Victoria Kneubuhl


Playwright and novelist Victoria Kneubuhl has used her writing as a way to share the history of Hawaii and to give a voice to powerful women of the past. And while writing is her passion, she also sees it as a way to give something back. “One of the things that I really want people to know…who are from the islands or the Pacific, is that our stories are so worth telling. If you write something that is heartfelt and genuine, you are leaving a gift for your community,” says Kneubuhl.


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I think that when we understand what happened in the past to our country and our people, that we will be able to make better decisions about what we create in the future. Because I feel like if you don’t understand your personal past, your collective past, you can get into a lot of trouble.


Bringing together the past and the present is a trademark of Victoria Kneubuhl’s work. Respected Honolulu playwright Victoria Kneubuhl, next, on Long Story Short.


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


Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Writing is Victoria Kneubuhl’s passion. She’s driven by a desire to share her Hawaiian and Samoan heritage, and give a voice to powerful women of the past. Kneubuhl has written more than two dozen plays. Her writing credits also include novels and television documentaries. She’s the recipient of the State’s highest literary honor, the Hawaii Award for Literature. However, as a child growing up in Manoa, Kneubuhl never dreamed of becoming a successful playwright.


Well, I was born in Kapiolani Hospital in 1949, in the Territory of Hawaii. And I grew up in Manoa Valley, right up the street here. So, that’s where my formative years were. My mother was pretty much a housewife, and my dad worked for American Factors; he was an auditor.


Now, at the time you were born, was Samoan-Hawaiian as an interracial marriage, was that considered unusual, or was that common?


You know, I don’t really know. I don’t think it was that unusual. But I do think it’s unusual that my father, you know, came here at such an early age from Samoa to go to school. He was seven years old, and he came with his brother, who was nine. They came on a ship, and they both went to Punahou School when they were little.


Could they speak English?




Raised bilingually.


Yes; they were both bilingual. And my father tells these wonderful stories about being at the boarding school, the Punahou boarding school, which was a farm school, he said. And it was out in Kaimuki, you know, near the graveyard, near Diamond Head Cemetery. That was where the boys boarded.


Now, that sounds like your family was well-to-do, to be able to go from Samoa and afford Punahou.


Well, I think my grandfather was. To afford, to be able to do that, they must have been. And I think it was important to them that their children had a really good education. My grandfather was from Iowa; Burlington, Iowa. His parents were immigrants from Switzerland, I think. And he ran away from home when he was … seventeen, or something. And he lied about his age, and he joined the Navy. And he ended up in Samoa, and he met my grandmother who was, from what we call an afakasi family, just half-caste, afakasi. It’s not a bad word. And I think she was about three-quarter Samoan. Because her father was half-Samoan, and half palagi. He was a descendant of a missionary [CHUCKLE] from the London Missionary Society.


So, from an early time, your family was mixed generationally.


Oh, yeah.


And going through different times.


And our family, you know, has these roots in the Pacific that include Hawaii, but you know, also include Tahiti and Samoa, and now we have relatives in New Zealand and Australia. So … yeah. This is our home.


So, you’re growing up in Manoa. What was life like at the Kneubuhl house?


Well, you know, my earliest memory is playing outside. And when I was a little girl, there were still farms. There were farms in the back of Manoa Valley, you know. There were a lot of Japanese farmers back there. I guess they were leasing land from the Bishop Estate. That’s what I understand. Manoa lettuce was really grown in Manoa. [CHUCKLE] And behind the school was mostly farms. And there were gardenia farms back there too. So, I kind of think of my childhood as pretty idyllic.


And rural, in Manoa.


Yeah. I thought I grew up in the country. But I guess I didn’t.  And we had a lot of freedom as children to roam around. It was safe then, and we could swim in the stream, and hike around in the mountains. It was great. I feel lucky.


Victoria Kneubuhl explored her Samoan roots on a trip with her father when she was a teenager. The trip had barely begun, when her dad did something that really surprised her.


I didn’t really know anything about being Samoan. Sometimes, my dad’s brother John, who was a screenwriter in Hollywood, would come over and charm us all with stories about what was going on in Hollywood. But I didn’t have much contact with that part of my family until my father decided that he might want to move back to Samoa and work for my grandfather. So, when I was, I think like thirteen, my father decided he was gonna go back and have a look at what it would be like to live there, to kind of test the waters. And he took me with him. Just me. So, it was in the early 60s, and Pan American was the plane that flew in there, and we got off the airplane, and the airport was kind of like this wooden shack with rat wire on it.  And there was a big line of our family there, you know, waiting to meet us. And I was holding my dad’s hand, and all of a sudden, he started speaking Samoan. And I didn’t know he spoke Samoan. You know, I used to ask him when I was kid, Oh, Dad, how do you say milk in Samoan? He’d go, I don’t know, I don’t know. He wouldn’t tell me.  So, I got off the plane, and he started speaking Samoan to all of these people, and I … I felt extremely unsure of the world for a moment. But that was a really interesting summer for me, because he and I kind of drove all around. And you know, Samoa was really different, what was that, fifty years ago, fifty-plus years ago, than it is today. So, … only part of the island had paved roads, and not every place had electricity, and most of the outlying villages, people still lived in … fales, you know, in grass houses and had that kind of cultural village life, and the material culture that went along with it. And so, it was really enlightening for me to see a Polynesian culture at that time in my life, and to see how people lived.


You were hearing your father determining whether to possibly uproot you, your life would change radically. Were you concerned, or was it travel log time?


No, it was pretty much a travel log time for me, and I was really excited to be there. And I had all of these great cousins that I met that I ran around with. And my father came back after two weeks, but I stayed for the whole summer with my aunt. And I loved it there at that time. It’s a different place now, but then, it was really fun.


And yet, your father did move, and you did not.


Yeah. Well, you know, my parents, it was important for my father that … my brother and I go to Punahou. So, we stayed here, and my parents and my younger brother moved down there.


And you stayed with your grandmother?


Yes; in Manoa.


And did you graduate from Punahou?


No. Actually, I dropped out of high school and I had a child when I was seventeen years old. So, it wasn’t a great situation for me. And I think I felt kind of lost and alone, and so I was looking for some, you know, place that I felt safe. And … you know, life is funny, though, you know. I had a child when I was seventeen; but by the time I was twenty-four, I couldn’t have children anymore. And of course, now my daughter is like my best friend in the world.


Something you thought was gonna hurt your life, needed to happen then. Is that how you look at it?


Well, part of it, yeah. Not all of it, but part of it. And yeah, it was hard to have a child when I was, you know, so young. But … that’s what happened.


Did you remain in Hawaii, or did you go to Samoa?


You know, when I left my first husband, I went back to Samoa and I stayed there for about seven years and worked there. And … I came back to Hawaii, I think, in the late 70s. Eventually, as wonderful as the island was then, it just seemed too small to me. My horizon started to shrink. You know, and so when I came back to Honolulu, I started going to school. I went to the Academy of Arts for a while. They used to have a studio program there, where I went every day to a drawing class or a painting class.


By now, Victoria Kneubuhl was in her late twenties, with a new husband and a second child. After earning a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies, Kneubuhl was considering a career in psychology, when she stumbled on a class that would change her life.


I was thinking about getting a degree in psychology. I was kind of in love with Carl Jung, with Jungian psychology, and I was fascinated by it. And we were having a break. You know, I was having a break from school, and I thought, before I apply to this program, that I would do something different. So, you know, they used to register in Klum Gym.


I remember that. Long lines in Klum Gym.


Yeah. That’s right. So, I went to sign up for a creative writing class in the English department, but they were full. So, I’m looking through the program, and I see this class that says, playwriting. And I thought, Oh, yeah, you know, you know, my uncle does that; yeah, I think I’ll try that.  So, I wandered into this playwriting class. It was really fascinating; the class was fascinating. It was really hard, and the teacher was extremely tough and scary, and I almost dropped out of the class, because I was feeling humiliated. And so, I went home, and I had this little talk with myself, and I said, You know, that man, he’s really smart, and he really knows a lot, and I paid for this class, and I’m gonna ignore all of this stuff that I don’t think has anything really to do with playwriting. And I’m just gonna take what he knows, because I paid for it. So, I changed my attitude, and I walked back in the class the next time, and … it was fine. You know, I think it was just that attitude change on my part that kind of changed the whole class. And I was so happy with where I ended up, compared to where I started from, that I enrolled in the same class again with a different teacher, Dennis Carroll. When I got into Dennis’ class … he was a wonderful teacher. He has all of this love and passion for the theater. You know, he started Kumu Kahua Theater. And he really took me under his wing and nurtured me as a writer. And he had confidence in me and my work. You know, when you’re a young writer, you just don’t know if you’re any good. And then, when someone who you admire and you think is really smart tells you, Yeah, you know, this is good, it really helps you to continue and to grow in your craft. And that’s what Dennis did for me. And not just me. You know, he did it for a lot of other writers, too. So, I think if it weren’t for him, I probably wouldn’t be a writer. And because Kumu Kahua Theater was there, you know, they were interested in my work, right away. So, my very first play was produced, which you know, for a playwright is …


This was college, it got produced?




And what did you choose to write about? What was your first play about?


My first play was called Emmalehua. And it was about a young woman. It was set right after the war.


Which war?


World War II.  It was set right after World War II. And it concerned a young woman who had been made a hula kapu when she was a girl, and who had drifted away from that calling or that honor. And you know, at that time, everybody in Hawaii was interested in being American. And so, it was about how she came back to … her craft and art. And I really wanted to write about, you know, who I was and where I came from, and … so, that was my first play, and that got produced.


Was that you? Was that girl you?


No; it wasn’t me. I’m kind of a clumsy dancer. I know; it’s terrible. I’m Polynesian, and I don’t sing very well, and I can’t dance either.


You can write; you’re like a dream.


What was your second play about? Still in college?


Well, actually, the second produced play I worked on was in collaboration with Dennis Carroll, Robert Nelson who was a musician, who just recently passed away, and Ryan Page. Dennis wanted to do a play about Kaiulani. so, that was the second play that I worked on. Although that play is not really mine, because there were so many people contributing to it. And the next play I wrote was The Conversion of Kaahumanu, which has been produced in a lot of different places.


That’s a great theme that you chose. Conversion meaning to Christianity of this alii of the Hawaiian government.


Well, at that time, I had three part-time jobs when I was going to school. And you know, I had to work so hard to get an education. I had these two kids, and you know, I was going to graduate school fulltime, and you know, I just don’t know how I did it. And my husband doesn’t know how we did it either, but we managed to do it. And one of my part-time jobs was working at the Mission Houses Museum; I started there as a guide. And they had a living history program that interpreted the interaction between Hawaiians and missionaries. And I loved working there; I loved the people I was working with. I was working with Deborah Pope, who is now the director of Shangri La, and Glen Grant. He was working there, too. And so, we were actually the principal role players in this program, and so, we had to do a lot of research about that time period. And that play, you know, it just kind of came to the surface.


She was often blamed by many Hawaiians for going away from Hawaiian spiritual values to Christianity.


I think that one of the reasons she chose to ally herself with the missionaries is that, you know, there was a lot of gunboat diplomacy then, and a lot of Westerners considered Polynesians, not just Hawaiians, but all people with dark skin, less than human. And becoming Christian was one way of showing the outside world that, No, we’re human.


One perspective that comes out in your play is that, you know, for those who think that the Hawaiians at the time in leadership were just being squashed and put down by White people, that’s not true, you believe.


I don’t believe that. I mean, I believe that our alii were doing the best that they could for the people, and that it was a really, really hard time. And I hate these histories that make it seem like, you know, Hawaiians were being kind of led around by the nose by all of these people and weren’t savvy and smart enough to see what was happening, and try to make the best decision that they could.


Political and racial conflict in Hawaii are common themes in Victoria Kneubuhl’s plays. Her topics include modern controversies over iwi, or bones, and the overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy. The latter was a five-act, fifteen-hour play staged on the steps of Iolani Palace. Kneubuhl says she often hears the voices of her protagonists in her head.


I’d love to hear you talk about structuring a play. Because I wouldn’t know how to go about condensing all those years, and continents, and time.


Yeah. You know, structure in playwriting is probably the hardest element. You know, when you first start learning about playwriting, dialog, character, those things come pretty easily, because we know them all. You know, we just have to listen, and we can hear what people talk like. And we know characters. You know, we know what other people are like. So, those things come pretty fast. But structuring a play is, I think, a constant challenge to a playwright.


You’ve got one stage. You can determine the number of acts, I presume.


Yeah; you can determine the number of acts. You can figure out how many characters you want. Although these days, for the commercial stage, you know, they don’t want a lot of characters in a play anymore, because they don’t want to pay. So, writing for the community theater has its advantages. You can have as many characters as you want, and nobody’s gonna care. But you basically have the stage, and you have dialog. That’s it. I mean, you have some lighting, and you have some props, and you know, you can have some sound effects. But pretty much, you’re telling your story through dialog.


What is that like, when you sit back on opening night? I’m sure you’re not sitting back; you’re probably sitting forward. What is it like seeing it unfold?


You know, opening night isn’t really the night when I’m the most shocked. There’s a point in rehearsals where the actors are off book, where they’re not holding their scripts anymore, and you first see your play being acted out by people. Something that was just inside your head is now out there. And I always feel like, oh, my god, my underwear is hanging on the line, and everybody’s looking at it.


Because it comes from deep inside you.


Yeah. And it’s kind of the first time it’s exposed out there. And that’s when I feel the most strange.


What are you like when you’re writing a play? Are you locked in a room with beverages? I mean, do you shut the windows and hunker down? How do you do it?


Well, you know, when I first started writing, I was going to school, I had three part-time jobs, I had two children and a husband, and a house to keep clean. So, I just learned to block everything out, you know. And while dinner was like, on the stove, I was at the dining table writing away. And I just learned to, like, close things out and you know, kind of focus on what I was doing. Because I didn’t have the luxury of anything else.


Do you think in retrospect, that helped you? That you could work it into your life.


Yeah; I think it did a lot. And when I hear people say, Oh, if only I had some time, I could go away; I just laugh, you know. Because if you really want to write, you just sit down and write.


And Victoria Kneubuhl has added novels to her writing portfolio. At the time of our conversation in the summer of 2015, she was working on her third book in a murder mystery fiction series set in 1930s Honolulu.


Did you leave playwriting behind, or did you decided to take a break and write novels, mystery novels?


Well, I could never leave playwriting behind, because that’s where I started writing. But at some point, I realized, gosh, my plays are pretty serious, you know, and I really need to have some fun with my writing, so I think I’ll write a mystery. Because you know, when I want to relax, my escape literature is, you know, old-fashioned cozy mysteries. And so, I decided to try and write a mystery. And actually, I’d started another novel too, and I couldn’t finish either of them, and I had to pick one to finish. So, I decided to finish the mystery. I was finishing the mystery, and you know, I had no idea how to find a publisher. And UH Press had published my book of plays, so one day, I was in Safeway and was looking for mayonnaise, and I saw my editor, the editor of my playwriting books there. And I was talking to her, and I said, Oh, you know, I’m writing a mystery; do you have any suggestions about where I could send it for a publisher? She looked at me kinda suspiciously and she said, Did you know we’ve been kind of thinking about doing a mystery series? I said, No. And I don’t know if she believed me or not. But she said, Well, we are, so send it to me. And so, then I really, you know, finished it. Because I had that incentive.


And you put many places, places that you know well into their settings. You actually have the curator of Bishop Museum killed in the museum.


Well, you know, because I worked in the museum field for so long, I knew that that field pretty well. So, I made use of it. You know. And I really feel that novel writing, you know, even when it’s fiction that’s kind of a genre fiction, mysteries … those kinds of stories preserve history in their own way. You know, they tell us a little bit about the past in a really different way.


You put the Haleiwa Hotel in your in your novel.




Which really existed.


Yeah. Yes, and just the way people related to each other. You know, I mean, I feel so fortunate to have known the kind of kupuna that aren’t with us anymore. So, I think fiction is a wonderful place for preservation, too.


We’re coming to the end of a really wonderful conversation. I don’t know if there’s anything you wish you could have a chance to say to people, or that hasn’t been brought out, or just any thought that you’d like to share.


One of the things that I really want people to know, who would like to be writers, and who would like to write, and who are from the islands or the Pacific, is that our stories are so worth telling. And that, you know, it doesn’t matter if you don’t make the best-seller list in New York. If you write something that is heartfelt and genuine, you are leaving a gift for your community.


It’s tough to make a living as a playwright in Hawaii, and Kneubuhl has always had a day job. She’s been the Curator of Education at the Mission Houses Museum, and she taught playwriting at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Since 1993, Kneubuhl also has written and produced episodes of the television series Biography Hawaii. Mahalo to Victoria Kneubuhl of Maunalani Heights, Honolulu for sharing your story with us. And thank you, for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, hui hou.


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


Let’s move to something that occupies a lot of your time today, and it’s a passion and a hobby involving dogs.


Yes, I’m a crazy dog person. You know, my husband and I really got interested in dog training a few years ago. There’s a new sport, it’s really popular on the continent; it’s called nose work. And it’s the same training that those, you know, real working dogs at the airport do. But you train the dogs to sniff out legal substances, and they’re oil essences. And there are different levels of competency that your dog can aspire to.




Breadfruit & Open Spaces


Explore the journey of a group of Pacific Islander immigrants from the Federated States of Micronesia who now live on Guam. The film gives a rare look into their personal lives as they struggle to hold their ground and find a voice on a new island, while maintaining ties to their families on their home island of Chuuk.


NA MELE – Tony Conjugacion



Tony Conjugacion pays tribute to his musical influences in this special. This kanikapila is a historic occasion captured by the cameras in the PBS Hawaii studio.


HIKI NŌ 2015 Awards Ceremony


Welcome to the HIKI NŌ 2015 Awards Ceremony, and thank you for joining us! In this special live-streamed presentation, Leslie Wilcox, President and CEO of PBS Hawaii and Donna Tanoue, President of Bank of Hawaii Foundation; HIKI NŌ’s founding broadcast underwriter, will present the winners from the list of nominees, as seen at the HIKI NŌ Festival screenings.


Queen Emma – Her Life and Legacy


Na Mele: Queen Emma – Her Life and Legacy features traditional Hawaiian chants and songs created to honor and record the life of Queen Emma. The Queen Emma Summer Palace in Nuuanu serves as center stage. The Summer Palace, or Hānaiakamalama (nurtured by the moon) as it’s also known, was a place of respite for Queen Emma and her husband, King Kamehameha IV. Despite the tragedies in her life – the loss of her 4 year old son, Albert, and her husband, King Kamehameha IV – Queen Emma had the strength and fortitude to establish institutions that continue to serve Hawaii today: The Cathedral of St. Andrew, The Queenʻs Medical Center and St. Andrewʻs Priory School for Girls.


In the hula performance of “Aia I Nu‘uanu,” the dancers and kumu hula chant, “Aia ka nana i Nu‘uanu, I walea ‘Emalani i laila, Ka ‘olu kohai i ka makani” (There is the beauty at Nu‘uanu, such that Emalani is at ease there, comfortable, swaying in the breeze). The halau dances with the Summer Palace quietly looking over them, as if the Queen herself is observing and appreciating their hula. Also performing hula about Queen Emma and the places she loved is Hālau Haʻa Hula ʻO Kekauʻilani Nā Pua Hala O Kailua and a halau made up of students from St. Andrew’s Priory School for Girls. The Emmalani Serenaders also lend their voices to praise Queen Emma, performing Kaleleonālani and Hole Waimea.


Leslie Wilcox, PBS Hawaii President and CEO, will host the program, alongside special guests from the Daughters of Hawai‘i, St. Andrew’s Priory, and The Cathedral of St. Andrew.


Original air date: Sun., June 7, 7:00 pm


How Can People Displaced by U.S. Nuclear Tests Prosper in Hawai‘i?


An estimated 12,000 people have come to Hawai‘i in search of a better life, primarily from the Marshall Islands and Chuuk, which were affected by U.S. nuclear tests. Many find themselves on government aid or living in homeless encampments on Oahu. How can people displaced by U.S. nuclear tests prosper in Hawai‘i?


INSIGHTS ON PBS HAWAI‘I will air at a special time, 9:00 pm, immediately following PBS HAWAI‘I PRESENTS The Land of Eb, a fictional film about the head of a Marshallese family, who is struggling to sustain his family in Hawai‘i. Mahealani Richardson hosts the conversation.


Mark Dunkerley


Mark Dunkerley is most happy when he’s flying an airplane – upside down. The Hawaiian Airlines President and CEO grew up with aviation fuel in his blood, flying unaccompanied between boarding school in London and his parent’s home in Washington D.C., and eventually earned a degree in Air Transport Economics. Since 2002, Dunkerley has been at the helm of Hawaiian Airlines. And his passion for flying upside down‌ That kicks in when Dunkerley is piloting his personal aerobatic aircraft.


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When you sort of deconstruct what we do, airlines fly the same types of aircraft, we put people in the same types of seat, we fly between the same two airports on a given route. So, the scope to really differentiate ourselves from the next guy is actually quite limited. Every airline, however, has to find some way of differentiating itself. And at Hawaiian Airlines, what we’ve chosen is to say, you know, We want to capture the sense of hospitality and all of the wonderful, wonderful cultural attributes of Hawaii, which people so appreciate, and we want to bring that forward to the customer experience. And so far—and I cannot guarantee it’ll always be the case, but so far, we’ve felt that the cost of providing the food—and it is very costly, it’s tens of millions of dollars a year, really sets up a customer experience that helps make us fundamentally different than our competitors.


Mark Dunkerley joined the senior management team at Hawaiian Airlines in 2002, three months before the airline filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Today, under his leadership, Hawaiian Airlines is turning a profit. Mark Dunkerley, next on Long Story Short.


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


Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Mark Dunkerley, chief executive officer of Hawaiian Airlines, developed his love of aviation at a very young age. His unconventional childhood involved traveling, by himself, on airlines that often took him halfway around the world.


Life began for me in Bogota, Colombia, and the child of two economists. Both my mother and my father were economists specializing in the developing world. And they spent the balance of their careers as civil servants working either for different governments, or they had a stint teaching for a little while, and then, um, my father settled in an international organization, World Bank, in Washington, D.C. looking after the urban poor around the world.


And do you have siblings?


I have two siblings. I have a younger brother and an older half-sister.


You spent most of your formative years in boarding schools.


Given the nature of my parents’ jobs, we would typically move every couple of years from one country to another. I lived in Ghana in Africa, we spent a little stint of time in Boston, and also in the U.K. during this period of time. And when my father took a job in Washington, D.C., the expectation was that that would probably only last a couple of years, and we’d be off somewhere else. So, they were keen that I should be part of a single education system. And so, I was sent away to boarding school in England on the basis that no matter where we lived, I would be part of the same system, same schooling, and so on. Of course, no sooner had they done that, then they ended up settling in Washington, D.C. essentially for good. But yes, from a very young age, I think I was seven years old at the time, I was packed off to boarding school in England. And it was six hundred years old, and we led this sort of Dickens, slash, Harry Potter type life. No heating.


Did you really? No heating?


Oh, yeah. I mean, we lived in the original buildings. And to this day, actually, usually when people ask about that, you know, they come in with this view that, Ah, I mean, how wonderful would it be to live in a building that’s six hundred years old. And I can tell you, it’s miserable. You know, we didn’t have bathtubs; we had agricultural tubs. You had to pull up to the taps and fill with hot and cold water, and then you hopped in them. It was like Lee Marvin, you know.




It’s just hard to imagine, but true. And we lived in these dorm rooms with not only no heating, but because the buildings were so old, none of the windows were double-glazed at all. And so, everybody went to bed at night with a hot water bottle in the winter.


Seven is so young to be packed off, as you described it.


Yeah, it is. And you know, the funny thing is, as a child, your sense of normalcy is defined by the circumstances in which you’re living. Because you don’t have much of a sense of the broader world perspective. So, I didn’t think it was particularly odd.


Do you remember your parents dropping you off? Was that a fateful day, or not anything remarkable?


Yeah; I actually remember it pretty clearly. I remember being told that I was going to be going to a boarding school. And it didn’t sort of compute at the time. I then have a recollection of going to school and climbing on the airplane with my mother, and driving up and being introduced to the school. And again, it was sort of unreal. The thing I remember perhaps best from that period of time was traveling alone. I mean, I was seven, eight years old, and you know, lugging my trunk. This was in the days before luggage had wheels, and you know, catching trains, and buses to get to the airport to climb on a plane to fly back to Washington, D.C., and of course, reverse it.


You would do that by yourself? You didn’t have any companion?


Yeah; I did it by myself. And again, in the context of today’s world, that seems extraordinary. But we all did. I mean, there was a train, and as soon as I got on the train, there’d be some friends or some kids obviously from the U.K. who just lived a hundred miles away, and then there’d be other kids who just got off a plane from Hong Kong or from somewhere else. Latin America, for example, all going to school. And it didn’t occur to us to think of it as being unusual or odd.


Well, that’s the train. What about the plane?


So, in the plane, yeah, we’d travel by ourselves. And this is where I think I got an early inkling that I would end up in aviation. Because these were very glamorous days to be traveling. You know, the idiom was coined, the Jet Set. You don’t hear people talk about that today. But at the time, you know, it was pretty unusual to see a little kid by themselves on an airplane. And of course, I was extremely well looked after on the airplane. I mean, there was um, no lack of attention and so on, and it sort of kindled some of the interest that I’ve had in aviation and travel, which has stayed with me to this day.


So, it was exciting and safe. People taking care of you on the plane.


Oh, yeah.


Defying gravity.


Yeah. I remember my first ride on a 747. I mean, how good was that? You’ve got this enormous, enormous airplane. And I was very fortunate to have this experience at the time when very few people traveled. And I knew it, and I appreciated it even that age, hard, candidly, though it was to be separated from home the way that I was.


When you look back, do you wonder why your parents did that? Or was that what people did at the time, especially in their field?


Well, my parents were absolutely resolute that they could likely only leave us the quality of the education that we had, and that was always the plan. So, I think whatever their personal feelings, getting a good education was absolutely at the top of their list, and they were prepared to make sacrifices themselves. In fact, sacrifices on my behalf, frankly, to make sure that that took place.


How often did you see them?


So, I would see them three times a year. I would be back for a couple of months in the summer, and then sort of three weeks in spring, and three weeks over Christmas. And you know, everybody I went to school with was essentially in the same boat, and so it didn’t strike us as being quite so unusual as it appears today.


And what was life at boarding school like when you were in your grammar school years? I mean, did you get a lot of attention from staff?


Well, you know it was … so, if I really focus through that period and into my high school years, um, th—these boarding schools are interesting in somewhat odd places. The quality of the education is very high; very high. And you know, it’s been the great asset that my parents have bequeathed me. There’s no question about that. You have very few adults supervising a lot of kids. So, some things have stayed with me ever since. I mean, the way they stopped the student body from burning the place down, which they would do, unquestionably, if left to their own devices is, you know, they made sure that you’re busy from dawn from dusk.


With what? With schoolwork?


Oh, uh, schoolwork.




There was lots of sports, lots of schoolwork, you’ve got to clean the place. There were all kinds of sort of chores and things that you have to do. And it’s by keeping you occupied essentially all of the time is how they sort of essentially controlled the uncontrollable, you know, great sort of mob of kids. So, you know, that’s one of the things that I took away. At the same time, you know, without very many adults around, you develop the ability to look after yourself. There aren’t any corners you can hide.


You don’t wait for somebody to come kiss your boo-boo, kind of thing.


Yeah; correct. And you know, children in that collective environment can be rather cruel to one another. And of course, they get over it a day or two later, and then alliances change. The Lord of the Flies is a famous book, which felt very biographical, frankly, from the way that things were. So, to survive and prosper in a boarding school, you learn some life lessons. You become quite self-reliant at a very, very, very early age. You don’t have much adult sympathy available to you. In that sense, it’s a school of hard knocks. And it’s sort of an interesting contrast, because I was extremely fortunate to get a great education at one of the most famous English boarding schools that’s out there, and so, I’m amongst a very privileged few. At the same time, it was a school of hard knocks.


Mark Dunkerley says he didn’t have any particular ambitions when he was kid, and instead was satisfied with just getting by. It wasn’t until he nearly finished his education and entered what he calls the real world that his many years at boarding school started to pay off.


So, you’re a kid, and you’re jet-setting, and meeting your parents three times a year for summers and vacations. And what was your plan? I mean, you knew you loved aviation, but did you have grand plans as a kid?


You know, I really didn’t. In fact, I was a very sort of poor student. I mean, notwithstanding the fact that I had always managed to sort of scrape into some pretty good schools always by the skin of my teeth, once at those schools, I then set about doing as little as I possibly could.


So, you liked to be busy, but you didn’t like to get ahead in your schoolwork?


Yeah; correct. I mean, I struggled to um, keep interested in, you know, the subject matter. And I was considered a sort minor jock at school. I mean, in the sports that I cared about, I was typically on the school team. But I was never the star, never somebody that people would be talking about um, on Saturday afternoon after the game was over. So, I had a lot of interest in in sports, but I was not particularly focused or driven. And it was, I think, a real surprise to people who knew me, when in my twenties, I became considerably more focused than I am. Because I think up to that stage [CHUCKLE], I think they probably would have said that I seemed largely without direction and focus. Being at a boarding school makes you in some respects quite mature, because you have to deal with some very complicated human interactions. Because as I mentioned, you don’t benefit from parental guidance and so on, so you’ve gotta learn pretty quickly. In some senses, I think was quite mature, but in a range of other senses, I wasn’t particularly mature at all.


You went to the London School of Economics, and then what happened, then?


So, I was at London School of Economics, and I went LSE largely because it was not a campus university; it was a university in the middle of London. And during that period of time, I wasn’t that focused on work. I was focused on having a pretty good time in London, and I enjoyed that. Coming to the end of my time at LSE, my game plan, such as it existed, was to go and get a PhD in economics and follow in my parents’ footsteps in that area. But I really felt that, you know, four or five more years, or given my attributes as a student, perhaps eight, nine, ten more years as a student , you know, it didn’t seem like such a good alternative. And I’d had this interest in aviation, and there was a master’s program available in the economics of air transportation, and I won a scholarship, so I took that. It was a one and a half year master’s program, so I went and studied at Cranfield. And it was really then that I felt that I sort of found my calling and wanted to be in aviation.


Finally, things just came together for you?


Yeah; they did. There was something about the real world that I found sort of stimulating and appealing. And you know, my background is sort of interesting inasmuch as it’s very different. But as a consequence of that, I didn’t naturally fit in, in any environment. I’ve never in my life been part of any sense of a majority, you know, whether it was at school. Vacation time, I went to the United States, and so I didn’t share and, you know, I didn’t see what movie was on, on Christmas Day in the U.K., because I was in the U.S. And so, in all kinds of kind of little ways, my background was always sort of defined by being sort of in the minority. And not to say I’ve ever been disadvantaged by that, because I clearly have not. It wasn’t really ‘til I got into the workplace where the very things that defined me in that way, I think, were an asset as opposed to a liability.


You were an outlier who could look at situations with detachment. And your comment about the real world, I sense maybe the net was gone, you were on the rope without a net, and that was more exciting.


Yeah. No, has been, you know, much more exciting, and I’ve enjoyed that. And when I look in the professional workplace, I’m always struck by how difficult a time people have—not all people, obviously, but many people have in making decisions. And making decisions based part on analysis, but never with perfect information, and largely based on the accumulation of one’s personal experience is something I’ve always felt comfortable with. That’s not something that keeps me awake at night.


Do you think that came from having to negotiate these unfamiliar situations throughout your school life, without your parents around?


Yeah; I think that’s exactly right. I mean, I’ve always had to kind of work my way through from first principles. And it’s that aspect of life that I enjoy, and I still find very stimulating.


Mark Dunkerley earned a Master of Science degree in air transport economics, and started his career in aviation. He advanced quickly and soon made his way into senior management positions at several different airline companies before moving to Hawaii to work for Hawaiian Airlines.


Now, based on your track record in airlines, you know, you came here, and everyone trumpeted you as a turnaround expert. And amazingly, you led a transformation at Hawaiian Airlines, which so many people thought could not be done. And I personally was surprised that you stayed after bringing the airline to very good financial health. But I suspect you’ve stayed because it’s never gonna be easy, and you like that.


Yeah; I think you’re exactly right. First of all, you know, people are very generous, and they give me great accolades for the transformation that Hawaiian has enjoyed. But nobody should be under any illusion; this is the hard work of everybody in our company, and you know, it’s really uh, my great privilege and benefit to be part of this company, certainly not the other way around. But you know, this is a tough business. It’s competitive every day, we’re a tiny airline in a land of giants. We are one-twentieth the size of our major competitors. And so, we are on our toes, and that challenge in a sense gives me the same enjoyment and the same thrill that being in the middle of a turnaround does. This is a fascinating business. It’s exciting, there’s a new challenge every day, there’s never a dull moment. As a manager in it, you’ve got to balance a sense of the strategic direction with being prepared to make very quick decisions day-to-day to protect your position or to improve it. And it’s full-on exercise. I’m not a golfer, but there’s not much time for taking an afternoon off to play golf. People in our business work very, very hard. And that either stimulates you and you find it really interesting, in which case there’s no business like it, or it doesn’t, in which case it’s the wrong business for you.


Based on what you learned at boarding school, has any of that stayed with you? For example, do you keep yourself busy all the time, and do you also keep your own counsel and not look for other people to guide you?


Yes; I keep busy all the time, and it’s natural to me. I’m incapable of sitting on the beach for an afternoon. I mean, utterly incapable of doing so. So, that is a life lesson that has stayed with me to this very day. And left to my own devices, I do tend to keep my own counsel, and you know, have absorbed that aspect from growing up. Where that has changed is my wife, who’s from Latin America, has the opposite temperament to mine, and she has taught me a great deal. I mean, I’m a much better and more rounded person for having come to see and recognize that there’s a different strategy for succeeding as a human being to my own, and that’s helped me understand so much.


How does her approach work for you?


She is a much more intuitive person and has much better sense of the limitations of analytical thought and logic, and where intuition and emotion take over. And it has been a valuable, interesting lesson for me in my life to see that, to appreciate that, and it’s made me a far more effective uh, adult as a consequence.


Bringing the emotional intelligence in.


Yeah; yeah. Yeah.


And discernment.


Yeah; absolutely. And without that influence, I think I would be much less able to understand the sort of broad dimensions and the three-dimensional nature of people and society, and situations.


What do you do in your spare time, and what counts as relaxation?


In the day of emails, and texts, and so on, there really never is a day that is truly ever away from what’s going on. But the things that I enjoy doing is, I enjoy travel, to this day. My wife and I enjoy going places. I’m particularly fond of the African continent, and India, and Latin America as well. So, when we can get away and do that, which isn’t very often, we do that. I have taken up again fly fishing, which is the one pastime I shared with my father, which after I started work, I didn’t get to do for about thirty years. But I started up about five years ago. And an afternoon on the stream remains to this day probably the easiest way to clear my mind.


And how much do you personally identify with Hawaiian values, Hawaiian culture?


You know, really, it’s better for other people to judge that than me, myself. I would like to think that they would say a great deal. I have lived in many, many different places, and as I mentioned earlier, I’ve always been used to really being a minority in the context of where I am. It has made me, I think, more open and more sensitive, perhaps, to other cultures and other values than other people might be. And as I’ve looked around, and I’ve had the luxury, frankly, of being able to pick and choose those attributes that I think resonate with me, I find myself over, and over, and over coming back to what terrific values Hawaii stands for, and how much therefore I feel comfortable here. I’ve lived in Hawaii now longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in my life. Which is, you know, pretty extraordinary.


From being a very young jet-setter, to piloting planes himself, to his career as an airline leader, flying has defined Mark Dunkerley’s life. Mahalo to Mark Dunkerley of Honolulu for sharing his life stories with us. And mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii, and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.


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


And then, you do something pretty crazy, which is acrobatic flying.


Yeah; that’s been a really important part of my life. You know, in graduate school, I saved up, and I learned how to fly. And in my early professional days, I would go out, rent an airplane about once a month just to keep current. And I enjoyed doing that. But then, somebody said, Hey, have you ever flown an aerobatic airplane? And I was game to try it. By the time we came down, I wanted to learn how to do this, and so on. And that started about a decade- long time when I got into competition flying, and I flew all kinds of aerobatic contests, domestic and international ones. And it was kind of a defining hobby for me. And even when I moved to Hawaii and stopped competing, because there are no contests here and so on, I continue to do it. I’m never quite as happy as I am flying an airplane upside-down.





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