People

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Dave Shoji

 

Hawaiʻi volleyball fans know him as one of the sport’s winningest coaches of all time. Dave Shoji, former University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Wahine Volleyball Coach, looks back at his 42-year coaching career. He led his teams to win more than 1,200 matches, with a .855 percentage of wins. Now retired in Honolulu, Shoji is focused on his family – and his health. Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2016, Shoji says he’s grateful for the medical care and support he received during his treatment. “You never know,” he says. “You just pray and you try to live healthy. I’m pretty good right at this moment.”

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Apr. 5, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

More from Dave Shoji:

 

Geographic Expansion

 

Picking the Right Battles

 

Recruiting

 

Character

 

Grace

 

Off the Court

 

Former Hawaiʻi ESPN SportsCenter anchor Neil Everett lists the top 10 Dave Shoji wins

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

I don’t know where my life would’ve gone, had I not had volleyball. And I, I’m so grateful that I’ve been blessed with, with all of this. This is unbelievable, and so, again, I gotta give credit to the man upstairs, and, uh…I’m, I’m just really grateful for the life I’ve had.

 

He was the second women’s volleyball coach in the history of the National Collegiate Athletic Association to reach the 1,200-win milestone. Many believe the truly remarkable statistic is that his teams won more than 85% of the matches they played during his 42-year coaching career. But during most of his own years playing several different sports, volleyball was not one of them. Former University of Hawaiʻi Wahine volleyball coach, Dave Shoji, next, on Long Story Short.

 

One-on-one, engaging conversations with some of Hawaiʻi’s most intriguing people. Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Hanging high above the live action on the floor of the Stan Sheriff Center on the Mānoa campus of the University of Hawaiʻi, four banners are on display, proudly representing national championships. Linked to those team titles is another banner paying tribute to an individual and the stellar record amassed through four decades by the man who would build a women’s collegiate volleyball unlike any other.

 

Aloha māi kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Despite his coaching success and national recognition, Dave Shoji says he did not receive many offers to coach at other schools, and he simply was not interested in coaching anywhere else. Shoji spent time in the islands as a young boy, but he was really a west coast kid whose parents were from the farmlands of California. Kobe and Shizuko Shoji wouldn’t meet until 1942, when the families were forced by the U.S. government to relocate out of state.

 

One thing that I, I don’t know if people know about you is where your parents met. Where was that? Can you tell me their story?

 

My parents met…they actually lived about fifteen miles from each other. One lived in upland-my dad lived Upland, California. My mom’s family lives in Chino. They had heard about each other but never met. Once the war broke out and both families were sent to Arizona…

 

Internment Camp.

 

Internment Camp Poston Arizona. I guess they met there. And, um…actually got married before my dad volunteered for the 442, and he was sent off to war, so…

 

Did he ever talk about what it was like to have been in an internment camp, only to then enlist for the very people who imprisoned you?

 

You know, my dad, like a lot of the 442 people, never really wanted to talk about it. So, he didn’t talk about it with his family, with our, our siblings, and…so we knew very little about it. All we knew is that they met, and they got married, and he went off to war, and-

 

Did your mom talk about it?

 

My mom didn’t talk about it much either. Um, it’s funny. I don’t know if it was more private or something, but, uh, they didn’t really share a lot of that stuff with the kids. We would ask, but we’d get kind of one word answers all the time, like, “Yes.” “How was it?” “Oh, it wasn’t great.” “Uh, what did you eat?” “We had little to eat.” Stuff like that. It’s just, uh…not, not too much information.

 

But not resentment? Just-

 

No, I don’t think there was a lot of resentment. My mom was such a sweet person, she couldn’t resent anybody. Uh, and…my, my dad, you know, volunteering was, uh, his way of showing, you know, that he was an American.

 

Uh, and he was quite athletic, I’m told.

 

He was. Uh, he ended up going to Pomona College, but he was a tailback on a single-win, wing football team. He long jumped 24 feet-

 

24 feet?

 

24 feet. Plus, um…so, that kind of tells you what kind of athlete he was. A football player and a, a track star. So, um…and he could do anything. He was very, very coordinated, and that’s where, kind of, I was like, “Wow. I, I need to start doing some of this.”

 

In 1949, Kobe and Shizu Shoji moved to Hawaiʻi with their two sons, Dave and Tom. Dad Kobe Shoji would spend a decade teaching plant physiology at the University of Hawaiʻi. Dave’s younger brother, Kelvin, was born in the islands. The family would later move to Hilo, when Kobe accepted a position with Steve Breuer. Eventually the demands of extensive work-related travel forced the family to move. Dave and Tom Shoji would return to California to live with an aunt. Their parents and the youngest son lived in Iran and Puerto Rico for several years during the 1960’s.

 

Even your brothers were sports guys. And were they athletes as well?

 

My brothers were athletes. Um…at an earlier age…my, my-actually one of my brothers, Tom, played college football at UC Santa Barbara. So, he was quite an athlete as well.

 

And you were a, what, triple letter college athlete?

 

No, just two letters in college. Like, three in high school. I played football, basketball, and baseball in high school. Baseball was my best sport. Uh I played at a high level in high school, and the American legion ball, and then I got actually a scholarship to go to Santa Barbara to play baseball. But I realize that, at that time, that I wasn’t going to go anywhere in baseball, so…

 

Because?

 

Uh, I was too small. I…my arm wasn’t good enough. Um, I didn’t have any power. Um…it’s just a different game in college, and I, I was a good high school player, but I knew I wasn’t going anywhere in the sport.

 

And volleyball, how did that come to your attention?

 

Well almost by mistake. I was taking a volleyball class at Santa Barbara, and the instructor was the coach of the volleyball team. His name is Dennis Berg, still a really good friend of mine. He has an Olympian daughter, Lindsey Berg. But, uh…I was taking the class, and I was doing pretty good, and my buddy and I just loved it, and we’d go play wreck volleyball on, uh, on the weekends. And so, the coach, Dennis, said, “Hey, you guys need to come out for the team.” So, I said, “Ok, we’ll, we’ll go out.” So as juniors we, we went out for the team and made the team. I don’t know, I guess the team wasn’t very good or something.

 

You did become an All-American in volleyball.

 

Well back then it was…it wasn’t the same sport as it is today. It was pretty low-level, but, uh, we enjoyed it and we had a good time, and we actually won a national-

 

And you picked it right up. Oh, you won the national…

 

We won one national championship in 1969. That’s kind of my claim to fame as a player.

 

And, uh, were you thinking about, uh, coaching it as you were playing? Or, had uh, any thought since you’re, you know…the, the coach had plucked you out and showed you the sport?

 

Yeah, I had no idea about coaching. I knew I wanted to be involved in athletics somehow. I was trying to be maybe a high school basketball coach, or, not even volleyball…basketball, maybe, but, um…it wasn’t really in my vision yet.

 

Dave Shoji enrolled in ROTC while in college in Santa Barbara, and graduated with a two-year commitment for active duty in the army as an infantry officer. Once again, a volleyball opportunity presented itself. He was recruited to tour and play for the Army’s volleyball team, and then the All-Armed Forces Squad, which very possibly turned out to be a life-altering experience because this infantry officer most likely would’ve been deployed during the height of the Vietnam War. With his college degree and honorable discharge from the army, Dave Shoji returned to Hawaiʻi, where his parents were living again. It was the early 70’s, and after a brief stint as a dishwasher in a local restaurant, Shoji returned to school for a post-graduate study at UH. He found himself helping to set up a new volleyball program. It was the early years of Title 9, and the university had a new Senior Athletic Director for women, Dr. Donnis Thompson

 

She started the UH Athletic Department for Women, and she had two sports. And she chose…she was a track athlete, so she started track…track and field, and then she chose volleyball ‘cause she thought volleyball, uh, had kind of a natural interest in, in Hawaiʻi, and we had some really good athletes. So-

 

And yet volleyball was, uh…it, it wasn’t a…the kind of sport you think of first, first off if you’re looking for sports, right? At that time, it was something you wouldn’t think of right off the top.

 

Well, at that time it was a very regional sport. It was basically on west coast. The Midwest, the south, and east had no volleyball, basically no volleyball. They had teams, but they, they weren’t very good. So, the sport was based in west coast. And so she saw that, and she, she knew we would bring people over and we could go there more inex-you know, inexpensively, so that’s kind of where we focused and she focused. She was…she was quite a woman, and quite a pioneer the sport and women’s athletics in general.

 

Did you ever coach men’s volleyball?

 

Oh, I coached four or five years at UH. They asked me to take the program back. Uh…they dropped the program for a while, and then they wanted to start up again. So, I, I was coaching both men and women at the same time.

 

What’s the difference? What, what is it like coaching men and women?

 

Oh, it’s night and day. Yeah, it’s, uh…I always felt like the women were more receptive to my teaching. They, they were willing to learn about techniques and they would actually listen. You know, and do things. The guys just wanted to play. They wanted to play. They were more athletic, and so they didn’t want to do drills. They just wanted to play, which is ok…um, it, it just wasn’t my way of coaching. So, it wasn’t real enjoyable for me. We had great games. We had great teams, uh, even early on, but, um…I decided, like, I, I’d rather stay on the women’s side and let somebody else do the men. And, and the men have done fantastic over the years, too.

 

That must’ve been hard, doing both at the same time?

 

Well, it was. It was, uh, because the men’s season was in the spring, and the women’s in the fall. So, the, the recruiting part of, uh, the women’s game was in the spring, and I had a hard time juggling both-coaching the men and then trying to recruit for the women, and running the women’s spring season. So, it, it was difficult.

 

And were the men and women, at that time, playing at Klum gym?

 

Yeah.

 

Uh, and people don’t remember it. Many people don’t, or weren’t, weren’t alive then, but it was a…it was small, wooden gym.

 

It’s still there. Klum Gym is still there.

 

I didn’t even know it was still standing.

 

If you had seen games there and wanted to walk in there and, like, reminisce, you can still do that ‘cause it’s still up. My dad took me to basketball games at Klum, and, in, I think, I remember 1956 or something, it was built. And I thought, “Man, this is awesome place.”

 

For the audience it’s fabulous ‘cause you’re right near the athletes.

 

Yeah, it, it was…

 

It’s really hot in there, though.

 

It was really hot, but we had a big homecourt advantage. I mean, teams would come in there and it was just stifling hot, but our, our kids were used to it, so we usually won.

 

That, um…and so, you developed a fanbase that, I don’t know, may be second to none. Tell me about that, the relationship with fans.

 

Well, you know, back in the early days, we had people…I don’t know who they were. They would show up, and, and then…I don’t know. We had a lot of local kids on the team, so I think that was part of the attraction, and then I’m from Hawaiʻi, and so I think there was some kind of bond there. But they, they would come and then we’d start winning, and I think people jump on the bandwagon and they come, but then they’re hooked. They, they see the game. They see the girls and, and, uh, they just fall in love with not only the, the game, but the players and, and the coaches. So, we had a little, I call it a cult following, you know? It was like-

 

What, what about the aunties? What kind of cult is that?

 

Well it’s just…uh, at that time, they weren’t old. But they, they…but, um…you know, no one really knew about us outside, uh, you know, this tiny little circle. So, we had…first it was like 1200, and then 1500, and then 1800 packed, you know, the Klum gym, and then…and so we had a really loyal following, even back then. It was, as far as I knew, it was only 1800 people. Um…we weren’t on television yet.

 

The coaches of the other teams would sometimes say there was a real high level of volleyball knowledge and appreciation in Hawaiʻi.

 

Oh, absolutely. Uh, our fans, especially the ones that followed us from early on, they knew volleyball. And they knew good volleyball, and they appreciate good volleyball. And if it came from the other team, so be it. They would appreciate volleyball that was played, uh, at a high level by the other team. They wouldn’t ever be nasty to the other team. Uh, they’d cheer their plays as well as ours.

 

You know what really used to move me so much was, um, the aunties would give lei to your players, but they’d also give lei to the, many times to the other players as well.

 

It was interesting, the other night, at the Cal Poly game. So, we win. Our girls go and get the lei from the aunties. Um, the other team storms off…’cause they’re upset. They lost. But their coach made them come out of the locker room and go get their lei from the aunties, ‘cause she knew that they had brought lei for the other team, too. So, that’s an interesting phenomenon. I don’t think you’d see that anywhere else.

 

Although the Wahine volleyball program has been undeniably one of the most successful in the country, recruiting has always been a challenge. Shoji had to import height, as well as compete for many of those top-tier players as possible. Diane Sebastian was the first, followed by so many others, including Lily Kahumoku, Angelica Ljungqvist, T. Williams, and Kim Willoughby. These were the players who were often highly recruited by bigger, wealthier schools. Shoji sites Emily Hartong and Suzanne Eagye as examples of players who were not heavily recruited, but while playing at UH they worked hard and elevated their game. They were considered among the best players in the country. But Coach Shoji gives a great deal of credit to the local girls, Hawaiʻi’s own home-grown talent, as they key to the program’s success. These women will always share a special bond among themselves, with this community, and most definitely with their coach.

 

What were your experiences?

 

My experience with Dave, ok, first started…can I? Can I?

 

Ok, yeah.

 

[cheers]

 

You know I’m not a talker. Dave knows I’m not a talker, but…back in ’82, he got in touch with me. I had eligibility left. It was still AIAW. So, he asked me if, “Joyce, do you want to come play? You got two years eligibility, and they turned NC2A.” So, that was the best memories of Dave. Getting in touch with me…sorry, guys.

 

[cheers]

 

But, I, I met remarkable women. We won back to back. Yeah, Dave? And, um…I just want to thank him for bringing me back to school, sharing with my fellow, my fellow, my fellow…yep, 2, 2, 2. Um, so, Dave, thank you, mahalo, and love you. ‘Kay, that’s all.

 

[cheers]

 

It’s over! What a comeback! What a comeback! What a comeback! Down two games to none, they win three in a row! They do the impossible! They are the national champions.

 

We were always supplemented by a great local player. They had great volleyball IQ, they call it. “Tita” Ahuna was one of ‘em. Mahina Eleneki. Um, Kanani Danielson was another that just could play volleyball. I mean, they, they didn’t need to be big, tall, whatever. They could…so, you combine those, kind of…a great athlete, working hard, undersize with the, the good local player, and we were pretty successful. I don’t know if it’s, uh, a natural thing with Hawaiian players, but, uh, every center we had from here had wonderful hands, touch. And Robyn is one of ‘em, and go back to Nahaku Brown. But Hawaiian girls just seem to have some kind of amazing touch on the ball, where the mainland girls, they were just all…most of ‘em were so trained, you know. And they could, you know…they were so mechanical, where…I guess it’s from the park or something.

 

That’s so interesting. I…why-

 

Yeah, I, I don’t know. I couldn’t explain it, but if you…I mean, Robyn grew up down in the natatorium, and her dad would play. And Nahaku Brown, her, her, her dad ran Pahoa at the gym, and so she was always in the gym, and…but it was something…I didn’t reach then that touch. It’s just amazing that we’ve had probably six, eight local setters and they all just…I’m like, “That’s, that’s what we need. We need that touch. They’re just so natural and-

 

Dave Shoji met Mary Tennefos, an accomplished athlete in her own right, on the UH Campus. They married in 1986. Although she played basketball in college, Shoji says she became very knowledgeable about volleyball.

 

Mary, what can I say? I, you know, I think someone said it really well…yeah, if there’s, uh, a great person, or a great coach, there’s always a great woman pushing that coach along the way. So, thank you for 31 years, Mary.

 

How was that raising a family and, um, and conducting a life outside that consuming career?

 

Yeah, it was difficult with the family, ‘cause, um…and my wife reminds me all the time that we had our second boy, Erik, and I went from the hospital, uh, took her home, the baby home, and went to practice. So, she, she didn’t appreciate that. But the, the family kind of became intertwined in the, in the job, and to this day I think because the boys were always in the gym. From two years old, they would come to the gym and play with the ball…that’s how they became good at volleyball. They, they had a knack for it. They understood the game. They were around it. They went to all the games.

 

All that practice at the gym, waiting for dad, paid off. Kawika and Erik Shoji have been successful at the highest levels of men’s volleyball competition. Both were first team All-Americans while at Stanford. Kawika is a setter who was named 2010 player of the year, as he led Stanford to a national championship. They both played for the U.S. national team and won bronze medals at the 2016 Olympics.

 

We both want to say thanks, dad, for just really being an unbelievable dad. Um, making time for us outside of volleyball, too, and making all of our games, and supporting us, and, um…just really dedicating all of your time to not only the state and the program and the university, but also to our family. And so, thanks, Dad. We love you, and this is a well-deserved celebration.

 

Athletics continue to dominate the Shoji ‘ohana. Daughter Cobey Shoji Hutzler was a defensive specialist setter at University of Las Vegas, and the University of Michigan. She was Director of Volleyball Operations at Stanford, and has coached at various places, including a championship high school team in Florida. She’s married to Coleman Hutzler, a coach for University of South Carolina football. They have two children.

 

What do you look forward to most these days?

 

Got three grandchildren. Hopefully we’ll have four or five, um, but those three grandchildren are just kind of our light. Uh…you know, now we, we just look forward to seeing them. Two of ‘em are in South Carolina, and one’s in Poland, so we don’t…yeah, so, they’re far away. But, um…yeah, I mean, it’s, it’s, uh…watching-we watch a lot of volleyball still.

 

Hey Robyn, where are you? Come. Angelica, come, come up here. No, I’m not going to yell at you. I’m not gonna yell at you.

 

We can roast you some more.

 

No. I want to say this in front of everybody. But, uh, when I retired, and it was kind of a simultaneous hiring of Robyn Amo, I was so happy for her, and I was so happy for the program. And then she told me that she wanted to bring Angelica back. Um…I, I am just ecstatic that these two women are gonna head the program. And Kaleo’s here, too, somewhere, but, uh, the third coach in our program now.

 

Dave and Mary Shoji have been regulars at the Wahine matches since he retired as head coach. We sat down with Coach Shoji for this conversation late in 2019. He told us he’s grateful for the medical care and support he received while being treated for prostate cancer, and he wants people to know he’s feeling great. Dave Shoji is reluctant to talk about his individual accomplishments as a volleyball coach. So, before we finish up, here are just some of the highlights of Coach Shoji’s amazing record, for the record.

 

Coach Shoji never had a losing season. He led the Rainbow Wahine to four national championships, and 9 NCAA final Four appearances. His teams amassed 20+ win seasons 38 times, and 30 plus wins 19 times. He coached 86 All-Americans, 25 conference players of the year, and 175 All-Conference picks. Academically, he has also coached 107 conference All-Academic players.

 

You’ll find more of our conversation with Dave Shoji posted online at PBSHawaii.org. These extra clips also include the top ten Shoji wins from former Hawaiʻi sportscaster and ESPN anchor Neil Everett. And Coach Shoji talks about women’s college volleyball has expanded geographically, why there’s more parody among schools today, and the critical role club coaches play in recruiting young high school players years before they’re ready for college. Mahalo to Coach Shoji of Mānoa, Oahu, for sharing your stories with us. And thank you for joining us. For PBS Hawaiʻi and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha nui.

 

I’ve been reminded of this for a lot of years now, and the last few, you know. We got to the thousand wins and then 1100, and now, whatever the record is. So, I’ve had time to reflect on this over the course of the last few years. I never really thought about it back when we had 800 wins or 900. It just wasn’t important to me, and…but lately everyone seems to be on this theme of breaking record, and…well, I think the key word is we’ve achieved, not what I achieved. I haven’t really done anything myself. It’s, it’s all about the people around me and people that’ve helped me, and the players. That, that’s what, uh, how I’d like to be remembered. Not me, or how many games I won. I never served a ball, Jim, and never dug a ball. I never had a kill. So, you’ve gotta give credit where…really, the credit goes to the players and the, all the other people involved in the program.

 

Oh, wow, what a rally. Match point. Aloha ball. It’s over. Dave Shoji is the winningest coach in the history of Division 1 NCAA volleyball.

 

[cheers]

 

It’s really a humbling night for me because we would’ve never had anything like this, uh. The crowd in Hawaiʻi, the fans in Hawaiʻi are #1. Still love them. I still enjoy it. I love you guys. I love my team. I love the students over there, coming up to support us.

 

[cheers]

 

Again, I…I really don’t know what to say. I just want to reflect on, yeah…reflect everything on the team and everybody that’s been part of the program, as well as everybody in this building tonight. So, you know, I appreciate all of the accolades, but let’s think about this as yours and ours together, alright? Thank you very much.

 

[cheers]

 

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.

 

 

 

[END]

 

 

FAMILY INGREDIENTS
Japan – Miso Soup

 

Part foodie, part travelogue, part genealogy, Family Ingredients follows acclaimed Hawaiʻi restaurateur and sustainability hero Ed Kenney, as he meets with different individuals in the Islands, and follows each person’s cherished food memory to its origin around the globe. He takes off to explore Okinawa, Tahiti, California, Japan, Puerto Rico and the Hawaiian Islands, showcasing how cuisine can profoundly unite cultures, communities and families.

 

Japan – Miso Soup
In Japan, miso factories are like microbreweries in America. Host Ed Kenney and fellow Hawai‘i restaurateur Alan Wong dive into the origins of miso soup, Wong’s favorite childhood dish, and search for the finest ingredients.

 

 

LITTLE WOMEN ON MASTERPIECE
Part 1 of 3

 

Part 1

 

Based on the classic novel by Louisa May Alcott, this coming-of-age story, set against the backdrop of the Civil War, follows sisters Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy March on their journey from childhood to adulthood. With the help of their mother, Marmee, the girls navigate sibling rivalry, first love, loss and marriage.

 

 

 

LITTLE WOMEN ON MASTERPIECE
Part 2 of 3

 

Part 2

 

As Marmee waits by her husband’s sickbed, the March sisters must fend for themselves at home. Together they face unrequited love, hurtful rumors and trouble at school. But when Beth falls dangerously ill, Laurie sends for Marmee to return home.

 

Relief sweeps over the family when Beth recovers and Mr. March returns home for Christmas. Jo hears promising news about her writing, while Meg and John Brooke’s relationship develops.

 

The family holds a joyous wedding ceremony, but Jo grows anxious: the future for her and her loved ones seems fraught with challenges.

 

 

 

LITTLE WOMEN ON MASTERPIECE
Part 3 of 3

 

Part 3

 

A year has passed and there are new additions to the March family – but there is worry all around as Beth’s health and spirits flag.

 

Amy is chosen over Jo to accompany Aunt Carroll’s daughter on a tour of Europe. A distraught Jo flees to New York to pursue her career, where she meets the kind Professor Bhaer. But devastating news from home cuts her adventure short.

 

As their paths cross in Europe, Amy and Laurie’s friendship develops into something more. The family reunites upon Amy’s return, which is made more joyful by unexpected news and a surprise visitor.

 

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Paula Kerger

 

As the longest-serving President and CEO of PBS national, Paula Kerger oversees media content that’s distributed to more than 330 public television stations. Growing up in rural Maryland, Kerger had dreams of becoming a veterinarian, but in adulthood, found her calling in the nonprofit sector. In addition to reflecting on her childhood and career, Kerger shares her thoughts on leadership, finding your path in life, and navigating an ever-changing media landscape.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Mar. 29, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Paula Kerger Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

   

The greatest opportunities in life are when you take the risk. And I always say it’s, you know, akin to jumping out of an airplane. I’ve never done that by the way. But, you know, you don’t have to jump out of an airplane. You know, you can live a very happy life without doing that. But if you want the exhilaration of an experience, then you’ve got to be willing to lean forward and let go.

   

She’s the President and CEO of the national Public Broadcasting Service, PBS. Meet Paula Kerger, visiting from Virginia, next on Long Story Short.

   

One-on-one engaging conversations with some of Hawaiʻi’s most intriguing people. Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

   

Aloha mai kākou, I’m Leslie Wilcox. My guest is a fellow President and Chief Executive Officer in public television – on a much larger scale. Paula Kerger heads the Public Broadcasting Service, PBS. Headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, the national nonprofit media organization provides wide-ranging, high-quality programming for more than 330 locally owned public television stations, including PBS Hawai‘i. During Kerger’s tenure, PBS has markedly grown its audience and brought to American homes the blockbuster television series Downton Abbey on MASTERPIECE, The Vietnam War film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, and the educational children’s series Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. Kerger has headed PBS since 2006, making her the longest-serving CEO in the organization’s history. Before her grown-up ventures in public-service fundraising and educational media, Kerger spent her childhood in a country town outside Baltimore, Maryland. There, a special family member taught her a thing or two about responsibility and serving others.

   

I had no idea what I wanted to do when I was a kid. I loved being outside. I loved animals. So actually, my first idea was that I wanted to be a veterinarian because I loved, you know, working with animals. We had dogs and cats. I had a horse when I was little.

   

How old were you when you had a horse? And that’s every – I mean this is a stereotype, but many, many girls dream of having a horse.

   

I think most girls dream of having a horse. And, you know, the thing was, my aunt had horses and I was very close with her. She and I are only about twelve years apart. So she in many ways was more like a sister to me. And, you know, so I rode from the time I was little. I have pictures of me probably, you know, a year or two sort of propped up on the horse behind her. And so every year, like for Christmas Horse was my Christmas list. That was actually all I asked for. And so I think I was like eleven or twelve, twelve maybe when I got the horse and I got the horse at that age because my parents felt that I was old enough that I would be responsible for taking care of it. And it was I think that, you know, I’m not suggesting every parent go out and buy their child a horse. And we lived in the country. I kept the horse at home. But every morning before I went to school, I had to carry heavy water buckets down to the barn and feed the horse, put the horse out, you know, bring it back at night, brush it and take care of it. And I think that kind of responsibility, I mean, you can do this with goldfish as well.

   

But I think, you know, whatever it is, I think that there’s something about having that kind of responsibility, particularly when you’re young. The other thing about horses that are interesting is that they’re really large animals. And there is – I think that especially for girls, it’s empowering. Girls develop deep bonds with their horses. I certainly did with mine. And both the freedom of being able to ride and, you know, to have this relationship with an animal that you’re not controlling in the same way that I think sometimes you might be tempted to try to control other things in your life. You develop mutual respect. And that’s what I think is also was really important in my relationship with my horse.

   

Did you name your horse?

   

My horse came with the name and his name was Raven. This was before the football team. But he was… he was really wonderful.

   

Can you see how that discipline and that relationship translated to your later life?

   

Yeah. I mean, I think I’m a highly responsible person. And I think part of that is you learn those lessons early when you have the responsibility of a horse or a dog or an animal or I mean, I don’t mean to put children in the same bucket, but when you have the responsibility for someone or something else, that has to come before you. And so, there were many afternoons that I would want to do something with my friends or maybe just stay inside and read or whatever. But when someone is counting on you or something is counting on you, that has to come first. And I think that’s a really important lesson to learn at a young age. That sense of something larger than me.

   

One of the biggest human influences in Paula Kerger’s life was her grandfather, who lived next door to her childhood home in rural Maryland. His diverse interests and skills set the stage for what would come much later for Kerger.

   

Grandfather was a professor. And so he was a scientist, but he was also a great artist. And I think that those two pieces of him really influenced me a lot.

   

Right brain, left brain.

   

Yeah, exactly. He really helped kindle my interest in science. He was a physics professor. And so he did a lot of work in microwave technology. In fact, he started the public radio station in Baltimore. And so I think my path into public media was perhaps destined because of his influence. But he also was involved with the local theater, and he was involved in all the tech work. But he was a great storyteller. Some of my greatest memories when I was a kid was sitting with him and he would just spin these amazing stories about make-believe stories about animals in the woods and all these other kind of things. And it’s just, I think it was probably one of the most fundamental formational things for me is growing up with someone that had that great creativity that shared that with.

   

I’m sure grandparents who hear this will be very pleased.

   

Yeah.

   

And your parents, what were they like?

   

My mother worked out of the home and my father was an engineer. And so, he also was very science-based. He was more of an authoritarian type. He went to the Citadel, which is the West Point of the South, for those that don’t know what that is.

   

Hardcore discipline.

   

Very hardcore discipline. And so I think that’s also where my grandparents actually then came in.

   

They were the refuge.

   

As I think is often with kids. You know, the parents are the ones that set all the rules and the grandparents are ones that bend them a little bit. But I grew up in a house where music was really important. We had a lot of Broadway show albums and we listened to music a lot and we were very engaged in the community. Both of my parents were very big volunteers. And so from the time that I was little, I was involved in everything from going door to door to raise money for the heart fund, to – my father was a football coach. And so, you know, I would – probably the most mortifying thing I ever did when I was a kid is when practice was canceled because of the weather, he would give me a list of all the boys to call to tell them they didn’t have to show up for practice. And most of them were about my age. And it was just mortifying to have to go through and call everybody at home and say, you know, to come to practice, goodbye.

   

That’s funny. Now, speaking of the make-believe stories your grandfather told, the schools you attended in that rural area also sound like a make-believe land.

   

I know.

   

Featherbed Lane Elementary?

   

I went to Featherbed Lane Elementary. It’s like, where did you go to school? I went to Featherbed Lane Elementary. And then Johnnycake Junior High.

   

Johnnycakes? Where does that name come from? Johnnycake Junior High.

   

Johnnycakes oh, or something – this all goes back actually to the – in the case of Featherbed Lane, I think that’s probably more Revolutionary War. But Civil War, you know, and Johnnycakes were something that were made that actually soldiers carried in their packs. And I think that, you know, people find them so unusual. But I think it’s a reminder that that part of the country, Maryland is one of the original colonies, has a very different history than Hawai‘i. And so I think part of even the names of those schools are reflective of a different culture.

   

And what was high school?

   

High school was a normal named high school.

   

Okay.

   

So I went to Randallstown High School, and Randallstown was the adjacent town. So that’s like a regular school name.

   

After high school, Paula Kerger’s love of science and animals inspired her to work toward becoming a veterinarian. But things didn’t quite pan out the way she wanted.

   

Veterinarian school, at least now – it’s harder to get into than med school.

   

Well, that is what happened when I entered college because I realized as I was applying to college that how difficult it was gonna be uhh, to become a veterinarian. So when I applied to college, I actually applied for pre-med. And I have an uncle that’s a pediatrician and I have a great, I think she must be a great aunt, who was a very early doctor. So I also had a little bit of that in my family and I thought, okay, I may not be able to get into veterinary school, but maybe I can get into medical school. I mean, how weird does that sound?

   

But anyway, so I started pre-med and I really loved it until I hit organic chemistry, which I failed. And I, you know, it’s the great leveler I’ve come to find out.

   

That’s so true. How many people have said that?

   

Yeah, organic chemistry. And then suddenly I was in an existential discussion in my head about my future. And I decided that I would take a lot of humanities classes because I was really interested. I loved from the time I was little, I’ve loved to read. And in fact, one of my earliest memories was getting my library card and my town was small. We didn’t even have a library. We had the bookmobile. And I remember going to the bookmobile. And you had to be able to sign your name to get a library card and practicing and practicing –

   

Ohh..

   

– so I could get my library card and then the whole world opened. And so I’ve always loved to read. So I took a lot of literature classes. I took some comparative religion classes and so forth. And it was, you know, it was just great. But then I thought, I’m going to live in my parents’ house for the rest of my life because there’s no jobs I’m preparing myself for. So, I went into business school and I’d been working. I started working when I was 16. My first job was at McDonald’s. And I’d worked through college and I’d worked for a group of banks. And I didn’t really think I wanted to work in finance. But I knew that if I had a business degree – I was really interested in marketing. And I thought, you know, maybe there’s some path and there’s some way. Graduated from school with my business degree, not a clue what I was going to do with my life. And I tell kids this all the time because I think a lot of kids think that you need to have your life planned out. And I was, you know, I had this now-checkered college career. All of my really difficult science courses at all colleges, electives. I had this, you know, I’d taken other classes that I think ultimately it’s funny, when I back up and look at my college life, I actually have a pretty well-rounded, you know, generalist degree based on all the things I did. But I started looking for a job. And at the time in the want ads and I mostly was looking for marketing jobs and I went on some pretty terrible interviews. And one day, I stumbled on an ad in the newspaper for a job working for UNICEF in Baltimore, which is where I’d grown up. And I went and interviewed for the job, was completely unqualified for a job. It was running their office in Baltimore. But the guy who interviewed me called me back and he said, you know, you’re not qualified for this job, but would you be interested in coming to Washington and working for UNICEF in our office there? And I took that job and it was just an amazing moment because I never realized you could work in the nonprofit sector. I thought that’s just something you did. I thought that you volunteered and you did these things to pay back. But it just never – I’d never really put the pieces together. There were actually people in those organizations that actually managed them and did the work.

   

Paula Kerger’s nonprofit career would take her to New York City, where she’d always dreamed of living. After working in fundraising at several nonprofit organizations, including the Metropolitan Opera House, she received a challenging and life-changing job offer – to head fundraising at the New York City flagship PBS station, WNET. At the time, the station was going through financial woes.

   

They had started a big capital campaign. Our station in New York had had a lot of difficulties. They’d gone through a couple layoffs. And I thought, you know, this is gonna be a very difficult job and, you know, all the other jobs I had interviewed, I knew for sure that I was going to be successful in it. And this one, I wasn’t quite sure. They’d had all these financial issues and it wasn’t- I wasn’t really clear that it was gonna be successful. But I think oftentimes the greatest opportunities in life are when you take the risk. And I always say it’s, you know, akin to jumping out of an airplane. I’ve never done that by the way. But, you know, you don’t have to jump out of an airplane. You know, you can live a very happy life without doing that. But if you want the exhilaration of an experience, then you’ve got to be willing to lean forward and let go. And you don’t get there by yourself. A lot of people help you. And I imagine that it has to be the most amazing experience. And you don’t have to ever do it again, by the way. But, you know, it also can change your life. And so for me, it was that job. You know, I took the job and it was really difficult. But it changed my life. I did that work for a few years. We raised a significant amount of money for the station. And then I was starting to think about, oh, I wonder what I might do next? And the then-president said, would you be interested in becoming our station manager? That was the second really risky decision for me because suddenly I was gonna be the boss of people that had been my colleagues. And that’s the hardest, I think, career change when you move into a role where suddenly you’re in a different relationship with people that had been peers. And it was really hard, but it was again, coming into public television was hugely important. That probably was the pivotal move because it was from that position that I actually got the call to come to PBS.

   

Now, there are very few people who run national organizations, especially those with a lot of constituencies. I mean, you have 330 or so public media stations that are members of PBS.

   

Yeah.

   

And then of course, there are politics and there are filmmakers. I mean, it’s daunting. I mean, I can just imagine people saying I could do this part of it, but not that, not this and not all at the same time.

   

It’s complicated. And I always say, you know, if you want a lesson in humility, run a federated organization, because that’s how we’re structured. I think a lot of people don’t understand PBS.

   

Essentially it’s a co-op.

   

Yes, it’s like a co-op we’re a- we’re a federated system. So every station is individual, locally owned, locally operated, locally governed.

   

And many fiercely local.

   

Fiercely local, fiercely independent. And the stations themselves, as you know, formed PBS as an opportunity to bring together the resources and create scale across the entire country to invest in programing and content that would enrich all.

   

So essentially they’re the bosses, but you lead them.

   

Right.

   

That’s unwieldy.

   

So a lot of responsibility, not absolute authority.

   

I mean the mission makes a big difference. But there are a lot of differences in how our 330 stations operate.

   

Right, and as people travel around the country and see different stations, you see that not every public television station is exactly the same, which is what makes it, I think, such an unbelievably important and rich organization because we are absolutely anchored at the local level. And I think of this station in particular, you do so much great work-

   

Thank you.

   

–that really talks about this community and the people that are here. And you’re able to do that because you’re from here. And the people that are in the station live here and are committed to making this community as vibrant and important as all the people that live here expect it to be. And that’s what our best public television stations do.

   

Your job right now is pretty much managing change – change in many aspects of the organization as you look at the country and media platforms and what people are interested in, how they communicate.

   

Yeah. We are right now in an extraordinary sea change in media as there’s so much change in the way that people are consuming content. And for those of our stations who have been very happy being just broadcast stations to be pushed to understand that, yes, people will watch programing on their television station, but they’ll also stream and they’ll also be able to acquire content in multiple ways.

   

The whole concept of broadcasting has vastly expanded.

   

It has been completely stretched. And so, to get people to agree that the world has changed and that we’re going to work together is complicated. And you can only do it if you build trust. And that’s why the job — I’ve been in the job 14 years, to be honest, because it has evolved so much. When I first took this job, Apple had announced that they were going to sell episodes of Desperate Housewives for $1.99. And you think about that now and it’s like, oh!

   

That’s just you know, that seems so long ago.

   

It seems so long ago.

   

No Facebook; Netflix was sending you discs in the mail. I mean, the world was completely different. And the fact that it continues to change to me makes this really exciting. And to encourage this whole generation of younger people that are coming into public media to really think widely about what we can be is really exciting.

   

PBS National President and CEO Paula Kerger says that being the head of an organization, especially one that reaches across the country and requires extensive travel, can be lonely. But she has support from a key person in her life.

   

You can’t be a leader and make everyone happy all the time. I mean, that’s the — and again, I talked to young people who are thinking about their careers or actually as I’ve mentored people that are making career decisions. You have to be really honest about what it means to be leader. It’s lonely at times because you- you are very much aware that the buck stops with you. You also need to make the right decisions for the organization. And sometimes those are very hard decisions, particularly when it relates to other people. But you also need to be compassionate. You need to listen really carefully. I think you need to be able to make decisions. I see leaders fumble because they can’t, you know, they need more information, more information. You’re never going to perfect information, but you need to be able to move with deliberate haste and be able to work with your team in charting a direction and provide that leadership.

   

What does it look like to be this national leader with all these constituencies and- and a personal life and you’ve got external stakeholders, you’ve got so many people within the system.

   

Look, I was a first time CEO when I took this job and I looked to people that I trusted, as I have through my entire career. Actually I still do even 14 years into this job, you would think, I know what I’m doing. I do think I know what I’m doing. But we’re always coming into circumstances in our lives that are new and different and challenging. And so I think what has made the biggest difference for me and I think has really also contributed to the richness of my life is that I look to people that I trust that I can talk to. My husband is one. He’s been my biggest proponent. Oftentimes when I’ve looked at jobs and haven’t been sure that —

   

Is he in education or media?

   

Well, he is a — he’s a writer, but- and he worked for Norman Lear years ago. But his advice is really more about me personally. And, you know, I think that many of us and I think unfortunately more women have a tendency to do this, is we hold ourselves back. We wait for someone to tap our shoulder and say, here, we want you to take this opportunity. Or we will tell you all the reasons why we’re probably not the right person.

   

As you did in that job interview.

   

Well I’ve done it at multiple interviews. Let me tell you maybe why I’m not the right person and not recognizing that no one interviews for a job that’s perfect in every way. And he is a, he has been a great supporter of mine, in part because of the way he was brought up. His father died when he was 5 and was left with six kids and her husband, it was a traditional family, didn’t let her work, and suddenly she had six kids and no money. And he tells a story which, you know, again, this is in our lifetime, Leslie. She worked overnights, so she’d be home to put the kids on the bus to go to school. She wanted to get a credit card and she went to the bank and they asked if she had an uncle or brother that could come and co-sign ’cause she was a woman and she was at the bank with her 10 year old son, and the bank officer said, I have an idea. My 10 year old husband cosigned a credit card so she could get her first credit card. He’s had that credit card ever since.

   

He signed as a 10 year old?

   

As a 10 year old.

   

They allowed him to?

   

Because he was a boy.

   

Ohh.

   

And so I think that, you know, when- and so when you come up like in that kind of story and you watch your mother really struggling to put food on the table and to keep the family together, it changes you. And he has been my biggest advocate because he looks at me and he looks at what I’ve accomplished in my life and knows that I don’t always get, even to this day, the benefit. I can’t tell you how many events I go to, and people say, oh let me introduce you to the president of PBS, and they shake my husband’s hand. Still to this day –

   

To this day.

   

– you and I both know this. And so I think that we’re blessed in our life. We have people that are our “yes.” And he has very much been my “yes.” So that’s probably the most personal story I can tell you.

   

And you’re always traveling or you’re often traveling. You have long work hours, but that still works for you. A longtime marriage.

   

Longtime marriage.

   

With your high school sweetheart.

   

With my high school sweetheart. And, you know, it’s like I prioritize my life. And even as much as I love my job, my husband does come first. And I think that, you know, again, I think about life is all balance. I believe that, you know, you have your professional life, which is important, but it is not your entire life. I think you have your personal life and your personal relationships, friendships, family. That is very important and that has to be cultivated. And it doesn’t just happen. I see a lot of people that get into trouble because they just assume family will always be there. You know, you have to nurture that relationship. Your physical self, I think is really important, and your community self what you give back. But I think that you don’t always have it in the equal balance. But I think all of those pieces are what makes a whole person. And when I finally leave this world, I want to feel like I’ve made this world a little better. Which was the- the “a-ha” moment when I got my very first job and I realized I could earn a paycheck and actually feel like I’ve done something that made a difference. And that’s really the core of me.

   

Paula Kerger, President and CEO of the national PBS, is gamely navigating changes of many kinds in the media industry—including technology and media formats, generational preferences, increasing polarization of opinions, and funding sources. She wants young people who are trying to chart out the rest of their lives to know that there’s no such thing as a straight-and-narrow life path. Life, she says, is truly a journey. In her words, “why would you close any doors?” Mahalo to Paula Kerger, visiting Hawai‘i from the East Coast, for sharing her story with us. And mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha nui.

   

So I was in umm, International House. I got a call one day umm, from a headhunter asking if I’d be interested in working at the Metropolitan Opera. Now, I love music. Didn’t really know a lot about opera, but I’ve always wanted to work in the arts and almost talked myself out of the job, you know, because when I went to the interview, I said, you know, I don’t really know anything about opera and I’m not sure I’m the best person for you to hire. This is not the way you should conduct an interview.

   

And how old are you at this point?

   

Oh, I was 30, I guess.

   

Okay.

   

And the guy that was interviewing me who was the head of development at the Met said, “Do you like music? Do you like opera?” And I said yes. I said, “I just don’t know as much as I’m sure other people that could be interviewing for this job.” And he said, “We don’t want fans at the stage door. We want people that are really serious and that really are interested in this work.” If one had asked when I was a kid, “What would I have thought my career path?” Working at the Metropolitan Opera? Of course not. I mean, that was just crazy.

   

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox visit PBSHawaii.org. To download podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox go to the apple iTunes store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

   

 

[END]

   

 

 

EAST LAKE MEADOWS:
A Public Housing Story

 

Learn the history of East Lake Meadows, a former public housing community in Atlanta. Stories from residents reveal hardship and resilience, and raise critical questions about race, poverty and who is deserving of public assistance.

 

 

 

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