Honolulu

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
George Kon

 

George Kon of Honolulu teaches teenagers how to rehearse for life. He co-founded and leads the T-Shirt Theatre, a performance group based out of Farrington High School in Kalihi, Oʻahu, which uses a low-tech, high-zest approach to their productions, forgoing elaborate sets and costuming, and relying on honest performances by the students. Learn how Kon’s approach to theatre helps his students navigate the challenges of life and translates to skills far beyond the stage.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Sept. 15, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

George Kon Audio

 

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Transcript

 

We have a delightful scene about road rage, and our grandest boy-very big boy, plays his mom, who has road rage. And he’s-he does this wonderful scene. This boy- He almost didn’t get a chance to because his teacher, and I didn’t know this, he’s in Special-Ed. And here he is composing five scenes.

 

And that’s the magic. This is not about training people to be actors-

 

No it’s not. We want contributing adult citizens.

 

He teaches teenagers how to rehearse for life. George Kon of Honolulu, next on Long Story Short.

 

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

 

Aloha mai kākou. I’m Leslie Wilcox.Honolulu’s George Kon helps Hawaiʻi teenagers navigate that challenging time of life. He co-founded and leads the Alliance for Drama Education and its flagship performance group, T-Shirt Theatre. T-Shirt Theatre is based out of Farrington High School in Kalihi, Oahu and uses what George calls a low-tech, high-zest approach to its productions. The students dont use elaborate sets or costumes and their honest, raw performances resonate with audiences.  Many of the plays are written by the students and have helped young adults explore issues like racial prejudice, bullying, abuse, and teen suicide.

 

George Kons own path to becoming an educator and theatre director was anything but conventional.  He spent his early years in the sleepy plantation town of Puʻunēnē, Maui but his country lifestyle was put on hold for a few years.

 

You know uhh.. Growing up, I didn’t spend the whole time on Maui. Because-

 

What happened? You moved.

 

Yes, yes. After I was-when I was about 4, my sister was 8, my mom and dad decided that instead of being a nurse, she wanted to have a schedule that was closer to ours. So she wanted to go and get her teaching certificate from the University of Hawai‘i.

 

In Mānoa?

 

In Mānoa.

 

Honolulu.

 

Honolulu. So for a Japanese lady to take her kids to another island, leave her husband on, thats… Thats a no-no. In fact, we’re split right in half in our family. His parents thought it was a bad idea.

 

‘Cause she was leaving her husband.

 

What will people think? Right? It was like ‘hmm’ no no no no.

 

Did he consider going with her? I guess…

 

Well, how would, she needed to earn-

 

Oh.

 

Keep the money but, how would she gonna pay for the tuition?

 

And what did he do with the plantation?

 

Well he was an accountant.

 

Okay, so he had money.

 

Yeah he-he-not for the plantation. He was a-uhh, public accountant.

 

Oh I see.

 

He had his own business. So he couldn’t leave that business. He had clients, and-

 

And she-she had to leave the island because there was no four year institution-

 

Well yeah.

 

-on Maui at the time

 

No, not on Maui. Now they have one but you know-

 

Yeah

 

That was then…

 

So, that must’ve been the talk of the camp.

 

That was a big deal! But her mom-and dad-when they found out about uhh, the feathers being ruffled, I think they got on the phone with them and said “Mind your own business.”

 

Ohh.

 

She’s gonna do this because-

 

True family squabble.

 

Yeah, but they you know, they didn’t come to blows or anything like that but it was a rift. So dad obviously couldn’t go to his own parents house to eat dinner. So he went to mom’s house, mom’s family’s house. He would have dinner at there every night, and then uhh one of the neighbor ladies who did his laundry for him, would have him come over for dinner as well.

 

So he-

 

He got no support from his own family.

 

Wow. But-but, so he supported his wife and-and her-

 

—yes

 

-goals. And-and he apparently couldn’t cook or wash his clothes himself.

 

Or wouldn’t. Yeah, yeah but he was-he was uhh taken care of.

 

Well, four years is a long time.

 

It’s a long time. So we would go home at summer times, and winter.

 

What did you-oh so while your mom was in class you were in school.

 

So-so I was-

 

-But still it must’ve been hard.

 

Yeah I went to many schools. Y’know I went-I can remember being at Hickam, uh, Ben Parker, Ala Wai school. I think I was at-

 

Maybe because she was renting around town or-

 

Well, we were- y’know how it is right, you stay with family first before you rent. And then finally we rented our own place at Isenberg Street, and she walked up to campus-

 

Maybe 3 miles or so?

 

The healthiest she’s ever been in her life.

 

Wow, that-that was a big deal for you and your sister too because-

 

It was.

 

-this is Honolulu, and Kāne‘ohe

 

It was. Yes, yes, yes.

 

Great lesson, probably for your sister especially, that mom has a career goal, and actually the career goal was in order to be around you folks more.

 

Yes, yes yes. Y’know, she was a very effective teacher. She taught first grade.

 

Where at?

 

Lihikai.

 

Lihikai school.

 

Mhmm.

 

And did the two families come together after-

 

-Never

 

-this?

 

Never. No, it was-uhh-it never…It was never healed. It just stayed as uhh-as a rift.

 

After George Kons mother completed her degree at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and became a teacher, the family moved back to Puʻunēnē, Maui. 

 

What were you interested in, in high school?  What kind of interests piqued your—

 

Student Government. And, I don’t know how it happened ‘cause I came from this really small school, PuʻunēnēSchool. But when I got to Baldwin, I got right off, freshman class president. Sophomore student body president.

 

Student body when you’re a sophomore?

 

Sophomore. So that got me invited to Lexington Kentucky for a National Student Government conference.

 

You were a talker, weren’t you?

 

I was-

 

You could make speeches.

 

-I was, was. Yeah.

 

You weren’t shy.

 

I was not. So, here I am thinking, I’m gonna do something with public speaking, maybe be uhh…A politician or lawyer.

 

Mhmm.

 

And then I see this fabulous Chinese dancer named Al Huang. He came to Baldwin, and he’s dancing with a Caucasian partner in modern dance. Never seen modern dance before. And, when I saw it, you know I wasn’t attracted to the ballet, but modern dance had elements of gymnastics and martial arts-

 

And you were-

 

-which I had.

 

-You were into those things. You were into martial arts and gymna-

 

Those things. Yeah. Al Huang-

 

Okay

 

The modern dancer, gave me that idea that maybe I’d like to try this, so uhh-Often times when touring artists come, they’ll do a workshop on the weekend. I went to the workshop. I was the only boy. Not surprising right? But I stayed, and I said to myself when I go to college, it has to have modern dance. So Grinnell had modern dance.

 

And that’s where George Kon went after high school. A private liberal arts school in the middle of Iowa.

 

But very soon, l found that dance was related to theater; it’s in the same department. I started to take courses in both dance and theater. And then, year and a half into Grinnell, I got a chance to go to the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. There, I met Rick Zank, who had just come back from Nepal.

 

Mhmm

 

He was a very, very accomplished professional actor who was kind of disenchanted with how theaters were run. And he had a book by Jerzy Grotowski called Towards a Poor Theater. You know, my low tech, high zest email address comes from that aesthetic. He said: Theater is too fat; it’s got way too many things that … film can do much better. You shouldn’t try to replicate reality, because what theater has that no other art form has is the live relationship between the actor and the audience.

 

Mm.

 

You can really discard everything else. Which was pretty revolutionary at the time.

 

Thats right.

 

So, here, with Rick … I created at Grinnell a piece called—uh, I didn’t even title it. It was uh, based on the character of Pentheus from Euripides’ The Bacchae. I don’t know if you ever come across that in classics. So, it’s a—it’s a movement piece with very words. And I show it to my dancer teacher, and I show it to my theater instructor at Grinnell, and both of them kinda pat my head and say: That’s very interesting. End of story. When I take it to Milwaukee Repertory Theater and show it to Rick, he starts directing me, and he starts to evolve and develop the character that I’d started. And he says: This is he kinda theater I want to be making; would you be interested in coming to join me and a few others at the University of Iowa, which has a center for new performing arts that’s just gonna start.

 

How far along were you at Grinnell in Iowa?

 

Hour and a half. And Iowa City is just an hour away from Grinnell, coincidentally. But it’s a world away. It’s where the International Writing Workshop, where Tennessee Williams got his start.

 

What did your parents think? ‘Cause you left—

 

Oh, here—

 

–college.

 

Here it is; yeah? Uh, I—I—I had trepidations about making that phone call. ‘Cause I’m the only son. My dad, eldest of five boys, the smartest of the litter, and he didn’t go to college ‘cause his father begged him to help send the other boys. So, all the other brothers went to college, but not him. So, his only son …

 

 

He’s gonna live through you.

 

You were gonna get your degree.

 

I was gonna get my degree. He said: Take business administration.

 

Uh-oh.

 

And here I am, studying drama and dance; right? And then, I call him and say: Dad, I got this opportunity to join this professional group; it’s a Rockefeller-funded, five-year project at the University of Iowa. If I’d gotten my degree, I would have to work for seven or eight years before I could even position myself to go for a grant like this. It’s being put in my lap here. And I’m not even finished college, but they feel I have what it takes.

 

So, you substituted your capture of a college degree with professional experience.

 

Professional job. Fully paid. We didn’t have to wait tables, drive cabs. It was not fat, but we had a living stipend. Which is like, unheard of; right?

 

George Kon continued to perform professionally with the Iowa Experimental Theatre Lab which eventually relocated to Baltimore, Maryland and later toured in New York and France. Then George began to share his style of experimental theatre at New York University.

 

The company starts to fragment. You know. Uh, people start to leave. And I get picked up at NYU. They want me to head up um … what we do with the lab work in

something they called the Experimental Theater Wing.

 

You were hired to be a teacher.

 

I was hired to be a—

 

And you didn’t—

 

–teacher.

 

–have a college degree.

 

I did not have a—

 

And you worked for NYU.

 

I worked for NYU. Isn’t that something? Yeah. ‘Cause in the Experimental Theater Wing, it didn’t matter your certification. It mattered that you had—that you made theater.

 

M-hm.

 

And we had worked for, by that time, six or seven years, in this form, ala Grotowski.

 

And at the time, were you going to Broadway plays? Were you enjoying the city?

 

I got invited to try out for Pacific Overtures.

 

And did you?

 

No. But uh, somebody scouted me, and said, you know: I think you would be good for this.

 

That’s not the way you wanted to go.

 

Well … it kind of flickered through my mind, that that would be interesting to see if I could cut it, you know, doing that. But we hadn’t—we hadn’t finished—at the time that I was made that offer, we hadn’t finished with our work with the lab. I was still in the full course of creating plays for them. If that had happened … after, when I was in between things, I might have—I might have gone—

 

But there are a lot of people who had have said: Are you kidding? I’m gonna grab that. That’s a choice I may never get again.

 

Yeah.

 

But you said: No, I’m committed to what I’m doing.

 

Right. At the time, uh … the work that I was doing with the lab was uh … was really interesting and consuming, all-consuming.

 

While teaching at NYU, George Kon would reunite with an old friend, Walt Dulaney, whom he met back in high school. The two would go on to form a partnership that would span three decades.

 

You know, Walt and I had been friends since I was in high school.

 

Okay this is Walt Dulaney.

 

Walt, the famous Walt Dulaney. I met him-the way I met him was umm…I knew he did prom assemblies. I asked ‘would you come to Baldwin, do a prom assembly?’ That’s how I met him.

 

Wow, and this is a guy who would be your artistic partner for years.

 

Yeah; for years. So, Walt and I—uh, Walt went to m—uh, Rochester Institute of uh, Technology to um … get his uh … photo illustration degree at the same time that I was doing the work with the lab. And then, we reconnected in New York to teach the Experimental Theater when he assisted me. And then, when the first snows would come, we would relocate to Hawaiʻi. And Farrington was one—one of the first places that we anchored in.

 

Why is that?

 

We got—uh, Wally Chappell, who ran HTY, we—we got hired at HTY first as their education directors. And we suggested to them that they should … run drama education in the schools. HTY didn’t go for that project, so we decided to branch off on our own. So, Wally helped us meet Alfred Preis. Do you remember Alfred Preis?

 

Alfred Preis was an architect, and he—State Foundation on—

 

State Foundation—

 

–Culture and the Arts.

 

State Foundation on Culture and the Arts. But he was a czar; he was the art czar. And everything that went, he said: Go.

 

And he funded it.

 

He funded it. Right. So, Alfred gave us our first, first grant; it was called Suitcase Theater. And in that grant, wer—we were—our goal was to meet every drama teacher in the State.

 

Oh …

 

So, we went … with our suitcase, to every—and we didn’t have a car. So, we went by bus all the way out to Kahuku. Walt and I, from the Suitcase Theater grant, discovered that of all the schools, Farrington was most like the neighbor island schools.

 

Mm.

 

The kids were super-appreciative of what we did. Even if they had a hard time doing our Stage Fright Workshops, they loved—you know, they were—they had aloha.

 

Stage Fright Workshops; what are those?

 

Yeah; yeah. You know, audience manners.

 

Okay. And this is actually what got you a permanent role

 

at—

 

At—

 

–Farrington High School.

 

–Farrington. Yes. Audience manners.

 

So, we—

 

There was a need to teach the—

 

So, we—we—

 

–students manners at assemblies.

 

Yes; yes, indeed. So, we—we—our workshops uh, had a component called performer fitness, project—

 

Mm.

 

–pronouns with poise. Tchk-tchk; ah. And personality. Everything’s alliterated; right? Those four aspects are what we teach for the actors. And then, audience have to pay attention, uh, show appreciation, appropriate applause. That part is what Sherilyn Tom saw when she came to see our Midsummer Night’s workshop with the gifted and talented students. She said: I want that, because our kids are so rowdy, we can’t have assemblies; can you help us?

 

And when was this? What was the year when the audiences were so unruly?

 

  1. Early; very early. But Sherilyn Tom, English Department chair, was a visionary. She said: This is what you do. Teach Shakespeare four days in the classroom, on day five take them into the auditorium, just their class. Have each of them stand in the solo spotlight. But soft, what lychee in the window breaks? Right? One-by-one. They will earn empathy for the guts it takes to be onstage.

 

That is very—that’s a really brilliant idea.

 

It’s a brilliant idea.

 

Empathy.

 

Yes.

 

From the audience.

 

Empathy. So, four years later—shhh, we could open the doors because everybody knew how to be an audience.

 

That’s amazing.

 

Same lady says: You get these kids all excited; why don’t you take the most talented kids you saw during the year, and do a summer drama workshop. So, we did just that. Six weeks later, couldn’t let go of the kids. So, we go to Alfred Preis; right? State Foundation. Normally, it takes uh, a year to apply for a grant, da- da-da. We just asked him: Would you fund our dream project? We’re in Kalihi at Farrington; we’re gonna call it T-Shirt Theatre. What do you say? He gave it to us.

 

George Kon and Walt Dulaney co-founded T-Shirt Theatre in Honolulu in 1985. George estimates theyve touched the lives of more than 10,000 students.  Walt Dulaney passed away in 2011, and George continues to serve as Executive Director and Artistic Director of the program.

 

We are a private not-for-profit corporation. Alliance for Drama Education is the mothership, and T-Shirt Theatre is the flagship, the most visible and heartstrings part of the—

 

And you followed your mentors, and you didn’t go for the costumery. It’s imagination that really—

 

Yes.

 

–you know, basically—

 

Low tech, high zest.

 

Is T-Shirt Theatre an after school program?

 

Yes.

 

So, what-what hours is it?

 

It—it goes Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, three to five-thirty. And we go eleven months out of the year.

 

And can any child in the district—

 

Any child—

 

–participate?

 

–on the island, if they can get themselves there to rehearse with us, to participate.

 

And do they have to pay to enter?

 

There is no fee. How you pay is by coming promptly, and consistently to rehearsal, and giving it your one hundred percent. The first project is the envoys. That’s where we take small teams of actors to each of the … was it ten feeder elementaries to Farrington. They perform for each class. We do like, five classes a day. And then, they coach small groups of students to perform for their own class by the end of the forty-five-minute period. It’s an amazing process to see these kids, who sometimes are very, very shy, be able to do this. Very, very big project, they have to take a whole day off from school to do this. But that’s one project. Then there’s a fall show, and then there’s a spring show. And if they do two out of the three, we can—you know, you can take a pass. You can say: I need to take a leave of absence.

 

So, you do treat them as professionals in the sense—

 

I—

 

–that we expect you to be here—

 

Yes.

 

–here’s the requirements.

 

Yes. Because … and actually, if they don’t show up, then you’re left with …

 

–a real puka.

 

It is a puka.

 

Not kipuka, but a puka—

 

Yes.

 

–in your program.

 

It is a puka.

 

So, that’s a real world lesson. You know, there’s a real—

 

Yes.

 

There’s a real consequence when you don’t show up.

 

I think uh, why I love drama education so much, particularly when it comes to performance, even in elementary schools is, when you don’t say your line correctly, or when you don’t show up, somebody suffers, and they will let you know about that. You know. And I think … academics sometimes don’t have that real world consequence.

 

Do the students determine their own material in T-Shirt Theatre?

 

We work to a theme. And this last show actually came to us from uh, two of the actors. They said: George, can we do something with memories? I said: Memories, memories … let me think about that. I liked the idea, but I didn’t want to just be nostalgic. So, as Jonah and I were discussing it, I said: How about … memories to capture, or capture; capture is gonna be like our title. So … you know, well, can you distill it even to a moment, when you were changed. That’s—and that became the prompt.

 

That’s a good question. What came—

 

Yes.

 

–out of that?

 

Our show, Memories to Capture. That was our spring show. Th—the one that touches me the most is um … a scene we call In Due Time. And this boy is trying to figure out how he can come out. And so, he says—uh, in the scene, he—he converses with his—his conscience, and he’s kinda deciding who is gonna be the first one that I tell this to. Can I tell my parents? No. Uh, can I tell my best friend? Uh, she’s not really ready to hear this. Ha; can I tell my sister? Yes. So, this boy has a really good relationship with his sis, so he comes out to his sis. And then, he comes out to his good friend. And the good friend, you can see, really has trouble with this. And then, he comes home. As he’s opening the door, he overhears Mom and Dad talking. And Mom is saying: Stelthen, Stelhen; where are you? And Dad is saying: Where is that boy? Mom says: Maybe he has a girlfriend. I’ve never seen him with any girls; if that boy is gay, I will have failed in my role as a father. So, he never comes in the house; right? Stelthen chooses to do this at the public show where his dad is in the audience. He has not disclosed to his family.

 

Wow.

 

That’s some guts; huh? After the show, Dad gives him a big hug. Son, I love you.

 

That’s what you’re dealing with youth who are going through all kinds of—

 

All—

 

-changes—

 

–kinds of things.

 

-and adjustments, and very big struggles. Especially in a low-income area, where you just—you know, sometimes there is some dysfunction. I mean, some of the kids are really vulnerable.

 

Very, very vulnerable.

 

And your career is still going strong in this, and it’s all … you’re still following this course that nobody instructed you in. You know, you see where it takes you, and you make the best of it, and you’re looking to mold young people.

 

I am. I am. And I’m hoping that uh, Jonah and Primo are able to carry it. You know, I’m grooming them as a legacy. You know if- as a parent, if you form a business, you hope your son or your daughter will take it over; right? Primo came from the inaugural T-Shirt Theatre group. And now, he’s back coaching. He’s the one that sells Harleys. Story about Primo. Um …he’s closing the windows one day, and the windows in the room pops and cracks, and cuts him. So, he’s got this kinda scar on his wrist. So, remember that. He’s working at Zippy’s, and his supervisor comes roaring in on a motorcycle, coincidentally, very pissed off. He and his girlfriend are having some kind of fight, throwing pots and pans. So, Primo, who has played a number of counseling scenes in T-Shirt Theatre, starts to say some of the words from one of his scenes. Hey, what you doing, man? Chill. You know, he starts to try to talk the guy down. The guy doesn’t want to have anything. What? What are you talking about? And then, you know, he doesn’t give him the time of day. Primo keeps on talking about it, and at one point, he goes like this. He doesn’t say anything; he just shows him. And the guy goes— Whoa; you too? ‘Cause he’s suicidal, this kid. Primo says: You know what, you should go home; I got it covered over here. Go home; call me as soon as you get home. What for? Oh, just talk story. And he—he got the manager to go home.

 

That is a good life skill. And the manager is still with us today, I presume.

 

Yes.

 

Mm.

 

So … life following art. Script it, and then use it. Rehearsing for life; that is our mission.

 

In 2018, T-Shirt Theatre presented Kipuka, an anti-bullying project that explores the issues of bullying, cyberbullying, and teen suicide prevention. This latest production under the artistic direction of George Kon was original and drew from the true life experiences of his students. T-Shirt Theatre continues to serve as a kīpuka—like green growth in a lava field… for the next generation of students. And while George looks to pass on the direction of T-Shirt Theatre to the next generation, he told me during this conversation in the spring of 2019, he’s not ready to exit the stage yet. Mahalo to George Kon of Pālolo Valley in Honolulu. And thank you for joining us for this edition of Long Story Short on PBS Hawaiʻi. Im Leslie Wilcox. Aloha nui.

 

Take two. Very much. That came from Walt. T-Shirt Theatre, because we rehearse, is a perfect uh, environment for that. You know, and the kids learn that if they make a mistake, they can always take two. And I think if th—you know, if we can help them understand that that doesn’t just go for drama, that goes for anything that you’re trying to accomplish, there’s really almost always a chance to redo.

 

 

 

[END]

 

 

HIKI NŌ
The 2018 HIKI NŌ Fall Challenge – Middle School Division

 

This special edition features stories from the Middle School Division of the 2018 HIKI NŌ Fall Challenge. On October 19, 2018, ten participating high school teams and twelve participating middle school teams were given four days to complete a HIKI NŌ story based on the theme “the story behind the food”. Teachers could not provide hands-on help. The students had to conceptualize, research, arrange, shoot, write and edit their stories on their own. The completed stories were scored by members of the HIKI NŌ editorial board based on the following criteria:

 

  1. How well did the story capture the essence of the assigned theme?
  2. How well did the entry fulfill the HIKI NŌ Story Criteria (the criteria used throughout the school year to determine which stories are approved to air on HIKI NŌ)?
  3. How much did production values (the quality of the cinematography, editing and sound) contribute to the overall effectiveness of the story?

 

Based on the cumulative scores, first place, second place, third place and honorable mention awards were given in both the high school and middle school divisions.

 

The winning middle school stories featured in this episode are:

 

–First Place: The Fall Challenge team from Waiʻanae Intermediate School in West Oʻahu opened their entry with a meal being prepared. The story behind that meal is that it is being prepared by and for residents of Hope Lodge, a Honolulu facility where families of Neighbor Island cancer patients who are on O‘ahu for treatment can stay.

 

–Second Place: Ewa Makai Middle School on Oʻahu told the story of Ali‘itasi Ponder, the woman behind Aunty’s Lil’ Green Hut, an organic, gluten-free food truck on Oʻahu’s North Shore.

 

–Third Place: Maui Waena Intermediate School in Kahului profiled an organic farmer on Maui.

 

–Honorable Mention: Kamehameha Schools Maui Middle School featured two women who met in college and went on to open a baking business together.

 

Also featured:

 

–Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School on Kaua‘i highlighted Kunana Dairy, which specializes in goat’s milk products.

 

–Volcano School of Arts and Sciences on Hawaiʻi Island introduced us to the family behind Dimple Cheek Farm and Café.

 

–Hongwanji Mission School on Oʻahu featured Kahuku Farms.

 

–Kealakehe Intermediate School on Hawaiʻi Island told the story of a woman who is inspired to cook by the spirit of her late mother.

 

First place winners will receive $500 worth of production equipment for their school’s media program. Second place winners will receive $300 worth of production equipment for their school’s media program. Third place winners will receive $200 worth of production equipment for their school’s media program. Honorable mention winners will receive $100 worth of production equipment for their school’s media program.

 

 

 

NĀ MELE: TRADITIONS IN HAWAIIAN SONG
Kenneth Makuakāne

NA MELE: Kenneth Makuakāne

 

Renowned songwriter, record producer and performer Kenneth Makuakāne offers a sentimental and candid performance inside historic Kawaiahaʻo Church in Honolulu. When Kenneth performs, he draws on vibrant memories and meaningful relationships. “It’s almost like going back in time,” he says. Among the songs he performs are “ʻO Violeka,” an affectionate ballad for his mother, and “Kuʻu Pua Lei Mēlia,” inspired by his experience of sending off his oldest son to college.

 

Program

 

 

 



LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Patrick Sullivan: Professional Problem Solver

 

With partners and clients from around the nation and the world, Oceanit employs out-of-the-box thinking, finding solutions to some of the world’s most difficult problems by combining science, technology, engineering and creative thinking. Oceanit founder, CEO and President Patrick Sullivan speaks about his approach in bringing together curious minds with very different skillsets and why he feels Hawai‘i’s diversity and isolation help cultivate a culture of innovation.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Sept. 1, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Patrick Sullivan: Professional Problem Solver Audio

 

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Transcript

 

We’re working on a project to help with elderly. What’s needed is a very inexpensive but effective robotic assistant that can just be there to help them out, and if they fall, if they’re in trouble, if they’re in pain, if they just need help. Just something as simple as recognizing an object is critical.

 

This fearless innovator finds solutions to some of the world’s most difficult problems by combining science, technology, engineering, and innovative thinking.  Nothing new for him; he’s been problem-solving since he was a teenager, when he concocted enterprising ways to pay for college.  Patrick Sullivan, next, on Long Story Short.

 

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

 

Aloha mai kākou.  I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Patrick Kevin Sullivan is president and CEO of Oceanit, an internationally recognized company he founded in Downtown Honolulu in 1985.  He calls is a mind-to-market company that turns scientific principles into real world applications for real world problems. His company says he’s raised more than $475 million to develop cutting edge solutions.  Oceanit’s clients come from around the nation and the world.  The company is also entrepreneurial, sending products it developed to the marketplace through spinout companies, partnerships, or direct manufacturing.  Patrick Sullivan employs an intensive process, bringing together curious minds with different skillsets and encouraging what he calls intellectual anarchy.

 

Would you give us some examples of what products have come about as a result of this very dynamic process?

 

Well, there’s a couple.  One of our spinouts, Ibis, which is doing energy management in commercial buildings.  So, we just had a board call on the way in, and I was on the call.  And that started out with a … it’s a healable wireless mesh network, which was a legacy of a technology we built for a military group to look behind walls of concrete and steel, and to communicate in really weird places.  And so, we built that technology.  Then we thought: Okay, how do we do something that’s gonna make a difference?  And so, inside the organization, we have people that are really concerned about energy, greenhouse carbon.  We thought: What if we could use this as a way to mitigate and inform people on energy?  And commercial buildings turns out to be the market we focused on.  We didn’t know what the market was in the beginning. So, we kinda pivoted from this thing. We built all these tiny antennas and all this kind of electronics, and all this stuff, and this software, and a wireless mesh network.  And it’s become a technology that is—like, California’s using it in a lot of their schools, universities, commercial buildings—there are some commercial buildings here, where it’ll save fifteen, twenty percent of the energy in a commercial building.  It starts with the interesting question, and it cascades into these things.  And as we gain insights, it opens up these vistas of things that were not thinkable.  When you map that process, which I’ve mapped and call the intellectual anarchy process, it will bring you to some really interesting points, and create lots of opportunity.  But they’re things that don’t exist.  So, people have asked me, like in … we had this meeting with like, thirty, thirty-five of these science advisers to Office of Naval Research, and we kinda walked through how we do this.  Because I try to show people what we do; it’s not a secret.  And they said: Well, how do you do this?  Because they always start with a requirement.  We start left of requirement.  We don’t start with a requirement.  And I told them, I said: You should try this.  I said: If you actually ask yourself what’s important and what’s interesting, you will find the thing that you should be doing.  And I said: We do this fourth quarter of every year.  We have these broad conversations in the company, and we ask ourselves: What should we do with our time on the planet that’s gonna make a difference?  Because we’re here to impact humans and society. How do we make the world better? What should we be doing?  So, we pick a few things, and every year we do this, and those things cascade and it creates all the stuff.  That’s what intellectual anarchy is.

 

Wow. And it seems like all these problems that have resisted answers for time immemorial—common cold too.  I mean, there are so many.  You’ll never stop with thinking big kind of projects, because there are a lot of big things that are unanswered.

 

Yes.  And so then, it comes down to: What should we do?  What might be possible?  And so, we spend time exploring these things, and then we try to pick a few.  And it takes time as these roll out, but what it does over a period of time, it literally creates a pipeline; a pipeline in all these different subjects.  So, it’s not limited by subject; it’s limited by what’s important and what’s interesting. This process, again, of intellectual anarchy, there’s a exploration and discovery phase where you have to be pretty open-minded to where it’s gonna lead you.  It moves into the product phase, you’re building real products. And then, those have economic value, where you can sell, license, you know, do all kinds of things with it.

 

A project you might have thought was silly at the time, and you’ve also talked about weird ideas.

 

Right.

 

But they have to be respected, right, because they can go somewhere.

 

Exactly.  And the insights from this silly early stuff turned into … you know.  I mean, it’s funny; we just had this group here this week from Korea because they want a license for the Country of Korea.  We’re gonna do, I think, a pipeline in Turkmenistan this quarter.  We’re actually gonna do heat exchangers in Abu Dhabi.  I mean, this stuff is all just kinda cranking.  And … it was all invented here, and developed in the lab, but the market is the rest of the world.  And that’s how we view it.

 

So, it’s interesting, ‘cause it’s a fascinating blend of, you know, just sky’s the limit, whatever you can do, run with it.  And then, there has to be some some balance in it.

 

Right.

 

What an art that must be.

 

It is.  And it’s funny, because my wife is the COO, Jan is.  So, she was an attorney for about fifteen years, and then we started doing some spinouts and I asked her if she could help.  And she’s really good at it.  And there’s a whole operating team that manages stuff.  But it is an art, because you’re dealing with things that are messy.  Innovation is messy.  Right? But it’s trying to understand people.

 

And people are very invested in what they’ve done, too.

 

Right.  But she does a really good job of that.  And I tell people; it’s like businesses are either built to manage, or built to innovate. But if it’s built to manage, innovation is love.  If it’s built to innovate, management is hard.  If it’s built to innovate, the way you manage is really important.

 

I can see how it’d be hard to find the right fit at your company, because so many people who are very bright and educated are into control.  You know, they want to control their world, and they’ve developed a lot of tools with which to do so.  So, those are the bright, educated people that you don’t want.

 

Well, it depends if they’re gonna become agile and flexible.  If they’re inflexible, that’s a real problem.  But if they’re flexible, they may learn a tool set today, but there may be a better tool set tomorrow.  And if they say, Well, I can’t do that, that’s real problem.

 

Patrick Sullivan, resident of Kailua, Windward O‘ahu, works with partners and clients throughout the global community, including universities, governments, nongovernmental organizations, and businesses. His staff of more than a hundred sixty scientists and engineers hails from around the world.  He says that living and working in isolated Hawai‘i, with our Hawaiian culture and multiculturism, is a plus, inspiring his team to think outside the box.

 

For manufacturing and certain things, you can build facilities in different places.  For the magic, this is the place.  See, innovation comes from differences, not sameness.  So, getting different people with different perspectives. And we live in this environment here, where all kinds of different people live together.  That’s our strength.  So, our big strength in Hawaii is the people.  Okay?

 

Because you don’t think you’d be able to get this assortment of people in another place feeling comfortable about living here?

 

It’s the culture.  So, the business culture is Native Hawaiian.  It’s real Hawaiian by culture as a business, the way we work together.  It’s organically built here from scratch.  So, it’s a unique culture that is collaborative.  We respect each other, but there’s lots of debates on the science, on the facts, on the details, on those kinda things.  But the culture wouldn’t work in other places.  It works here.  The DNA of the culture is Hawaiian.  It doesn’t exist in Silicon Valley, it doesn’t exist in the Beltway. It’s just kinda different.  I think in the culture of Hawai‘i, is innovation. And I think we forget that sometimes. But the Native Hawaiians that came to Hawai‘i, they innovated to get here, they innovated when they got here. They were the first in the country with electricity, they did all these innovations.  They were not afraid of electronics, or I should say, afraid of technology, afraid of change.  They embraced it.  And to this day, culturally, they embrace people from everywhere.  It’s just part of our culture.

 

I know you do have to bring in a lot of people.  I don’t know how hard it is for you recruit locally, but I bet you do have some limitations there.  What if you did have a whole bunch of PhDs of this mindset you could hire; would that affect your diversity in innovation?

 

The people that grow up here, who get the good education, have a skillset to work with people from all over, because they grew up here.  It’s kind of an experiment, but we found it really, really works, and so, it seems kinda crazy.  To bring a technology to market, you’ve got technology risk, execution risk, and market risk.  We focus on technology and execution.  Execution risk, we’ve discovered that if we take sort of local kids or people that grew up here with a good education, we can put them anywhere in the world.  And like, we did this scale-up in Pennsylvania to put steel casing in the Marcellus Shale, which of course, we’ve never done. But we did.  And we did this in three months.  But to build something like this, you need the welder, the forklift guy, the truckers, the roughnecks, the roustabouts, everybody who maybe never went to college; right?  Here, we’ve got all these really educated people that work as part of the company. But I told the guys; I said: Look, bring aloha, get to know these people like they are your relatives at Christmas or whatever.  Don’t be afraid, they don’t see guys like you ‘cause, you know, it’s Pennsylvania.

 

And respect their skills.

 

Right.  But we work with them, they work with us.  And if you do that, it’ll be successful.  They crushed it, because they brought that human element.  And so, with the education, which is essential, they were able to bring the cultural piece to work with people that are totally different, and be very successful.

 

Who are the rock and rollers?  How do you find them?

 

Oh.  They can go between cultures.  Right? So, the culture of deep science and the culture—

 

Oh, they’re the translators.

 

Right.  Technology Sherpas.  So, he’s gotta go from dealing with the deep science guys and translate that to how it impacts humans and society as a product or a device.

 

And they are different languages?

 

Absolutely.  Each industry has its own culture.  So, they’ve got to learn the culture and the language of an industry, and then translate that back.  ‘Cause usually, the scientists and the engineers working on the problem, they may think they know what it should do.  They’re almost always wrong.  Because when you start talking to real customers, it’s like: Oh, that’s what you do. And until you get in front of them, until you spend time with them, you just don’t understand it.  You’ve gotta have those people that are out talking to humans, and people in the industries, and all that kinda stuff all the time. So, we do.  Those are those people.  The human element and the culture of Hawaii, I think, enables a lot of that to happen, too.

 

Running a business that’s based on innovation and fearlessness can be daunting.  Patrick Sullivan knows that not all brilliant hardworking scientists and engineers who are interested will be a fit for Oceanit.

 

When your colleagues describe you, I notice things tend to end in less. Fearless, limitless, endless.

 

And relentless.

 

Those are nice things to hear.  See, especially the older I get, the more I see things are connected; the fields are connected.  People are taught for the convenience of teaching, but in the real world, there’s much more things that are connected.  And methods and materials change.  So, think about like, the Wright Brothers were kinda bicycle guys, and they had canvas and sticks, and they eventually built a thing to fly.  And then, people thought: Well, what if we use aluminum.  Right? Or what if we use carbon.  And over time, what was impossible became possible. And so, what I’ve learned is that, you know, the fields are really connected, and as methods and materials change, what was once impossible becomes possible.  And so, we do a bunch of that kinda stuff now at Oceanit.  And it’s a lot of fun; sometimes it’s a little crazy.  But it unlocks the … you know, what I find is that we hire really bright people, but what drives things is what’s in here.  So, we try to connect what’s in here with what’s in here. And so, it’s not just the education; it’s that connection to doing something that really matters, that makes the magic happen.

 

How do you teach that?

 

Well, that’s a really, really good question. Because a lot of the time … we’ve got this way to work with uh, PhD recent grads, and I will usually have a talk once a year with the new ones.  And I say: Look, you know, we’re proud of you, and your mom’s proud of you, and you did an amazing thing; but now, nobody cares, so what are you gonna do? Because now, it’s all about the rest of your life, and it’s not limited to that field; it could be anything.  So, we purposely put them in a field or a problem where they may not have any expertise.  And a lot of the time, they go through like, of course, fear. They’re worried because here, they’re the smartest guy; now, they know nothing.  But we’re trying to get them to get comfortable in the fundamentals.  So, we kinda drive them through this process, so they go back to the basics, and they can look at any problem and start understanding how to think about the problem.  And we do that with a lot of these young PhDs.  Usually, it’s easier if they’re right out of school, then we kinda unscrew a couple things, and then we teach them how to do this.  And when they learn to do this, they’re a force. And we started with a couple young PhDs in aerospace who really learned to get the moves.  Right?  But they have to get comfortable in going into something that is way out of their field, or whatever, without being afraid, with the fundamentals and, you know, full grasp of the fundamentals so that they can actually go forward and figure out: Okay, I can think about it this way or that way.  We can look up research information on pretty much anything.

 

So, once somebody gets their PhD, then you send them through boot camp.

 

Right.  And if they like it, they love it; and if they don’t, they hate it and they’re terrified.

 

And you usually can tell pretty quickly.

 

And we try to find out sooner, than later. Because there’s no right answer. We’re looking for an answer that works for us, and we want the ones that are just excited.  It’s kinda like surfing or anything; right?  You learn to love it because, yeah, you get hammered sometimes, but when you get the right wave, it’s a blast.

 

And I notice when you talked about your background and having to go through things, you know, I think what you were saying is, you sometimes made a mistake or messed up in business or in some area, but you don’t say that.  You say: I learned a lot.

 

Right.  Yeah. And the way I look at it, as long as you’re learning, you’re making progress.  Because especially when things are really, really hard, it’s not gonna be straightforward.  The reason they’re hard is because it’s just not that easy.  So, you’re gonna get some hits.  Like, when we’ve done some of these startups and we’re interviewing people, I say: Look, I just need to know, when you get hit, are you gonna get up?

 

Right.

 

Because that’s the question.  Was it Rocky Balboa or somebody; it’s not how hard you can hit, it’s how hard you can get hit, and then get back up.  And getting back up is a really big deal.  Because when we’re in this kind of … especially the stuff that we do, people are gonna take hits.  Nobody wants to, and it’s always painful.  So, anybody that says, oh, failure, whatever.  No; it always smarts.  But you gotta get up.

 

You’ve been described as an eternal optimist.

 

Are you?

 

Yeah; I think so.  I think you gotta be, to do this.  But I feel blessed in so many ways.  Yeah.  I think I have a very good sense about our future in Hawai‘i, and for Hawai‘i, and for the country and other things.  You know, there’s issues, always gonna be problems.  But problems are maybe opportunities in disguise.  So, I think in general, things move in the right direction, but to get there, sometimes we take a bunch of turns and tacks in directions which seem kinda crazy.  But yeah, I’m an optimist.

 

Your entire business is devoted to problem-solving.  So, other people may come home and say: I have a lot of problems today.  Whereas, that’s what you went to work expecting as what’s on your plate; right? I mean, it’s a different way to look at problems.

 

Yeah; yeah.  But we found that … for example, if we did what everybody does, why would anybody care about what we do in Hawai‘i, in the middle of the Pacific.  And we do things that nobody thinks are possible. And we have a way to do it, it’s a interesting, challenging, and disruptive.  So, we break up the world into these three buckets.  The disruptive stuff, we’re just really, really good at. But that’s what draws the attention from a lot of big companies that we work with, because we’re thinking way outside of the box.  You know, the groupthink that they’re all stuck in, and the functional fixedness that, you know, they can’t see it any other way, we’re able to kinda get way beyond that and come up with different ways to do things.

 

Patrick Sullivan was always good in math, which started him on the path to becoming an engineer.  Growing up, he took whatever job he could find, often convincing prospective employers that he could build anything they needed.  After graduating from the University of Colorado Boulder with a Bachelor of Science degree, he attended the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, where he earned a doctorate in engineering.

 

What did you do in your childhood that helped you become who you are today?

 

In my childhood …

 

I mean, did you learn good habits early?  Did you develop some specialty that helped you along the way later?

 

One thing I learned maybe older than growing up, and what I tell young people, that especially as we’re doing tech things here is, I tell people they have to be comfortable in their own skin.  By that, I don’t mean the color of their skin, but who they are.  So, from Hawai‘i, there’s a sense of saying in trying to hide the fact that we’re from Hawai‘i.  People go out, try to raise money, try to do things, and they want to say: Well, you know, we’re here in Palo Alto, we’re doing all this stuff.  And I tell them: Look, own it, and you’re gonna find out right away, the people that it doesn’t matter to are gonna work with you, and the people that it does aren’t gonna help you anyway.  So, you might as well be comfortable in your own skin, because when you are, the authenticity of what you’re doing will come through, and you’re gonna find those people that are gonna work with you.  And the irony is in building the business over the years, I’ve found that there’s this kind of Hawaiian network in the world.  So, whenever you come from Hawai‘i, pretty much no matter where you go, there’s people who used to live in Hawai‘i, or grew up in Hawai‘i, and they’ll always try to help.  It’s the craziest thing.  But they always come out to help.  And they’re everywhere.  So, it’s a special thing to be from here.  And for what we do, it works great.

 

You do so much with automation and artificial intelligence.  What do you think Hawaii’s gonna look like in 2025 when it comes to AI?

 

Well, there’s gonna be change.  Not all of it, people are gonna like.  I think the biggest issue is in jobs.  For example, drivers.  Autonomous cars are, I think, gonna make it.  And so, people that earn a living with driving, that’s something we should be thinking about as a community.  The things that we do here that are unique and special to Hawaii are still gonna be unique and special here.  And the human contributions in creativity, imagination, are still gonna be really important.  But in the future, we see ag tech, for example.  Agriculture in Hawai‘i could be very successful, but instead of low-cost labor, it’s gonna be technology.  You know, we have terrific sunshine, water, and soil.

 

Then, what are the low-cost laborers going to do?

 

People need to get educated.  Education becomes a big deal.  So, making education more available, more affordable, is really important.

 

He was named Hawai‘i Business Magazine’s 2016 CEO of the year for outstanding contributions to Hawai‘i’s economy. Mahalo to Patrick Sullivan, president and CEO of Oceanit in Downtown Honolulu, and a resident of Kailua, O‘ahu, for sharing your story with us, and giving us a back-of-the-house tour of your offices.  For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Aloha nui.

 

How do you relax?  Or can you relax?

 

Well, no, of course, it’s really important, and there are so many things to do here.  But obviously, one of the big one is surfing.  So, surfing is a way to reconnect to the world.  And it’s a totally different environment.  Everybody is the same; right?  And we started this when the kids were small, but my mother-in-law would cook dinner, and everybody would show up, and we’d go surfing.  And so, the Monday Night Surf Club, we’d call it. And so, we did that for years, and years.  And it’s a great way for everybody in the family to get together, but to go out and do something and have some fun.  But yeah, the ocean is still a great teacher, and I get in the water, gosh, four or five times a week.  Right? So, I still enjoy a lot of that.

 

[END]

 

 

 

Engelbert Humperdinck in Hawaiʻi

Engelbert Humperdinck in Hawai‘i

 

Recorded live in August 2018 at the historic Hawai‘i Theatre in Honolulu, this concert features Engelbert Humperdinck crooning more than five decades of his international hits, including “After the Lovin’,” “The Last Waltz,” “Release Me,” “A Man Without Love” and many others.

 

Engelbert Humperdinck in Hawai‘i

 

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Patrick Sullivan: Lifelong Problem Solver

 

Patrick Sullivan has been a problem solver from an early age; creating enterprising ways as a teen to support his pursuit of higher education. Learn how his hard work and resourceful nature helped pave the way for his successes in life, and how he has made a career out of problem solving with his Honolulu-based company Oceanit.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Aug. 25, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Patrick Sullivan: Lifelong Problem Solver Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

I remember I flew over, and I met some people on the airplane, and I put a couple jobs together, sort of on the airplane. So, I did a bunch of apartments.

 

Coming to Hawai‘i?

 

Yeah; I did apartments in Mokulē‘ia, and I did some renovations in Waikīkī.

 

This is on the way here during a college break?

 

Yeah.

 

‘Cause you had to pay for your hotel.

 

By the time I landed, I had put together three projects that, you know, I did in a week or so.  And then, I had spare time and a little extra money.  So, I kinda had a knack for doing this kinda stuff.

 

This ability to create jobs for himself on the fly got him through college, and he continues to amaze with a large business that welcomes international clients with very difficult problems, and works to solve them.  Patrick Sullivan, next, on Long Story Short.

 

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

 

Aloha mai kākou.  I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Patrick Kevin Sullivan is the founder and chairman of Oceanit, a Honolulu-based company that has raised more than $475 million in research and development funds since it was founded in 1985.  A staff of about one hundred sixty scientists and engineers combines their skills in a mind-to-matter process to create solutions to some of the world’s most difficult problems.  Sullivan’s path as a fearless innovator started when he was young, wanting to pursue higher education, and knowing that he would need money for that.  By the time he entered college, he was already comfortable with bidding jobs and hiring workers.

 

My parents didn’t have education.  And there were five kids, so it was about feeding the kids.  And that was pretty much it.  My dad worked, my mom didn’t.

 

What did he do?

 

Well, he started out doing aircraft maintenance kinda stuff in Los Angeles, and then he started doing some kinda landscaping work. And then, we moved up north to Seattle, and when they started the very first 747.  So, he got recruited to work there as a mechanic.  And I remember going through the mockup on plywood.  It was really interesting, because the whole aircraft was made of plywood at that time.  And so, the whole family moved, which I thought was a big, traumatic thing. Turned out it was a really good thing. But I thought, well, everything in the world is right here in L.A., and then we move, and I thought, there’s nothing here.  But it turns out there was a lot there.  So, I mean, I learned a lot from that kind of an experience.  But then, Boeing went through a down cycle, and it was just devastating.  So, everybody was out of work, and everybody got laid off.  So, living through those kinds of thing; right?  So, that’s what led him to: Okay, there’s no more work, so we’re gonna move.  And you know, and that’s kind of what—

 

And where did you move to?

 

So, we went from there … I think we went to Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Texas.

 

And you were switching schools as you went?

 

Yeah; yeah.  So, I went to four different high schools, which brings its own challenges; right?  Because …

 

You’re the new kid in the room.

 

Yeah.  So, the first thing is, within the first thirty, sixty days, you’re gonna get in a fight.  Just get over it; right?  Do it sooner than later.  But every school was like that.  So, you go through these things, and you learn a lot.  And so, that’s why we moved around so much.  I mean, they tried to keep everything together, but it was just really hard.  And I think from my perspective … that’s why an education was so important.

 

You were living paycheck-to-paycheck, or job-to-job.  Did you ever go hungry?  Did you ever not be able to pay your rent?

 

Well, so, they struggled with that stuff, and my parents used to buy food in bulk.  So, like half a cow; right?  So, you carve it up, or powdered milk by the box.  Right?  So, it wasn’t regular milk, but it was powdered milk.  So, you always had something.  And of course, lots of potatoes.

 

Do you eat many of them now?

 

My wife really likes potatoes.  I still do.  But you know they kinda made do.  And then, when I was about seventeen, I started living on my own.

 

So, you left the house and were not supported by them at all, didn’t live in the home?

 

Yeah.  I bought a car.  So, I started working when I was thirteen, and I saved up all my checks.  And then, I just went out and bought a car when I turned sixteen.  And the funny thing is, I didn’t have a driver’s license or anything, but I brought all the paychecks, I got the cash, and I just went in and bought a car.  And then, I drove the car to the driver’s license thing, ‘cause I needed a driver’s license.  But otherwise, what are you gonna do; right?  And then, when I started, you know, living on my own, that was it.  Right? I had the car.   So, my friends in college called it The Dodge Hilton…

 

You slept in your car at times?

 

Yeah; a lot.  Because, you know, it was out of the rain and out of the snow, and it would sometimes get cold.  But you know, when I think about it, I was mobile, and I could do all kinds of things, so I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself.

 

Did you have a discussion with your parents before you took off?

 

Well, I wanted to go to college, and so, I … drove to college.  And that was it.  Right? And I was able to get into the dorm. This was in Boulder.

 

How did you manage that?  Since you came virtually without money.

 

So, I did some loans.  And the only thing I could do was math, but I got into engineering. And I applied to a couple schools; I got into a couple schools.  I didn’t really know what I was doing, but it turned out that was a good idea.  So, it was School of Mines, which is for mining engineering, which is the best school in the country for that, and then University of Colorado.  And then, at the time, I remember, I thought the girls were much nicer in Boulder, and of course, that’s where I met my wife.  So, that was probably a good move.  But student loans, grants, a work study.  So, I worked through all semesters in the lab, so I spent a lot of time in labs.  And then, I started a business when I was probably seventeen, ‘cause I started doing a lot of manual labor when I was probably fifteen, fourteen.  Originally at thirteen, I was working in restaurants; right?  So, I did everything from busboy, bellhop, dishwasher; did all that kinda stuff.  So, I was earning some money.  And before that, I was actually cutting yards.  So, me and this guy, E.J. Babitt, we would compete for houses and get like a dollar, two dollars a house, right, to go cut the grass, and do all the trimming—

 

You did the sales and the work.

 

Right.  So, we’d compete on doing these in the neighborhood.  But I kind of learned by, you know, seventeen, eighteen, that I could earn money in the summer by bidding on jobs.  So, I started doing landscaping and irrigation.  So, I learned irrigation from working; right?  So, I started out—you know, what happens is, I could dig a really good ditch straight; right?  And they’d say: Okay, we’re gonna show you how to lay pipe, right, and then we’re gonna show you how to do joints, and then we’re gonna show you—because everything I did, I’d try to do a good job.  And so, slowly, they would give me like: Can you do this?  And so, I learned everything from actually just doing the work.  So, by the time I was maybe seventeen, eighteen, right in there, I was able to kinda bid.  I’d bid jobs, and then I would put and do the installs.  So, I did, gosh, Denny’s, Sambo’s, we did Motel 6, commercial office buildings, these little chicken places.  And I would just knock on the door during construction and talk to the guy running the job, and say: You have anybody to do this?, and then give him a price. And then, I started it basically on a credit card.  ‘Cause I didn’t have any money.  I would do that to earn money to stay in college.  Right?  So, that’s how I would um, help pay for college, too.  So, loans, grants, work study, and doing these projects.

 

Did you hire people, or did you do all that landscaping yourself?

 

No, no; I would hire.  And so, it turns out, I ended up with a Hawaiian crew.  There are a lot of Hawaiians in Boulder, and they were in engineering; right?  So, I knew a lot of guys.  And so, I said: Look, you want to earn some extra money; you know, why don’t you show up. And so, I would put these guys to work, and you know, it would just be physical labor, but they’re young guys.

 

And pay them in cash?

 

Yeah; yeah.  Or sometimes, I would hire … you can go to like, these employment service things, where you got guys standing around that just need a job.  In some places, there’s like, corners where people that need work just hang out.  And you go by and you say: Okay, can I get this guy and this guy.  And you put ‘em on the job.  And sometimes they’re good, and sometimes they’re—you know, one of the problems with those guys in general, and it’s an oversimplification, but you know, they get paid, and then they go get drugs.  Or they get paid, and then they get alcohol.  So, some of ‘em are having issues.  So, I had guys like that, too.  But I would do that in Colorado, Arizona, and parts of Wyoming.  So, one of the first big jobs I did was a big restaurant in Cheyenne.  And I put the high school football team to work, literally.  So, I also worked in between jobs as a roustabout, so in the oilfield.  So, I worked at the time, in parts of Wyoming.  So, of course, there wasn’t much going on in Cheyenne, but Rock Springs was considered at the time the last boom town of the West.  It was like something out of an old Casper Rawlins. So, I was in a place, an abandoned house with a bunch of guys across from the Rawlins Prison.   And I put in a shower.  I said: I can’t stand this.  Right? So, I put in my own plumbing to make a shower.  But you can make a lot of money working in the oil patch; right?  But it’s just hard, dirty work.  And so, we were building the infrastructure.  This was in the summer.  So, you know, and I needed to make money.

 

How much time did this leave you for school?

 

I always studied.  I enjoyed what I did in school.  So, the goal was to make money to be in school.  That was always the goal.

 

And how did you manage that?  How’d you balance it?

 

You know, it’s work; right?  I mean, you just do it.  And so, I never really worried about that, but yeah, it does kinda add a bunch of other things to complicate things.  But in my view, school was the single most important thing.  And so, I just focused on that.  But by the time I graduated, I actually had put together a lot of money.  ‘Cause I remember when I got married, I thought I needed to buy a house, so I had saved up a bunch of money.

 

While you were in college?

 

While I was in college.

 

Paying for tuition on your own.

 

Yeah.  And I thought: Okay, I need to have money to buy a house if I’m gonna get married. And then, I went to grad school and I thought: Okay.  I didn’t know much about buying a house, but I did it.  I was probably about twenty-two, twenty-three; right?  And so, I learned a lot.  I learned how not to do it.  And later on, how to do it.  But yeah, I always kinda had a knack to make money.  I never saw it as an endpoint as a way to be able to do the things that were important, but I needed to make money because when you don’t have any money, and you know, I remember trying to qualify, I couldn’t get food stamps, ‘cause if you’re in college you can’t get food stamps.  So, I’d buy like big cartons of eggs and loaves of bread, and a box of oranges, right, and live on that for a while.  Because that’s it; right?  And you could buy subprime oranges.  They don’t have to be like the topline oranges, and you can get ‘em in Alberton’s, go talk to the produce guys in the back, and that kinda stuff.  So, that’s kinda what I did to make sure I had food.  Not all the time, but there were times; right?  So, that got me focusing on okay, I better earn some money.  So, the work study was good, the grants were good.  I paid off what’s called … there was basic educational opportunity grant, there was a thing called defense student loan, or something like that.  And so, when I graduated, I had some debt, so I was able to pay it off, too.  But it was never a question that I wasn’t going to be able to do it; it was just trying to balance all these different things.

 

That must have been an enormous burden for a seventeen-year-old, eighteen.  I mean, you were juggling so much.  I mean, sleep must not have been a priority at that point.

 

I probably didn’t sleep a whole lot, yeah, I think.

 

When you look back, it was probably harder than you knew at the time.

 

Well, for a lot of these things, if you know how hard it’s gonna be before you do it, you probably wouldn’t.  So, better not think about it, and just you know, kind of focus on what’s the right thing to do.  And no, I don’t feel bad about it or regret it, but learned a lot in the process. Because it’s not just the education for the sake of education, but for the sake of learning.

 

Entrepreneur Patrick Sullivan was always good at math, and decided early on that he wanted to be an engineer.  Beyond that, he didn’t have a plan.

 

When I started in Boulder, I wanted to do aerospace, and they were laying off aerospace engineers.  So, I ended up pivoting into engineering physics.  Which was a good move for me at the time.  But you would think: Well, that’s crazy.  So, Boulder, you know, would educate most of the astronauts; they would all go through Boulder.  So, you can see that if you went through aerospace in Boulder, maybe you could be an astronaut.  But then, that whole thing kinda went down.  So, industries go up and down, but a good education is much more durable. And so, I thought engineering and physics is good.  You know, ‘cause it’s very broad, it’s applied, you know, hands-on.  A big emphasis in nuclear, so I thought at the time: Well, I should do nuclear engineering.  And then, I worked in an atomic and nuclear lab for a year, you know, during the school year.  And I thought: You know, maybe I need to get outside more.  Because we had a cyclotron which would produce these particles.  And that was really interesting, and I spent all my time going through the data; that kinda stuff.  But I think that was a good experience, because I thought: Okay, maybe I don’t want to do this quite like this.  And that was another thing I remember.  I walked by and picked up a sample of something that was radioactive. And you know, when you work with stuff, you think: Ah, no big deal.  I picked it up, and I walked by a Geiger counter, and the thing goes off, and I thought: Jesus.  You know, you get really comfortable, and that’s kinda dangerous; right?  So, I thought: Okay, I need to think.  So, I didn’t stay on the nuclear track, although did lots of atomic and nuclear stuff.  Which was good; it’s a good intellectual exercise.

 

Yeah; because all the way along, it sounds like you were looking and seeing where things were going, and re-tracking yourself.

 

Yeah.

 

You mentioned meeting folks from Hawai‘i at Boulder.  Was one of them your wife?

 

Mm; yeah, I did.  So, Jan was finishing up, and I kinda met her here through a friend of mine, Mike Ako.  He introduced me.  But then, she was going back, and I was just finishing.  I had a semester to graduate.  And so, she went back early, and I let her drive my car, which people thought: Wow, you must really like her.  She didn’t have a car.  But it was funny, ‘cause the car, I had built it from junkyard parts; right?  So, everything kinda got bad, so I rebuilt everything.  Went to the junkyard, bought all the parts, put it together.  And the dipstick for the oil pan, there was a dipstick, but the real one was a calibrated coat hanger.  Because all the parts didn’t match, but I made it work.  And so, she didn’t know about the coat hanger, so she went in, and they kept pouring oil in this engine, and said: There’s something wrong here.  So then, they had to put it up on blocks, drain it all, and do all these things. But later, they told her: It’s the coat hanger on the side.  Calibrated.

 

And she fell in love; right?

 

Yes. She’s amazing.

 

And you didn’t have a true home state to return to.  You’d moved around a lot, but she was—

 

She did.

 

–a person of Hawai‘i.

 

Right.  And so, in the beginning, so when I finished up, I got a job at Storage Tech, which is really a spinout out of University of Colorado, and created that whole tech corridor. So, I would go to work in the College of Engineering wing, actually, ‘cause there was no infrastructure, there were just kinda forms and stuff.  So, I started doing that.  I was gonna go to grad school, and I started applying.  But then, I thought we might stay in Colorado, but then realized that that’s not how it works.  And it’s a wonderful thing.  But, yeah. So, she said, you know: We can live anywhere, but just make sure it’s in Hawai‘i.

 

Got it. 

 

So, Patrick Sullivan moved to Hawai‘i, and earned a PhD in engineering from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.  Time for a new plan.

 

And at that time that you were going through the PhD program, did you know what you’d be doing with it?

 

Well, so that’s a good question.  Everybody said: Do you want to be a professor?  And I said: Not really; it’s too slow.  I said: Nothing personal, but you know, for a lot of this stuff, it’s just not moving fast enough.  And they said: Well, then why are you doing this?  And I said: Well, education; I’m trying to learn. And to this day, that’s exactly right. And my goal was to do things.

 

But you didn’t have a specific purpose; you wanted to just apply what you knew?

 

Yeah.  I was interested in all kinds of things.  And so, when I finished, the option was, I could be, you know, at the university level type of thing.  Which is good in a lot of ways, but again, for me, it wasn’t fast enough.  And there was the shipyard, which is some really good people doing important work, but I didn’t want to do that.  So, I created Oceanit.  But I kinda knew how to do that.  So, I thought: Yeah, okay, I can do this.

 

You mean, you knew how to start a company?

 

Right.

 

Because you …

 

‘Cause I learned a lot doing these kinds of projects and jobs when I was in college.  And you know, how to bid a job, how to run a crew, how to deliver stuff, how to execute.  That wasn’t really a big deal.  That always kinda came naturally.  So, the thing that was important for me was, I was very interested in learning the science and the applied science and engineering of stuff.  ‘Cause for me, that was really fun, and it was something that would allow me to build and do things; right?  Make things; which is really what I wanted to do.

 

And the sky’s the limit; right? 

 

The sky’s the limit.

 

Or beyond the sky.

 

Right.  So, it’s not limited by subject or field; it’s really limited by imagination.  And that really became Oceanit.

 

Which means …

 

Well, it’s a Greek and Latin derivative of ocean-dweller.  But see, the thing about the ocean, the ocean is a teacher in so many ways.  But when you do work in the ocean, it’s very interdisciplinary.  So, it covers everything from, you know, physics, chemistry, biology, hydromechanics. So, it’s probably the biggest mashup of all science, is the ocean.  So, for me, it was kind of like an applied physics PhD, focused on fluids.  And then, I did applied electrochemistry and a bunch of other things and materials, but it was a mashup.  And it turns out that mashup of fields and technologies is what we do today at Oceanit; right?  So, it’s in energy and aerospace and materials, and all kinds of things. But if I think about it, that is kind of what it takes to build in and around the ocean.  So, that worked out.

 

Not everybody who moves to Hawai‘i wants to stay.  Clearly, you do, and you have.  What was it like for you being the malihini in Hawai‘i, introduced to all kinds of new people and …

 

Well, I had a classmate, Eric Yee, who became a physician here; he’s Hawaiian-Chinese.  And I used to go surfing with his brothers.  They had a big house in Nu‘uanu.  And we had done this road trip, right, in the Dodge Hilton. So, I brought Eric—

 

In your old car.

 

In my old car.  We drove down to the Keys, we did all this stuff.  And Eric hadn’t been through the South, and we had this other guy from New York.  And so, it was a really interesting trip, where we’d dive in on the Keys, and Eric was amazing.  We were grabbing lobster, and we’d just cook on the fire, and doing all these things. But I would stay with him and his brothers, the Yee brothers, and we’d go surfing.  And so, it was kind of interesting, because we’d go out surfing—of course, they were all much better than me, and I was not that good.  I mean, I’ve gotten better.  But they would say: Okay, ditch the Haole, right, he’s gonna be the bait for the shark.

 

And they’d go out there, and I’m going: What?

 

But I learned a lot from them.  They were super, super-nice people.

 

That doesn’t sound so nice.

 

Well, they were just so nice, I thought.  But it really touched me that in the community, they’re so giving and so supportive.  That was before I met my wife.

 

You came to Hawai‘i for love.

 

And you started this business here.  Obviously, you are reaching far beyond here, but would it be easier to be somewhere else from a business standpoint?

 

Well, that’s a good question.  We just had this group here this week from Korea because they want a license for the Country of Korea.  We’re gonna do, I think, a pipeline in Turkmenistan this quarter. We’re actually gonna do heat exchangers in Abu Dhabi.  I mean, this stuff is all just kinda cranking.  And it was all invented here, and developed in the lab, but the market is the rest of the world.  And that’s how we view it.  So, for manufacturing and certain things, you can build facilities in different places. For the magic, this is the place.

 

One example of an innovative product Oceanit developed is the LifeBed, which has sensors to take vital signs without intrusive wires and electrodes over moving clothes.  It started out as a request from the Department of Defense to improve triage on the battlefields.  Since then, it’s been adapted for hospitals, long-term care facilities, and homecare, because it can monitor vital signs without touching the patient.  Thanks to Patrick Suillivan of Kailua, O‘ahu for sharing his life stories with us.  And mahalo to you, for joining us.  For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Aloha nui.

 

You’ve trademarked, I believe, something called intellectual anarchy.

 

It always starts with asking a basic question, a fundamental question.  Not necessarily a question that’s about a science thing, but maybe a life thing, but basic question.  So, getting the right question is a really big deal.  When you ask the right question, then you go on this sort of a journey in exploring an answer.  And that leads to a lot of interesting things.

 

 

[END]

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Mahealani Wendt

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Mahealani Wendt

 

Growing up in the crowded, rundown tenements of downtown Honolulu, Mahealani Wendt witnessed the poverty of the Native Hawaiian people around her. That ignited a passion to help, and she spent more than three decades fighting for Hawaiian rights, with a long run as the Executive Director of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation in Honolulu. Today she lives in Hāna, Maui, and is a poet and author.

 

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

 

Program

 

More from Mahealani Wendt:

 

“Righteous Cause”

 

Hawaiian Homeland

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, March 24, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Mahealani Wendt Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

When I went to Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, I’m not sure that the most effective thing I could do there was as an attorney.  I worked as a volunteer, I worked as a grants writer.  I knew nothing about writing grants.  You know, a lot of times, you’re fueled just by passion, and you have so much … I don’t know how else to put it.  You know, you just feel so, so intensely about something, and it drives you, and you do everything you have to do to make it happen.  And that’s how I became a grants writer.

 

Her success as a volunteer grant writer led to a thirty-two-year career fighting for Native Hawaiian rights.  Mahealani Wendt of Maui, next, on Long Story Short.

 

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

 

Aloha mai kākou.  I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Mahealani Wendt is the retired executive director of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, a community activist, accomplished writer, and poet.  She’s the eldest of seven children, grew up on Kaua‘i and O‘ahu, and now lives on farmland on Maui in Wailua Nui along Hāna Highway.  She knew from the time she was nine years old, living in the rundown tenements of Downtown Honolulu, that she wanted to help others.  She was deeply affected by the poverty of Native Hawaiian people she saw around her, and despite being poor herself, she says she was raised in a loving, nurturing environment, and never went hungry.  In childhood, she developed a love of writing and reading.

 

My father is Spanish; he’s second generation.  My grandparents emigrated from Spain in 1906.  They were plantation workers, the first sugar plantation in Hawai‘i, Kōloa Sugar. And so, they settled on Kaua‘i. And eventually, he met my mother, who’s from Hilo; she’s Hawaiian.  And we grew up on Kaua‘i there.  It was very beautiful, very country.  We had horses, cows, pigs, chickens, raised every kind of, you know, fruit tree, we had a garden. We were cray fishing, climbing trees; all this stuff we did, it was beautiful.  My parents separated.  You know, we were pretty innocent; we never understood what happened.  We just knew that one day, my mother decided that we were going to move, and she brought us to Honolulu.  It was a really different lifestyle.  You know, it was kind of an idyllic life, country life, and we moved to the heart of Honolulu, to the tenements.  And I still remember our address; it was 1278 Fort Street.

 

Fort Street.

 

Yeah; Fort Street, and there were twenty-seven steps going up to the second floor where we lived.

 

This was an old, beat-up building.

 

Yeah; it was the heart of the slums, the tenements in Honolulu.  This was in the 50s, mid-50s, and these tenement buildings, the closest thing that would kind of resemble it would be the buildings in Chinatown.  Those are far more well-maintained than the ones we lived in.  The buildings we lived, I’m now understanding, they were at least fifty years old.  They were wooden, they were termite-eaten.  They were firetraps, basically, you know, not fit for people to live in, but we lived there.  My mother, when she left, you know, didn’t have really the means to support all of us, and so … that’s where we lived.  Some slept on the bed, some slept on the floor.  We had, I think, three showers, cold water.

 

On that floor?

 

In the building.

 

In the whole building?

 

Everybody shared.

 

And how many people were in the building?

 

There were fifty-two rooms. There were three areas where we could do our cooking.  There were kerosene stoves.

 

Was it dangerous?  I mean, I know from a fire standpoint, it was dangerous.  What about from a human standpoint in a rough part of town.

 

It was a rough part of town. From my standpoint, I never saw any danger, I never experienced any danger.  It was a new world; I thought it was really kind of cool and exciting. New kids to play with, new people to meet, new aunties and uncles.  All Hawaiians in that building.  You know, in the same way they do now, the aunties take care.  So, we felt very protected and free, and I never felt any danger.  If you were entering from the sidewalk, you know, there were these narrow steps that went to the second floor.  And the pool hall was downstairs, next to a Chinese restaurant, next to a grocery store, next to, you know, all these different kinds of—

 

So, it felt like a neighborhood to you.

 

It did; totally.

 

No creepy people hanging around.

 

I never remembered any creepy people.

 

You know.  And I mean, when I think back on it, I think: Wow, it would be like, you would think there would be creepy people, but in my child’s eyes, I never saw creepy people.  To me, they were really nice; nice people.

 

And you felt adults were looking out for you, too.

 

Yes, we did; we felt very protected.

 

I wonder how your mom felt with seven kids to take care of.

 

We owned our own home on Kaua‘i. My grandparents homesteaded twenty-five acres there, and you know, the lands are still there.  So, you know, what caused her to feel so compelled to move, we never understood.  I never even understood it as an adult.  But there we were.  It must have been very stressful; we were really poor.  I sold newspapers.  I thought that was really cool, ‘cause I could have spending money, you know, and stuff. I was selling newspapers.  My corner was Fort and Kukui, and I sold the Honolulu Advertiser.  I sold forty papers, made a dollar.  And then, that was my lunch money.  I made most of my money from tips, ‘cause I was so young.  You know, I was like, nine years old, standing on the corner with newspapers.  Oh, poor thing, you know.  So, they’d give me a dollar.  Wow, that’s a lot of money.  That’s what I would make for the whole, you know, selling forty papers.  So … I thought it was great.

 

M-hm.

Again, the perspective.  You know, as a child, I was innocent.  I saw all of it as a great excitement.  It was just a different thing, you know.  I mean, one thing, for example, when we lived in Kauai, the store was really far.  You know. When we moved to Honolulu, the store was downstairs.

 

It was amazing.  I was just like, enthralled, you know.  When I lived on Kaua‘i, we’d go to the movies once, you know, every six months or something.  When we went to Honolulu, we lived next to the theater.  You know.  So, that’s how I saw it from a child’s sort of sense of wonder.  It wasn’t until I was, you know, older, maybe intermediate school, I sort of kinda understood that we were really poor.  And then, as I got older, I realized that, you know, the auntie that, you know, was so sick, and da-da-da, this is why.  And then, I realized that, you know, so-and-so, that you know, we really thought was really a cool guy, he’s in jail because he did this.  You know, so I had a sense of perspective, but it was afterwards.

 

After the fact.

 

Yes.

 

Did you ever connect with your father again?

 

Yes.  We saw him as we could afford to.  I think he would send money and, you know, we’d go.  But it wasn’t very often.  And he came to visit us once.  You know, he was not a Honolulu man; he was a hunter, a fisherman.  He would come back from the mountains with, you know, these burlap bags full of ‘o‘opu to feed our family.  You know, very subsistence lifestyle.  When he worked, he worked as a heavy equipment operator, kind of a laborer.  I loved my dad.  Both of my parents read to us.  My father would put us on his lap and read.  You know, those experiences.  I came to really love literature and reading from both parents.  My parents were very good parents, in spite of the separation. And my mother was very strict; she taught us very fundamental values, and we were expected to, you know, adhere to them.  And if we did not, the punishment was swift and sure.  All of the kids turned out good.  I went to Royal School.

 

Royal School.

 

Yeah.

 

Okay; elementary.  And then?

 

I went to Royal Elementary, and then I went to Central Intermediate.

 

And then?

 

And then, I went to Kamehameha in my sophomore year.  I liked public school.  Public school was awesome; I learned a lot.  You know, again, the common theme of, you know, this love of literature, that was more than reinforced in the public school.  In fact, at Kalaheo Elementary, where I went to, you know, from first to third grade, my second grade teacher, Mrs. Robello, encouraged me when I wrote a little poem for my mother.  You know how teachers do.  It’s so important.  She took my little poem, she put it on the wall.  You know how teachers, you can encourage by telling everybody, you know. And when her students would make a little picture, she’d put that on the wall.  So, she had ways of encouraging and making you feel: Ho, this is something I can do.

 

How long were you in the tenements?

 

Well, we lived in Honolulu for three years.  There was a terrible fire in the tenement next door.

 

Another wooden building?

 

It was a wooden building; it was right next to ours on the next block, and it burned down.  And four people died in that fire.  One of the ones who passed was a three-year-old who was my brother’s playmate.  And so, it really affected everybody, the family.  It really had an impact on me.  And it was just … I don’t know; I’ll never forget it.  We stood out there and watched this whole thing happen.

 

And watched it burn down.

 

Yes.  We lived there until my mother could find someplace else she could afford.  So, we moved close to Queen’s Hospital; same sort of building, but not as big.  We lived there for another, like, three or four years, and then we moved, and we actually moved to a much nicer place. Things were getting better; you know, Mom could find work, and so, we moved to a much better place.

 

How formative was the experience of living in places like that, those two different buildings and the fire that took your acquaintances and friends?

 

I know that it has everything to do with my community advocacy work, especially on behalf of Hawaiians.  The people who made a difference in our lives when we were growing up were the social workers who reached out to us. They were so kind.  They were so kind to my mother.  And I grew up feeling that I wanted to be a social worker.  I changed my mind when I realized I didn’t have the fortitude.  I saw what they had to deal with.  And I’m a little bit emotional; I have a really hard time focusing, you know, when I see that.  I got older, I guess I gained a perspective.  As a child, I didn’t really understand what that environment was all about.

 

Yeah; you thought they were nice people.

 

I thought everybody was nice.

 

But they were carrying all this pain, I suppose—

 

Yes.

 

–that they saw.

 

M-hm.  And as I got much older, and we learned our history and, you know, the displacement, I started focusing on Hawaiians.  It happened kind of gradually.  I was, you know, someone who was intent on a social work profession, but I also had competing things that I was really interested in.  The literature thing was always an interest.

 

After graduating from Kamehameha Schools, Mahealani Wendt went to work for big corporations, first on the continent, and then back home in Hawai‘i.  She was good at what she did, but her heart was not in the corporate world.

 

Right out of high school, I lived in Texas.  And while I was in Texas, I worked for a very large insurance company, a national insurance company, and I learned a lot about corporate business.  And so, I worked there for five years, I worked my way up.  Then I came home to Hawaiʻi.  I worked for a local corporation called Crown Corporation.  They had a bunch of industrial loan banks, they had securities firm, they had insurance. You know, I mean, some of the companies are still around; a lot of them are no longer.  But you know, they were real estate developers; all of that.  I was into that.  And I was like an admin assistant to vice president.  So, I did that.  And then, I went to college.

 

That was good preparation.

 

Yeah, it was good preparation. But interestingly, I started doing the community activism, you know, the demonstrations and stuff when I was still working for this corporation.  And my boss, who was a vice president, said: Just don’t let me see you arrested, or on TV. You know, something like that.  I said: I’ll be fine.

 

You know, so I always like, had these two like, sort of identities there.  I would be this corporate thing at work, and then, you know, uh, the rest of the time, I’d be … and then, I decided I needed to go to school, because I needed skills to do the thing I wanted, which is [SIGH] effectuate social reform.  Working for business was really a survival thing for me.  I had good skills, I had good typing, accounting; those sort of things. I had skills that I could market very readily in the business environment, so that’s where I went.  But that’s not where my heart was.

 

So, you’re taking political science now at the UH.

 

M-hm.  I’m taking political science, and I have an opportunity to do an internship with Legal Aid Society, along with thirty other interns, students at UH Mānoa, political science majors.  And we’re placed at the Legal Aid Society of Hawai‘i at a time when, you know, we were coming into a growth of social programs, social economic programs in our community.  So, there was this quantum leap in legal services available to the community through Legal Aid.

 

Because there was more funding.

 

There was more funding.

 

More value placed on that.

 

Yes.  I chose to go with the so-called land unit at the time.  And in the course of my internship, I was assigned to work with community organizations in the Hawaiian community. And that sort of was a catalyst for my future work.  I attended law school, I left law school.  I was very active in the community.  I mean, actually coming into this kind of work, the genesis of it was community activism.  So, the early so-called land struggles—Kalama Valley, Kokua Kalama, He‘eia Kea, Waiāhole-Waikāne, Niumalu-Nāwiliwili on Kaua‘i, Mokauea Island—all of those struggles, I was there.  I was there. I was not there as a leader; I was there as someone who felt compelled to be there.  I really related to what the people were suffering, and I felt I had to be there.  It’s a combination of that activism and my experience at the Legal Aid Society leading me to Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation.  You know, it’s kinda like all boiled into the picture.

 

Why did you leave law school after college?

 

Well, I had children.  At that time, I was a single parent.  That was part of it; it was the economics of it. You know, when I went to Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, I’m not sure that the most effective thing I could do there was as an attorney.  I found my niche was really talking to the staff about community; how community felt, you know, what was important.  Because sometimes the rigor of legal linear thinking separates you from community. And I think you need both.  So, I think it would have been fine to go through law school, but at that point in my life, I felt I would be more useful in bringing that perspective to the firm.  And I think that it worked really well.

 

And you worked your way up to heading the office; you ran the office.

 

Yeah.  So, the first position was an interim attorney who agreed to come over from private practice to sort of get us started.  The second was Melody MacKenzie.  Then after, I think, a year or two, the first gentleman moved on back to private practice after kinda mentoring us.  I became the third staff person.  And Melody MacKinzie was my boss for, I don’t know, maybe six, seven years. And she taught me so much.  I just owe her a great debt of gratitude.  She’s the kindest, the most brilliant mentor a person could have.  I mean, I just love her; I love her to this day.  She was the executive director, but I guess she was kind of, you know, having to do a lot of this admin stuff.  And it just seemed more efficient to have me do the administrative part, you know, deal with personnel hiring, firing, that sort of thing.  ‘Cause I had a background in it.  Melody has those skills, but she’s also brilliant; a brilliant jurist, a brilliant scholar.  You know, I mean, talking story as a staff, and it just seemed like, you know, a more sensible way to go.  And so, I guess in name, you know, I became the head of the organization, and then she could focus on cases and clients, you know, and I could just deal with the other stuff.

 

You did that for a long time.

 

M-hm.  Well, I retired after thirty-two years.  So, yes, I did it a long time.  It was fun.  I loved it.

 

What kinds of cases did your firm handle?

 

Well, our cases were all Native rights cases.  So, you know, they’re kind of characterized as the things that we require in order to be Hawaiian.  Hawaiians were being affected with respect to land tenure, their ability to hold onto their lands, ability to hold onto their natural resources, have access to it, ability to engage in traditional and customary practices that they require to be Hawaiian.  If their access to the ocean is cut off, then they can’t go fish, they cannot gather limu; these kinds of things.  The ability to exercise practices relating to their traditional religion, things that would impede it, ability to access their trusts, the Hawaiian Homelands trusts or the public lands trusts.  All of those things became our areas of focus.  We had genealogists on staff, we had title people on staff.  We had Hawaiian translators on staff, because we’re dealing a lot with archival documents, many of which are only in Hawaiian. So, we had people on staff who specialized in translating legal documents.  So, the shop is a specialty shop, you know, asserting the rights of native people.  And we did well.  There were many cases that we did, that I’m very proud of.

 

That was a very … just vibrant time, and also, it was a time of people coming into age and being very proud, and also running into a lot of walls, too.

 

Yes; yes.  And I think with knowledge comes power.  You know, and the more we’re able to understand our history—and of course, language is a window into culture, the more we understand our language the more we understand better who we are.  Part of that is having, you know, connection to land, connection to water, connection to ocean, continuing to keep traditional practice vibrant and alive. All of those things are important. And you know, ultimately, it’s about values.  And as many other peoples, including indigenous peoples, those values are really important, not only for us here as a people in Hawaii, and not only for all of Hawai‘i, but even globally.  You know, you join with other peoples.  There are certain values that are universally exalted as being life-affirming and necessary in order for, you know, humankind to thrive.  We can make a contribution, and it’s really, really important that we be allowed to be a people.

 

Why do we do this?  We do this because we love Hawai‘i.

 

A&B doesn’t own the water, the taro farmers do not own the water.  Our people own the water.  Ke Akua owns the water.

 

Ae!

 

Ae!

 

Ke Akua owns the water.

 

Ae!

 

For all of us.

 

So, let our people live, and let the ‘aina live, forever. [INDISTINCT]  Stand up so that we can make that happen.

 

Mahealani Wendt met her husband, Ed Wendt, through her work in native water rights.  He’s a taro farmer with kuleana land.  Where they live in Wailua Nui, in Maui’s Hana District, is beautiful, but as always, farming kalo is hard work.  Besides her passion for justice, Mahealani Wendt has always had a love for poetry and writing.  Even as head of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, she found time to write, and has received numerous literary awards, both nationally and internationally. We’re going to close now with a reading from one of her poems that reflects back on her childhood.  Mahalo to Mahealani Wendt of Wailua Nui, Maui, for sharing her life story with us, and mahalo to you for joining us.  For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Aloha nui.

 

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.

 

At statehood, we trundled kerosene tankards over rutted Honolulu sidewalks, past beer halls, pool halls, taxi dancehalls, past honky-tonk dives, juke joints, and shoeshine stands, to rooming house kitchens where we lit our communal fires and kept vigil for the one day our nation would be restored.  The torches burned bright as we stood watch.  Our children, listless on tenement floors, their coverings prickling with insect filth, and the grit of ambient sounds, incessant scuttlings and winged scurryings inside squalid floors and walls, we sensed a slow collapse under the terrific weight of a people whose gods kept watch with them there. The minions of forest, river, and ocean gods, companions in these root places whispering their encouragements as generations of children turn to hear, like flowers brightening to sun.

 

[END]

 

 

INSIGHTS ON PBS HAWAIʻI
Ala Wai Flood Control Project

 

Plans to prevent massive flooding in Waikīkī have been in the works for years, as worries mount over the threat of a major storm causing the Ala Wai Canal to overflow. Drawn up by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Ala Wai Flood Control Project would take private residential land along the canal for flood mitigation. Property owners object and say there wasn’t enough opportunity for public input. What do you think?

 

Phone Lines:
462-5000 on Oahu or 800-238-4847 on the Neighbor Islands.

 

Email:
insights@pbshawaii.org

 

Facebook:
Visit the PBS Hawai‘i Facebook page.

 

Twitter:
Join our live discussion using #pbsinsights

 

 

 

 


HIKI NŌ
Donut Dynamite and other stories

HIKI NŌ: Episode #1001 - Madame Donut and other stories

 

TOP STORY:

 

Students from H.P. Baldwin High School on Maui introduce us to a Filipino immigrant who legally changed her name to Madame Donut. Before opening Donut Dynamite in Wailuku, Maui, she attended culinary school, where one of her instructors was the pastry chef at the famous French Laundry Restaurant in California’s wine country. When she found out the restaurant had donuts on its menu, she decided to make donuts her medium for artistic expression. “I use the donuts kind of as a platform or a canvas to express my art and my life story,” Madam Donut says.

 

 

ALSO FEATURED:

 

Students from Kapaʻa High School on Kauaʻi show us how their high school auto-shop class has moved into the 21st Century.

 

Students from Kalama Intermediate School on Maui explore the incredible hula legacy of Kumu Naomi “Sissy” Lake-Farm.

 

Students from Punahou School on Oʻahu show us how to make a beautiful work of art from a dead fish.

 

Students from Kalani High School in East Honolulu introduce us to a young woman who has discovered who she is by mentoring younger children on the ways of the ocean.

 

Students from ‘Īao School on Maui tell the story of a 6th grader who has created a way to motivate her peers to volunteer for community service.

 

And students from Waiākea High School on Hawaiʻi Island introduce us to a married couple who dedicates their lives, on and off the job, to foster children.

 

 

 

HIKI NŌ
Compilation Show from the Spring Quarter of the 2018-2019 School Year

 

This compilation show features some of the top stories from the Spring Quarter of the 2018-2019 school year. Besides being excellent stories, these pieces all explore the connections between people and, in some cases, between people and other living things.

 

Students from McKinley High School in Honolulu tell the story of teenagers who connect with senior citizens in ways that bridge the generation gap.

 

Students from Waiʻanae High School in Central Oʻahu tell the story of a young tattoo artist who uses his art form to connect with his Hawaiian heritage.

 

Students from Konawaena High School on Hawaiʻi Island feature a 96-year-old Holocaust survivor who connects with Big Island students by teaching them about the devastating effects of bigotry and racism.

 

Students from Hilo Intermediate School on Hawaiʻi Island focus on the special connection between a bone marrow donor and the recipient of that donation who discover (despite the astronomical odds against it happening) that they live just minutes away from one another.

 

Students from Kua O Ka Lā Miloliʻi Hipuʻu Virtual Academy on Hawaiʻi Island follow conservationists who are facilitating the connection between male and female members of an endangered Hawaiian crow in order to save the species from extinction.

 

Students from Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School on Kauaʻi introduce us to a singing nun who uses music to help students connect with the values she tries to instill in them.

 

Students from Maui High School in Kahului show us how a disabled student makes profound connections with her non-disabled peers through a program developed by the Special Olympics.

 

Students from Waiākea High School on Hawaiʻi Island tell the story of a pet placement service that connects homeless canines with their forever owners.

 

This special episode is hosted by Crystal Cebedo, a 2016 HIKI NŌ graduate from Waiʻanae High School on Oʻahu who has just completed her junior year at Menlo College in Northern California, where she majors in marketing and human resources.

 

 

 

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