman opens up about the people she advocates for and how they’ve affected her along the way.

 

Nanci Kreidman Audio

 

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Transcript

 

I haven’t been a victim of child abuse, or spouse abuse, or sex abuse. I am just a woman who kind of fell in love with the idea of bringing liberation and freedom to families. I haven’t had any personal experience that would inspire me to be on this journey.

 

Community activist and advocate for those living with domestic violence, Nanci Kreidman, 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 mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. For the last three decades, Nanci Kreidman has committed her professional life to ending family violence in Hawaii. Domestic violence is often a hidden tragedy. Nanci has worked hard to bring public awareness to the issue and to establish innovative support programs. Along the way, she’s seen terrible things that can never be erased from her mind’s eye, and she’s been part of many success stories as survivors find happier lives. She presses on with a relentlessly positive outlook, and the belief that social change is within our reach. Nanci Kreidman is currently the chief executive officer of the nonprofit Domestic Violence Action Center in Honolulu. Born and educated on the East Coast of the United States, she grew up in a sports-minded household with her brother and parents in Englewood, New Jersey.

 

I come from a two-parent working family. My mother was kind of an executive assistant to management in various places; Rockefeller Center I. My father owned a shoe business in Manhattan. So we were kind of your average middleclass, living in what I thought at the time was a diverse community.

 

And were your parents role models for the way to behave in a domestic relationship?

 

Not really; not really. They did the best they could, but I don’t think they had the personal resources, really, to take themselves to intimacy or close partnership. And I think that’s because of the families they came from. But they did a pretty good job. My brother and I turned out pretty good. So, I think are were some things I could borrow. One thing that comes immediately to mind is my parents, when they would have a fight or get mad, it would be silent, it would be the silent treatment for sometimes weeks. Which was very hard.

 

That’s a long time.

 

Yeah, it was very hard. And when my daughter was a baby, small child, she would escalate into like a wild child rage, and then it would be over like that. And I remember saying to my husband, Oh, isn’t that incredible, anger doesn’t have to last so long. It’s kind of like a fleeting—it can be a fleeting emotion. And that was life-altering for me.

 

When you were ready to leave the home, or go off for schooling, where did you go?

 

Well, I went first to Washington, DC, which was pretty exciting, but not the right fit for me. And then, I went to Rutgers, in New Jersey, the state university.

 

To study what?

 

I studied communication and journalism, and psychology. Which I use a lot. [CHUCKLE]

 

You do. And did you know that this is the way you were going to use those—

 

No. No, I had no idea. I had no idea. I started out working a little bit in the cable television business, which was pretty popular in the 1970s when cable was first gaining momentum. And so, I worked for the Public Utilities Commission for a little while, regulating cable television. But I was working at a community action program, and so we did a lot of production of television documentaries. I was a young woman, and I thought, I don’t want to live here my whole life, and if I don’t leave now, I’ll never leave, I’ll get stuck here. So, where can I go, where I can do what I like to do the most? I’m a big outdoors person; I swim, I ride my bike, I like to camp and hike. And so, I thought, I’m gonna go to Hawaii. So—

 

Had you been there before?

 

No, I’d never been here before. No. It was pretty thrilling, and a little scary. Biggest part was the thrill. I got on the plane with my bicycle, and my camp trunk. I used to go to camp when I was child. I checked into a hotel for a few days, and I started looking for a place to live. And I rented a room in Manoa. And then, I started working in Waikiki, which is where everybody starts working. So I was working at the International Marketplace. So I’d ride my bike from Manoa to Waikiki, and back.

 

Did you feel comfortable right away living here?

 

I felt … it was a little confusing for me. I thought I grew up in a diverse community; it was fifty percent Caucasian and fifty percent African American. I thought that was a mixed community. And then, I got here, and I was like, Wow!

 

We’re truly mixed.

 

This is really diversity. So that was a little—I didn’t know too much about Asian culture, or I don’t think I knew anybody Asian, really. So, that was pretty thrilling, but a little unnerving, ‘cause I didn’t know how to fit in. But right away, I liked that I was different, and that it was different. I’m kind of a city person. So I loved that on one side of the street was the ocean, ‘cause I’m a water person. And across the street is like, Waikiki and buildings, and hotels, and so it was sort of combination of both. Since I came from Manhattan, I kinda liked both.

 

While in New Jersey, Nanci Kreidman helped create one of the nation’s first shelters for battered women. In Hawaii, she continued to focus her energy on fostering public awareness to stop the emotional turmoil and deadly violence associated with domestic abuse.

 

And so, when I got here, I thought, Hm, wonder what they’re doing about domestic violence here? ‘Cause I was just becoming aware of the issue before I departed home. And of course, they weren’t really doing anything here, like they weren’t doing anything across the country. So I started working at the only existing shelter at the time.

 

Where was that?

 

That was in Kalihi. And so, I worked the weekend shift from Friday night to Sunday night. And, really, two things happened for me. I mean, I wasn’t working at the shelter thinking, Oh, this will be my career, this is great. I just was kinda living in the moment. This is good work, I feel good about it, this is important. But while I was there that first year, a couple of things happened that were life-altering for me. One was, they would send me out whenever they got invitations to speak about domestic violence, because I was the one with the communications degree, and they figured I could talk. So, I would go, and I would bring the only existing film that the shelter owned, and it was a mainland produced film. And it had all White people, and maybe one Spanish person, and one Black person the film. And I could see that the community I was with looked at the film thinking, I don’t know anybody like that. And I started thinking to myself, well, if we’re gonna talk about this issue, we’re gonna have to talk about it in a way that makes sense for this community. So, I teamed up with a director, and we wrote a small grant to produce a locally originated documentary; we called it Too Many Lickins, Spouse Abuse in Hawaii. And it was aired on Public Television, and we circulated it a lot, and it began the conversation here. But the other thing that happened was Sunday morning, the women would get up, very enthusiastic about a search for a new place to live for them and their kids. So everybody would be out with a newspaper, and they’d get on the bus, and you know, circle things in the paper of places that they were gonna go look at to see about relocating to get away from the abuse by their partner. And then, by Sunday afternoon, they’d come back, and maybe they’d start packing up their suitcases or their bags, and say they were going home.

 

Home to the abuser?

 

Home to the abuser; yeah. And that made me very nervous, because I fully understood that there was nothing that could have changed between the time she left and when she was going back. But the barriers to her finding a new place to live without any money or without any transportation, or too far from her kids’ schools, or whatever it was, was a big enough obstacle that she had to go home. So, I teamed up with a social worker friend of mine, and we wrote a different small grant, and started Broken From Batterers, called Komo Mai.

 

Before that, there were programs for women, but not for male abusers.

 

There weren’t any programs, really. There was just this one shelter. We hadn’t yet gotten to the place at the community level, where there were community-based programs or specialized support groups, or anything like that yet. And so, this was the first specialized program, and we really just made it up.

 

Were they court-ordered abusers, or were there batterers who said, Hey, I’d like some help, I’m seeking this help?

 

They were not seeking the help. We tried to reach out to community clinics and mental health programs, and social service agencies, and also the courts, and tried to advocate for the courts to mandate participation. Which they did. They could see the wisdom of that, and they could see the importance of requiring somebody to participate. But it was slowing going. We didn’t really have the capacity to help lots and lots of people anyway. It was kind of an experiment. But it planted the seeds here in Hawaii, anyway. And of course, we didn’t realize this at the time, but this is what was going on all across the country. So our challenge was really to get them to shift their behavior, and to shift their thinking that they had the right to hit somebody out of a desire to make them do what they wanted them to do.

 

I read years ago that this type of counseling just isn’t that effective, that it doesn’t permanently change behavior.

 

Well, the data on effectiveness is very mixed. It takes a lot to change behavior. Anybody who’s ever tried to go on a diet or exercise more—

 

Quit smoking. Sure.

 

Quit smoking, stop biting their nails, whatever their thing is, it takes a lot of personal discipline, it takes a lot of commitment, and it takes a lot of reinforcement to stay on the path. So without that, it’s very easy to kind of keep acting like, well, it’s her fault, if she didn’t this or if she didn’t that, or if I had a better offer, if I didn’t. So it’s a lot of ways to minimize or excuse the behavior. We still have so many barriers in the path, for survivors anyway, to get to the place where they’re self-sufficient. And until we as a community understand that everybody has the right to live fee and safe, and we make that path wide open, and we invite people to live that way, they won’t be able to. They will be forced to go back, and they will face their own community sanctions and their own religious sanctions, and their own personal and emotional ambivalence about what they’ve done, what they’re doing. And if we continue to perpetuate the ideas that children are better off with two parents, and it’s your fault, or somehow you’ve done something to provoke this, then it’s gonna be difficult. And, I mean, I want to say I’d like to be here today to say that that mythology has vanished, but it really hasn’t. That people are still, despite what we’ve done here, there’s a lot to be proud of, for all of us who’ve been working in the community, media, policymakers, service providers, we’ve made a lot of progress. But I continue to be amazed that people hold onto the same myths and misconceptions about who’s done what to whom, and who deserves it, and why it happens, and this only happens to Brown people in Palolo, or people who use drugs, and we’re still dispelling those misconceptions. And we just have to keep encouraging people and inviting people to get involved, because it is everybody’s business. What’s happening in your workplace or your neighborhood, or your family belongs to all of us.

 

Nanci Kreidman credits her friends and family with providing opportunities for her own personal growth. She met her husband, Bernie Paloma, a firefighter, at a Downtown block party celebration. He invited her to visit his fire station in Manoa Valley, which just happened to be located along Nanci’s daily bike route to work. Couple of weeks later, she stopped by, and was invited to stay for dinner at the station. The rest is history, and as of the day of our conversation in 2011, the couple has been together for twenty-eight years.

 

My husband is very, very different than I am. He’s a local male, quiet, who’s sort of got the balance going of introversion and extroversion.

 

What does local mean?

 

Well, he’s Filipino, from a large Filipino family. Grew up in Kalihi, nine children. And so, I have been able to understand local culture, and Filipino communities in Kalihi, in big families in a way that was really a precious opportunity for me, ‘cause I could take that with me out into the community. Because in order to communicate with him, it was like practice of how to communicate with the wider community, and with his family. I mean, his parents, they loved me and welcomed me immediately.

 

Soon, it was Nanci Kreidman and Bernie Paloma, plus two; they had a daughter and a son. One day, Nanci learned that State Child Protective Services was seeking a permanent home for an eleven-year-old girl. Her children were reaching adolescence, and she thought, What’s one more?

 

So I went home and mentioned it to Bernie, and he was open to the idea. And I thought, well, gosh, what do you do then? And so, I asked the attorney who was the guardian and whether we could meet her. Which is unheard of. I mean, you don’t usually do that, you just get a foster kid, and that’s kind of the beginning of the relationship or the moment the person joins the family. But to me, that just seemed—how do you do that? You have to at least meet this person. So Bernie and I had lunch with her; she seemed perfectly fantastic. And so, we talked it over with the kids, that we had met this girl and we were thinking about having her join our family, and how did they feel about it. And they were interested in the idea, but of course, it was difficult to absorb. And then the four of us had Sunday dinner together, and sorted it out among ourselves, like how did we feel about it. And it was thumbs up all around. So she joined our family when she was eleven, and she’s in between my biological children. Again, it’s been a treasure having her in our lives, and it’s a challenge. I mean, you don’t just join somebody else’s family. I mean, one day, she doesn’t know us at all, and we don’t know her. And then the next day, she’s a member of the family. So we had to like rework all of our—how do we relate to each other, how do we make room for her to join the family, what were the relationships between them. I mean, it was obviously, it was a life-altering opportunity, and a way for us to do more of what we were already doing, the ways in which we were, you know, giving to the community. My husband was a fire captain, so he was a man of service as well as I. So we brought that service into our family.

 

And how does your family feel about your role in working against domestic violence? Do they comment on it, are they with you on it? Do they get sick of hearing about it?

 

Well, I mean, it’s very much a part of our lives, obviously. It depends on many thing—I mean, there’s many moving parts. I’m always pointing things out, I’m always noting things that are going on. I have invited them to participate in many, many ways. Everybody in the family, nieces, nephews, children, have been in posters and flyers and materials. They are with me a hundred percent, and that’s what’s made it possible. There’s no way I could have given myself over to this journey without them being there with me.

 

Over time, you’ve become close, you’ve seen in many different lights some of the people who’ve suffered abuse, and have been again and again in those situations. Do you go home hoping nothing happens to them that night? I mean, is it something that you take with you? Is it an anxiety producing thing to know that they’re constantly in danger, or possible danger?

 

I’ve had to figure out along the way how to tap into my compassion, and my service, without being consumed by my anxiety about people’s wellbeing.

 

That must be a very tough call for you. I mean, it’s a boundary that’s very opaque.

 

It was much harder before, than it is now. I mean, now, I don’t work with people as directly as I used to. I mean, I have run hundreds and hundreds of batterers groups, and hundreds and hundreds of victim support groups, and that was harder. But that’s when I really had to teach myself, otherwise I would have been a wreck, and I wouldn’t have been useful or effective, grounded at all. And I know people always ask me that, Well, how do you do this? And I don’t know that I’ve got a formula exactly, or even a way for you to do it.
But you’ve been able to last so long, and be so strong, because somehow, you can tilt your world.

 

Well, I try to take very good care of myself. I swim every day, I go out into the jungle, you know, in Manoa, or Makiki, or you know, up Mariner’s Ridge, or someplace where it’s sort of quiet, and bigger than I am, and vast. You know, the sky is vast, or the ocean is vast. And it helps me to put things in perspective. And I rest well, I eat well, I surround myself with loving family and friends. I mean, I really try to stay whole myself. I know this all sounds sort of corny, but that’s kinda how I do it.

 

Because otherwise, it would just eat—

 

It would eat me alive. Yeah.

 

Because there are some stories that are just—I mean, it’s hard to even recite the details, because they’re so horrific.

 

Well, the ones that probably have been the most torment for me are the women who I’ve gotten close to, who are mothers, who have lost their children to domestic violence. And the ragged grief they feel, and the helplessness, and the hopelessness that they feel, that I do have a little bit of difficulty … walking away from their suffering. And that kind of loss is something that you really, really cannot understand if it hasn’t happened to you. And so, to try to be present with somebody who is in that kind of suffering was also kind of art. It’s a very delicate subject, and most people are very, very uncomfortable with it. So I have had to learn a kind of grace, so that people will listen to me. And of course, when I first got here, and when I first doing this work … I mean, it doesn’t come naturally, really, to figure out. I mean, I’m thinking, well, I’m just telling the truth, just saying what I know and what I see, and people should be willing and amenable to listening to that. But of course, people all have their own capacity to hear the truth. So, I had to learn how to do that.

 

You’ve been so outspoken on the subject. Has it put you at risk?

 

We take our safety very seriously at the agency where I work, the Domestic Violence Action Center. Sometimes, I’ll be someplace, and somebody will come up to me and say, You’re Nanci Kreidman, aren’t you? And I will stop for a moment and think, Ho, I wonder if that’s a good thing. And so far, it has been. People have said, Oh, I was in your class when you taught at Leeward, or I was in your battered women’s group in 1982, or Thank you so much, or I was in your batterers group, you probably don’t remember me, and it changed my life.

 

But if you’re so needed, why doesn’t the community support you more?

 

Well, there’s a lot of competing needs, and this doesn’t resonate for everybody. I would like to live in a world where they would say this is number one. Because families are at the root of communities, and if our families are not well and not stable, and not whole, our communities won’t be. But that’s a hard message for everybody to digest. So, my fantasy would be that people are throwing money at us to do this, because the work is so hard. I mean, we are wiping up blood, sweat, and tears of the community, and that’s hard enough. But then having to beg for money to do it, some days it’s heartbreaking. You know how some kids or some young adults decide, This is what I want to do with my life. I never had that picture. So maybe the absence of that created the room for me to be the instrument that I have been.

 

You just followed the path and the doors, and looked for opportunities.

 

I just recognized opportunities when they presented themselves. It’s not quite so much I looked for opportunities. I mean, here’s an example. Way back when, I was, like I mentioned earlier, running batterers groups at the Waikiki Community Center. I did the paperwork, and set up all the appointments from my home, and then I would go to the center to run the groups. And one day, after you know, months, Gerri Lee, who was the director of the Waikiki Community Center at the time, came to me and she said, It looks like this is a fantastic program, and it would really benefit from having a program home, an agency, an organization to support it. Why don’t you consider bringing Komo Mai and Maluhia O Wahine to the Waikiki Community Center, and they can become programs of the Waikiki Community Center. And that was perfect. I mean, how could I possibly have continued to do what I was doing all by myself? I needed an institution, I needed an organization. And so it was kind of like that, all along the way.

 

Some nonprofit leaders move from one agency, one worthy cause, to another. Nanci Kreidman’s cause has always been ending domestic violence. In 2010, the YWCA of Oahu honored Nanci Kreidman as a community leader deserving special recognition. Nanci believes that her work is innately rewarding, giving her a spiritual benefit that’s transformative and life-enriching. In 2011, the year of this conversation, she continues to engage and collaborate to create social change, and provide critical services through the Domestic Violence Action Center. Mahalo piha, Nanci Kreidman, for sharing your Long Story Short. And thank you, for watching and supporting 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.

 

Abusers and perpetrators, they’ve got a lot to hide, and they’ve …

 

They’ve learned how.

 

They’ve learned how, and they’re very charming, and they can be very persuasive. And so, I mean, sometimes I’ll go into a place and I’ll think, mm … that’s not a good guy. And then other times, somebody I’d never pick out would be somebody who—and believe me, that has happened thousands of times. I don’t go anyplace anymore where somebody doesn’t come up to me and say, My first husband, my mother, my auntie, my next door neighbor, my daughter, my coworker. I mean, no place; I go almost no place now where somebody doesn’t feel like they want to share that with me. Which is a remarkable thing.

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Ku’uipo Kumukahi

 

Original air date: Tues., Oct. 29, 2013

 

Ku’uipo Kumukahi’s father once told her: “You go make them happy.” They are words that the Na Hoku Hanohano award-winning singer still lives by through her music. In this conversation with Leslie Wilcox, Ku’uipo remembers how family gatherings inspired her to pick up an ukulele for the first time, and shares her passion for keeping traditional Hawaiian music alive.

 

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Transcript

 

My mother always said this: When you do something, you put a lot of love into what you do. And when you give, you give it freely. You don’t expect anything to come back. Mama always said that. And my dad always said, especially with the music, he would say: You, you go, go make them happy. Those very simple words lasted ‘til today.

 

Ku‘uipo Kumukahi has been making people happy with her music since she was a teenager. But her motivation goes beyond just entertaining. She believes in preserving history through mele, songs that document places long gone that continue to live on through her singing. Ku‘uipo Kumukahi, 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 mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Ku‘uipo Kumukahi has received multiple Na Hoku Hanohano Awards that recognize and honor her achievements in perpetuating Hawaiian music. Her love of Hawaiian culture started at a young age, growing up on land that her family has lived on for generations.

 

There was just the three of us, ‘cause I’m the only child. And because it was just the three of us, my friends were my dogs. So, we always had dogs around the place. And there was always something to do; never bored. We played in the yard, threw the ball, eat the guavas that were there, and running in the sugarcane field and chopping the sugarcane, and sucking down that sugarcane. Go down to the river. Lot of times, they’d come home wet, because they were chasing frogs, and I’d go with them. And sometimes, friends would come, and so we’d go together, and we would be able to go look for opae, river opae and sometimes that hihiwai. That’s what people on Molokai

 

Oh, the snails?

 

Well, yeah, the freshwater opihi. But we call it in Hilo, wi. And wi is the Hawaiian name for famine. So, I’m not sure that that’s the stuff that they were eating back then when there was really no food available. But, the rivers were filled with opae and this wi. And so, we’d go down there and we’d go get, and come home.

 

Are there still opae in the mountain stream over there?

 

Well, no, not really. There was an issue of prawns being put in the river for some aquaculture, I think, which kinda wiped out all the opae and the wi.

 

But when you were a kid, I mean, everybody wanted to go get opae in the streams, and there were opae to catch. But not anymore.

 

Not anymore.

 

People just don’t grow up with that knowledge anymore.

 

And you don’t see it at luau’s anymore. Back in the day, in the luau you had the opae, and you had the aki which is the liver, and all these other things that you don’t usually find today. And I miss them. But I don’t know if kids know how to eat that anymore. But that was fun. That was the pastime, and it was better to do that than go to school. [CHUCKLE]

 

And did you get lonely? I mean, you had your dogs, you had your parents, but did you feel isolated?

 

Not really. I always had yearning to go home, even if I was at school and I had my friends at school. We all did at school, but there was always time to go home. I wanted to go home; I was never forced to go home. I just want to go home.

 

Are you still a homebody?

 

Yes. [CHUCKLE]

 

You’d rather be home?

 

I’d rather be home.

 

You’re an entertainer, and you would —

 

I’d rather be home. Yeah. I mean, I love the entertainment, I love people, I love to see their faces. But there is that time that I just kinda retreat to home.

 

What is it about home that you love spending time in? I mean, besides just the chance to relax and be around familiar things.

 

When I go home to Hilo, it is pure grounding. There’s so much mana there that the rest of the world doesn’t exist. It’s just home. The kupuna are buried there, we have a church on our property, family is there. Everything still remains the same. My parents are buried at home, my grandmother and great – grandfathers. Everybody’s there. So, it’s just that sense of [SIGH] grounding. And you just can spiritually regroup, and that’s what makes it all worthwhile for me, and that’s why I yearn to go home.

 

Do you think that was a form of wealth?

 

I think so. Because I used to tell my mom. I said: Mama, we’re not rich like everybody else, we don’t have a lot of money like everybody else. She says: No, we don’t need, we have all of this; we’re rich with what we have. So, it gave me a sense of bigger gratitude and appreciation for what we have, or what I have, as opposed to what I don’t have.

 

And so, when you think about the wealth you have and what you grew up with, what is the wealth?

 

The the wealth is home, the land, to be amongst family, to understand the importance of caring for the land, caring for family members, caring for yourself, because you have to remain healthy so you can care for everybody else. Just to be humble in that. And that in itself is a kuleana, it is a responsibility, but it’s a good one. It’s not a burden; it’s just a privilege, it’s an honor.

 

And your father was a manaleo; he was a native Hawaiian speaker.

 

M – hm. Never spoke to us in Hawaiian at home, but words here and there. And I used to ask my mom how come he wouldn’t talk to us. And she said: Well, because they were taught that English was better, we should learn English.

 

Didn’t he not only grow up speaking Hawaiian, but it was exclusively Hawaiian for some of his childhood?

 

Yes; up until age eleven. He lived out in the country. So, everything he knew was fishing or hunting, learned from the grandfolks. And so, by the time he came to school — this was out in South Kona, Okoe, South Kona, and his mom was living in Punaluu, which is in Kau. And the school he went to was at Pahala. So, by the time this kid was coming in, he was already beyond kindergarten, and up until eleven years old, still speaking Hawaiian, but going to school. And my mom said all the kids would chase him, because it was such a novelty that this half – breed Hawaiian boy couldn’t speak English. So from there, it had to change. So, I don’t know what kinda teasing he went through, or any kind of negative repercussions he was getting, but it was full – on English immersion for him. So, that’s how he was able to switch over. I’m just grateful that I was able to learn Hawaiian, speak to my dad a little bit, listen to him, and understand what he was saying. And I think that kind of got us to get closer.

 

You talked about your mom wanting you to help people.

 

Her name is Florence. So, I used to tell her: Gee, Ma, I think you’re Florence Nightingale. Because she was a nurse, and she helped anybody that needed help. She was the nurse of the family, she was the helper of the family. It was just her way. And I learned that. Because when family needed help, I was the one tagging along. In fact, not even tagging along; I just had to go, because it was just she and I. Because my dad would be working out in Kona. And so, we would go together and whatever that took, if it was family who was sick, we’d take them to the hospital, take them to the doctor, and I was there. So, I understood all these things.

 

Was that a job, job, or was that just a kuleana? Was it a kuleana?

 

No, that’s a family kuleana. She just took it upon herself.

 

Didn’t she also have a paid job?

 

Oh, yeah; she was a nurse too, at Hilo Hospital. She really favored working with adults with mental illness. And she would bring me. And in fact, it started when she was at Leahi Hospital, here on Oahu. And the other nurses would be worried that this young girl in the presence of the adults with mental illness, wasn’t my mom afraid? And my mother says: What for? They’re just like us. My daughter shouldn’t be any afraid of this, at all. And so, it just was a part of me to be working with adults or be around adults with mental illness. And today, I work with adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It’s kinda full circle again. So, that’s Mama’s teachings.

 

Ku‘uipo Kumukahi’s idyllic childhood was interrupted when her family moved to Honolulu for a year. That’s when she started becoming interested in Hawaiian music.

 

1969, we were here on Oahu because my father got transferred. He worked for the Department of Transportation. He got transferred to Oahu to help finish the H1 Freeway and start the H2.

 

Oh, he was an inspector; road inspector?

 

He was a road inspector. So, we moved here, and it was here when my mom went to work at Leahi Hospital. We all transferred here. I went to St. Patrick’s.

 

Where did you live?

 

In Kaimuki, on Alohea Avenue. And it was funny, because my mom’s family, we were all living next to each other. It was our house, my mom’s sister and my mother’s brother. And that’s how things started up for me as far as music was concerned.

 

So until then, you weren’t playing music? You weren’t exposed to music?

 

I was. We had back in the day, those turntables, with the thirty – three records. I think my mother used to play this, album, The Halekulani Girls. And I used to just look at the picture, and all these ladies with the guitar and the bass.

 

Haunani Kahalewai?

 

No, this was Alice Fredlund, Linda Dela Cruz, and Sybil Bright. Sybil Andrews, Sybil Bright. So, Alice, Linda, and Sybil were these three women, and the picture was so nice of these women with their instruments. And I used to look at it and I used to think: What’s it like to play these things? I’ve seen them, I’ve heard them, but I’ve never touched any of ‘em. And so, when I came here, I had no friends ‘cause all my buddies were back home, and I had to make new friends. There was one ukulele in the house, and my mother’s youngest sister would come to the middle house on a Friday with all her gang from the newspaper, and they would … drink and play music. And I was little kid there, watching and listening. And everybody kinda sang the same songs over and over. So, if it was this Friday and this lady was singing, next Friday it was that lady singing these same songs. And then, I realized that when we weren’t with the friends gang, when we would go to Auntie’s house somewhere else like for Thanksgiving, they knew the same songs. And I was thinking: Then maybe I’m supposed to know the same songs too. So, after hearing it over and over, then you kinda start mimicking these songs, then you start learning the songs. So, after a while, it was all these songs that were very common amongst everyone. And when I finally found that ukulele in the house, and I picked it up, I was trying to be like my aunt with her ukulele. And so, my mom saw that. And there were these music songbooks that I think most families had in town, and they were kind of these cheap books, and they would have the words and the chords and the diagram. And so my mother said: Well, here; here, you can learn this.

 

You could see how to place your fingers?

 

How to put your fingers on the chord charts. And so, I would match it up and put my fingers on the ukulele. And I would see my auntie, and I would look at that, and I would go home and try to figure that out. And then, finally, my mother said: If you going play ukulele, you cannot only play, you have to sing. Don’t be like your auntie, she only play sometimes. She doesn’t sing too much.

 

You were ten or eleven years old at this point?

 

I’m ten; I’m ten. So, my mother says: Well, here, learn how to sing this song. I said: Mama, I don’t know how this songs goes. So, she picks a song she knows, she starts singing it, and she says: Okay, now you match your fingers and how it sounds to what I’m singing. So, I started picking up on what things sounded like and being able to play.

 

Wow. What a story.

 

So for me, that’s where that started. And then later on, my mother gave me this guitar. I looked at it and I said: I don’t know how to do this, this has too many strings and my hands are too small. She said: Well, there’s the book, and you can learn. [CHUCKLE]

 

When the family returned to Hilo after spending a year in Honolulu, Ku‘uipo Kumukahi’s mother made sure she kept up with her music practice.

 

The first thing she told me after we settled in back home about maybe a month later, she says: All right, I’m taking you to the music store, and we’re getting you an ukulele.

 

Did she think you had talent, or did she think it was just a fun thing for a kid to do?

 

No; I think she saw something. And it was because of her, really, that that’s why I play music today.

 

Was there a family tradition of music?

 

We had some family members who did play, but not like some other families who come from a lineage of musicians or kumu hula. No; that wasn’t in our family. Because my grandparents were ministers, so Hawaiian music or the secular music and the hula wasn’t allowed in the church. When we had the family luau, the reunions, our family would sing. We’d sing and we’d start off with church songs. The church songs that everybody knows today. And that just became ingrained, and ‘til today, I’m still singing those songs. And that’s just how it has been for many musicians, that they’ve learned from family.

 

So, you went back, and you were already pursuing music, but not as a career at that point.

 

No.

 

You probably weren’t thinking career.

 

Mama said: Music is not a career. [CHUCKLE] It’s a hobby. [CHUCKLE] She would tell me, ‘cause she saw how I was really loving to go that way and just getting involved. So I learned how to play the guitar. And then, back that up a little bit. I met up with some people who could play, and I was fifteen years old. I joined the canoe club. And my canoe buddies, some of ‘em could play. So, we’d sit under the coconut tree and we’d play until the coach would yell out, Get in the canoe!

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

Oh, okay. Drop everything and run for the canoe. But from that kinda collaboration, then you kinda wonder: Wow, they know this, I know this and this. Well, let’s make a group.

 

Right.

 

So, that’s how you start collaborating. And then, other people know other songs, and you learn their songs and they learn yours, and you just exchange. And it just grew, and grew, and grew.

 

Was it always traditional music, or did you do other types of music?

 

Mostly traditional Hawaiian, as we knew traditional Hawaiian music. Yeah.

 

That’s interesting, because you could have gone another way. You could have gone contemporary rock, blues.

 

But somehow, the people that I met up with, that really wasn’t in their being. It was Hawaiian. Yes, they knew a few. And even myself. I mean, we knew stuff from a little bit outside of the Hawaiian music. But it always came right back to the foundation, and that was Hawaiian music. And it was always fun to do that. And then, when you really get to meet the people later on who actually made those songs popular, for example, Auntie Genoa Keawe making Alika very popular, it’s like almost hit the ground. I’m actually meeting this lady. It’s your idol you’ve come to meet and respect. So, to me, that was the biggest honor for me, to meet those people as well, and to know their music. And so, it just flourished even more for me. And so, after a while, after growing up, seventeen, eighteen years old, it was very hard to find a bass player in Hilo, so my mother went and she bought me a bass, and I learned the bass on my own. And now, I became the bass player of the group. And so, I could at least do three instruments, and that was fine. And I’m okay with that today. [CHUCKLE]

 

Ku‘uipo Kumukahi moved back to Honolulu in 1985, and has been playing Hawaiian music on Oahu ever since, both as a solo artist as well as with many notable musicians. Yet, she remembered her mother’s warning that music was not a career.

 

I had met O’Brien Eselu, and so when I moved here, he asked me to be a musician for his halau. And that’s when I started learning. In fact, that’s when I met Auntie Genoa and Karen Keawehawaii. And it was from that environment I got to learn what was necessary for hula. And then, I performed at a bunch of Merrie Monarchs with him, and then started going off on my own, and then met various people in my lifetime like Chris Kamaka and Del Beazley, Brian Tolentino, Greg Sardinha, and we all started playing music together in the Waikiki circle. Then we were musicians for Karen Keawehawaii, and then that just grew, and grew, and grew. Then, we started recording. And after the recording for me, then as a group, we kinda went our separate ways, and I started doing solo performances, and ‘til now with the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame Serenaders. And it’s just been a beautiful journey of Hawaiian music.

 

So, you said your mom said music is not a career. But you’ve played a great deal. Is it not a career? I mean, you do have a day job.

 

Of course, it is. Well, my mom’s school is that you gotta work for the State and be a retired State employee and, have the benefits, and this and that. And I think as time went on, she knew that the world has changed, and it’s not about just being the State retiree anymore, it’s about what you pursue and what you love. And so, I think that’s what she was trying to gear me towards.

 

But you sound like you listened, because you got a regular job during the day, which is administrative and then, you’re somehow managing to do night gigs.

 

Yeah. It’s part of that learning, but more importantly, I think it’s because economically, it’s very rough to be a musician in Hawaii.

 

You couldn’t have supported yourself with just that.

 

Mm – mm; no. I know there are a few people who do, but realistically, if you want to live comfortably, I don’t think it’s economically wise to just be a complete musician, Hawaiian music musician. You probably have to be diversified because it just doesn’t sustain you.

 

Even though you’ve been the female vocalist twice, and you had a traditional Hawaiian album of the year, songwriting honors.

 

Even so. I think keeping a day job, we always joke; in order to play gigs at night, we gotta have a day job.

 

In addition to the satisfaction that Ku‘uipo Kumukahi finds in sharing her artistic expressions through her music, she’s also carrying out a personal mission; to preserve and perpetuate traditional Hawaiian songs.

 

I’m real ferocious about Hawaiian music and how that needs to stay, and why is it important to be involved in making that stay here in Hawaii.

 

And you’ve seen a time when traditional Hawaiian music has just dwindled, especially in Waikiki.

 

Exactly. I say this to the audience all the time. Hawaiian music is just not entertainment. What we sing, we’re the vehicles that convey this message, this documentation of a time long past. All these songs that are sung document something, some event, someone, some place of this time that’s past. Like for example, songs like Maki Aailono [PHONETIC]; that doesn’t exist anymore in Waikiki. Where is Maki Ailono? Nobody knows. But the song documents this place.

 

What does the song say?

 

Well, it talks about this island that existed before the Ala Wai Canal was dredged. And so, it’s down by where the Kapiolani Park, Honolulu Zoo is. And the back story is that it was a place where people would frequent, young couples would frequent. But, once the Ala Wai was dredged, all the water was pulled out of Waikiki, and so now, you had all this dry land, and then the resort came up, the island is gone. So, that’s the kind of important documentation that still exists in these songs.

 

What do you think’s going to happen to Hawaiian music, traditional Hawaiian music?

 

I think if we don’t pay attention, I think we could lose it. I hope not. I hope this prediction is wrong.

 

Even with the resurgence in the language?

 

Even with resurgence in the language, because unless the media helps us out, television, radio, to really put forth traditional Hawaiian music, as well as contemporary. Because we need the younger people understanding how to write putting the music notations and making that palatable to the ear, ‘cause that’s what Hawaiian music really is. It’s very healing. And without the help of media, I think we’re gonna lose it. I mean, I think we are so displaced already, we are so scattered, Hawaiian music is something that binds us. That’s part of the malama. You have land, you gotta take care of it through the generations, so that it can stay with the family. Not just because now you’re tired of it. This stuff is really important for Hawaii. I cannot tell you enough. Like, Na Lani Eha; look at their music. Their music, as we discovered when we were doing the album Na Lani Eha in 2007, what other sovereign really wrote songs for their people?

 

And there were four of them writing it.

 

Exactly.

 

And they were very good songs, too.

 

And we’re still singing ‘em today, as long as you know. And if you don’t, then somebody would listen, and they’d catch up and understand it. But these little pieces of information are huge impacts on who we are as a society, and the culture, and the tradition. Hawaiian music in Na Lani Eha’s time, it was Hawaiian leadership to know how to write music. That’s not present today.

 

You performed at Iolani Palace, singing songs from Na Lani Eha. What was that like?

 

I can still remember it so clearly. To first being asked; that was a very wow factor for me. I was in the Throne Room, and it was so magical. Everything was alive for me that night.

 

That was a beautiful performance.

 

Oh; just so beautiful.

 

And so, Ku‘uipo Kumukahi continues to do her part to keep Hawaiian music alive through her artistry and commitment to perpetuating traditional mele. Mahalo to Ku‘uipo Kumukahi for sharing her deep passion for her culture. And Mahalo to you for joining us. 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 to the Apple iTunes Store, or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

Auhea ‘o moani ke ‘ala

Hoapili o mi nei

A he aha kau hana e paweo nei

E ka makani Pu‘ulena

 

Kuhi au a he pono keia Au e ho‘apa‘apa mai nei E wiki mai ‘oe i pono kaua I ‘olu ho‘i au ke hoa

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Derek Kurisu

 

Original air date: Tues., July 24, 2012

 

Championing Food Sustainability in Hawaii

 

Leslie Wilcox talks story with Derek Kurisu, executive vice president of KTA Super Stores on Hawaii Island. Before “buy local, eat local” became a rallying cry, Derek championed food sustainability in Hawaii, while preserving the best traditions and values of the plantation culture he was raised in. Derek, who’s been with KTA for over 40 years, is also a champion in fostering Hawaii Island’s community. In his words, “Everybody gotta work together.”

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Growing up in the plantation and seeing how the lifestyle was, I started realizing that the success of any business or any organization, it’s people. It’s nothing else, except people. And if you treat them good, you treat them with dignity and respect, you’ll get treated as such too. They’ll always be there for you.

 

Collaborative businessman and advocate for locally grown products, Derek Kurisu, next on Long Story Short.

 

Aloha mai kakou, and welcome to Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. For more than a century, sugar production drove Hawaii’s economy, and Derek Kurisu, who grew up in plantation communities on the Big Island, never imagined that sugar cultivation would become a fading memory during his lifetime. As the sugar industry was folding during the early 1990s, Kurisu was encouraged by his employer, the Taniguchi family of KTA Superstores, to assist the community being left adrift as sugar jobs disappeared. Before Buy Local, Eat Local became a rallying cry, Kurisu worked for food sustainability, while also preserving the best traditions and values of plantation culture. In case you’re wondering if Derek Kurisu is related to Honolulu businessman and investor Duane Kurisu, that’s his younger brother. Derek was the middle son, with two brothers and two sisters, raised in the plantation villages of Hakalau and Pepeekeo on Hawaii Island. His father, Yasushi, was a machinist in the sugar mill, and his mother, Janet, a housewife. Derek is grateful for his parents’ strength of character, as well as the close knit community which taught him so much about how to live life. Since he was a kid, he’s found uncommon sense around him, even in the pau hana grumbling of his father’s drinking buddies.

 

Every day, they used to come home and drink beer, him and his friends, and everything else. And I used to always listen to their conversations and said, Wow, they have the answers to all the problems of the sugar mill. ‘Cause I guess when they have their few drinks and all that, everything became, Ah, we going solve everything. So then I told myself, You know when I grow up, I want to be the plantation manager.

 

Now, were there Japanese plantation managers back then?

 

No.

 

[CHUCKLE] You would be the first.

 

I was there. I want to be the plantation manager, because I would go and see all of the laborers, ‘cause they have the answer to all of the problems. And you know what? I went to get an agriculture degree, and when I graduated, the mills were all gone. They were starting to close, they were starting to consolidate, so that whole dream went away. I always felt the need to make sure that the plantation workers had some kinda say. And you know my brother, my kid brother, Duane.

 

Duane, the Oahu developer and businessman.

 

Yeah; so we worked on this project for Governor Ariyoshi. It’s called Hawaii Next Fifty Years. And we did the opening in the C. Brewer Building. And my brother bought the building. So when we went in there I tell you, I had this unbelievable feeling. ‘Cause, right on the balcony of the C. Brewer Building I could feel my father. They used to call him Scotch. All these guys, they had nicknames. Scotch, Bust Up …

 

[CHUCKLE] Bust Up.

 

Wimpy. Yeah, they had all these names.

 

Wimpy? [CHUCKLE]

 

Wimpy, Lefty, Groan, a Buddha. And I could see them all standing around on the top of the railing, looking down, drinking their beer and telling us, Eh, you see? We not opala. ‘Cause they used to call opala, the cane rubbish. They said,   They used to call it opala. Right? Eh, we not opala anymore. Right? And we’re drinking a beer inside this big, nice C. Brewer Building. Gave me a fantastic feeling, thinking that like all these laborers that worked really hard, they came such a long way. And lot of them are gone today, but I think some of their values and stuff are still ingrained in lot of us. And I think it’s our turn to go and make sure that it carries on through generation and generation.

 

Do you think your father imagined that you and Duane would do what you’re doing?

 

I don’t think so. But my dad was an amazing guy. Before he passed away, he wrote one book called Sugar Town, and in that book, I mean, it contained a lot of the values of the plantation life. So I felt that was very, very important. But the great thing about living on a plantation, there were so many great people; right? And everybody had some kind of strength. And the key, too, is that people in their different strength area would help each other. For instance, your car break down, a mechanic would come and fix it; right?

 

And he wouldn’t charge you?

 

Oh, he wouldn’t charge you.

 

But what would you do for him?

 

Oh, no, and if you went fishing, you had fish, you’ll bring fish over to the home. So a plantation family wasn’t just made of five or ten people; it was thousand, it was family of families. And that’s what made it so great living on the sugar plantation. I have a older brother; his name is Hervy.

 

Hervy.

 

And for him, I mean, when I look at him [CHUCKLE], he reminds me of these plantation men. They’re so kind, sincere inside, and if they’re your friend, they’ll just do whatever it is to make something happen. Lot of these plantation guys, they wouldn’t tell you anything. But you learn a lot from them just by looking at them, by observing, by watching. ‘Cause they don’t say stuff. Let me give you one story. Okay. I used to enjoy going bodysurfing, swimming, and all that as a youngster. We used to make our own body board, right? And I never had one, so I used to go bodysurfing. And one of these plantation men told me, Eh, Derek, tomorrow after work, I’ll come and I’ll get you something. So, I went down to his house, and there, I saw this big table. I looked at the table, I go, Ho! And it was like those ply board, a thick one like that. And I can still remember being under that house. Then he told me, Oh, Derek, draw your surfboard on this thing. So I drew my surfboard his nice table. Then he grabbed a saw, he cut it. He made for me one board. I went, That’s the plantation kinda thing.

 

Yeah.

 

Then he put on the skegs for me, and he said, Come back tomorrow, I’m gonna go and waterproof the thing. But that is what it was all about. I think why I was real fortunate, that I had a great-grandmother. And she used to live up close to the forest line of Hakalau. All of our families, my aunties, uncles, and my grandparents used to gather at my great-grandmother’s house every week, at least once. Used to get about forty or fifty of us. And I think for myself and my brothers, we have learned a lot of the values, the culture things and also, traditions from that. And we have also learned, and always used to remind us, to make sure not to bring shame to the family. [CHUCKLE] And I think that ingrained in each one of us. They really took care of us, they gave us everything, met all our needs, our life was very simple. And I still tell myself, Wow, you know, I better make sure I’m on the right path. I guess for me, that was like the foundation of my life.

 

Seeing yourself as part of something larger.

 

Oh, larger. So whatever I do now, I know if I do something bad, it’s a reflection not only me. All my families, all my ancestors, all my friends that helped me out, KTA Superstores where I work, all of the employees, gets affected. And you know what? To me, that is very, very important. I try to make sure that I don’t go and upset anybody or make any enemies, and I guess this whole thing about an obligation to the family or to the organization or whatever you belong to, helped me keep a straight life, and motivated me to move ahead. There was other people in my life that actually really influenced me. Actually, when I got married to my wife.

 

Is she a Hilo girl?

 

Yeah; she’s the Hilo girl. She was an educator, and I guess she kept me focused, grounded, and she kinda motivated me and helped me to be whatever the best I wanted to be. And that became very important, ‘cause I was kinda free, whatever. But that kept me focused and grounded. Then having a child is another whole story, right? He actually motivated me to become like a role model, and I had to make sure that what was real important was to be very supportive of him.

 

The owners of the locally owned KTA Grocery Stores urged Derek Kurisu to attend college. He’ll never forget the supportive role of owner, Yukio Taniguchi, and his son, Tony. In 1974, Derek earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. For some forty years, Kurisu has taken on various positions at KTA Superstores, and at the time of this conversation in 2012, serves as the company’s executive vice president.

 

A lot of my friends are very motivated, and they’re very intelligent. And they all decided, Okay, we’re all going college.

 

And you weren’t one of them? You were kind of bringing up the rear?

 

I was, yeah, whatever. So then, I said, Okay, I better go college too, ‘cause it’s the thing everybody’s doing. So in order for me to get to college, that’s when I started working at KTA Superstores. Yeah; ‘cause I used that to support myself. And the Taniguchi family, Tony and Yukio, they gave me the opportunity to go to college, so could get that college education. Tony would tell me, You know what Derek, you gotta get one college education, and you can work whenever you can work. So work between your classes, and all that. And then, I needed to finish up my degree up in Honolulu. So he would come up here, he found me a job.

 

Really?

 

Yeah, they would find a me a job. And so, I came up here, and I worked up here. And what was really amazing, he would come to visit me. And the people in the supermarket would get all excited to see an owner of a supermarket come to visit one worker, ‘cause I was working up there. And from there, I told myself, Wow, KTA must be someplace real great. I mean, where I’m able to just talk to the owners, and be real close to them. Whereas in the other markets up here probably didn’t have that kinda relationships. So I felt, Wow, that is home for me.

 

And your boss had his own kids, right?

 

Oh, yeah.

 

 

It wasn’t like he didn’t have any kids.

 

They had all their own children and everything else. They treated me like one. Incredible. I made a lot of new friends along the way, and ‘til today, they still care, they support me and help me in whatever I undertake. I mean, I got friends like one dairyman, this guy David Wong, Jr. I mean, he would force me to get into this total quality management thing, so I started to learn something different, so I could progress ahead of everybody else. Whenever I think about, I always tell myself that it becomes my obligation to do well because I’m representing all of them that helped me. And [CHUCKLE] maybe it’s because they feel sorry for me. [CHUCKLE] I don’t know.

 

Was there a sense of measuring at all? Like, Okay, he did this for me, so I should do this much for him?

 

No. All of them, they taught me a lot, and it’s not by what they told me. It’s about what they did. And for me, having friends and having associations all over the place that is willing to step up, I mean, it kinda motivates me to just get better, and to make a difference.

 

In tough economic times, how do locally owned businesses survive the competition of the big box retailers? Derek Kurisu and KTA Superstores found an answer by building upon the Taniguchi family’s near century-long relationship with the Big Island community. The family had the foresight to establish sustainable community partnerships that became part of the Buy Local, Eat Local movement. Derek Kurisu’s creation, the Mountain Apple Brand private label was launched in 1992, and now consists of hundreds of Hawaii-made food products sold at KTA Stores.

 

I look at the founders of the company, Koichi Taniguchi, I look at his sons, Yukio, Hide, and Tony, and the whole Taniguchi culture. I think they prepared us for this. They made us realize the importance of the customer, the importance of the employees, the importance of the supplier, the importance of relationship. Growing up in the plantation and seeing how the lifestyle was, I started realizing that, the success of any business or any organization, it’s people. It’s nothing else, except people. And if you treat them good, you treat them with dignity and respect, you’ll get treated as such too. They’ll always be there for you.

 

But in a time when the economy’s been weak, people are driven by price; right?

 

Exactly.

 

So how do you keep your market share when things cost more for you?

 

Well, it’s a matter of partnerships, right? So everybody kinda work together. ‘Cause the wholesaler knows that for us, if we don’t survive, they won’t survive, that we’re connected, all over the place. So we’re all working together. And it becomes real important for KTA to survive, because when we survive, we’re able to give back, and there’s so many other companies, thousands of employees is depending on our survival. When the plantation went under, that was a big part of my life. It just tore me apart, because I never thought it would ever go under. And Tony Taniguchi at that time told me, Eh, Derek, when the plantation goes under, we have a major obligation to make sure that we take of the people, because they’ve been coming to our stores and shopping. And even for our family, once a month, my dad used to get his paycheck, he would come to KTA and have it cashed, and we would do all our grocery shopping and go home, once a month. So that’s the only time actually we came to Hilo. I told Tony, Okay, I’ll do something. And so, so that’s how I came up with this Mountain Apple brand, creating products or selling products that was locally grown or locally manufactured. This was back in probably 1990, around there. So it’s been a long journey. You look at me now, you can tell. It’s been a journey.

 

This is what a lot of people have discovered only lately.

 

Yeah; yeah. But you know what makes me feel real good? I think this whole movement of creating Buy Local, this whole impact had created somewhat of a ripple effect within our companies and within the whole State of the importance of supporting local.

 

How many partnerships are there? How many products in your store are results of partnerships you’ve created through ag or manufacturing?

 

There are about sixty different partnerships, and there’s about two hundred forty items. And, again, it fluctuates, depends on the season and everything else. And it’s real unique. ‘Cause when we started the thing, is that like, the jams and jellies. Because I understood [CHUCKLE], worked in a supermarket, I understood agriculture, instead of putting the product with the jams and jellies in the grocery store, I would put it in the bakery. So it gave my manufacturer or my supplier, or my partners a better chance to make it happen.

 

Did you have a model for that? Did you see that done anywhere else?

 

No. [CHUCKLE] You had to be different. Tony, Yukio, and everybody … what I am today is what they allowed me to be. And what KTA is today, is what they allowed us to make it happen. And I’m so grateful for that.

 

‘Cause you’re unpredictable.

 

[CHUCKLE] Well I try to do anything that people don’t want to do. I remember all these fruits. They said, Oh, make a local product, we’re gonna buy ‘em. So as long as you can supply us, we’ll buy whatever. So I went back, I started to think about it. Then, all of a sudden, I went out to the store, I saw all these papayas being thrown away, or fed to the pigs, and the farmers were getting like penny or two cents a pound for it. So the farmer would just grab it and feed it to the pigs. So, I told myself, Wow, I gotta invent or I gotta create a product that uses papaya. Yeah? And I see guavas falling from the trees, so I gotta create a product that using guava. So all of a sudden I went up to the University, and the students create this product that had a papaya and guava, and have traces of pineapple and local sugar inside. So, oh, it tastes so good. And so, I was thinking, Okay, what I’m gonna call it? So I was driving up and down Saddle Road, and I saw all this lava. I said, There you go, PAVA. I’m gonna call the thing PAVA, papaya and guava. So today, Meadow Gold process the thing, so everything’s local. I had this guy Eddie Wai design the carton, so all the signs, everything is local. And I have the drink out now.

 

Who owns the drink?

 

I own the name, and Meadow Gold is the one processing, so he’s the one that’s gonna go out and sell it. And the reason why that’s important, because by creating a drink that comes out of a plant that we process milk from, it helps bring the cost down on the milk, the local milk, so I’m able to be competitive. ‘Cause I’m one of the only stores on the Big Island has local milk.

 

So, you’re in the intersection of ag and consumer, and manufacturing and retail.

 

Yeah. So I really believe in value added. In order for agriculture to grow, we need to have value added using the Grade B surplus and what have you. I’ve been real fortunate.

 

Are there other things that you think we’re not using, that could be put to use and bring costs down like that?

 

Here’s a good one. The wild boars been coming into people’s yards and stuff on the island. Right? So today, we have wild boar sausage, Portuguese sausage that we sell in our store. You see, one of the things about it is that when you really look at it, the hotels and restaurants will want to use all the loins and the good cuts. Because wild boar has a fantastic taste ‘cause they feed on macadamia nuts and stuff.

 

Oh, wow; high end. [CHUCKLE]

 

Yeah; high end. So for them to use the other parts, it doesn’t work, so we use that in Portuguese sausage, so we create value added stuff with that. We started to really market local beef about twenty, thirty years ago. And we never brought one drop of beef or grinding from the mainland; it was all local. Today, our local beef sales is forty percent of all our beef sales. And it’s big. I feel real good about it, because whatever the restaurants cannot use, the loins and all that, we’ll use that so that we can balance the whole carcass, so everybody gets. [CHUCKLE]. The milk industry was interesting. Because I remember them telling me that our competitors were bringing in mainland milk. So I got all our ranchers together. At that time, we had five different ranchers, and I told them that I’m gonna—in fact, that was my first Mountain Apple brand product. I told them I’m gonna create a Mountain Apple brand milk, our own private label. Instead of having the missing children on the side, we put the whole literature of why you should support local and what is Mountain Apple brand. And so, the five farmers agreed, first of all, that we’re gonna work together to bring a fresher product, and we’re gonna improve the quality of the milk. And I think the third thing, we eventually took out all the RSBT, you know, those synthetic growth hormones. So we were the only milk without that. So we removed all that, so everything was natural. And the thing just took off.

 

It sounds like that might be hard to agreement on that from those farmers. I mean, they’re in competition with each other, one might want a better price.

 

It’s kinda interesting, but in time of crisis, everybody gotta realize we gotta work together. And what makes me feel real good about it is that all of the ranchers, the dairies all over the State all closed up, and the only dairy we have is on the Island of Hawaii.

 

So, the answer was depending on each other.

 

Exactly; and realizing that the competitor is not each other, the competitor is the products that’s brought in from the mainland, outside sources.

 

And that’s a recurring theme in everything you do.

 

Exactly. We gotta start to remove all these silos, remove all the walls and barriers between people, between organizations, between businesses, between everybody, so we all can work together as one. And I make sure that there’s nothing in it for me, so that I’m able to be successful with my whole goal, is to make people work together.

 

You assemble a lot of meetings, you pull people together. Is it very administrative, or is it kind of organic where you can just kind of do like a flash mob?

 

Organic. We gotta start to remove all these silos, remove all the walls and barriers between people, between organizations, between businesses, between everybody, so we all can work together as one. And I make sure that there’s nothing in it for me, so that I’m able to be successful with my whole goal, is to make people work together. I tell you, I don’t have any secretary, and I share my office.

 

With whom? Who do you share your office with?

 

I share with my meat buyer. Well, we all share together. And for me, what is important, is not the glamour of where you’re at and everything else. What is important is the store. Making sure that the store functions, and we’re able to put whatever resources into the store, not into ourselves. So, you just go and work with the positive. You grab those that want to make it happen. And a lot of times, we kinda focus on vocal majority, and we get ourselves nowhere. So, I’ll just grab people that want to be part of the family, want to do it, and we just make it happen. And I guess people who are involved all understand what I’m talking about. They all understand this whole Hawaii culture, plantation Hawaii, or whatever culture you call it. Like the lei, right, how everybody gotta work together. And to me, that’s important.

 

The Big Island is such a special place. We got beautiful weather, we got beautiful scenery, but most of all, we got beautiful people like all my friends here at Toa Here! Yeah! You know—

 

With no prior television production experience, Derek Kurisu plunged fearlessly into the world of television production more than a dozen years ago. As a vehicle to help bridge and build community, Derek produces the monthly cable TV series, Prime Time Living in Paradise, and Seniors Living in Paradise, hosted by George Yoshida.

 

I remember we needed lights, so we used to grab like those home lamps. [CHUCKLE] I mean, ‘cause we had no idea. And I hired this cameraman who’s with me today, helps me producing the family show. Man, the guy, he just had one small portable camera, and we started our first show with that. So we have two shows. We have a senior show, and we have a family show, plays every night, it rotates once a month. And the good thing about this is that, a lot of these seniors, I mean, there’s so much content in there. It’s so precious that I want to build one archives so we can keep it there, so that their great-great-grandchildren one day will be able to see.

 

What’s the kind of thing they’ve said that’s really touched you?

 

Well, [CHUCKLE] I remember one of them came to me and said, Derek, the last year of my dad’s life was the greatest, because he was on your show, and everybody recognized him, and now, they all know that, you know, he collects shells. And for me, actually, why I created two shows, the senior show and the family show, because I wanted eventually to have a little bit more a connect between the children and the seniors. If you have intergenerational things and both of ‘em could work through each other and learn.

 

In 2012, Derek Kurisu’s boss is Barry Taniguchi, wise grandson of the company founder, who steers the KTA course of weaving together plantation style values, a deep understanding the community served, and the willingness to try new things, to collaborate and partner for the good of all. It’s an approach that says, We’re all in this together. Thank you, Derek Kurisu, for sharing your long story short. And thank you for watching and supporting PBS Hawaii. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Olin Lagon

 

Original air date: Tues., Sept. 10, 2013

 

Olin Lagon is the director of Kanu Hawaii, an environmental and social movement. He calls himself a “geek” raised in Kalihi and Palolo public housing. In his teen years, Olin says he skipped school to catch waves, and jokes that his blood alcohol level was higher than his GPA. In this conversation with Leslie Wilcox, see how Olin found new paths in life and became a tech entrepreneur and community champion.

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

The last tsunami scare we had, it was interesting ‘cause I went to pick up my mom, and she lives in Waimanalo near the beach, and so went driving there, and, you know, I saw all these lines at stores, and it’s so orderly. People are buying water, and they’re like, “Oh, you can take the last one” and stuff. I went to put gas in, and they’d run out of the cheap gas, and so they put the sign saying, “All gas same price, at the lowest price.” And so even the owners could have gouged, but they didn’t; they actually dropped the price. And everyone’s waiting very patiently. And then I saw a video of the last scare in L.A., where people are fighting and duking it out for water and stuff, and it really made me reinforce that there’s still a mass amount of compassion in our state, that people do care.

 

Olin Lagon believes that compassion is the secret of life. He’s a successful software developer and entrepreneur, yet his passions are community and sustainability. Olin Lagon’s lifestyle and work reflect his deep beliefs in simplicity and family, values instilled in him at a young age by his mother. Olin Lagon 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, mai kakou. I am Leslie Wilcox. Olin Lagon developed his first computer program when he was a boy. Since then he’s had a successful career creating tech companies and selling his designs to companies worldwide. Now, he has Kanu Hawaii, an organization dedicated to creating a sustainable future. Olin Lagon grew up in Honolulu, but there’s very little about his childhood that prepared him to become both a successful businessman and a leader in the non-profit world. His family had to overcome many obstacles, and it was his mother’s faith and love for her son that got them through.

 

When I was six and my dad died, my mom only went to the sixth grade or so, and so she had a really hard time in finding a job. We lived in public housing, and so she’s trying to raise her three kids and — actually four kids with myself, and not being able to find a job. McDonald’s or fast food, she wasn’t able to get employment. So it took a long time before she’d get a job, and it affected everything about what we could do, what we could buy, what we could eat, where we could go, and so that was really hard period for us.

You remember thinking about when am I gonna eat next? What am I gonna eat?

 

No, but I had this memory where I remember we were eating flour and water, and we had this — and I remember it being good, like wow, and I think some sugar in it and stuff like that, and she created some kind of stew with flour. And so I tried to recreate that when I was in college, and I it just tasted awful. [laughter]. So, I know that I probably ate a lot of food that wasn’t healthy or wasn’t, — was what we could get. So, I remember getting blocks of cheese from the government. I’m not trying to like say everything was really bad, but there were long periods of time where we didn’t have a lot of food to eat.

 

And did you think of yourself as a poor kid?

 

Absolutely. And so the thing with living in public housing is that you live in some of the poorest communities in the country, in one of the wealthiest countries. So, the disparity is huge, and kids are not blind to that. I’ve been to 20-some-odd countries, and I’ve seen poverty first-hand, but what makes my childhood different is that we were sort of trapped in this bubble where everyone around us is rich, except for us. And so, we couldn’t get clothes for school, we couldn’t do a lot of things that we thought other kids could do. And I remember this one episode where I wanted to buy baggy pants, ‘cause everybody was popping, and I thought I wanted to be a dancer, and so I stole five dollars from my mom’s wallet, and I opened it up, and she had, I think, six bucks in it. So, I took the five, and I hid it in a book. And then she came up to me after — I think she knew I took it — and she said, “You know, I’m missing five dollars, and we really need it.” So, I remember pretending to look for it, and then — I think I was about eight at the time. And then one night, sort of pretended to find it. I didn’t find it. When she went away, I took it out, and I put it back in her purse. Never stole again. That’s how I — I guess even as a kid, I knew that even five dollars meant a lot to my family.

 

Did that reduce the size of your dreams?

 

I think it reduced the size of my social circle, because I felt embarrassed being in the situations, where we grew up in public housing. I felt like I couldn’t bring friends over. I couldn’t … I didn’t relate to a lot of different people because we didn’t have a lot of the things that the culture said we should have. And so, from that perspective, I think it did reduce my social circle. And I’m sure it had an impact on myself, as well, my self-worth and esteem.

 

What about your mom?

 

She lived a very spartan and simple life, and I rejected that, and I hated that, and I thought I would want nothing to do with that growing up. And I’ve come full circle, and so it’s that, to me, is a really amazing lesson that I’m still trying to learn; it’s just this full-circle aspect of simplicity and sustainability.

 

Your mom sounds like she had a lot of faith.

 

She never felt embarrassed that we lived in the housing. I’m sure she wasn’t happy about it, but it wasn’t something that she hid. She lived as she lived, and it is what it is, and where she worked was where she worked. I was embarrassed that she worked at Zippy’s at one point, where she ended up getting a job, and now I love Zippy’s ‘cause they gave her a chance.

 

What was life like within your unit at Kuhio Park Terrace or Palolo Housing? How did you guys handle that?

 

This story might illustrate that. So, I was seven at the time, and I had some chalk, and I was drawing on the sidewalk, minding my own business, and then I felt this sting in the back of my head. And then I turned around and saw these neighbor kids laughing, and they ran into their unit. And as I was rubbing my head, it hurt like I’ve never felt before, and then it felt weird. So, I looked at my hand, and my entire hand was covered in blood. And so they had stabbed my head with a piece of metal that they found. And then so, of course, I went home. By the time I got home, this side is just all bloody. But what, I guess the surprise is not what … that happened, but what my mom did about that. So, I got home, my mom’s freaking out. And she didn’t call 911, she didn’t call the ambulance, she called her pastor. Because I found out years later is that I needed to go to ER, and he took me to the ER, but she needed comfort because she felt how is it that I can’t take care of my own kid and keep him safe within a few feet of our own home? And so from that context, that, I think, illustrates some of the pressures that went on, living in housing. That’s why I went back for years once a month to volunteer with Parents and Children Together and other organizations, because there’s still a lot of injustice in public housing. Shortly after that, I went to live with my sister. And my sister took me in, and she lived in Waipahu at the time.

 

And she was much older, yes?

 

Fourteen years older.

 

So, that was a safety precaution for you?

 

I think so. Yeah, I think so. It was just really difficult for me. And I’m a geek, and so, I don’t know other geeks in the public housing at that time. And so, I was not only sort of this unusual kid, but I didn’t have a lot of peers that I could relate with.

 

Explain how you were a geek in public housing.

 

My Mom, bless her heart, she didn’t have a lot of money, but her pastor gave her a hundred dollar loan, which she used to buy a used computer back in the early ‘80s. It was a Texas Instrument TI-994A, had no monitor, had no disk drive, and then we went to Radio Shack and bought a tape player. And then I set it up as a computer, went to the library, and then I borrowed — there were three books on computer programming. And that’s in an entire library. So, I borrowed all three …

 

Which library was this?

 

This was the Waikiki library. And so, I borrowed the three. I read them, and then I learned how to program, wrote my first program. It was a funny program where I — you put in your name, and it would tell you your future. And so when I put in my name, it had all these amazing things to say [laughter]. And my sister put in her name, and then it had some not so good things to say, but those are the kinds of things that I did as a kid. And so, — and from there, I started doing design work and programming different things.

 

You taught yourself from a remnant of a computer?

 

It wasn’t that difficult cause I had some books that I could read, yeah.

 

But nobody else was doing it, you were just self-motivated to check it out?

 

Right … that was my Mom. She had the foresight to do that.

 

When he was young, Olin Lagon’s only ambition was to become a professional surfer. That didn’t work out for him. But some of the people he met along the way had a profound impact on many of the choices he’s made in his life.

 

Did you know you were smart?

 

I don’t know if I can answer that now. I think that I’m okay …

 

So, at the time did you have a sense of your self-worth?

 

I didn’t.

 

And you didn’t know what was going to happen to you?

 

No. I just kind of went with the flow, thinking that I was going to be a surfer, and that I was gonna make money doing that and just have that career.

 

After your father died when you were six, was there another father figure in your life after that?

 

The father figure I had was someone from the Big Brothers Big Sisters, and so this guy, Dave, who was a volunteer. I remember it’s one of the most joyous moments in my life. I was sitting at home at KPT, and then the phone rang. My mom picked it up, and she said, “It’s for you.” And I never got calls, right? So, I pick up the phone, and it’s Dave. And he’s like, “Olin, listen, listen!” And he’s telling me, “Don’t say anything.” So, I’m straining to hear something. I don’t hear anything. He’s like “Come on, you can’t hear it?’ And I couldn’t hear it. And he said, “It’s hailing; it’s hailing in Kaimuki.” And he was just jumping for joy. And he thought it was the most amazing thing. And while I didn’t know it hailed in Hawaii, but when I hung up the phone, I had chicken skin, and I still do, because this guy was so excited, and he called me. And I just felt so good about that.

 

One sharing adult makes a huge difference.

 

Yeah, and I’ve had a few. And there are really two parts to that equation, because I think in everyone’s life, you’re gonna have tons of opportunities where adults are giving you this advice, but it takes your growth to be willing to accept that. And so, I’m sure that throughout my life I had all these wonderful forces coming in, but I wasn’t ready to accept it. I dropped out of high school and was sort of a delinquent kid and all that. And so, but when I would join the military as a naval reservist, I had a guy in military school that was really, — really pushed me to go to college. And no one had ever told me that before, and I was ready to receive that.

 

Nobody had told you that before?

 

Never. In fact, it was so bad that when I came back to Hawaii I dropped out of school, so I didn’t take the SAT or anything like that. So, I went to Honolulu Community College, and I took the placement exams. So, it’s just where you go for math and English. And then I went to the counselor, and I said, “I want to be an engineer.” Then he looked at my scores, and he said, “No!” And I said, “What do you mean, ‘no’?” It’s like, “Well, your scores are not high enough, so let’s look at the survey program. It’s two years, and you can do this.” And I said, “No, I want to be an engineer.” And he refused to help me.

 

And so I was the keynote speaker at HCC one year, and I shared that story, because that’s wrong; you don’t do that to kids. But that’s how strong it is, I think, in terms of, you have to overcome some these issues, people telling you things that you can’t do.

 

Even before graduating from the University of Hawaii with a degree in business administration, Olin Lagon was already making money as an entrepreneur and software developer.

 

You were a pioneer in crowd funding and software development.

 

I’ve been lucky. Some of the designs that I’ve worked on have been adopted by companies worldwide: Olympics, Nike, Fed Ex, NTT. MIT even bought some of the software that I designed.

 

Do you hold patents?

 

I have nine, nine patents.

 

Do they pay you?

 

Well, the patents were sold in a previous company. So, there’s no financial interest. Some friends and I invented independently this concept of chipping in, or now it’s called crowd-funding. And so, we designed systems around that, and we got some patents for the work that we did.

 

You own … you founded and owned that company for a relatively short time, I think a little more than a year, but you did an amazing amount of work. Lots of money flowed through there, and then you sold it to a big, big enterprise.

 

I left that company to launch Kanu with some friends, but I was there for about two and a half years, and so we did roughly a hundred million dollars of crowd-funding through the system. We funded all kinds of projects worldwide. It was pretty amazing. And then my partners went on to sell the technology and the systems to a large national … international company.

 

You had a very, very strong career going in software development and creating new ideas and companies when you left to join Kanu, which was a fledgling non-profit Hawaii-based enterprise. Why did you decide to do that? It’s a non-profit.

 

Right, but it’s actually part of my plan. So, my adult life, 50 percent has been given up to service or volunteering. So, I want to give away half my life, and I want that to remain constant for the rest of my life. And so, Kanu was an amazing oppor — I feel privileged that I was able to be a part of the founding of the getting it off the ground and getting staff engaged. And so I see that as a privilege and an opportunity. So half my life is starting companies, tech companies, but I do that for three or four years, and then I go back and so some cause-related work and then sort of oscillate between the two.

 

And you don’t have trouble making that move?

 

It’s the same work. You do good work, you find great ideas, you think big a little bit, then you push the boundaries here and there and try to change the world the best way you can.

 

Did you become wealthy through your ideas in tech?

 

I feel wealthy, and so I’ve never done anything in my life for money, and I never will. And so, I’ve been very fortunate, and I’m happy with what I’ve got. I’ve been given a lot, and I’ve been very generous.

 

So, that wasn’t your motivation, but you did make money on your expertise?

 

Made some and enough.

 

That’s interesting, “enough,” and how people define “enough.”

 

 

Right.

 

In your case, how do you define it, as far as quality of life?

 

Enough is that you can spend time with your family. So, at 4:00 every day my goal is to just spend some time with my two boys. And so we try to go walking or do whatever we can for that short period of time. We have dinner every night together. And then if I have to work, I’ll work again at night. But then enough means that you can have someplace safe, you can enjoy some of the beauty of Hawaii, which most of it is free, right? — the beach, and hiking, and stuff like that if you’ve got a safe place to call home. And you’ve got good food that you can eat, hopefully a lot of it locally grown. And I think that’s more than enough.

 

You live off the grid, so to speak as well.

 

We have a zero energy home. We produce more energy than we need. And we now have an electric car, and it’s still a zero energy home. And we’ve been very fortunate, but I think the kuleana is, if you have the opportunity to live in a zero energy home, then you have to help support other initiatives, ‘cause not everyone has that opportunity. If you are renting, you can’t switch out your appliances or put solar. And so, where you have this deep kuleana, to really be fair, to help others as well.

 

You also met your wife at an early age, too?

 

I did, yeah. When I came back from military training, I was 17, actually — no, 18. I was 18. And then one of my friends, my surfer friends, wanted to get a job, and he couldn’t go to the interview by himself. That’s how, I guess, we were. So, I went with him to this job interview at the Mexican restaurant Chi-Chi’s. And so while I’m interviewing with him, maybe — I don’t know what they were thinking, but we’re in this interview together, they said, “Why don’t you come and work, too?” And then I thought, oh, no, I’m not here for the job, I’m here to support my friend. So, I ended up taking the job, and I worked as a busboy. It was the first job I ever had, and I met her there. She was studying to be a doctor, and she was this really smart girl. She was at UH. And I was so intimidated. Like I’m this kind of rough kid. And I’m trying to find my way through life. And she blew me away with sustainability. We went and had dinner, and she was a vegetarian at the time. And I thought, why are you a vegetarian? Like, that is weird. Are you a hippie? I didn’t know what that meant. This was back in 1990. And then she gave me a few books to read, which I did, and then I started my sustainability journey from her. So, we have cloth napkins that we use daily from that time period. Yeah, she has these Down To Earth plastic bottles that are so old the people at Down To Earth don’t recognize them, but she’s been refilling them for 30 years. She’s never bought, like, another plastic bottle for shampoo, ‘cause she just goes back and refills them. And just like these really small things that she does quietly that have just impressed me immensely about sustainability.

 

Did she become a doctor?

 

No, she became a teacher. Her brother was in special-ed at the time, and she wasn’t happy with the services that he was getting. And she decided that she couldn’t just say that she didn’t like it, but she had to do something about it. So, she switched her major into teaching and ended up spending ten years on the Waianae Coast teaching in public education.   And then we joined the Peace Corps together.   And then she came back and taught in Kalihi for a couple of years.   And then when my first son was born, she’s been at home ever since.

 

Kanu Hawaii was launched in 2008 by a group of like-minded individuals who felt that the islands could be the model to the world in compassion and sustainability. They started a non-profit organization based on individual commitments to practice sustainability and compassion. Olin Lagon joined this movement early on and today is Kanu Hawaii’s executive director.

 

When Kanu first started, I remember talking to some of the early guys when they organized their 40 folks, and I loved the simplicity of it. So, here’s a group of 40 that want to change fundamentally Hawaii for the next 30 years.

 

And how did these 40 get together?

 

They’re just friends that were about the same age and hung around together. And but what they did was fascinating: They said, we’re not rich, we’re not famous, we don’t have a lot of money, we can’t do a lot of things, but what we can do is make our lives consistent with the vision that we see.   And so they had this “I will” movement where they said, “First, I will do this in my life, and then collectively we can work together, but not until we actually get our own lives in order.” And I thought that was really empowering, and so, I –when they wanted to get it off the ground, I said, “I would love to.” So, James Koshiba, Andrew Oki, and myself were the first co-directors of it; we got it off the ground. And it’s blossomed in many ways that we didn’t anticipate since then.

 

And you have 20,000 supporters throughout the state?

 

About that, yeah, in every zip code across the state. And we’ve done a lot of national work, too that we haven’t really broadcast, like, CNN did a cover story on our group last year, on the elections work that we did. We knocked on about 3,000 doors. We got 25,000 people election information for — that are unbiased and for some of the elections that didn’t have much information, like the local House races and City Council. We did work with 500 families last year on energy efficiency. These were families that were disadvantaged that maybe couldn’t install solar and stuff like that. And so, national groups have picked it up. And so, like ted.com, we built their community-based system for them. It’s a pretty large group. The Points of Light Institute, did the same. The 911 Commission adopted our model for their tenth anniversary of the 911 commission. So, it was really neat to see Kanu’s humble model being used nationally and even internationally, too.

 

What is the change that Kanu wants to see in Hawaii?

 

It’s really simple. In the next 30 years we want to fundamentally change sustainability and compassion. So, food, energy, waste, civic engagement, we want us to be more locally self-sufficient and rely less on external sources for energy, to not lose this compassion that we have that’s really different here.

 

Do you think the compassion reservoir or reserves are dwindling here? I’ve heard people say, you know, the “Aloha” isn’t quite the same anymore.

 

Yeah, it has changed. In some communities, no; in some communities, yes. And part of it is, there were peoples that lived in Hawaii for many years that had these tenets of aloha at its core, and the demographic profile of Hawaii has shifted, so there’s more people that are not from Hawaii that live here than are from here. So, that has changed the culture in some ways good and in some ways, not so good, and so, the compassion piece has shifted quite a bit, unfortunately, I think.

 

That’s so interesting that your organization is interested in preserving and growing compassion.

 

Compassion is the secret of life, I think. If you can’t be vulnerable and compassionate, then it’s hard to be connected with other people. And so, that cannot go away. You can’t do good work and do it without coming from a place of compassion.

 

I’ve heard one of your members talk really passionately and movingly about how you can’t judge people by where they’re from because it’s the heart that counts.

 

Absolutely.

 

And that we can’t demonize each other, or we’ve really hurt ourselves.

 

The truth is, when you — when we mix cultures, then something changes and something shifts. And so, Kanu really wants to make sure that we don’t lose that compassion piece, that we hold sustainability true to our hearts, and the work we do and the lives we live are consistent with that, and we don’t forget to take care of one another. For example, we have this day of action where we’ve set up 20 or so projects statewide that our members can chose whether they want to count turtles, or go plant plants at KPT, or help feed people who don’t have food. And we provide these opportunities for just hundreds of people to just get out and experience different parts of the community. On the compassion side, I remember this one volunteer; she went to a shelter in Manoa that we organized a clean-up effort for for women and children that were battered. It’s a really terrible thing that happened, but it’s a great shelter. And so she was so moved that she showed up the next Sunday and helped and the next Sunday and helped. She was a sophomore in high school. She ended up going every single Sunday until she went to college. And to me, I think that’s compassion, because she has fundamentally changed the lives of everyone in that shelter, and her family, and her friends and created this mass amounts of compassion.

 

And, so, part of what Kanu did was exposed her, introduced her, made it a personal matter for her.

 

Right. Or even some of the things we do may not be that effective, but we try to register homeless communities to vote. And I don’t know how many people we got registered, but it was just really difficult, but in doing that work, we found all these challenges. We went to this shelter, and they get their mail in another community, so where do they vote? And if they show up, then what do they use? We just got to learn about some of these challenges first-hand.

 

That’s right. And so, you learned that you — when you try to come up with a solution, if you don’t have all the information, it is not a solution, right?

 

No, no.

 

So, has it been harder than you thought to solve some of the — or at least begin working on some of these societal issues?

 

Not because we’re not — we got a long way to go, and so, we’re not rushing it; we’re just going as fast as we can. We’re trying to affect food, energy and waste issues. We have an “Eat Local” challenge, where we’ve got thousands of people eating more local. It’s not solving everything, but it’s a step in the right direction. So, I feel like the pace we’re going is good.

 

What do you see Hawaii in 20 years with Kanu’s work to improve things step by step?

 

I see Hawaii in 20 years as leading the world in models of sustainability. We’re gonna need it. We’re shifting away from major different resources going off of oil into renewables, and finding ways to live together compassionately. And so, we have this opportunity to excel at that and show the world that it can be done in a very isolated place. And so, I have faith that we’ll find amazing technical solutions, cultural solutions to become one of the most sustainable places on earth.

 

And what stands in the way of us reaching that goal?

 

Our culture, in some ways, being stuck in the past. We have to — we can’t talk about sustainability but drive an SUV with one passenger, and not recycle, and not try to eat local. It’s hard because my wife still buys strawberries, and it’s $10 a basket for the Kula strawberries. And I said, “We can’t afford it,” but I still cringe, but I know that’s what we need to do. But I cringe because I’m still connected with that feeling. So, we have to really go all in and support our local agriculture. We don’t support it as much as we should. We need to support local businesses. We don’t support it as much as we should. And that requires a big cultural shift.

 

So, our salvation is our culture, and our nemesis is our culture.

 

I think so, right. But there’s hope in that.

 

As you watch your boys grow up, is there any mistake you’ve seen other parents make that you’re gonna try not to make?

 

I think the over-scheduling is — I see that kids are doing too much. At least, I think it’s too much, and they’re not allowed to just sit and be. And so, that’s one thing that I want to do differently. And so, I mean, I feel bad, I go to parties, and this kid is doing soccer, and then baseball, and basketball, and trombone, and piano and stuff, and I’m thinking, am I robbing my kid of these experiences? And then I keep going back to, no. I think this is the path that works. And they will find their own ways.

 

And at 4:00 p.m., you’re there with your sons, talking with them.

 

Right.

 

Well, Olin Lagon found his way and is helping to blaze the path toward a future Hawaii that is built on self-sufficiency, sustainability, and above all, compassion. His life so far has been a remarkable journey shaped by a caring mother, mentors who were there when he was ready to listen, and his own unending quest for knowledge and justice. Mahalo to Olin Lagon for sharing his story of inspiration and hope, and Mahalo to you for joining us. 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 to the Apple iTunes store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

I’m very … very fortunate that I was born in Hawaii. I’ve seen so many difrerent places, many different countries, and lived in different communities, and this is such a blessing to have come from here. Just even what I went through as a kid, I think there’s so much the world can learn, that we’re from diff cultures and different backgrounds and in some ways it’s working really well and I think theres a lot of beauty there and I’m very grateful for that.

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Juliet Lee

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Juliet Lee

 

Original air date: Tues., July 12, 2011

 

Hawaii Author and Poet

 

Leslie Wilcox talks story with Juliet Lee, a Hilo-born poet and novelist who is perhaps better known by her pen name, Juliet S. Kono. Juliet takes Leslie back in time through vivid memories of modest living, teenage rebellion and family hardships. When Juliet was barely three years old, she and her family were swept up in the 1946 Hilo tsunami – a turning point for Juliet’s family and inspiration for her future work. Juliet has garnered several honors for her writing, including the Elliot Cades Award for Literature, the American Japanese National Literary Award and the Hawaii Award for Literature. Her latest novel, Anshu: Dark Sorrow, is set in Hawaii and Japan.

 

Juliet Lee Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

My earliest memory would be where I’m lying down on the bed. I must have been about two or three. And the wind blowing the curtains in and out of the house, and I’m thinking, Oh, I’m here. Something about being here in this world.

 

How many of us are so self aware that we can describe what was surrounding us when we were only two years old? Through the very aware eyes of Juliet Lee, who writes under the name, Juliet S. Kono, we see life as it is, filled with duty, sorrow, and happiness.

 

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. If you were born in the 1940s or earlier, you’ve lived through a world war, and you’ve seen Hawaii grow from a quiet plantation-based society to a center of commerce. For Juliet Lee, who is also the Hawaii author and poet known as Juliet S. Kono, observations of growing up in Hilo, like the hapuu that her mother used for growing orchids, the flying ashes of sugarcane fires, a tsunami tearing through Hilo town are the ones that are locked in her mind forever. And these experiences shaped the story of her life.

 

You were a blackout baby.

 

Right.

 

And you’ve written about it. What does that mean?

 

I was born during the war, during the blackout, so we were called blackout babies. That was in 1943, and my mom went to the hospital, Matayoshi Hospital. I was born in Matayoshi Hospital. And so, I wrote a poem about being a blackout baby. Yeah.

 

And that means the windows were pinned with …

 

Black. I mean, all the window were painted, I think.

 

Oh, painted?

 

Yeah.

 

And then there were gas masks hanging on the walls, that you said looked like insects.

 

[CHUCKLE] Right. And the light bulbs were all painted black, just the bottom of the light bulb. You know how they are pear-shaped?

 

M-hm.

 

But just the bottom had this light shaft that would come down.

 

So everybody had to go to bed early, because lights off.

 

Lights off, right.

 

And I think you talked about looking at the ceiling and watching shadows dance.

 

Right. [CHUCKLE]

 

What happened to you when you were three?

 

Well, it was just before I was three, actually, and it was April Fool’s Day. The tsunami came in1946. And early in the morning, my mother was saying, Daddy, look outside, it seems so strange with the water receding. And my father said, Yeah, it’s so strange. And they were having breakfast about seven o’clock.

 

And you lived right on the edge of the water?

 

Water, right in front of Liliuokalani Park, the Japanese tea garden. I guess my parents didn’t think anything of it, until they heard people yelling and screaming, It’s a tidal wave, it’s a tidal wave.

 

In those days, no public education about tsunami.

 

Right.

 

No early warning.

 

No early warning. And my father saw the wave coming in near the breakwater, so he said he’s going to run down to start the car.

 

What kind of car?

 

A Model T; it was a brand new car. I think it was a Ford Model T, with a rumble seat. I’m not sure, but that’s the image I have. And my mother said okay, she’s going to get some of her valuables together, and she woke up my aunt, who was living with us at the time. She woke her up, and gave me to my aunt to take care of, and my mother grabbed my sister. But by that time, the first wave hit. We don’t know what happened to our dad, because the water took the house, and sort of floated it. And we were floating, until we banged into the neighbor’s and a mango tree of some sort, or another tree, and the house started breaking apart. So I remember, I think I remember, or I don’t know if my mother told me this, but my grandmother said, You young ones go, leave me. And I don’t know if I remember this, but she was waving to us.

 

And she stayed in the breaking up house?

 

The house. Holding onto a post. But my aunt took me, and she fell in a hole, so she was trying to lift me up so I could breathe above the water. And somebody took me. Saw me [CHUCKLE], and took me, but left her in the hole. We lost my mom, sight of her and my sister. But in the meantime, my mother said she was hurt by the barbed wire left from after the war, because they had all the coastline with barbed wire. And, anyway, we all got out of it.

 

Everybody?

 

Everybody lived.

 

How did you all find each other?

 

Well, my mother had my sister, of course, and my aunt walked out of the water. And my father, he said he went out with the car, and then he came … in with the car.

 

And who were you with, the two-year-old?

 

With a family. I remember he took me into the bed of his truck, and my mother found me with this family. And I don’t remember his name anymore. But my grandmother was found in a tree late in the afternoon. When my father went to look for her, she was found in a tree. And the boy, she said, that put her on the tree, he died.

 

Oh.

 

He was washed away. But we survived. But it plunged us into deep poverty.

 

You lost everything.

 

We lost everything. Our car was like a pancake. And my mother salvaged some kimonos, and I remember her washing.

 

Did you have money in the house, or did—

 

Everything was …

 

Everything was in the house?

 

Yeah; gone. If she salvaged something, I don’t recall. Later, they found a tansu with her kimono and things, but everything was gone. So, we went to live in a rental, first with our grandparents in Kaiwiki. But, the house was so small, the plantation house was so small, so my parents found a rental in town, and that’s where we lived for another … well, my parents lived for, I think, until 1964, until they could finally build their own home.

 

Now, being plunged into poverty is something. What about emotional effects?

 

Well, I’m sure my mother suffered from post-traumatic syndrome. But, nobody knew about it then, or spoke about it. Because I remember her crying, washing her kimonos, crying. And I’m sure it’s my father, like, I mean, old Japanese style; Enough already! Stop your crying! [CHUCKLE]

 

In your book, Anshu, the beginning is set in the Hilo area, and the rest is in Japan. But poverty is a recurring theme.

 

Right.

 

And I really felt it as you wrote about it, just what day-by-day living was like, and looking for ways to nourish yourself, and find things, and wheedle things, and cajole things, and buy things cheaply. Did that come from personal experience?

 

I think so, in some ways. My parents were very frugal, and I remember my mother having vanda flowers, having my father go out to buy hapuu stands so we could have a vanda patch in the back of our rental, so that she could pick flowers and sell them for a penny apiece. And my sister and I would collect shoyu gallons and give it to a guava juice maker for five cents a gallon.

 

And that money was important?

 

Yeah. [CHUCKLE] It was important. And during summers, when we were old enough, we came to Dole Pineapple Company to work there. And so, yeah, we were entrepreneurial in a sense. Because I remember I wanted a pair of red shoes at one time, so I cooked a lot of cookies, and I made little packets, and went around the neighborhood selling it. But then somebody told me, Shame, [CHUCKLE] to do this. So I stopped.

 

Were you hungry at times?

 

Oh, no, no. Oh, never.

 

Not that hungry.

 

No.

 

Not that broke.

 

Yeah. Well, you know, my father worked, and my mother worked.

 

And what did your mom and dad do?

 

Well, my father was a service station attendant, and my mother was a Baker I at Waiakea Waena School.

 

As a cafeteria worker?

 

Yeah; m-hm. So she had a State job.

 

And meanwhile, you would spend some holidays with your grandparents in Kaiwiki. Big room to play in. They had a small plantation acreage, right?

 

Right. They were, what do you call, plantation cane growers. I mean, they leased land from the plantation, from Hilo Sugar Mill, I think. And it was wonderful there. We could run around, and nobody told us anything. We played in the cane fields, and we played in the streams, and we caught crayfish, and you know, it was idyllic there.

 

Were there the seeds of a writer in you back then?

 

The first time I wrote was in third grade. And I wrote a story, a Halloween story, about my mother wearing a white robe, and it was Halloween, and I bumped into her late at night, and you know, I was very scared, and I screamed and carried on. And tried to make the story very dramatic. And my sister said later, when she read the story, she said, You shouldn’t lie, or, You shouldn’t—you know, that’s not the way it was. And she was my first critic. [CHUCKLE]

 

You’d taken poetic license. You made it dramatic.

 

I made it dramatic. And I don’t know if she remembers it, but I remember her saying, You know, that’s not the way it happened. [CHUCKLE]

 

There would be another visit from a tsunami, and that, too, would affect you. In 1960, you were a teenager then.

 

Right. I was a teenager, and I remember being sort of borderline juvenile delinquent, I suppose. [CHUCKLE] So we were out late that night with a bunch of boys that I knew, and a couple of girls. But then, we had heard about the tsunami warning, so we said, Oh, I think we all better go home. And we didn’t know what time it was going to be. They said it was about midnight, so we waited. And all of a sudden, we heard this great tremendous noise coming in. And the water came right up to the street where we lived, on Kilauea Avenue, and below that, everything was rubble. And people were screaming, and coming out of the water. And next day, I learned that a friend of mine, one of the boys that we hung around with, Clarence Imada, had died.

 

In her present life, Juliet Lee is an ordained Buddhist minister, as well as Juliet S. Kono, the Hawaii novelist, short story writer, and poet. Her Buddhist perspective is that life on this Earth is full of pain and suffering. Still, she’s often heard laughing. She has learned to find happiness every day, and to approach life head-on without sugarcoating or smug answers. Read her work, and you’ll feel her candor. And when you ask her about her teenage years, she recalls she ran away from home, smoked too many cigarettes, and drank a little too much, causing her parents much concern.

 

Oh, yeah. They were so worried, I think, and, you know, they were distressed. They were very, very unhappy. [CHUCKLE]

 

And your attitude about it was?

 

I didn’t know what I wanted to be or do, or you know, so I just did the best I could, and I really needed to grow up, I suppose.

 

When did you leave Hilo? You’ve been a Honolulu resident for a long time now.

 

Right. I left home when I graduated high school.

 

Hilo High?

 

Hilo High. And then, I came to the University of Hawaii, and tried and failed, and tried and failed, over and over again.

 

Why? Why do you think you failed?

 

I got married. I got pregnant, and then I got married. And even before that, I don’t think I was motivated, or I didn’t know how to be a good student. And so, I didn’t try. And I got married, I had my children. I didn’t go to school for a long time, and then I started going back, but then, I decided that I needed a job. So I went to work for the Police Department for many years.

 

What’d you do there?

 

I was a police radio dispatcher.

 

Oh. So that required quick thinking and good directions.

 

Right; right.

 

Kind of being in the thick of things.

 

Right.

 

Did you enjoy it?

 

Yeah. I enjoyed it, but then I also felt there were times that were very difficult. When children got hurt or people got hurt, or things happened, and there’s a lot of things that you’re privy to, and you wonder, Oh, how do things happen? Yeah. At the end, there were times when we had some scary things happen. And that’s where I met my husband, too.

 

At the Police Department?

 

At the Police Department. [CHUCKLE]

 

Was he a policeman?

 

Oh, no, no. He was a police radio dispatcher.

 

You grew up so tied to your Nisei parents.

 

Yeah. [CHUCKLE]

 

And your Issei grandparents.

 

Parents, right.

 

And your Buddhism has been a continuing thread through your life. But you have an interracial marriage.

 

Yes.

 

That’s where you didn’t go Japanese.

 

[CHUCKLE] No.

 

Tell me about that.

 

Well, my first husband was Japanese. And he carried a lot of the old Japanese style. [CHUCKLE] The man is the head of the family kind of thing. And I don’t know, it wasn’t that I said to myself, Oh, I’m going to get married to somebody of a different race or anything. It just happened that we fell in love. And so, it was just that. And it just happened that he was Haole. [CHUCKLE]

 

Was there any dissidence along the way with your family, or with you?

 

No. My parents accepted him right away. They liked him very much. And he’s very easygoing, so yeah.

 

And were you accepted by his family?

 

Oh, yeah. Yeah. His mother said, Yeah, oh, welcome into the home, and everything.

 

Imagine working an overnight shift as a police dispatcher, waiting to send police officers to a robbery or a domestic argument, or a murder. Great inspiration for a writer. For Juliet Lee, better known as author Juliet S. Kono, the motivation to write came out of just trying to stay awake.

 

During nightshift, we tried to stay awake. Because otherwise, our heads would be nodding and you shouldn’t do that, and sometimes we had this red mark on the top of our heads. [CHUCKLE] So anyway, I started writing, reading a lot and writing, and I created my first manuscript at that time. And then, I thought I really don’t know much about the world, so I think I better go to school. So that’s when I went back to school. I mean, I wanted to go back to school, and motivated. I was a nontraditional student when I went back, one of the first few nontraditional students.

 

And this time, it took.

 

Yeah. [CHUCKLE] And I graduated with my son. Yeah, for my BA. And then, I went on to get my master’s.

 

It seems to me you’ve learned an awful lot, apart from school. Because so many things have happened in your life, and which you’ve written about and shared with others.

 

Right; right.

 

You have this ability to be very honest. And not in ways I mean, in ways that show what is, as opposed to worrying about how it makes you look, how it makes the other person look. It’s as if you accept, and you lay it out there.

 

Right. I have a philosophy. I guess it’s kind of a Buddhist background that says, you are what you are, you can’t hide anything, that’s you. And I guess people say, Oh, wow, you don’t feel uncomfortable with it, what you’re saying sometimes. And I say, No, I don’t think so, not anymore. Maybe when we were younger, I thought, Oh, I’m not gonna say this, because it’s too shameful. But, it’s part of living. Everybody goes through all kinds of things, so I don’t think I’m any different from anybody else.

 

It’s very human, but on the other hand, I’m sure a lot of people haven’t heard it expressed. For example, when you speak of caring for your mother-in-law, and how aggravating it could be, how she would shoot the grateful looks to your husband, but for you, she had no aloha. But you were bathing her and taking care of her, and she wanted to be kind of the queen of the house.

 

The house; right. She was the queen bee. [CHUCKLE]

 

And you said, sometimes it got ludicrous, this sort of competition.

 

Yes.

 

But on the other hand, it was a real part of the day, and who would make the first stand in the day.

 

Yeah. I wrote about her. In Tsunami Years, I wrote about her, and I wrote about my mother’s depression, and then later, I wrote about my son’s death. So, that book has these three areas that I talk about. And people say, Oh, aren’t you afraid of talking about your son in this manner? And I said, No, he had a drug problem, and he had a mental problem, and so ten years after he was put into Kaneohe, ten years later, he had died. So, I mean people say, Oh, I’m sorry, but there’s nothing really to be really sorry about. That was his life, and we kind of accept it.

 

Have you self-edited, self-censored?

 

Lois Ann Yamanaka always talked about the kernel of truth. There’s some kernel of truth in writing. And we take this kernel, and we explode it, and fictionalize a lot of things, and make it different in a way that, yeah, it’s not really, really sometimes the way it happened. We do a kind of verbal acrobatics to make it better. [CHUCKLE] This is what my mother said when she first read Hilo Rains, and she was afraid. She said, Oh, what are you saying in these poems? And she read it, and she said, It sounds better, our lives sound better. [CHUCKLE]

 

For most writers, the characters, words, and emotions come from within. They pull moments and memories from their lives to form their stories. As a writer, Juliet S. Kono, known in her personal life as Juliet Lee, dips into that well of her life, composing words that can at times provide meaning and comfort to our lives.

 

You wrote an entire book called Anshu: Dark Sorrow, and Tsunami Years was all about tragic events and lives. So you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about sorrow and sadness.

 

Sadness, yeah, and sorrow. People say, Oh, you’re usually, very happy every day. [CHUCKLE] And yet, where does that all come from? And I say, I don’t know, it’s just what I think about a lot. Because things are so random sometimes, you have to really try to understand these things.

 

There’s a passage in your book Anshu, which I would love if you would read to us. It seems to me, it’s the question we all ask ourselves at times of pain and distress and deep disappointment. And in this case, a mother has lost her baby to radiation sickness after the Hiroshima bombing. And she asks her Buddhist priest, Why did this happen? And here’s what you wrote.

 

Okay. Why did this happen?, I asked, looking up at him. No one knows. There are no answers to death, the hearts of men, the will of countries, the way of the world. We can only accept things as they are in a tragedy like this. But what happened to us, to Sumie, everyone, is difficult for me to accept. Aren’t you the least bit angry? I understand the anger, but anger carries with it a different kind of destruction. It will eat at your heart if you give in to it, to no avail. It will only leave you unhappy and troubled. I guess I don’t understand anything.

 

And to say that is a lot better than a pat answer, isn’t it?

 

Yeah. [CHUCKLE]

 

You know, you hear a lot of things said to try to relieve distress. For example, this mother who lost her child, Don’t worry, you’ll have another one.

 

Another one. Yes.

 

There are some answers that simply are not … I mean, that overstretch or take you into a deeper place.

 

Right. It’s hard, for parents, to explain to children why tragedy happens, and why things are so random sometimes, and it has no real meaning to things that happen. And I don’t know how people, you know, get through things sometimes, but we’re humans, and with time and everything, all things can be overcome, to me.

 

This Hilo girl grew up to be a Honolulu-based writer who commands words with power and delicacy. Under the name Juliet S. Kono, she wrote the award-winning novel, Anshu: Dark Sorrow, also poetry books Hilo Rains and Tsunami Years, and she’s published short stories. She also is a wife and Buddhist priest, Juliet Lee, who looks at life unflinchingly, while striving for happiness. For PBS Hawaii, and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, a hui hou.

 

 

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