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LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
John Morgan

 

Behind the scenes of the 4,000-acre Kualoa Ranch on Windward Oʻahu is John Morgan, its president and owner. He’s a sixth-generation member of the kamaʻāina Morgan family. There’s still some ranching at Kualoa, though the property is perhaps best known for its recreational activities and as a backdrop in blockbuster movies like Jurassic Park. Morgan traces the history behind the ranch, which dates to King Kamehameha III’s reign, and the property’s evolution under his leadership.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Feb. 16, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

John Morgan Podcast

 

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Transcript

 

One of the key ingredients of being successful is you gotta like and care about people, so, and then, be passionate about whatever you’re doing and I’m totally passionate about Kualoa and preserving it and the mission.

 

He was midway through college when he asked his father if he could take over management of family-owned lands in Windward Oʻahu. They were the site of a ranch, just getting by, after their hey-day as a sugar plantation. What John Morgan did with those lands, 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. Kualoa Ranch in Windward Oʻahu is an amazing property. It’s actually three, virtually intact ahupuaʻa, or Hawaiian mountain-to-sea districts. This precious property has been in the kama’āina Morgan family for a long time and at times, after the fall of sugar cultivation as Hawaiʻi’s dominant industry, the family struggled to hold onto the lands to make them financially productive. When sixth generation Hawaiʻi family member, Morgan, grew up, the four-thousand acres were a private nature reserve and cattle ranch. He had no plan when he asked his father, as a college student, if he could manage the place. Over the years of his leadership, the lands took on a diverse new life. There’s still some ranching, but the spread is best known as a destination for visitors and locals and filmmakers and TV shows. Parts of the blockbuster movie, Jurassic Park, were filmed here. But big-time media makers don’t come by every day. The way John Morgan explains it, Kualoa Ranch’s main business is offering environmentally sustainable and educational activities. His great-great-great grandfather bought the first parcel of land that started Kualoa Ranch from King Kamehameha the Third.

 

Our family got started here in 1828, Dr. Gerrit P. Judd and his wife, Laura, came on the third ship with the missionaries and uh, he was a doctor. He wanted to be a missionary but they didn’t accept him at the uh, American Board of Foreign Missions. From what I understood, I read the book—Dr. Judd—and I read it awhile ago, and uh, he, his theological, uh, theologic, uh, credentials weren’t good enough, according to the people who were evaluating him. Maybe got a C instead of a B, I don’t know.

 

But still, he was appointed the Mission Doctor?

 

Yeah, so they wanted doctors here, because as we all know, you know, the whole situation with the, with disease and all of that…

 

All of the illness…

 

…and was just terrible. So, there’s uh, a lot of epidemics, in fact, we created a timeline for early Hawaiian history and you know, we recorded all these different epidemics uh, that were, were, there was quite a few epidemics and so he, he dealt with it. He learned a little bit about the laʻau lapaʻau, you know, from the Hawaiians, and he actually wrote uh, the first uh, anatomy book in Hawaiian. And so they wanted doctors and so, kind of in the spirit of being a missionary, but you know, uh, basically helping people out, that’s why he decided to come here. He practiced medicine for about ten years before he, uh, went into service for the King, and so he got acquainted with the King and there was a mutual respect there and he wasn’t uh, uh, a missionary, and he wasn’t a merchant, and he was interested and he was a pretty, you know, smart and honest guy, so he ended up becoming a minister to King Kamehameha the Third. So when successive years he was Minister of Finance, and Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Minister of the Interior, not in that order, but…so he held-held pretty…uh, big positions in the government.

 

Do you think being a physician helped bring him to the King’s attention?

 

I, you know, honestly, I don’t know. Again, the population at the time, you had missionaries who weren’t really involved with secular affairs and you had merchants and whalers and others who had their own self-interest, and so here was a guy who um…

 

Met a lot of the families through helping them…

 

Yeah, and…

 

…with their medical issues.

 

…and didn’t have, you know, kind of a self-interest that…and so, he was kind of a neutral, yeah, neutral party, but again he was, reading the books about him and everything that I have and-and-and a lot of people would agree that, you know, he was definitely a solid guy who-who-who was devoted to the Kingdom and the King. The start of the ranch was uh, in 1850, it was part of the King’s personal land and uh, and so he sold the-the-that parcel of land to Dr. Judd in 1850.

 

Did Dr. Judd know what he was going to do with it?

 

What we understand is that he, you know, just liked farming, he just wanted his own farm and uh, so, I’m not sure, because there’s no records of it, how much that he was aware of, you know, the cultural and historical significance of Kualoa, but uh, but he-he-he did build a house out there and uh, actually shipped schooner loads of squash and melon back to Honolulu, so, he did actually run it as a farm.

 

How much did he pay for the land, do you know?

 

I think it was thirteen hundred dollars.

 

For how many acres?

 

Six hundred and twenty-two.

 

Amazing.

 

Yeah, yeah.

 

So, uh, then, so that’s your great-great-great grandfather?

 

Yeah.

 

I believe I’ve read that Dr. Judd chose to renounce his American citizenship to serve the King of Hawaiʻi, King Kamehameha the Third.

 

Yes, he did. Rick Cord, is the first one, so he was the second U.S. citizen to renounce his U.S. citizenship and that was a, it was a telling act on his part, yeah.

 

Does your family have an opinion of what happened during the Overthrow times?

 

Not really. Dr. Judd was gone already and Charles was there. Charles was in service to the King, he was a chamberlain to King Kalākaua and so, all of our ancestry, you know, up to the point of the Overthrow was definitely in favor of the monarchy.

 

Which of the generations was it who got involved heavily in sugar industry which was king in Hawaiʻi?

 

So, Dr. Judd’s had uh, nine kids, seven of which who lived at least to adulthood and one of those nine kids was Charles and so that was my great-great-grandfather, and he actually went into business with Samuel Wilder, who was his brother-in-law, he married one of Dr. Judd’s uh, daughters, and uh…

 

And as you’re saying these names, I think of streets in Hawaiʻi which bear these names…

 

Yeah, so Samuel Wilder and Charles Judd, uh, basically bought Kualoa from Dr. Judd, and started the sugar uh, mill, in 1863 and it went bankrupt, actually, and so, uh, Dr. Judd got the land back because they couldn’t pay it all off and uh, and so, so, that’s how Charles got involved and then, Charles actually ended up buying the neighboring two ahupuaʻa of Kaʻaʻawa and that was in 1860, and Hakipuʻu in 1880. So, by 1880, the ranch was intact three, you know, separate but continuous ahupuaʻa.

 

It’s three ahupuaʻa? Are they still intact?

 

Still intact and still contiguous, yeah.

 

So, for all this time, since the days of the monarchy, um, your family’s had these three contiguous ahupuaʻa and kept them. That’s very unusual, isn’t it? To not have to sell off land?

 

It is, I mean, when you look at a lot of kama’āina families, in order to preserve they, you know, or whatever, for whatever reason…

 

Whatever reason, right..

 

…and so, during the Depression, that was a very tough time, and uh, um, at that time, my great-aunt was kind of in-charge and things were-were-were-were again, very tough. Thatʻs when Ka’a’awa town was created and that was our way, that was our time when we sold land, we didn’t sell it at the time, we just created lots in Ka’a’awa town and leased them all out. Uh, but that was about the extent of that and luckily, we didn’t do more.

 

Long term leases?

 

Long term leases.

 

Are they…is the land still leased?

 

Uh, no, it’s all sold off through, you know, through uh, you know The Land Reform Act, you know, that occurred in the 1970s, so that all went to fee in uh, I think uh, ’84.

 

Was that part of the ahupuaʻa?

 

That was part of the ahupuaʻa, yeah.

 

So, so a small section was sold off?

 

Little small section uh, just kind of…it’s cut off from the main part of uh, Kaʻaʻawa Valley by a little ridge, and so, it, it, you know, didn’t disrupt uh, you know, other parts of the operation and so that’s why they chose to develop it over there.

 

Well, what is the cultural significance of the Kualoa lands?

 

It’s mentioned in the Kumulipo, uh, you know, the name—Kualoa, and then there’s a whole bunch of legendary reference to you know, Kualoa, whether it’s Luʻanuʻu who’s supposed to go and find a place for a sacrifice, or the legend of Mokoliʻi, or uh, you know, there’s a…there’s just a number of different legends. I wouldn’t call it a legend that it was a training ground of chiefs because when you go back to, you know, Kamakau, or you know, some of the other, the writers, who talk about uh, you know, back in the time of Kahahana and Kaʻa…Kahekili, there was a, a kahuna, Kaʻopulupulu, who-who-who was advocating that uh, you know, Kualoa was so sacred that Kahahana shouldn’t give it to Kahekili because Kahekili actually was demanding it in order to keep peace. So, I don’t consider those as much legends as more recorded history, even though that was back in the 1700s. So anyway, there’s a lot of different reference to uh, to how important Kualoa was in the ancient times and for us, it’s a, it’s really important to honor that, understand that, and keep that uh, as something that we still cherish.

 

Managing Kualoa Ranch had never been a full-time job for any of John Morgan’s ancestors, but with changing times, he felt driven to make the lands financially productive or risk losing the precious property.

 

Except for a short time in your life when you went to college, essentially you’ve lived at Kualoa, at least part-time, I think your family, when you were a kid, went back and forth…to Nuʻuanu and…

 

And Kualoa, yeah.

 

So, you’ve spent a lot of time as a resident, at least a part-time resident, of Kualoa all your life?

 

All my life, yeah.

 

You know, you must know every little nook and cranny over there?

 

I’d like to. [LAUGHS] You know, there’s all these little valleys and you know, I love…my wife and I love to go hiking out there…and the kids…and so, but, you know, it’s funny, it can be…it’s a big place but it’s also a small place and if you want to go to every single corner it’s gonna take a lifetime, so…haven’t been to every place yet.

 

Did you know you’d become the CEO of the family property, Kualoa Ranch?

 

No. [LAUGHS] It’sone of those things that when you’re young and there’s only five employees and you know, fixing fences, spraying herbicide in the pastures, and moving irrigation, you know, for the corn fields and everything…

 

And you did all that?

 

So we did all of that. And take uh, when we started horseback rides, took out the horseback rides with my wife and, and-and-and, you know, I asked my father if I could make a career at the ranch and so, you know, when he said yes, I came back from Oregon State University to the University of Hawaiʻi, but it’s really just one foot in front of the other, there was no grandiose plan and uh, you know, certainly couldn’t have envisioned Kualoa Ranch being what it is today, way back then.

 

Well when you said…when you asked your father, did you have a sense of—it would continue to be horseback rides and, and beef?

 

I definitely had a sense it would continue to be horseback rides and beef but there needed to be something else, because it was clear that it wasn’t sustainable. My grandmother, my great-aunt, my father, my aunt and my uncle, who were all the older generation, uh, you know, knew that it wasn’t a sustainable business anymore. It never paid a dividend. Um, and so…

 

So, everybody always had other jobs?

 

Everybody always had other jobs…

 

As they ran the ranch?

 

Yeah, that is one of the things that we can credit my ancestors is nobody looked at it as a cash cow, and so everybody wanted to preserve it. But, you know, if you’re losing money every year, it’s harder to do that and so, um, when I…you know, asked him if I could try to make a career there, I knew that it was…I had to figure something out.

 

But you were okay about figuring it out?

 

Yeah, you know, I guess I stepped up to the challenge.

 

When you came back from uh, a couple of years of college at Oregon State and decided to go to school in Hawaiʻi and work on the ranch, you took a lot of credits but they weren’t necessarily…I think you took enough classes to get credits to graduate but they weren’t in the right areas…

 

[LAUGHS] Yeah, yeah.

 

Because, you were just picking what you thought you would need. You knew what course you were going to take.

 

That’s right. So, I was an Economics major, I didn’t really take college as seriously as um, glad, all my kids took it more seriously than I did, and um, so I applied to three colleges, chose Oregon because I didn’t want to go to California or Colorado where I was accepted to both other colleges, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I first uh, went to college, so I thought Economics was, you know, gives you a good understanding of life, and so, so, I was a major in Economics in Oregon State, and when I transferred back to University of Hawaiʻi, I stayed in that. But you’re right, I took finance and I took accounting, and horticulture, and agronomy, and Hawaiian language, and all the different things that I thought might help me because, you know, I’d already made the decision and my father had supported it, that I’d make a career at the ranch. And I’m glad that I took all of those things because now when you read financial reports or, I love, you know, knowing…certainly not fluent in Hawaiian, but uh, you know, I know a little bit, so, all of those things help me tremendously.

 

Did you have an inkling of what you wanted to do?

 

I did. Uh, knew that you know, people coming to the ranch and tourism was…

 

Tourism.

 

…probably the answer and so…

 

But what would they look at?

 

Ah, at the time, you know, again, 1981 when I took over didn’t know, but by ’84, I met a whole bunch of people in Waikiki and realized that tourism was booming and especially the Japanese tourist part of the business was booming and so, when we opened what we called The Activity Club, at the time, 1985 on April…April 1st, 1985, uh, we had put together a variety of different activities: horses, ATVs, uh, jet skis, helicopters, a gun range, all these different activities and uh, we presented to the Japanese travel wholesalers. So, we had one type of client, which was the Japanese travel wholesaler. The consumer was the, you know, the Japanese customer, uh and then we had all of these activities and uh, and so we launched and it was a very, you know, started off slow but it really resonated with the marketplace, so by the end of the 80s, we’re doing gangbusters and you know, thought I was a genius.

 

And that was before the movie productions came in?

 

Yeah, we had a couple of small ones. I think the original Hawaii 5-0 had come out there and early 80s Magnum P.I. had come out there, but really before anything big had started, yeah, yeah.

 

For example, 50 First Dates, King Kong, Skull Island, and Jumangi: Welcome to the Jungle. Under John Morgan’s leadership, Kualoa Ranch was thriving as a visitor destination, but world events and economic changes during the 1990s and early 2000s made him re-think his business model.

 

And then everything changes, ah, you know, in the early 90s, I think the Gulf War’s in ’91 and there was a currency crisis in the East, and you know, just a bunch of different things happened and you know, lot of other businesses were saying, hey this Japanese business looks good and so, it started to really uh, struggle and so by the late 90s it was struggling and then, course, 2001, it was a terrible situation for everybody. So we had to kind of re-look at what we’re doing and-and-and-and, you know, wasn’t all in one fell swoop but we…introspected, looked, and tried to figure out really what was the strength of the ranch and what was our core competency, and, you know, whether it was from a cultural perspective or you know, market-driven, we realized that it was really the land and the history and the culture and uh, and the agriculture. So, we got rid of a lot of the stuff that didn’t really fit with uh, the brand that we wanted to build. So, we got rid of the gun range, got rid of the jet skis, got rid of the helicopters, got rid of a lot of the different things and focused on ways that people could just experience the land. We recognized that uh, in order to be able to sustain the land, you know, we have to have a viable business and so, tourism and local, local visitors as well, it’s not just tourists. So, how do we, how do we provide enriching experiences for people and get them close to the land? And you know, introduce them to agriculture, introduce them to the Hawaiian culture, and of course, the movie part doesn’t hurt, either. But um, so, as time goes on, we try to, try to, you know, enhance different parts of the land by you know, doing different things whether it’s cultural or agricultural or otherwise, and so, we’re kind of in a perpetual landscape improvement mode. So right now, we’re resurrecting taro patches in a bunch of different areas and uh, so that when people go through these areas, you go—wow, this is gorgeous…and you learn about it, and then not only that, we harvest the crops. So, and then we built a replica, it’s not a heiau because it’s new, but we built a replica of that. We’ve had several different areas that uh, yeah, we’re doing different things from a, from a cultural perspective. We’re doing things, you know, a lot of our agricultural developments occurring around the tour routes. We built a six thousand square foot piggery made out of a repurposed movie set. It’s right on one of the tour routes because people like that kind of stuff, so whether it’s the culture or the agriculture or you know, other things, we…we know that integrating tourism with what we do is uh, and the history of the place is-is-is what makes us successful.

 

You’re basically not near the city center, you’re not near the Legislature which could be making laws that would, you know, that would affect you…it’s kind of a really different life, isn’t it? I mean, the skills you need to do well on the land you own and also, you know, what it takes to keep that land in a modern American city. 

 

Yeah, you know, hate to use the analogy of the plantation era, but, you know, plantation era’s not all bad because people were taking care of the land and maybe monoculture, cropping, is…not everybody likes now, but, from a…from the standpoint of being there and not in Bishop Street, so to speak, and you know, being close to people and being close to the land, uh, you know, I really, I really appreciate that. I do get to town, you know, whenever you need to, but uh, but I’m fortunate and even our sales people are fortunate that we’re at a point now that instead of having to go drum up business, a lot of times people come to us and so, a measure of success is when-when-when, you know, you don’t have to go to town to go to-to-to do everything and uh, we can stay out there and do our work and attract the right kind of people, so…

 

What do you worry about? What keeps you up at night when it comes to running a ranch? And this uh, this uh robust visitor operation?

 

Yeah, obviously worry about the people, we have almost 400 employees and they’re a big responsibility and you know, we want to take care of them. We want to uh, you know, see if we can have more of a positive impact in our community. We’re a big company in a small community. Those things don’t really keep me up at night but they are parts of the responsibility that are important. Um, you know, again, from that perspective, we certainly hope that the visitor industry in Hawaiʻi remains robust because if it wasn’t, you know, it hurts everybody including our company. We know that as we evolve we need to, you know, put more effort into different areas. Five years ago we hired a…created a position for a Hawaiian Cultural Resources manager, so that person is just devoted to, you know, encouraging and all of the awareness and uh, learning about Hawaiian culture within employees as well as guests. Now the same thing is going to happen with sustainability just to push the envelope a little further, push the needle, you know, a little…

 

And what kind of sustainability will that person look at?

 

Ah, everything, um, but we’re not all that good on energy right now, uh, we want to do a better job in recycling but you know, it’s really how do we integrate all thoughts and-and-and of sustainability into all the different diverse things that we have going on, because we’re really diverse. So, so, so that’s kind of direction…you know, we don’t see major changes in the, in the short term. We just hired another, another agriculture manager at the same time, he’s going through training this week and-and, so we’re adopting a new kind of approach to our agriculture. We used to say, this is diversified ag, this is livestock, this is aquaculture and now we’re doing it more from a kind of a kuleana perspective of this 40 acres is your kuleana and it has taro, you know, shrimp, and you know, lettuce, and everything else, and you run this area and so we have three diversified ag “hubs” that we call them. One of them’s about 40 acres, one of them’s about 60 acres, and another one in lower Kaʻaʻawa, so, that’s where the piggery and the sheep and the chickens and cacao and all kinds of stuff.

 

Cacao too?

 

So, we have cacao and bananas and papayas and all kinds of, all kinds of things.

 

And it all adds up to sustainability. You have a succession plan for you?

 

Nope.

 

You don’t?

 

Not yet, yeah.

 

Does any of your children want it?

 

Everybody, uh, is definitely interested in-in being involved and so our whole family, we’re so lucky that…it’s my brother, my sister and I, and we have some cousins that are involved on the ownership side and everybody is uh, is passionate about the preservation of it and everybody is committed, but from a succession point of view, that’s still a work in progress.

 

Is it, as they say, complicated?

 

Ah, it’s-it’s-it’s complicated. I mean, you know, being involved is one thing, being a CEO is a whole nother thing. And so, we’re really grateful that everybody wants to be involved, but I think everybody realizes that from a succession point of view on a CEO, the best person should do it. It’s not whether it’s family or not, and so…so, we’re in that process of trying to figure out…I think I still have ten more years or something, so we’ll see.

 

Mahalo to John Morgan of Nuʻuanu in Honolulu for sharing your story with us, and thank you for joining us. For PBS Hawaiʻiand Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha nui.

 

What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?

 

Hm, I don’t know, I’m kind of an adventure thrill-seeker, if you’re talking about the personal side. You know, some friends and I climbed the top of Mount Rainier, I didn’t think that was really a risk, it was very strenuous but, um, you know, surfed big waves, if you’re comfortable doing it, uh, you know, did the Molokai Crossing with a couple of friends in a relay on stand-up paddle boards, it’s a challenge, so…on the personal side, you know, I don’t…I don’t really think about things as monumental risks, maybe I’m forgetting things right now, and on the business side, I mean, every time you do anything it’s a risk.

 

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]

 

 

 

 

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Kristi Yamaguchi Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

So one thing my parents always told my brother and sister and I…I mean, I just remember this, even when we were little, it was like, you can’t rest on your laurels, you know, you always have to continue to you know, earn your keep in a way, and uh, like even as kids, you know, that was something they instilled in us. So, I think it’s great, you’re pushing yourself, you’re trying to accomplish something, and uh, and then you move on and you continue to grow and evolve and see what’s next.

 

Not resting on her laurels pushed this young athlete to keep entering figure skating contests until she knew she’d become good enough to compete at the Olympic level. Kristi Yamaguchi 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, Kristine Tsuya Yamaguchi, better known as Kristi Yamaguchi, won an Olympic gold medal in figure skating for the United States in 1992. Since then, she’s been a professional ice skater, and author, wife, mother, the 2008 winner of Dancing with the Stars, and a philanthropist. A resident of Alamo, California, she stopped by to talk with us here, on Long Story Short, during one of her frequent trips to Hawaiʻion behalf of her Always Dream foundation. Kristi Yamaguchi always set goals for herself, something she learned to do at a young age after overcoming a birth defect in her legs. Her parents encouraged and supported her along the way, believing in dreams, despite their own experiences as children, forced to live in internment camps.

 

So, I was born in Hayward, California, so that’s a suburb of uh, in the San Francisco Bay area, in the East Bay, and uh, actually, my parents were living in Fremont at the time, but I was born in Hayward. So I grew up in Fremont which was sleepy town back then, and uh, you know, I can’t complain, it was a great, diverse, and um, you know, pretty easy place to grow up in.

 

Your dad was a dentist?

 

He was a dentist.

 

And your mom?

 

Ah, she was a homemaker, she was full-time mom, although she did work part-time as we were getting older in high school. Both my parents did spend time in the Japanese internment camps, my dad’s family was in, Poston, Arizona, and he was about five years old when the family was sent there, um, course his brothers and sisters were more teenagers, so they remember it and you know, probably affected a little more by it, but I think my dad being five, he just kinda like going with the flow and making the best of it that he could…and then, my mom uh, Carol, was actually born in the Amache Colorado internment camp. So she was born, one of the New Year’s baby, they called her, in Amache. So, uh, you know, the families went through that and they did have to start over, you know, once, uh, they were released, and find their way, but I think, you know, it was a huge lesson, obviously, in perseverance, and just, um, you know, a lot of pride in who they were and being American and wanting to assimilate and prove their loyalty, and so, um, so it was interesting time and it’s…funny, not funny, but that generation never really talked about it, and…

 

Have your, have your parents talked about it?

 

Not much, I mean…my mom doesn’t remember, obviously, because she was just an infant, but my dad has opened up a little bit more about it because um, like my sister and I and brother and also now his grandkids are doing school papers, or school presentations on the family and have been interviewing him on different occasions and it’s given him a chance, I think, to reflect a little bit on what he remembers.

 

At the time your mother was born, her father was fighting in the war, with the 100ths.

 

100thInfantry Battalion, so different from like the 442ndand the 100ththat you hear about, but he was in one of the first non-segregated units in Europe, and um, well, basically because he was the only person of color in his unit, and uh, he, yes, he had gone through two rounds of boot camp because while he was in boot camp, the war broke out and they didn’t know what to do with him, and eventually they sent him um, you know, with the 100thInfantry Battalion to um, Europe. We really don’t know much about what that experience was like for him, and I think growing up, uh, the one thing that we do remember, like my brother and sister and I was like, he did have a lot of nightmares at night and there…you know, was, I think still was living with post traumatic stress. I think as we got older we started to realize, you know, through his life experience what he’s been through. But I think one of the proud moments is that we know…he was awarded a battle field commission and was promoted and uh, he was, his uh, commanding officer was actually quoted that he was undeniably one of the best soldiers in their unit and that’s why he received that battlefield commission, so, I think reading that and seeing it in the New York Times was just like, wow, you know, takes a lot of character, a lot of strength, and uh, you know, to really fight for what you believe in and you know, against maybe some, you know, obstacles that are there.

 

That’s amazing, that’s absolutely true. What did he do after the War?

 

So after the War, he was a mechanic. He settled in Gardena, California, and that’s where I know where my mom and her brother and sister grew up and went to school, and uh, he was, I think, also a part-time fisherman, and to this day, my parents won’t eat fish, or my mom won’t eat fish, because she had enough of it growing up, but yeah, I mean, he was just a great dad. I know he provided for his family and uh, husband, and a great grandfather, I just remember having so much fun visiting them and um, you know, enjoying the time we spent together.

 

You were born with a birth defect, malformed feet?

 

Yeah.

 

And here you are later, winning Olympic gold on these feet?

 

On these feet, yes. My mom always described it like this is how my legs were when I was born, they were like uh, just crossed and twisted. I didn’t have, I think, the severe where I had to have surgery, but I did have casts, um, for the first 18 months of my life and then was put into corrective braces, um, and I remember wearing those until probably past the age of like, two or three, because I remember trying to walk with this bar in between my feet, and sliding on the wood floor, so I just discovered that Army crawling was the quickest and easiest way to get from point A to point B, um, but yeah, you know, I think I was just really lucky my parents were proactive at correcting it, you know, so early on and allowing me to have the opportunity to you know, pursue skating.

 

And after the braces came off, you weren’t daunted, you were ready to skate.

 

Ready to go, yeah, I mean, I did ballet, and that was, you know, one area of dance that I really loved and then that led into skating and I think um, you know, when I showed the interest, my mom did ask the pediatrician, is this ok? You know, with her condition? Even though much of the corrections were done at that point, and I think the advice was yeah, I think this is great because it helps with strengthening and coordination, and um, it will be good for her.

 

That’s a great inspiration for those who, who have that corrective work done.

 

Yes, absolutely, and you know, to this day I know, I am still bow-legged, it’s just how, the shape of my legs, and uh, you know, a lot of skaters out there, successful skaters, who are good jumpers who are also bow-legged, so, it’s like, oh in some ways it maybe was even an advantage for the sport I chose.

 

Kristi Yamaguchi started ice-skating as soon as her mother felt she was old enough. Her passion for the sport grew immediately, and soon the rest of her life, and her parents’ lives, started to revolve around her ice-skating schedule.

 

At what point did skating cross your eyes and your heart?

 

I was six years old when I really first started skating and my older sister, Lori, skated for, you know, a couple months and it wasn’t really her thing so she moved on, but I was kind of like, wait, that seemed kinda neat, I wanna try it, and then, I kept asking about it and my mom took us to see the local ice show, and at that point it was like—that’s it. That’s what I want to do. So, she said, ok, when you’re six and old enough, I’ll take you to go skate. And, so I had to wait till I was six and went to try it for the first time and loved it and I think, every day asked when we were going back. And I remember my very first competition, I was about eight years old and um, you know, just kinda not really knowing what’s going on and I went competed in skating and I thought I skated fine, whatever, and um, my mom always reminds me, you were 11thout of 12th. And, it was just like…it was kind of a wake-up call and I didn’t understand, like, how come those girls have these shiny medals and they’re running around wearing these medals, how come I didn’t get one of those? And she’s like, well you have to be top three in order to get those medals, and I think that’s when the competitiveness and the like, hey, I want one of those, what do I have to do to get one of those? Ah, kicked in, and that’s where it started.

 

That requires an incredible commitment from your parents, as well.

 

It’s a huge commitment, but luckily, they didn’t know what they were getting into, they just thought, oh, ice skating, and you know, they saw an activity that I took to, because I did try everything else—gymnastics, soccer…

 

Were you good at all those things, too?

 

No, terrible. And I just, my heart wasn’t in it, but I think when they saw how much I loved skating and how I was improving and really taking to it, um, they said, you know what, let’s go with this and see what happens. So, you know, yeah, I mean, right away they just kind of rolled with it and I was going you know, several times a week and by the time I was in junior high, it was every day, before school, sometimes after school, and competitions on the weekends, at least once a month, probably.

 

How much did you have to give up in social life to pursue skating?

 

There was…yeah, I mean, skaters do not have the normal social life because um, I think I maybe went to one football game in high school, and you know, and I, couple school dances or whatever, but it’s…you know, I was in bed by 7:30 every night because I was up at four and on the ice from 5 to 10 or 5 to 11, every day, so um, training schedule was, you know, early in the morning and then I would rush off to school, and then, um…

 

At eleven o’clock?

 

At eleven, yeah, I did have special schedule through high school where half of my classes were on campus and half of them I did through independent study, so yeah, so in that case, too, it was just not the normal high school schedule.

 

Not really…you’d have to give up…you had to give things up because that’s everything…that’s all, all in.

 

That was all in. It was all in at that point, but for me, it was a choice. I didn’t see it as giving it up, it was like, well this is what I want to do, so…

 

Well, what did you want to do? With…I mean, obviously, you wanted to skate, but what did you want to do with it?

Um, at that point, you know, once I was 15, 16, it was the Olympic goal was there. You know when I first started skating, I just loved to skate and perform, and be in the shows and wear the pretty costumes, but as I got older, and particularly in the high school age, um, competing at the world level was my goal. And um, in 1989, uh, when I was a senior, was my first world appearance and then, at that point, um, I think the prospect of making the Olympic team was getting closer and close.

 

You know, I think for most of us, we’ve had experience competing in, maybe, junior high or high school sports or perhaps, college, but I can’t imagine the level of competition at the Olympic level. Just what kind of focus you need to have and the skill level.

 

Well, you know, it’s practice every day, and like I said, several hours a day at that point, um, and it’s a lifestyle for sure.

 

And what do you fill your mind with?

 

You know, I mean, I was just a competitive person, by nature, and you know, every day in practice I was competitive, even with my training mates, and um, you know, it was just, I knew I had a task at hand and I worked really closely and really well with my coach of uh, from the time I was nine years old through the Olympics, I was with the same coach, Christy Ness, and she was um, probably had one of the biggest influences on my life as a mentor and um, teacher, so learning you know, work ethic and setting goals, and the mindset was always, ok, what is my goal today? What is my goal in the next hour on this session? And there was always something to work towards and um, you know, she made it clear, if you’re working and putting that time in, it’s gonna, you’re gonna get, you’re gonna make strides forward. And so that was always my motivation was like always trying to push myself. She would always tell us, her students, there’s no secret to success, it’s plain and simple hard work. There’s no question, you know, the effort that you need to put in. And there were times that we were training and you know, she would yell out to someone, one of her pupils—don’t be afraid to work hard. You know? Because, you know, maybe one of us was slacking or you know, not putting 100 percent in and it was just like, ok, ok, you know, get the work, and it was true, you know, I think it’s just, you can’t expect results if you don’t put the work in, and as a youngster and a teenager, having that engrained in you, I think, was so valuable because even beyond, you know, after the Olympics, it stayed with me and it was just, you know, not satisfied with just getting through it, but putting the work in. And it could be as simple as, I’m gonna practice this jump ten times this session. And hopefully there’s an improvement and I’m not falling all ten times, but, you know, putting the effort in and or it’s like I’m running through my long program routine twice this session and hopefully without mistakes. So, you know, yeah, it’s, it’s always having a purpose every time you’re going out there.

 

And it’s very um, self-directed, it has to be, right? You’re preparing yourself for this gargantuan competition and challenge so it’s necessarily, solo and self?

 

Pretty much. You know, I think when I was older and um, you know, especially becoming a mom, you…looking back, just like, wow, it really was a pretty self-centered life that I lived. You know, it was an individual sport, I had my individual goals, and it was up to me to just focus in and make that happen and of course, I had a team of people around me…

 

Helping you, and you didn’t have to make room for anybody else, they made room for you.

 

Right, right, exactly, and they were, you know, the common goal was for my success, right? So, um, yeah, there’s a very, very narrow focus through that whole thing.

 

Have you always been able to keep your head in it?

 

No, no, and I think that’s the humbling thing about being an athlete in, in skating, that you’re gonna have some great performances that you’re like, wow, that was it, and that is what you live for, but there are many where you skate off the ice just really disappointed and really wanting to go back out there and do it again, because it’s like, wow, there were just way too many mistakes in there that I know I shouldn’t have made.

 

But you can’t look back, right? You gotta keep moving.

 

Yes, and you take that and you learn from it and hopefully in the next competition, uh, you learn and don’t make those same mistakes.

 

There are many talented skaters, and uh, as you get older and you get ready to uh, to participate in the qualifying, you know, you really don’t know whether you’re that caliber yet, do you?

 

Not really, yeah, I mean, I think it’s just…you’re taking small steps along the way. I mean, you know, people ask, oh, when did you know you were going to become an Olympian? And I’m just like, like, a year before, maybe? And they’re like, really? Like you, you know, up to that point you didn’t believe it or know it? And I’m like, no, you’re just trying to compete in your region and then in the West coast and then nationally and…

 

Could you feel the competition get tighter and tighter as you…

 

Oh yeah.

 

..went up?

 

Yes, definitely, and the pressure and the expectations and um, you know, figure skating being a judged sport, you know, that adds a whole other layer of subjectivity and just like, how am I fitting in, am I doing what the judges like, and things like that, but yeah, I mean, the competition was always close and the U.S. has always been traditionally competitive world, at the world level. So um, the talent pool was just…it was tough to even be noticed in your own country.

 

What was it like approaching that fateful day in 1992 when you won gold at the Olympics?

 

I feel like from ’91 and ’92, it was like walking on eggshells, the whole time, you know, it was just, ok, you have a goal, you have a plan, and it’s just trying to make every step go just how you want it to go. Um, you know, trying to stay healthy, injury free, getting the rest, and eating properly and just, you know, not leaving anything on the table to be an excuse for uh, it not to work out, right? So, um, yeah, it’s like living that…just eat, drink, breathe, sleep, you know, skating. And, you know, you’ll hear that from Olympic athletes all the time, and it’s kind of true, you know, Olympics isn’t every four years for us, it’s every day, and uh, it’s Groundhog Day.

 

So it’s a short game and it’s a very long game, too?

 

Yes.

 

Commentator Scott Hamilton said, you know, you do all these jumps in your routines but people don’t so much notice how hard those jumps are because you, you know, it’s part of a story you’re telling, visually.

 

Mm, mm hm, yeah, so I mean, I think I…was also proud to be a part of the generation that really pushed the sport technically, as well. You know, my biggest competitor in those 90s, early 90s, was Midori Ito from Japan, and she was the first to land, successfully land a triple axel in international competition and so, you know, she pushed the boundaries as um, you know, a figure skater doing the amount of triples that she incorporated and then incorporated the triple axel, Tonya Harding was also doing the triple axel, that ’92 year at the Olympics, so uh, technically, the women that year were really, really pushing beyond what we’ve seen in the past in women’s competition. And so, I had to up my game too and incorporated the triple lutz, triple toe combination, to be…

 

But not the triple axel.

 

Not the triple axel and I tried to master it and it wasn’t mastered at the level where I was comfortable to incorporate it into the competition, so I knew the triple lutz, triple toe combination had to be perfect, and had to be my um, answer to their triple axel, and it put a lot of pressure on me for that particular move, but um, yeah, I knew I had to have it, and it hadn’t been done at the Olympics before um, by anyone, so it was fun to be able to kind of push the envelope that way.

 

And you did, and you won.

 

After winning Olympic gold in 1992 in France, Kristi Yamaguchi went on to become a professional skater, and she married another athlete, former Olympic and professional ice hockey player, Bret Hedican, and they now have two teenage daughters. She also found a way to give back to the community.

 

Every Olympian, after their Olympic career ends, must look at what life looks like then, after spending almost every waking moment consumed with uh, competition and their art, um, did you know what you were going to do after you ended your time with skating professionally?

 

I didn’t. You know, I think um, yeah, so much was spent on skating itself and the career path of a skater, uh, that I wasn’t really, I never really had a plan after that, but I think, you know, I had the natural segue of, you know, I found someone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with and start a family with, so really, as soon as I got off the road from touring as a skater, we started a family. And that really took over, um, for the next uh, you know, four or five years, just being a mom. But all through that, you know, after, immediately after the Olympics, even while I was touring, there was always a sense of continuing to have a purpose in life and to make an impact um, beyond just being an athlete and you know, my parents had always been very involved in the community, you know, volunteers at school, and at church, and in the community, so, you know, they were like, you know, you’ve been so lucky, what are you going to do now? How are you going to give back? And um, that really uh, inspired me and spurned me to look at, hey what am I passionate about beyond, you know, skating and myself. And it was children. And uh, in 1996, shortly after the Olympics, I established the Always Dream foundation, who was all about um, you know, inspiring the hopes and dreams of underserved children, and I knew that that was uh, going to become my next passion and my next step in life, beyond the Olympics. We’ve been going strong for 23 years and the last eight years, we’ve been focused on early childhood literacy and have uh, a reading program in Kindergarten classroom aged kids, and you know, we’re all about leveling the playing field, because not everyone is given the resources and opportunities or have that at their fingertips growing up, not even books in the home, so how do you develop a foundation for learning if you don’t have books in the home? We are providing the tools for the families and the kids to be able to develop those literacy rich environments at the home, and hopefully give them, you know, the edge they need to have success in school and in life.

 

Kristi Yamaguchi found time during her busy life with family and foundation to compete on Dancing With the Stars in 2008. Reluctant at first, she says that once her competitive spirit kicked in, she was in it to win it, which she did. Mahalo to Kristi Yamaguchi of Alamo, California, a frequent Hawaiʻivisitor for sharing her life story with us. And thank you for joining us. For PBS Hawaiʻiand Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha nui.

 

When we looked to expand our foundation outside of California, this was a natural um, place to desire and um, you know, we know the need is great here and it was the perfect fit for the foundation to come out and um, do it’s work. So, yeah, it’s, Hawai‘i definitely has a special place in my heart and my family’s heart, my older daughter, Keara, is a hula dancer and she’s um, earned her uh, her Hawaiian name and you know, has big dreams and aspirations to someday be at Merrie Monarch.

 

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]

 

 

 

FINDING YOUR ROOTS
Science Pioneers

 

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. traces the family trees of Francis Collins, Shirley Ann Jackson and Harold Varmus, three pioneering scientists who’ve made dramatic contributions to our understanding of the world while knowing little about their own ancestry.

 

 

 

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