Leslie Wilcox

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Benny Rietveld

 

Benny Rietveld’s first experience playing music was at the age of six, in the piano department at Gem’s in Kapalama. “I liked the idea that you could press something, and it creates this…cool sound,” Rietveld remembers. He was mentored by band director Henry Miyamura at McKinley High School, and played in local jazz and rock bands before moving to San Francisco and touring with Sheila E. and Miles Davis. Today, Benny Rietveld plays bass for Carlos Santana, and still sits in with the Hawai‘i musicians he grew up with.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, Oct. 14 at 11:00 pm and Sunday, Oct. 18 at 4:00 pm.

 

Benny Rietveld Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Do you think music is more than just fun?

 

Totally; yeah. Music is powerful, music is magic. It allows us to do so many things invisibly. You can put it in the background, you can have it in the foreground, you can stop, start. You know, it’s always there, and it helps you celebrate things, it helps you mourn. It drives people to battle, you get married and you can create babies with it. It transports you, it reminds you of things in your life, just hearing something. Like, oh, my god, you know.

 

M-hm.

 

It’s an incredibly powerful force, and it can actually change people’s lives, you know. And that’s why I think musicians have a really big responsibility to just keep on point, keep being mindful, keep getting better, showing up. Because it’s a really powerful thing.

 

Benny Rietveld, who still calls Hawai‘i home, is the bassist and music director for Santana, a band he first heard when he was a young boy growing up in Honolulu. He’s been recording and touring with Santana since the 1990s, and he’s also known locally as a member of Topaz, a jazz fusion band that he and his high school friends had in the 1970s. Benny Rietveld, next, on Long Story Short.

 

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

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Benny Rietveld has recorded three albums with the iconic Latin rock band Santana, including Supernatural which became a worldwide sensation when it was released in 1999. Rietveld was born in Holland to parents of Dutch, French, and Indonesian ancestry. They moved their family to Hawai‘i when Benny was three. He grew up in Honolulu, where he started showing musical talent at a young age.

 

I took piano lessons when I was six.

 

Why did you take piano when you were six? Now, that’s early. How did that happen?

 

Remember Gem Store on—well, I don’t know …

 

Kapalama?

 

Yeah; in Kapalama. Yeah. Well, we used to live in Kalihi, and so we’d go through there, and it was always the piano section, and I was always plinking on the piano, you know. And my mom thought, Oh, he’s musical. You know how kids, you know, they hit a hammer, and it’s like, Oh, he’s gonna be a carpenter when he grows up.

 

But were you plunking better than most kids, do you think?

 

I don’t think so. I just liked it. I liked the idea that you could press something, and it creates this cool sound. I think. That’s how I remember it. And then, so we got like a little piano, upright piano, and she gave me lessons at Palama Settlement. And I think the first teacher was named Mrs. Leong. I think. But I didn’t really like ‘em. And I was like, Oh, really? You know, really like boring music, and River keep on rolling. You know. I just didn’t get it. And then, when was ten, we still had the piano in the, you know, attracting dust. And then, the song Hey Jude came out from the Beatles, and it had that cool piano intro. I was like, wow, that’s cool. I was like, wow. And then, oh, it’s sort of like that instrument that’s in our living room. So, I was like, huh. And it was really easy for me, and it was really fun. So, I thought, well, this is great, I’m gonna keep doing this. You know.

 

Then you learned other songs.

 

And then, I learned the entire Beatles catalog, practically.

 

By yourself, or with a teacher?

 

No, no; by myself. Yeah. You know, then I was hooked. And it was like, this is fun, I don’t want to do anything else. And I was just on my way. And then, I met my cousin, the guitar player in Topaz, or calabash cousin, actually, Fred Schreuders. And he was slightly older than me, but he was already playing music. He was, you know, playing guitar, and his dad also played music. So, I was like, wow, cool. And we met, and we jammed, you know, tried to play songs together.

 

You were on the piano?

 

Yeah; and then, I branched out to drums, and then a little bit of bass. And then we started, you know, playing. Hey, let’s do a band, you know. And so, yeah, we put together a band. So, when I was about twelve, I was playing in these dances at, you know, Star of the Sea.

 

And that was kind of the beginning of that. So, you know, I met the guitar player for Topaz way back then.

 

You were just picking it up as you went.

 

Yeah; yeah. ‘Cause it was easy.

 

And you were playing for high school dances at age twelve, or middle school dances?

 

Yes; yeah. My parents were really worried. ‘Cause there were some situations where sometimes we’d play a party, and and more like a high school kids’ party. And so, there may have been some illicit drugs.

 

And it was nighttime.

 

And it was nighttime.

 

Driving.

 

Yeah. So, my parents, you know, lost a lot of hair.

 

And you gave them reason to.

 

A little bit. But, you know, I wasn’t that wild.

 

And where were you on instruments? ‘Cause right now, you’re a confirmed bassist.

 

Yeah.

 

How did you pick the bass, or did the bass pick you?

 

Well, yeah. This is the joke. Usually, the bass picks you. It’s usually because you don’t know anyone else who plays the bass. So, you’re like, oh, you play the bass. So, what happened to me was, I was playing drums in this little dance band, and our bass player left. So, we didn’t know any other musicians, but we knew one drummer. So, it was like, well, what do we do? You know, so we’ll just get him, and you play bass. So, that’s how it happened. But I kept playing guitar with Joe the Fiddler, because, you know, it worked better for chords and stuff, and I kept up on piano playing. You know, I just like always was interested in all of that stuff. But you know, I started getting kinda good on the bass, which is easy to do.  Yeah; so that was that. It just happens like that, you know.

 

What schools did you go to?

 

I lived in town mostly, and I went to McKinley High School.

 

You had a band director who is legendary.

 

Yes, legendary; Henry Miyamura. He’s like one of the big musical mentors of my life, and of Noel’s life, and of Allen Won’s life, too, the other guys from Topaz. He was … amazing. He was like that Mr. Holland guy. I mean, just deeply, deeply committed to the real essence of music performance, which goes beyond, you know, the notes and stuff, but the actual conveyance of the emotion or of the story, or of the tragedy or comedy, or whatever. And to get a bunch of high school kids, half of them who weren’t really gonna go into music anyway, or most of them, and get them to sound as good as he got those bands to sound was really a remarkable feat.

 

How do you think he did it?

 

I think he really loved music, and he loved people. He knew how important it was, you know, even if we didn’t. You know, we were kids then. He knew.

 

While Benny Rietveld was busy playing music through high school, his parents were thinking about his future. They didn’t consider music to be a suitable career path. But Benny was already doing what he loved, and it wasn’t long before his talents took him from the local venues in Hawai‘i to a larger stage.

 

Did you decide consciously, I’m going to be a musician as a livelihood?

 

I don’t think so. The only time it was a conscious thought was like as, you know, graduation from high school was imminent. Then my parents were like, So, you know, what are you gonna do? You’re gonna go to trade school? You should go to trade school, because you know, you learn a trade and make a lot of money. I guess they didn’t see me as the scholarly type, which I wasn’t.  And I said, Oh, I’m just gonna play music. I just assumed I was.

 

Were you already getting paid to play?

 

Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Just like, well, I don’t know. You know, I just thought I was gonna be a musician. And they went, What? No, you can’t. And they were very upset for a little while, only because, you know, they just saw their child being an intravenous drug user and being in the gutter, and you know, whatever. So yeah, I totally get why they freaked out. But then after a while, they thought, Well, he seems to be doing okay, and he’s playing, you know.

 

And you went to college right after that, here.

 

Not right after, but yeah, I did.

 

Oh; so you graduated from high school.

 

Graduated from high school. I was living on my own. I think for about a year, I was living on my own, then I got a scholarship for UH, through Mr. Miyamoto, who suggested I do that. So, he championed me as far as getting a scholarship.

 

And didn’t graduate.

 

No.

 

Because?

 

‘Cause I was also playing music, and then I got a road touring gig with The Crusaders. It was very short. But with all my other gigs in Hawai‘i, and then going off to the mainland for a little bit, just like I lost the whole momentum.

 

How did you make the transition from having lived almost all of your life in Hawai‘i, to the mainland, to the continent?

 

With scarves and heavy sweaters. Basically, that’s how I made the transition. I went to San Francisco first.

 

And that was, I’m going to go try my luck in the San Francisco Bay Area?

 

Well, because I had a friend there already. And he said, You gotta come here, there’s a lot of good music there. And there was, at the time. Lots of great musicians there.

 

You played with some biggies, fairly early on.

 

No. I mean, I don’t know. Pete Escovedo, you know, I learned a lot from him. Ray Obiedo, you know, he used to play with Herbie Hancock and really good songwriter. And a lot of really great local San Francisco Bay Area musicians.

 

When was the first time you played with someone that you went, Whoa, I’m with so-and-so, I’m intimidated?

 

Well, sort of like Sheila E, because her producer was Prince. So, he’d be around, and I’m like, Whoa, you know, ooh. You know. That was my sort of introduction to the high end pop world.

 

And you went on tour with Sheila E, didn’t you?

 

Yes, yes; for about two years.

 

How did you get along with Prince?

 

He was like kind of a mysterious background guy. So, he didn’t talk much to us, but he seemed okay, you know. But he kinda kept more to Sheila and, you know, just sort of like that.

 

Now, did that tour lead to anything?

 

Then I was playing around the Bay Area for a while, and then, I guess Miles Davis was looking for a bass player, and he kinda wanted that sort of Prince-influenced sound. Then we rehearsed, and I met Miles, and it was crazy. And I think I was too much in shock to be actually intimidated, tell you the truth. It was only until I think a year later, I was on the stage, and I was like, Holy crap, that’s Miles Davis. You know, and then I had that moment. But I think, you know, your body blesses you with the gift of shock, so you’re just, you know, immune.

 

And how was it? You know, you have to feel each other in music, you have to work together. How did that go?

 

It went fabulously. You know, he would, you know, give direction while we’re playing, and sometimes before the shows we’d talk about let’s do this part a little faster, or let’s do this kinda rhythm and, you know. And we would keep trying, and so really, back then it was like a laboratory, you know. Because we would do the same song, and it would just evolve. It was like a petri dish. I mean, the songs would evolve so that if you hear the same song two years apart, they’re almost radically different. You know, the tempo is like way slower or faster, and this part is really loud, you know. It was really, really interesting, and it just demanded that you focus a hundred percent on him and the music all the time. You know. That was the big deal.

 

You had to be really mindful.

 

Yeah; like mindful to an incredible degree, because if you weren’t, then then he’d know, you know, and then those eyes would, you know, turn. You know, zzzz, laser, laser. So yeah, you really had to have presence of mind.

 

So, you had a real sense of what he wanted, who he wanted—

 

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

 

–how he wanted.

 

Yeah, yeah. And yet, there was that … still, the challenge was to inject yourself in that, within that framework, you know.

 

And he expected you to.

 

Yeah; yeah, yeah, yeah. And so, that was really intimidating, ‘cause I felt like I wasn’t really mature enough as a musician to inject a lot of myself. I don’t know, maybe I did. I don’t know.  That was another coming of age thing, because I had to, I think, almost completely relearn music. You know, really music and bass playing, and the ethos of what it means to be a bass player and what it means to be a musician.

 

Why?

 

Well, because I hadn’t learned all these really basic fundamental things well enough, you know.

 

So, you were good enough to get in the band.

 

Yeah.

 

And once you were there, you had to up your game.

 

Yeah; yeah, yeah. It was like raw talent is one thing, but to really like hone it is another thing.

 

After two and a half years playing with Miles Davis, Benny Rietveld moved on. Two months later, he met Carlos Santana.

 

Coincidentally, I did a recording session with Carlos Santana.

 

You sound so casual when you say that.

 

Well, no. I mean, because it just happened, you know. It was somebody else’s session, and we met. And that was another intimidating moment, ‘cause it was Carlos Santana, and I grew up looking at that album cover, you know, and all that stuff, listening to all those albums over and over again. And he said, Yeah, you know, I might need another bass player, and you know. Luckily, we lived both in the Bay Area, so I called him and I said, Yeah, I would love to play. Are you kidding? You know. So that’s how that happened.

 

Aren’t you the musical director as well now?

 

Yes. I don’t know, I’m not really the musical director so much as like traffic cop. You know, ‘cause I consider Carlos actually is the musical director, ‘cause he’s very hands-on and he has an uncanny ability to know what he wants. It’s more about during the show itself, when he calls an audible, which he does every time, then I just help direct traffic. Okay, we’re going here now, instead of, you know, how we rehearsed it.

 

How much of the year do you go on tours?

 

With Santana, it’s roughly four to five months out of the year. But it’s broken up. You do get burnt out, you know, no matter what you do. And it’s always gotta be really, really high level, energy, fun. And the minute it’s a little bit below that, then we’re not doing it.

 

Do you ever get sick of being asked to play a song you love, but you’ve heard it and you’ve sung it … Black Magic Woman, so many times before?

 

No; love it. It’s great. I don’t care about all the other times I’ve played it. It’s like, oh, wow, this is the first time I’m playing it. You know. That’s special, and we have to convey that to people every time. That’s the hard part. That’s the higher level stuff. Not playing the music; the notes are like whatever, you know. That’s like hammering a nail; okay? But it’s how to get into that thing, and it sounds so, fluffy and goofy, you know. But that is, to me, the higher level of music.

 

Did working with Santana when you started require a different sensibility than working with Miles Davis? Did you have to shift in any way?

 

Only superficially, actually, with the style of music, the genre, you know. Because it’s more rock-oriented, Latin, which we hardly ever did in Miles’ thing. But in essence, it was actually very similar, because they both demanded passion and fire, and presence of mind, like all the time. And not being afraid, you know. I think that’s another thing. You cannot have any fear.

 

Is there a way to describe how they work musically, and how you work with them musically?

 

With both of those guys, it was about trying to … articulate the in-articulable.  That’s the weird part about music, is that like underneath the hood, underneath all the technique and theory, and all the numbers, which are all useful, underneath it all, I like to say the last thing that music is about is music. You know.  It’s really about feeling and life. And it sounds so, you know … fluffy. You know, like, Oh, it’s feelings. You know. But all the major guys hardly ever talk about nuts and bolts of music, you know. The jazz guys, a little bit more, because it’s more their realm, you know. But all those guys share the predilection for using aphorisms to describe music. It should sound like, you know, red wine streaming through. You know, something like that. And sometimes, it just sounds so bonkers, you know, to the uninitiated. But then, you realize it’s just a personal lexicon and a cosmology. And actually, now that I’ve known Carlos for a while, it makes complete sense, you know. Now when he says something, you know, like really poetic, I’m actually kinda knowing what it means in dry, boring music terms. Sometimes Miles would say—an actual musical thing would be like, Give that part a little lift. Instead of, you know, doong, doong, doong, doong; maybe like doong, ka-doong, ka-doong, ka-doong, doong, ka-doong. You know, all these little things between. I think everyone knows that deep down inside, it’s really silly to talk about music, because it’s the most abstract of all art forms, you know. But we try, anyway. We have to, sometimes. You know, we’re trying to convey what we want, you know.

 

Although Benny Rietveld lives in L.A. when he isn’t touring with Santana, he likes to come to the place he calls home: Hawai‘i. In 2014, he and some of his former bandmates from Topaz reunited for a show.

 

What brings you back to perform with your old high school buddies?

 

Love of music, and love of them. You know. We’ve kept in contact all this time.

 

And tell me what the names are. Who’s your gang?

 

The gang is Noel Okimoto on drums, Allen Won on the saxophones, Fred Schreuders on guitar, and Carl Wakeland on keyboards.

 

That’s a pretty amazing group from McKinley High School, isn’t it?

 

Yeah. Well, me and Allen, and Noel are from McKinley. Carl is from Mililani. Fred ended up graduating from Kaiser High School. We got kind of popular because we were this bunch of high school kids that could play this kind of difficult and technical music known at the time as fusion. And we loved jazz and all that. So, there weren’t many eighteen-year-olds playing that at the time in Hawai‘i. So you know, we got a kind of rep, and we were the little darlings there for a while, and we even played at La Mancha for two weeks. We disbanded ‘cause we all had stuff, and we were doing our lives. And Noel stayed here, so he’d play. And his late dad, unfortunately, George Okimoto, would go to his gigs all the time. And George actually managed us back then, because he was the manager of Easy Music Center, you know, by McCully. And so he was like, You know, you kids really got something. And he got us equipment to use, you know, cool new gear. So he was like our manager, and really championed us. Cut to couple of years ago. We’re at Gordon Biersch, I’m visiting, and I see Noel, and like you know, listening to him, Byron Yasui and all these great local guys. And there was Noel’s dad, George Okimoto, and he goes, Eh, hurry up, you know, get a reunion. And it was like, actually very bittersweet because he actually made a joke. He was like, Eh, hurry up, before I die.  And what I got from that was like, he wasn’t really joking around. He was like, you know, everyone is about to move on here, and you guys should do something, ‘cause it was really special. So, we did a show last year. It was really, really fun. So, this year again, earlier in the year, we recorded a CD. But you know, we all have these other crazy lives, and we’re not gonna like, Yeah, let’s have a band and tour together. That’s not gonna happen.

 

Did you ever conceive, did you ever think in your young life, that you would be in your fifties, and it’s a tour, it’s concerts and crowds, and music, and vans?

 

I had no idea. Who really knows what their thing is, you know.

 

And how long do you see that going on?

 

Playing music, being involved in music for me will go on until either I die, or I find suddenly that I don’t like it. You know. I don’t really see the latter happening.

 

Benny Rietveld has not stopped having fun playing music since figuring out how to play Hey Jude on the piano at age ten. Along with his raw talent, his dedication to his craft, his ability to work with people, his fearlessness and his determination took him to a world stage. Mahalo to Benny Rietveld, a proud graduate of McKinley High School in Honolulu, and longtime bassist for Santana. And thank you, for joining us. For PBS Hawai‘i 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 PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawai‘i.org.

 

[END]

 

Undefeated by Dark Times

 

CEO Message

 

Undefeated by Dark Times

Dr. Elliot Kalauawa and Ralph Aviles

Dr. Elliot Kalauawa, Waikiki Health’s Chief Medical Officer   |   Ralph Aviles, former professional boxer

 

Leslie Wilcox, PBS Hawai‘i President and CEOIt’s happened maybe a dozen times already.
Within a minute of running into someone I know or meeting someone new, I’m asked about a guest whom I interviewed recently on our weekly Long Story Short program.

 

“You know, the man from Waikīkī,” said Blake Johnson of Honolulu, shortly after we met at a PBS Hawai‘i film screening. “What a guy! I can’t think of his name.”

 

Mr. Johnson went on: “You ask yourself, ‘Can he be real?’”

 

He was referring to Dr. Elliot Kalauawa, Chief Medical Officer at nonprofit Waikiki Health, who matter-of-factly told about growing up in Pālolo public housing. An only child, he didn’t know his father, and at a young age, his single mother left him on his own much of the time, going off to drink and gamble.

 

There was not the slightest trace of self-pity or bitterness as he related how he would eat dinner alone most evenings and put himself to bed. In the light of morning, he would find his mother sleeping soundly in her bed. Taking care not to awaken her, he would kiss her goodbye before making his way to school.

 

The future Dr. Kalauawa blamed no one for his circumstances. He knew that his mother loved bars and card games. He also knew that she loved him.

 

“I’m really happy I came upon that program,” Mr. Johnson smiled. “He’s quite a person. Yes, he’s real.”

 

Viewer Judy Soares also was moved by Dr. Kalauawa’s story. And she found former professional boxer Ralph Aviles “spell-binding” as he described his tough early childhood and his volunteer work today with at-risk youth.

 

Ms. Soares wrote: “I am a retired teacher who worked at a school where children came from difficult family circumstances. I used to spend many hours worrying about their futures. After seeing your interviews, I was so happy to see the resilience both men displayed.”

 

“…Both now have a dedication to helping less fortunate people. But they don’t do the helping in a condescending way – they respect the people they are helping. It’s inspirational.”

 

These Long Story Short guests are not celebrities, but they shine. Their dark times didn’t defeat them. These men quietly illuminate their lives and those of others.

 

A hui hou (until next time),

 

Leslie signature

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Rita Palafox

 

Rita Palafox left her sheltered plantation upbringing on Maui to join the Army straight after high school, and serve her country in the Vietnam War. Her 20-year career took her places beyond Hawai‘i – to Guam to recruit, and to the Deep American South, in the heart of Klan country.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Oct. 1, at 4:00 pm.

 

Rita Palafox Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Today, you have women climbing telephone poles, repairing lines, jumping out of aircraft if they want to go airborne, and infantry. So, the doors are wide open now, because we’re integrated. But back when I first joined, jobs were limited, and to get promoted, you had to compete with the men.

 

Rita Palafox joined the Women’s Army Corps at a time when there were very few opportunities for women, whether it was in the Army, or on Maui, where she grew up. She left her plantation community to provide for herself, and became witness to one of the most transformative eras in modern American history. Rita Palafox, next, on Long Story Short.

 

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

 

Aloha mai kākou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Rita Margarita Palafox served in the Women’s Army Corps, or WAC, for twenty years, retiring at the rank of Master Sergeant in 1976. Her military career spanned a time of profound change in America, from her encounter with segregation in the 1950s to working as an Army recruiter at the height of protests against the Vietnam War. Growing up in a small plantation community on the north side of Maui in the 40s and 50s did not prepare her for the culture shock she would later experience, but it did teach her important survival skills.

 

I was born in Spreckelsville on Maui, 1937. Community living was wonderful. I had so many aunties and uncles, as everybody kinda was like one family. We shared problems, went to school together, some from grade school to high school. The thing that I did not appreciate as a youngster was the outside toilet facilities. Hated that. But we learned to cope and live with it. Everybody, I would consider, whether you were Japanese, Portuguese, Filipino, the living was hard. The women, some worked in the cane field to help to provide food for family. My father was fortunate to work in the plantation store, but he had a hard job. He had to go to each camp, and there was ten of ‘em, to take orders from the families, and then take it back to the store, and fill those orders, and deliver it again the next day. I was about four or five years old when I used to go with him. He was my babysitter, being the youngest in the family. So, I watched him do this and said: Whoa, what a hard job. But then, Mama-san and Papa-san, and my aunties and all my uncles used to see me in the car and bring things for me, so I kinda benefited from this wonderful trip. But I learned how hard living was. If people didn’t, you know, unite together to survive, it was hard living.

 

He was the plantation store manager, which I don’t think a lot of Filipino guys did in plantation days; right?

 

M-hm. He also loved music. He could go to the store and buy a Glenn Miller, let’s say, one of his favorite songs, and he could write notes for every instrument. And I told him: How did you learn all this? He said: It was a gift. And he started putting together a band. ‘Til this day, he never told us how he managed to get them all dressed in Navy uniform. They rented it, but I don’t think it was ever returned.

 

They used to call it the Old Filipino Glenn Miller Band. It bothered my mom, because she needed his help sometimes, but she knew he loved his music.

 

Your mother was a Vares.

 

Yes.

 

Portuguese stock.

 

Yes.

 

And then, your dad, a Palafox; Filipino.

 

Yes.

 

And tell me about how those ethnic groups affected your upbringing.

 

Well, to be honest with you, you know, our camps, we had Filipino Camps, Japanese Camps.

 

Portuguese Camps.

 

Portuguese Camp, Korean, Chinese, Hawaiian. And the camp we lived in, we always get picked by the other kids, because it’s supposed to be the worst; outside bathrooms, the facilities weren’t as good as the ones in the other camp. They had indoor toilet facilities, little things like that.

 

So, people teased you for having the junkest facilities.

 

Yeah; and you know, like with the low class and stuff like that.

 

Because which camp were you in?

 

I was in Camp 1; they used to call that the …

 

Filipino Camp?

 

Filipino Camp. But you know, later on, as they ran out of home facilities for the other race, like the Japanese, they kind of brought them into our camp, which was good. You know, so we had a mixed plate after a while. But anyway, it was hard. Being Filipino, I’m going be very honest with you, they used to call us book-books.

 

It’s usually the newer immigrant group that gets picked on; right? And Filipinos were newer.

 

Yes. I went to Maui High School, and I always used to tell my brother: We’re only going to school to eat lunch. We were that motivated in the sense that, you know, I love history and I love science. So, those are the two subjects I made sure I paid strict—I was not what you would consider a college-bound student at that time.

 

Just weren’t interested?

 

Just weren’t interested, and knowing my parents could not afford it, anyway. You know. But they did save a lot for the two oldest. They did very well in school. In fact, all three of them went to Catholic school. They pulled them out of the public school, because they were complaining that the teachers were not fair. You know, they favored certain groups.

 

Ethnic groups?

 

Yes.

 

Which ethnic groups?

 

Japanese.

 

In public schools.

 

In public schools. My brother would say: I raise my hand, I had the answer, they called the next person, you know, the other person. So, my mom and dad talked, and says: About time we sacrifice, and pull our kids out of public school and send them to Holy Rosary Catholic.

 

But not you.

 

I lucked out, because, I said I didn’t want to go to a Portuguese school. No; it was a joke in the family.

 

Because Catholic schools are—

 

Most of the Portuguese—

 

Many Catholics are Portuguese.

 

Right. And I said: I went to school with all my friends from the camp, and I want to stay with them. My father said: No, you’re going. I said: No, I’m not. So, I won. I said: Dad, save your money; I’m barely making it through grade school, I can save you a lot of money, Dad.

 

So interesting that you weren’t a motivated student.

 

You know, my friends used say, I’m gonna be a beautician, I’m gonna be this, I’m gonna work in the bank, I’m gonna be a nurse. The only thing that really got my interest was the military, because my father was in the National Guard. He spent twenty-six years there. He was a wonderful sharpshooter.

 

Expert rifleman?

 

Yeah; expert. And he had his own rifle team, and they used to compete with all the other island National Guardsmen and Reserve. And they did pretty good. When I became a sophomore, I start thinking: Hey, you know, you better start thinking what you’re gonna do, ‘cause time is going fast. So, I thought about the military.

 

And what was there for women at that time?

 

Very little; the jobs were scarce. But you know, what motivated me is that they had some technical fields that I had been interested in. And definitely, they had the GI Bill, which is a college degree. So, if I could progress myself and find myself, hopefully in the military as a starter, maybe there’s a possibility I can, you know, find myself.

 

After graduating from Maui High School, Rita Palafox went right into the service, volunteering for the Women’s Army Corps. She was sent to Alabama for basic training, and on the journey there, had her first encounter with segregation.

 

We knew there were some racial problems, but we didn’t know how severe it was until we went by train, and our first stop was Texas. And we had stopover there, and that’s the first time we were exposed by the word Whites Only Bathroom, Colored or Black Bathroom Only. So, you know, we figured with our group, we had eight of us. We had some Filipino gals, a Hawaiian gal, and looking at me, mixed plate, dark, my tan. Well, we were confused and scared. For me, I have to use the word culture shock. It took a while for me to look at that and say: My god, we just raised our right hand and swear under oath that we will support and defend this wonderful country of ours, and this is the best they can do for us?

 

What year was that?

 

This was 1955.

 

And you had to choose what bathroom to go to?

 

Yeah.

 

White, or non-White?

 

Right in Texas. And so, we decided to flip a coin.

 

And we ended up going into the Black side of the house. And they were just as shocked as we were, because, whoa, here’s a group of—some of ‘em thought we were White trash trying to make trouble. So, we told them we were from Hawaiʻi. The minute we said that, boy, the whole world stopped. This one gal held the door open and says: I’ll hold the door. Because you had to pay a dime to use the bathroom. It was not free. So, we apologized; it was sad. And later on, we just told them, I wonder why they don’t have one for beige.

 

Everybody had a laugh about that. What about riding the bus? Anything happen on that score?

 

Yes. Our first pass, which we worked so hard for to go downtown and shop, and hopefully go to a Chinese restaurant and have some hopefully good Chinese food. Well, I was the last to board the bus. And I know there was a little bit confusion, ‘cause I could sit on … our group that went on the bus. I mean, like …

 

Where were they sitting? The ones who already got on the bus; where were they sitting?

 

Well, I don’t know what the bus driver really told them until I thought I heard: Back of the bus. So, my five senses went twenty-four/seven like, bing-bing, the vision got sharper, the hearing. I said to myself: Oh, my god, not on the bus. So, by the time I got to my turn to pay, I looked at the bus driver and I said: Did you say the back of the bus? He said, Well, yeah. Kinda he was just as stunned seeing all this. So, I said: You know, sir, in Hawaiʻi, we fight for the back seat.

 

And that’s so true.

 

And over here, we can go and, we can go to—

 

Now it’s reserved for you.

 

And he said: Hawaiʻi? He served with some folks from Hawaiʻi, and he apologized in the sense he said: You tell them sit anywhere they want. But they were already sitting down by the time I got there. So, I went to the back, and asked this nice gal in the back; I said: Do you mind if I sit with you? She says: Oh, no. So, I sat down. She said: What happened? And I told her. She just touched my hand and said: Thank you.

 

She was a Black woman?

 

Yes. So, I asked permission to sit back there. And I think I did tell her: I wish they had one for beige. And I said this was our first pass, and what a way to go. So, there was a lot of bumps in the road.

 

What a disconnect, after swearing patriotically.

 

Yes; that’s what hurt the most. Right. And how proud my father was when he arrived here. You know. And to be greeted like this, I’m saying: My god, this can’t be America, the land of the free.

 

So, you volunteered for the Women’s Army Corps.

 

Correct.

 

Which many people now don’t really maybe recall that there was a separate division for women, and it was separate, and not equal, because pay, power, very different in the Women’s Army Corps.

 

And you had to compete. When promotions come in, you then have to compete with the guys.

 

Tell me; were there jobs that were earmarked for women, and others for men, or were you competing for the same slots?

 

Well, when I joined, I would say we were lucky as women if we had thirty jobs available.

 

For women?

 

For women. The rest was open for the men. I lucked out, because I got on-the-job training. I guess my typing skills was so good they said: Don’t spend money on her, just send her on to her next assignment as a clerk typist. I knew pretty much what I was getting into. We had a wonderful recruiter. I mean, she let us pretty much know what was going on. Not too much with the problems with segregation and all that good stuff. She touched off a little bit, but not enough. We only took the minimum two-year service to find ourself, for me. And if I could not, you know, in two years realize, you know, what I should do, then I was in trouble. I mean, it was an opportunity, you know.

 

So, in two years, did you find yourself?

 

I sure did. We had a bulletin go out in every WAC detachment, and I used to check that bulletin board like a hawk eye. And when I was stationed in Oakland, my first assignment army terminal, I saw on the board, Okinawa. I said: Oh, wow. But I knew I didn’t have enough service time. You needed a year, unless you waiver your time. So, I only came in for two; I had to have three years. So, I went right to the first sergeant and asked what paperwork I needed to waiver and take that extra year. And she said: Oh, I don’t know, you still, you know, should stay a little longer, Rita. You know. And I said: No, I want to go. So, I lucked out and got Okinawa. So, when I got there, my first sergeant was Charles Los Banos. And that name is for me, legendary. So, I said: Wow. He was very strict with me. He said: Don’t you make trouble or bring shame to us, you know. He just wanted me to make sure, you know, watch what I do. And he was very protective. I told him: Jesus Christ, I left Hawaiʻi to get away from my father, and look at you.

 

So, was he talking about dating?

 

Dating, and be careful because uh, you know, we were young. He used to take me home, and met the family, and pretty much felt very adopted by this wonderful family. What a wonderful soldier, professional. So, I consider him a mentor. So, through his wonderful guidance, he kinda instilled me. I think I pretty much found myself, and I thank him, because I believe in mentors. I think this is why I can honestly sit here and tell you if it wasn’t for all these wonderful people who cared, I wouldn’t be sitting in front of you today.

 

Did you have a significant other?

 

No. No; at the time when I joined the Women’s Army Corps, once you got married, you had to get out. So, you know, we are—

 

You were marrying the Army.

 

We were married to the Army until the law changed. And it didn’t change until we integrated.

 

Which was when?

 

I would say between ’75, ’76; maybe after that.

 

After her two-year assignment in Okinawa ended, Rita Palafox reenlisted in the Women’s Army Corps. She was next stationed at Fort Ord, California before heading to Fort Lawton, Washington, where she was one of twelve women picked to be a senior missile tracker. Her second three-year term of service was almost over, when yet a new opportunity opened up.

 

Doris Caldwell; she was a young captain at that time. She knew I was thinking about getting out of the service, you know, when I was there in Seattle. So, she kinda sneaky through or politely knew the director of the Women’s Army Corps was coming, and she said: Rita, if you had one job that you’d like, which job would you take in the Army? I said: Recruiting. Knowing the chances of me getting army recruiting in Hawaii was … forget it.

 

Why would you want to recruit? ‘Cause this was during the Vietnam era.

 

Yes.

 

And you know, it was a hard sell in Hawaiʻi, in many cases.

 

Reason; you know, like I said, as you progress through your journeys, you grow up a little bit, you start finding yourself, and you said: Wow, I wonder what I’d be like if, you know, I could share my journey with the people that I really have high respect for, you know, or local kids. I mean, for me, I mean, there’s quality here. I mean, the family, the tradition of the Nisei or the Japanese, the 442nd. I mean, history is here. And I’ll be darned if I didn’t get recruiting.

 

The Vietnam War, of course, became a very unpopular war. Was it unpopular at the time you were recruiting?

 

Pretty much. In fact, Patsy Mink and Abercrombie was doing their thing with the University of Hawaiʻi. I’m not against demonstrating; I think it’s honorable, I think that’s what we fight for, and to have our freedom of speech and stuff. But when they go cross the line, yeah, we have problems in Hawaiʻi, but not as bad as California. Burning of the flags, draft cards, walking around with packages over their head. The part that hurt me the most, our recruiting station was on Halekauwila Street next to the unemployment office. And President Johnson came to visit with Inouye to give a speech at ʻIolani Palace. I went with my commanding officer. And they were so loud and so … oh, I was so embarrassed that these folks, as the President was trying to talk, they were yelling and screaming, and doing whatever with packages over their head. I went up one of ‘em and I said: If you believe so strong against the Vietnam War, take the package off your head. I know they weren’t from Hawaiʻi. Then, you had these kids that, not to be drafted, come in and say: I want to volunteer. There’s the balance. I said: My god, here’s this one guy putting a package over his head, demonstrating against the war, probably will never serve, and here’s the kids still coming in the door saying: I want to go in the Army and volunteer.

 

How did you feel about the Vietnam War at that time?

 

Pretty much, I’m not one for wars. I did a lot of visits to cemeteries. I still have a hard time.

 

But you still volunteered, asked for the recruiting job.

 

Yes.

 

With unsettled feelings about war.

 

Wars. There’s a lot of us feel the same way, even the ones that went there. You know, and some went back for second tour, because in their heart, especially if they lose a comrade at arms, their friend, they felt: Gee, I lived, and he didn’t, I want to go back. And they knew at that time, it was not a fair situation. They did not know a lot of things that was going on, and it was troubling for them, but they went back because they lived, and their friend didn’t. One of the things when I was picked as the recruiter here in Hawaiʻi, I knew I was already in trouble. Because the recruiting station know for you to get in recruiting, you had to be a recruiter. Well, I was brand new, fresh. There were warning signs that if I don’t produce, you know, the door I came in would be open to go out, kinda thing. I saw this recruiter by the name of Joseph Hao, top recruiter in the nation. And I said to myself: Who best can train me than him? He said: You know what; lot of those schools have ROTC. The Cabral brothers was with Kamehameha School, so he knew them. He said: I’m gonna call them, and see what they can do for you. I said: I want to go to Kamehameha School. He said: Forget it; I don’t think the principal gonna let you in. I said: Well, we can try. But the Cabral brothers got me in. And I was greeted by the president; I think her name was Clark. She said: You can talk to them, but they’re all college-bound. I said: Okay, at least I have the opportunity; thank you very much. So, I wore my dress blues, I went up there. I gave my presentation. And I was shocked; after I was done, about five of ‘em came up to me, says: Can we talk to you privately? I said: I’d love to have you guys. So, they came down. The principal wasn’t too choked up. But they came down, and they went in the service. Just to make a long story short; these kids, I know they were good. If you live in a dorm, they had white glove inspection. You know, basic training would be a breeze for them. They went in there, and we got a letter from the director of the Women’s Army Corps. She got a letter from the commandant of the Women’s Army Corps in Alabama, and she said she was so proud that there was a group of young women that came in and broke every record at the training center. American Spirit Award was the top, outstanding training; every category our good old Kamehameha School did it.

 

And that didn’t keep the young women from going to college, either. In fact, they would have their college paid for if they stayed in.

 

In fact, I had feedback from one of ‘em; she thanked me. She said: You know, I saved my parents a lot of money; I got something they could not afford. She was a good student, and thanks to the Army, she got her degree.

 

Did the headmaster let you back in?

 

No problem.

 

After nine years of recruiting in Hawaiʻi, Rita Palafox was proud to be asked to establish a recruiting center on Guam. Three years later, the Guam Legislature acknowledged her for meritorious work. Rita Palafox left recruiting to become a drill sergeant back in Alabama, at the same basic training camp where she started her Army career fifteen years earlier. She had received many commendations by the time she retired in 1976. Moving home to Hawaiʻi, she spent the next twenty-one years working for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Mahalo to Maui girl Rita Palafox, retired and living in Windward Oʻahu at the time of this conversation in 2017, for your service to our county in active duty and civilian roles over a career that saw tremendous change in America. And thank you, for joining us. For PBS Hawaiʻi and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, a hui hou.

 

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

 

Don Ho was my best friend. ‘Cause every group that graduated, or day before they finished their basic training, the last song they play before bedtime was the Taps, and I used to do my walk and give them my farewell speech. And I said: I would like for you to meet my best friend. And I turn on my tape recorder, and Don Ho would come on and say: I’d like to dedicate this song to my family, or to the audience, and then he sings I Will Remember You. And as soon as he got through singing, I would say to them: Bring some aloha wherever you go, whatever you do. Show respect, love one another, and spread some aloha throughout this world; we need it.

 

[END]

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Billie Gabriel

 

Billie Gabriel’s life was forever changed when her brother James “Kimo” Gabriel Jr. was killed in the Vietnam War. She was only 11 when he died, and the tragedy left its mark. She has dedicated much of her adult life helping to preserve the legacies of the more than 270 Hawai‘i servicemen who lost their lives in the Vietnam War.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Thursday, Sept. 21, at 11:00 pm and Sunday, Sept. 24, at 4:00 pm.

 

Billie Gabriel Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Everyone gathered around the television to watch the special about Vietnam. And then, they showed … the chopper landing. You could hear bullets flying, so the Vietcong were there. And them jumping out … tying rope on the legs of two American soldiers, and dragging them … to the helicopter. I didn’t know that was my brother, until the announcer said: We have recovered the bodies of. And at that point, my mother … it was a wail; it was a cry that you … never want to hear.

 

Her brother, James Gabriel, Jr., was the first Native Hawaiian soldier killed in action during the Vietnam War. Five decades later, she continues to honor his sacrifice. Billie Gabriel, next, on Long Story Short.

 

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

 

Aloha mai kākou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Billie Gabriel of Honolulu lost her older brother, James Kimo Gabriel, Jr., to the Vietnam War in 1962. Not only was her brother the first Native Hawaiian soldier to be killed in action, but also one of the first U.S. Special Forces soldiers to make the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam. Four years later, Sergeant Barry Sadler released the song, The Ballad of the Green Berets. The original lyrics were written to pay tribute to James Gabriel, Jr. In 2010, Billie Gabriel used her public relations contacts and experience to spearhead the Hawai‘i Call for Photos project. She tracked down photographs of two hundred seventy-six Hawai‘i soldiers who lost their lives during the Vietnam War. The plan is to display photos from across the nation in an education center to be built in Washington, DC. Billie Gabriel read the letters from her late brother, hoping to gain an understanding of his views on Vietnam. What she found brought her closer to the big brother who died when she was just eleven years old.

 

Yes. My mother is pure Hawaiian, and my father is half Hawaiian and half Filipino. So, yes, there’s a lot of kanaka in us. There is; there is. And there were nine of us. And my father was … quite the disciplinarian, very old school. It was his way, or his way.

 

Was he affectionate?

 

He was not. My father was not; he was very stern, hard worker, a perfectionist, and he expected the same out of his children. My father was a voracious reader. He would make me read the dictionary with him. That’s what I had to do; read the dictionary. And every week, I had to randomly choose a word, and I was told that I needed to use that word in conversation with him for the entire week. And my mother, on the other hand; she was a very humble, giving, loving, local girl from Waialua. When she was going to the eighth grade, my tutu pulled her out of school and told her: From now on, your classroom will be our lo‘i, the ocean, and my kitchen.

 

Wow …

 

So, she never went past eighth grade. That became her schooling, and she may not have, like my father, been a voracious reader, or loved words, but her family and her home; that was her life. So, she was the balance in in our home. She filled that part that gave us the softness.

 

Nine kids; that must have been a hard household to support.

 

It was.   And you know, and I grew up in Palama. Proud to say that I’m a product of Mayor Wright Housing. And when I tell people that, either it raises an eyebrow, or they laugh because they can’t imagine; You grew up in the projects? You know. And I thought, Well, back in the 50s, Mayor Wright Housing was not what it—you know, back then, families, they manicured their lawns, they watched the other kids. If you did something wrong, you know, Auntie would come pull your ear and take you home, and then you would get double spankings, you know, for doing something wrong.

 

And your father was working?

 

He was working. My father was with the Royal Hawaiian Band, and he managed all of their engagements, and their travel, and everything. My mother was a homemaker, stay-at-home mom. And she was there for the family. We always, you know, came home; there was always something on the stove. We never knew that we were low-income.

 

Because you felt like you had enough?

 

We had enough, and we were happy.

 

I think you’ve said that your mother … she never yelled, and she never complained. And I find that so hard to believe, having been a mother myself.

 

Me, as well. She never raised her voice. She never did.

 

With nine kids?

 

With nine kids. She didn’t. Because my father ruled with an iron fist.

 

Now, I think you were seven among the nine children.

 

I was the seventh; yes.

 

And what was your brother, Kimo?

 

He was the first. So, there’s a thirteen-year difference between Kimo and myself. So, really, the only thing I remember is … he was the brother who taught me how to spit-shine my shoes. So, whenever I, you know, do that, I think about him. But, you know, he was always in his ROTC uniform. Just looked immaculate. I remember him being happy-go-lucky, always having his ukulele, and singing a lot, joking. Always hugging my mother. Always; Hi, sweetheart. You know, just very loving.

 

But loved the JROTC program at Farrington High School.

 

Yes; yes. And I believe that that’s where, for him, a seed was planted about serving your country, was in the ROTC.

 

Did he talk about joining the military after high school?

 

He talked to my parents about that, you know, and they both said: If that’s what you want, you know, we’ll support you.

 

In 1956, James Kimo Gabriel, Jr. enlisted in the U.S. Army right after graduating from Farrington High in Kalihi. He excelled in the Army, and qualified for the elite U.S. Special Forces, also known as the Green Berets. In 1961, Kimo was sent to Vietnam as an advisor to train the local civilians who were recruited to serve in the South Vietnamese Army. That meant teaching those villagers to fight North Vietnam’s experienced regular army, as well as the elusive Vietcong Guerillas in the south.

 

He would write to my mother every two weeks. Because I still have her letters, and when I look at the date, every two weeks, he would write to her.

 

What did he write?

 

Well, when he was in basic training, he’d write about, you know, how the boys, the Hawaiian boys, they were just joking, playing jokes on each other, and how they missed the Hawaiian food.

 

To have succeeded in Special Forces, he must have been quite the person. I mean, that’s something most soldiers don’t want to do.

 

Yes.

 

Or aren’t able to do.

 

Aren’t able. He was very focused. So, from my father, I believe, he got those traits. Being focused, setting you mind on doing something almost to perfection. And he really did want to, my mother said, become a Special Forces soldier.

 

Your brother entered the Army before the war began. Had his feelings about the war, about his service changed over that time, I wonder?

 

Once he got to Vietnam?

 

M-hm.

 

I could see the transition in his letters. The earlier letters would talk about, We’re here training, I can’t tell you what I’m doing, but I know we’re preparing for something big. But even he didn’t quite know. So, he would talk about things that they were doing. He’d also talk about the jungle, the conditions in the jungle, or the weather, how bad it was there, and that there were these giant ants, and … leeches. And local boys, we don’t know what leeches are; we see slugs on the ground, but you don’t see leeches. And so, he would say, these leeches would attach themselves on you, and they would expand.

 

With blood.

 

Yes, as they suck out your blood. And you can’t hit them off, because you’re in the jungle, and you don’t want the Vietcong to hear you, to see you, any kind of movement. And the last few letters were really about not just the conditions, but … I remember one in particular where he told my mother; he said: When I’m in a quiet place, I ask myself, What am I doing in this hell hole? These people don’t want us here. Sometimes, I wish could trade places and be home; and he says, But then again, I realize I need to be here. Better me than my brothers or others; I’m here to fight for all of you.

 

Close to the time he died, he sent something. He enclosed something in a letter to your mother.

 

M-hm. He enclosed the Green Beret Creed. So, I read the creed. And it’s almost like he knew, or he was preparing himself. He knew that, I may not get out of this.

 

And in the creed, I believe it says, you know, Even if I’m the last, I’ll keep fighting ‘til the end.

 

Yes; yes.

 

That’s my profession, and I’m a consummate professional.

 

Yes; exactly.

 

It probably took you a while to find out what did happen to him in Vietnam.

 

M-hm; m-hm.

 

Are you able to tell that story?

 

Times had a magazine article that was written in 1962, and the title of it is, We Are Overrun. And in that, they chronicle what had happened. But what I read then, and what I just learned about a month ago; two different stories.

 

Okay; tell us the difference.

 

Well, the first story that I’ve been led to believe for … forty years has been that there were four Special Forces that were advisors. And they were among the first Special Forces sent there. And the advisors go there to train the villagers how to fight.

 

M-hm.

 

And so, he was in a platoon of four. And what I read was that their camp was overrun, and that my brother and Sergeant Marchand were the only two who were injured, and that the other two Special Forces soldiers were forced to carry them into the jungle, so that the U.S. troops weren’t gonna come back there and find Vietcong. I was led to believe that they carried them into the jungle, and … they were too heavy, they were slowing them down, so they were told to just leave my brother and Marchand there, and the Vietcong executed them. Tied both their hands behind their backs with their tee-shirts, and shot them in the back of the head. That’s what I have led to believe all these years. And just recently learned that two of the four Special Forces, they were down at the river. So, they had left the camp, went down to the river.

 

This was before the fighting began?

 

Before the fighting began.

 

Okay.

 

They went down to the river to bathe. So, that left Marchand and my brother there, and they heard the sound of these bells, like bamboo bells. So, they sent up flares to see if they could see who was out there in the jungle. They were just ambushed at that time, while the other two were still down the river. So, that left two men fighting about fifty Vietcong guerillas who were coming in. But the signal came from someone in the camp, that these four Special Forces were training. So, what I’ve learned is, they plant villagers in the camp to serve as spies, and they relayed to the Vietcong: Here’s where we are positioned here, we’re gonna be moving here, now’s the time to attack. I had never known that there were only two in that camp when they were killed. Now, I understand why my brother’s last words were: We have run out of ammunition, we’re being overrun. So, they said that he was changing clips. He had already been shot twice; changing clips, shooting, on the phone calling for backup.

 

What do you remember about the day you heard?

 

You know, it is almost like yesterday, when I think about it, and I share the story with people. I was eleven, and this was in 1962. My mother and I, we were in the garage doing chores. She was hanging clothes, and I was, you know, outside doing my chores. And this black bird, this Alala flew into our garage, and just fluttered up in the garage, on the ceiling. And I looked at it, my mother looked at it, and it looked like she was in distress. And my mother told me: ‘A‘ole ho‘opa ‘e manu. Don’t touch the bird. So, I ran in the house, and came out with a bowl of water. When I came out, my mother was sitting on the ground with the bird in her lap. And she was stroking the bird, and the bird died in her lap. And she looked at me and she said: Tomorrow, we will have visitors. I had no idea how connected she was to our ‘aumakua, ho‘ailona. Even I was not exposed to that, at that age yet.

 

So, she knew at that point.

 

She knew, at that point. She felt that this was my brother coming to her to say goodbye. So, the next day, I was at school, and my brother and I were pulled out of class, and told we needed to go home. So, when we got home, parked in front of our home was an unfamiliar car. So, I thought: They must be the visitors my mom talked about.

 

Because she didn’t explain further at that time.

 

Did not.

 

Okay.

 

Did not. So, from there, the ‘Alalā was the ho‘ailona to prepare her.

 

And what does hoailona mean?

 

Ho‘ailona is a sign; it’s a sign. Hawaiian culture, we believe that our ‘aumakua, our spirits, come in different forms, our ancestors. It could be a good sign, it could just be an omen of something to come. So, I knew that she felt that the ‘Alalā was her visitor carrying a message. But I didn’t expect that they came to tell her that he had been killed. I thought maybe to say that he was coming home, or something. And when I walked in, and my mother was just … crying.

 

Did your dad cry?

 

You know, that really is one of the only times I did see my father cry.

 

James Kimo Gabriel, Jr. was awarded a Bronze Star for Valor, and a Purple Heart. At the time of his death, Kimo’s wife, who was living in Okinawa, was expecting their first child. Later, the Gabriel family would welcome her to Hawai‘i, along with James Gabriel, III, the son Kimo never saw. In 1963, Kimo’s remains were recovered from Vietnam, and he was buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl.

 

And his wife, who is Japanese …

 

Japan national?

 

Japan national. Well, he met her in Okinawa. And so, when he passed, she was six months pregnant.

 

Mm …

 

So, she came here. And to prepare for her coming here, my father taught himself to speak Japanese; to prepare for her. Because he wanted to make sure that she was gonna be comfortable coming here.

 

Your father did that?

 

Yes. Fast forward thirty-two years later to 1994, and the memorial that’s down at the State Capitol, Korean-Vietnam Memorial. There was a dedication ceremony, and I was asked to be on the planning committee to represent the families. For the dedication itself, they asked: Would your mother come and lay the wreath to represent all the families? And I said: Absolutely, I’m sure she would. So, I brought my mother. And General Cockett was standing on my left, General Richardson on my right; both Hawaiian generals, very proud that she was standing there with the wreath. So, the Taps played. Then, they did the flyover, the Missing Man formation. So, the three jets, and one flies off.

 

M-hm.

 

So, we were watching that. And as that jet flew off, a black bird flew in its place. And my mother looked at me, but this time with a smile, and she said: Kimo’s here, your brother is here.

 

Billie Gabriel says the hoailona of the black bird also appeared at the dedication ceremony to honor her brother at the Gabriel Memorial Field at Fort Campbell, Kentucky in 2010. Also in 2010, Billie Gabriel would become part of the photo project that would make her feel closer to her late brother.

 

Call for Photos is part of a national project that was being launched in Washington, DC. And the gentleman who founded the Vietnam Wall, Jan Scruggs, felt that he wanted to put a face to every name; fifty-eight thousand plus names engraved on the wall. He wanted to put a face and a picture because they were building an education center in Washington. And this education center would be for future generations to learn about the various wars that the United States has been involved. One room would be dedicated to Vietnam, and it would be called The Wall of Faces.

 

How many faces would there be?

 

Fifty-eight thousand, plus. So, Jan’s vision was to put the face and a story to every name.

 

Billie Gabriel spent much of her professional career as a fundraiser who coordinated and publicized events such as the Kapi‘olani Children’s Miracle Network Telethon and the Easter Seals Taste of Honolulu fundraiser. In 2010, she answered the call to spearhead what she considers the most important project of her life: tracking down the photos of two hundred seventy-six Hawaii soldiers who never came home from the Vietnam War. Completing the Hawaii Call for Photos project would take several years.

 

I decided, okay, here’s where the PR skills come in, here’s my networking with friends. So, I contacted the various stations, and Honolulu Star Advertiser. And I went to see the president then, Dennis Francis. And he’s one of those who was accustomed to me knocking on the door for money, and he says: Okay, Gabriel, what do you need this time? And I said: Something very simple. And I put the list on his desk. And he says: Well, what is this? I said: Here’s a list of two hundred and seventy-six men who were killed in Vietnam, they were all from Hawaii, I need to find their pictures. He said: Okay, so what is it that you want me to do? I said: I’d like you to publish their names in paper and state that I am searching for their photos, and if you have a photo to contact me. And I’d like a full-page ad. So, he said: This is about your brother. And I said: You know it’s not just about my brother; he’s one of the two hundred and seventy-six. It’s about all the families and all of these young men, and it’s a project that we need to make sure that we put a face to every name that’s engraved on the wall in Washington.

 

So, you ended up speaking with many of these family members.

 

I did; I did.

 

I can’t imagine the emotion involved in those calls.

 

Heart-wrenching. Yes; yes. One man called me, and just berated me for five minutes on the phone. How dare you, how dare you publish these names of all our men who died in Vietnam, in a stupid war. And then, he said: My nephew was nineteen when he enlisted. So, I thought: Okay, this is a family member, I can understand now why he’s so emotional. And he says: That boy, poho his life; he’s going over there to fight for people he doesn’t even know. Why? So, I told him: Uncle, I know how you feel, because my brother also died in the war, he was the first Hawaiian boy. And his voice changed, and he says: Oh, you local girl? And I said: Yes, I’m from here. And he says: Oh, I saw the article in the paper, I thought I was calling somebody in Washington, DC. I said: Oh, no, no; this project is for here, and I’m trying to find all the pictures so that we can honor them. So, he did send; subsequently, he did send a picture in. But that’s when I understood that this project was bigger than just finding the pictures. I became an ‘umeke, a bowl for many of these families to pour their emotions into. We cried together, we laughed together, you know, and we talked about our respective loved ones. But collectively, we knew that we had to stand by the fact that no matter which side of the fence you stood about the war, how you felt about it, we were here to see that our loved one would be honored for their courage, for the sacrifice they made, and that they would never be forgotten. That was our bond; our bond.

 

And you could come together over that.

 

We could come together on that; yes. They soon became family to me. Some of them called and said: I just want to meet you, just to hug you, to say thank you. But it just allowed so many people to have a voice, and to finally say what they’ve been wanting to say for fifty years.

 

Through the efforts of Billie Gabriel and many others who lost loved ones to the Vietnam War, Hawaii became the eighth state to locate all of the photos for its section of the Call for Photos project. Billie says she’ll continue to honor the memory of her brother, James Kimo Gabriel, Jr., and all the soldiers who are casualties of the Vietnam War. She’s working on new memorial projects with Hawaii high schools. Mahalo to Billie Gabriel of Honolulu for sharing your story with us. And thank you, for joining us. For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, a hui hou.

 

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

 

I was invited to go to Washington, DC for Memorial Day to represent the State in laying the wreath. My mother told me: Whenever you’re on sacred ground, to remove your shoes. Then, President Obama, I had a chance to meet. And he says: I know who you are. He says: As soon as I saw you standing there with bare feet, I knew you were a local girl. And he just started laughing.

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Kevin Matsunaga

 

Kevin Matsunaga of Lihu‘e, Kaua‘i, never imagined he’d follow in his father’s footsteps and become a teacher. He found his calling as the digital media teacher at Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School in Lihu‘e. His students have won many national video competitions. In 2007, the Hawai‘i Department of Education recognized Matsunaga with a District Teacher of the Year award.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, Sept. 13, at 11:00 pm and Sunday, Sept. 17, at 4:00 pm.

 

Kevin Matsunaga Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Our kids have to deal with a lot more nowadays. They can’t make mistakes like we could. You know, with social media, if they make a mistake it’s film that’s put out there, and it’s, you know, hard for them. But they’re also the most tech-savvy people that we have. You know, the kids that are going to want to put in the work are gonna do it. I do see it’s kind of a shift in where you don’t have as many that maybe want to do the work. This whole millennial thing in which people are lazy and things like, that I mean, I see some of it. Luckily, the kids that I work with, you know, they want to be there, they’re interested in this, and it’s easy for me to kinda push them, because they want to be there. That makes a huge difference.

 

It isn’t just by luck that Kevin Matsunaga has students in his digital media classes who want to be there, and who want to excel. His dedication, encouragement, and belief in his middle school students have a lot to do with why they win national student video competitions. Kauai public school teacher Kevin Matsunaga, next, on Long Story Short.

 

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

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Kevin Matsunaga was a teacher’s son who had no intention of becoming a teacher. But life happens. Trained on Oahu, he serves today as a teacher and technology coordinator at Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School in Lihue. At the time of our conversation in December of 2016, he was well into his sixteenth year of teaching there, an award-winning digital media teacher, and he’s a leader in the statewide teachers’ steering committee which advises Hiki No, PBS Hawai‘i’s groundbreaking student news network. When he was a boy, his father saw that he was good at organizing and taking care of his younger cousins at family gatherings. Yet, the idea of becoming a teacher never appealed to Matsunaga. In fact, there wasn’t much about school that he found interesting.

 

We lived in Lihue. In fact, you know, we actually still live there now. Life was really easy and simple. My father was an educator, so he knew all of my teachers. So that made it a little bit hard for me, ‘cause I was kinda more the kolohe one, tried to be, you know, class clown or whatever. But it was nice. You know, back then, I could get on my bike, and that was my freedom. I could go anywhere I wanted to, and my parents didn’t really seem to mind too much.

 

No cell phones.

 

No cell phones, no GPS tracker, no call in to Mom to let you know. And as long as I was home by six, it was fine. If I was late, then there would be a problem with my dad, ‘cause he was the one that cooked.

 

So, he wanted you there for dinner.

 

He wanted me there for dinner. Yeah; ‘cause my mom worked at the hospital in the evening shift, so she was gone from three to eleven. And so, my dad was the one that, you know, when we came home school, he was the one making sure we had our homework done, made sure we took a bath.

 

Your dad was of Japanese ancestry.

 

Yes.

 

Your mom was from Brooklyn, New York.

 

Yes.

 

Irish woman.

 

M-hm.

 

How did that work? How did those cultures mesh with you?

 

I guess I consider myself more Asian, I guess, in the sense that we lived in Hawai‘i. My mom was considered like a Haole in the sense that, you know, she came from the mainland. But she really took to the local ways. She really saw the aloha spirit. And so, whenever we would go to family get-togethers, my mom would always be one to help out; she would never sit. Even if it wasn’t at our house, she would always get up, and always help out and wash dishes, you know, put things away. And so, I think our family saw that, and you know, she really embraced that sense of ‘ohana and aloha. I think she was wonderful as a mother.

 

You said later, you came to appreciate your dad more.

 

My dad, it was pretty, you know, black and white. You know, if we didn’t do something, if a teacher called us for any reason, it was … I don’t care what you have to say, if your teacher had to take the time to call me about something, you know, you’re doing something wrong. And so, it was tough, and back then, I really didn’t understand what they were doing. I just felt it as being real constrictive and overbearing. And you know, when I was in high school, I had a curfew. And I had a girlfriend who could stay out longer than I could. So, it’s kind of embarrassing to have to tell the girlfriend, I gotta go home, ‘cause I gotta meet my curfew. But only when I became an adult and had my own kids, then I kinda realized, you know, that what they were doing was a good thing. You know, kept me from trouble, and made me responsible.

 

You have teenagers now.

 

I do. And, yes … seeing what what they did for me, you know, at the time I didn’t appreciate it. And in fact, my relationship with my father was kinda rough when I was in high school, just because he valued education a lot, ‘cause he was an educator. And I was more of the ones that, you know, I was happy with getting a C, I was happy with being the lower one in the class in the top class, but not really pushing myself too much. ‘Cause I was more worried about who I was gonna go out with on the weekend, or what my friends were gonna do.

 

I would think that when a son goes into the same profession as his father, I think people tend to think, Oh, of course, you know, you wanted to do that from the beginning. Did you?

 

No. Growing up, I was always the one that seemed to have to take care of my younger cousins. So, we’d have a party, a family get-together, and our family was pretty large. My dad had several brothers and sisters. And so, we would have these large gatherings, and I had younger cousins, and I would always seem to be the one that was kinda taking care of them, making up games, keeping them occupied while the adults did their thing. And so, I just enjoyed that; I just enjoyed playing with them, kinda connecting with them, and just trying to keep them entertained, I guess. And so, it was my father, though; he was the first to say, Hey, you know, I’ve noticed that you really work well with kids, and so, you might want to think about being a teacher. I didn’t really find myself, as far as you know, taking school seriously until I was in college. It wasn’t until my second year in college in which I though, Okay, like, I can’t fool around. This is my parents’ money, and this is my life I gotta deal with. And and I had always wanted to make them proud. And so, I just always wanted to kinda, you know, make them happy. And so, I think once I started buckling down, started getting better grades, and taking it seriously, then our relationship changed, you know, much better. Yeah.

 

‘Cause he took your behavior really personally.

 

Yeah. And I think he always knew that I had what it took to do well, but I just didn’t apply myself. And I kind of feel the same way, too, with my kids. If I don’t see them trying hard, I get upset. And so, I’m kind of similar. It’s like, even though we try not to be our parents, we somehow still do become them.

 

Right.

 

Kevin Matsunaga took a teaching job on Oahu as soon as he earned his degree in elementary education from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Wanting to look out for his father after his mother died brought him back to Kauai.

 

Once I was in the College of Ed, I got a job at the A-Plus program at Hokulani Elementary School behind the dorms. And I loved it. I loved, you know, interacting with them. And I kinda knew that, okay, I think this is what I want to do.

 

And you met and married, along the way.

 

Yeah. So, my wife was actually my boss in the A-Plus program. And I was her aide. I taught on Oahu for seven years, and that’s kinda like towards the end is where things happened with our family. And in 2000, we moved back to Kauai, and I was able to open a brand new middle school that was, you know, coming on board. And so, I got to be there from the very beginning and kinda helped shape how things were at the school.

 

And Chiefess Kamakahelei is a very interesting middle school, for those who are used to old school buildings, because everything about it is really built with middle-schoolers in mind.

 

We have different houses for each grade level. And if you go into the sixth grade house, there’s less planters, because kids as sixth-graders, they just want to move around. You go to the eighth grade house, they have a lot more planters, places for kids to sit, because eighth-graders just want to sit and hang, and talk story, or go on their devices. And so, yeah, our school, you know, they took a lot of feedback from a lot of people in how middle-schoolers act, and what kind of space they need, and they put it into the school. So, you know, here seventeen years later, it still looks fantastic. We have an awesome staff that keeps it looking like a new school. And when we have visitors for the first time, they often ask, Is this a private school? We do have, you know, quite a bit of the population that needs some assistance.

 

At what point did digital media kick in with you?

 

When I applied for the job, the principal, Maggie Cox, at the time—she’s a board member for the Board of Ed now. But she knew this was gonna be the school that everyone was gonna look at for technology. So, she said in the interview, I want a morning announcements show, I want it live, I want it live TV. So, instead of, you know, when we were going up to school, you had, you know, someone coming on the PA system, playing the bells, you know.

 

Ding-ding-ding.

 

Yeah.

 

And so, she wanted it on TV. She had seen other schools do it, and so, that was one of the requirements. And I was like, Sure, I can do that. But I really hadn’t done that up to that point. I had worked with kids creating videos at my other school, but nothing was live. And so, I was like, Okay, I gotta figure out how to do this. I love computers and gadgets, and so as a teacher, I always tried to bring in some sort of technology aspect into it. So, I had my students—they had pen pals in Florida, you know, at that time through email. We did all kinds of things. And so, this was one thing that we did. And I was sharing this project at a technology conference that the DOE used to sponsor, and across from us, across from my booth was a high school that had set up their things, and they had videos. So, I’m sitting there across the way, and I’m watching these videos. And like, they’re really, really good. And like, Waianae High School, you know; wow, they’re doing some really awesome stuff. And so, I struck a conversation up with Candy Suiso. And at that time, I wasn’t really doing a lot of digital media. I just thought, Wow, that’s really cool, what they’re doing. But we just hit it off, and when this job came on, when they said, Hey, you gotta teach this live, or you gotta have this live morning announcement show, the first person I thought of to go for help was Candy. And so, I contacted her, and she allowed me to come out and visit the program. And that’s where I got a lot of good advice, took it back to our school. At that time, I only taught an advisory class, and that class kinda ran the morning announcements, and I asked to teach one elective class. And so, that was the beginning of our media program. And then, back then, we just, you know, were doing PSAs, small kinds of videos in school. And Candy created their first, like, workshop for teachers and students. And so, she, of course, you know, let me know about it. And what we did was, I took two students to Oahu one summer, and we went to one of their first camps. And she gave us, at this camp, this binder with all of these awesome, you know, lessons in them, activities. And I kinda treated that as my digital media bible, and I used that for years and tried to, you know, supplement it with my own. Kept in contact with Candy. And she was the reason why, you know, I kinda credit her a lot with our success, because she was very, very open with sharing anything that she had to help another teacher. And so, I’ve tried to take that example and lead that same way, by giving, you know, anything that I have to any other teacher that’s starting out.

 

So, there was nothing official to pick up off a shelf.

 

There was nothing.

 

Or link to.

 

We had nothing. You know, it was just a handful of teachers that were doing a lot with digital media. And we just helped each other. You know, we all just shared what we had, things that worked with us, things that didn’t.

 

Isn’t that interesting. And now, your group, which is called the Hawai‘i Creative Media Group, is teaching other teachers on all islands.

 

Yeah.

 

It’s a formalized group now.

 

Yeah.

 

Outside the DOE, but still very active in helping DOE teachers.

 

Yes. And you know, every single person on our team is just hugely talented. I mean, you know, they just know so much.

 

What do they have in common? I mean, because when you see digital media teachers in Hawai‘i, it’s not like you can stereotype them. Not by age, or anything else. What would you say is the common denominator?

 

I think the common denominator is that each one of us is dedicated to our programs. I mean, I think, like any successful program—and it could be a band, you know, that has an amazing instructor.

 

Needs leadership.

 

Yeah, you need leadership. And I think that’s where all of us—what we all have in common is that we really, truly care about our students, and giving them the best opportunities that we can provide them. Going above and beyond what’s called for in the school day to mentor them after school, on weekends, or setting up programs like our camps. Each person is just dedicated, you know, beyond measure. Everyone is just focused on how they can help their kids. And they don’t do that for themselves. You know, they don’t put their name out. It’s for the kids. And so, I think you need people like that to have a successful program.

 

It wasn’t long before Kauai’s Kevin Matsunaga started entering his students in national video competitions. This required a new level of commitment, and skills and efforts that went beyond the classroom.

 

If you’re gonna take your students to STN, or Student Television News, the really ambitious competition nationally, you have to raise money to do it. I mean, parents don’t have money to take their kids to the Northeast, or wherever it’s gonna be. And there are other neighbor island competitions. How do you get the money to do all of that?

 

We have to fundraise.

 

How do you do that?

 

You assemble a dedicated group of parents. You know, you work with them from the very beginning. You explain, okay, this is what we do, this why we do it, and here’s where we want to go; but I can’t do it by myself. I need support, I need parents to help work, you know, craft fairs, or you know, our breakfast, or sell cookbooks. You know. You just need to have a large number of people that are behind you. And for us, we’re really lucky; we have really good parents that, you know, understand what their child gets out of the program, and so they’re willing to put in that work. And it’s a year-round thing. I mean, we start fundraising when we come back. We’re already planning what we’re doing in the summer, for next year.

 

How much money do you have to raise, say, just for the Student Television News competitions?

 

It used to cost about fifteen hundred at the lowest, up to like, twenty-eight hundred at the highest. It just kinda depends.

 

Per student?

 

Per student. And so, last year, since we went to Atlanta and New York, it was probably close to like, twenty-five hundred a student. This year, surprisingly, it’s close to that. Because we’re in LA, but then, nobody wants to drive in LA. You know. And so, we have to rent a bus, and buses are expensive. So, you know, a day in a bus, you know, is several hundred dollars. And we’re staying at hotels that are two hundred a night, you know. And so, yeah, there are cheaper places that we could go to, you know, like the convention hotel. Even the convention hotel is two hundred a night. And so, it adds up. And so, yeah, we have to raise a huge amount of money.

 

So, you’re teaching digital media like nobody’s business, and then there’s this other operation which you’re also part of, which is just generating funds.

 

It’s like I’m a professional fundraiser, almost. You know. ‘Cause we’re going from thing to thing. We’ve done carwashes, we had a golf tournament, we just had our breakfast this past weekend. And we’ve done craft fairs. Our digital media, Hawaii Creative Media created a cookbook this year.

 

I mean, so your weekends are pretty much gone for that; right?

 

A lot of times; yeah. And so, unfortunately, you know, my family has had to kinda take some of that on. But all of my kids have been in through my program, so they understand why it’s so important, so they don’t give me a hard time.

 

Your students need to perform quality work in a, quote, foreign city, on deadline. And no excuses. You know, no dog ate your homework; it’s all about here’s the deadline, if you fail to get it in, if your computer didn’t render quickly enough, too bad.

 

It’s probably the most authentic assessment that you can ever find. You know, the DOE talks about trying to get authentic assessment. But these competitions, I don’t think you can find anything better than that. Yeah, like you said, the students, they have to perform, they have to be ready, they have to problem-solve if something happens. They have to navigate their way around a city that they’ve never been in, they have to go and find a story on a topic that they were just given that morning, and they only have a few hours to get it done.

 

And they have to depend on each other to do the work.

 

Exactly.

 

So, everybody’s important.

 

Exactly.

 

And you have to put things aside if you have issues.

 

Yes. And sometimes, those lessons take a while to learn, but they get there at some point. But yeah, it’s all of those things. I tell my parents and my students that, you know, digital media, yes, that’s the name of our class, but we really teach a lot of life skills. You know, how to communicate with each other, how to get along with other people that, you know, you may have a hard time with. Meeting your deadlines, and being prepared for your interview, and having your equipment read, and you know, all those things.

 

Talking with adults, and setting up interviews.

 

Yeah. You know, we fully believe in that, you know, we need to teach them what they’re gonna see. And so, when the deadline, when the clock hits zero, even if you’re five feet away and you’re ready to put your flash drive into the bucket, it’s gone and you’ve lost that chance, ‘cause you didn’t make that deadline.

 

And an amazing thing happens, and it was chronicled in this documentary that PBS Hawai‘i did about your schools going to Atlanta for the competition. The Hawai‘i kids all sat together from different schools, and they cheered for each other, even when they themselves were up for the same award, and lost.

 

Exactly; yeah. It’s something we started, you know, a couple of years back in which … you know, it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly that is, other than that’s just the aloha spirit, and … you can just see it, you can feel it. All of our schools, we all know, and the other schools know that, too. But for those of us in Hawai‘i, we understand it’s really hard to get there, because we have to travel, no matter where it is. We have to raise money, and you know, get your paperwork approved by the district. And you go through all of these hoops to get there, so we understand how much work is involved. And I think there’s just the respect that we have for one another that, you know, when we get there … if we don’t win, but Hawai‘i wins, it’s still a win. And I think that’s just the culture here in Hawai‘i.

 

And the middle school PSA contest winner for 2016 is Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School.

 

Hawai‘i, Hawai‘i, Hawai‘i, Hawai‘i …

 

I think it’s fascinating to think about, because so many people here think, Well, you know, our public schools, they’re criticized for being mediocre.

 

M-hm.

 

And some of these top-performing digital media teams are coming from low-income schools or isolated schools.

 

Exactly.

 

How do you explain that?

 

They have good teachers. They have dedicated teachers that are willing to put in that extra effort, that believe in the kids, and will do anything to help them succeed. I mean, look at Waianae; Searider Productions is a prime example. You know, that community is known for so many other things. You know, the negative, the homelessness, and everything else. But they’ve totally broken that stereotype down, you know, by the success that they have. And it’s because it started with Candy, you know, and what she believed in, this idea to use digital media in her Spanish class. And then, it came down to her students, John Allen, who—

 

Took over for her.

 

Who is there, yeah.

 

As a teacher.

 

Was a former student, who totally, you know, bought into it, saw what it did for him, and he wanted to do the same for others. And so, you gotta have that person that’s willing to be that dedicated person that is willing to put in those extra hours.

 

Even though it’s often not even a regular class. You’re doing it after school.

 

Yeah; yeah.

 

Or in between other projects, summers. Is there something really inspiring or life-changing that you’ve seen happen in your classes?

 

I think the thing that inspires me more than anything is just seeing that change in a child. And I think that’s one of the reasons why I became a teacher, is because I like to see change. You know, so in my spare time, I like to weed in the yard, because I can see the progress that I’ve made, or the progress I haven’t. But I like to see that progress, and teaching does that. Because you can work with a child, put in this effort, and you can see before your eyes them, you know, getting it. You know, that spark; Oh, I got it now, I understand what you’re trying to say. And then, you see them apply that. That, to me, is inspiring. I mean, that’s the kinda stuff that keeps me coming in every day and being a hundred percent committed, is because you see this change, and you see the kid that started with you who could barely say any words outside, wouldn’t talk to you unless you asked a specific question, and then to see them grow in the time that you have them to where they’re a confident, you know, young person willing to speak to anyone. I mean, that’s the stuff that’s inspiring, more than anything else. I think that every teacher uh, every digital media teacher pushes their kids to try to be great. And that transforms itself into other areas that the kids are working in. And I think that prepares them just for life in general.

 

That cuts across everything, then.

 

It cuts across anything. I think it doesn’t matter whether it’s in school, outside of school, in their personal private life. I think just knowing that you have someone who believes in you, that wants you to do well and is not gonna let you settle for anything less than great.

 

Teacher Kevin Matsunaga’s goal for his students is not to win contests; it’s do their best. Their best often wins local and national awards. And Matsunaga has been recognized as the State Public School District Teacher of the Year. Mahalo to Kevin Matsunaga of Lihue, Kauai for your innovative teaching example, and your commitment to students year, after year, after year, preparing them for life and the workforce. And mahalo to you, for joining us. For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, a hui hou.

 

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

 

Every day is different. There are no two days that are gonna be the same. Even if you have the same students every single day, the kids are gonna come in, and some days they might have a great day, some days they may not. You know, you’re teaching different subjects, you’re teaching different things, and … that’s what I love best about teaching, is that every single day is different. If I got stuck in a job in which I did the same thing day-in and day-out, not too much change, it would be hard for me.

 

 


LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Michael Titterton

 

Born into a struggling family in the east end of London, books and radio offered young Michael Titterton a glimpse into a different life. His insatiable curiosity led him to travel around the world, eventually landing him in Hawai‘i, where he took on the challenge of turning around a faltering Hawai‘i Public Radio. Under his leadership as President and General Manager, HPR has grown into the vital and trusted radio network it is today, serving the entire state. This month, Hawai‘i Arts Alliance will be recognizing Titterton as their 2016 Alfred Preis Honoree for his lifetime support of the arts.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, Sept. 6, at 11:00 pm and Sunday, Sept. 10, at 4:00 pm.

 

Michael Titterton Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

There are very few human behaviors that go back further than storytelling. It’s the quintessential social act. Any time we pass knowledge from generation to generation, you know, if we don’t have a written language or anything, which we haven’t for most of the history … and it’s how we bond. It’s a wonderful vehicle for healing, for illumination, for understanding, for being civilized. That’s what life is; it’s the stories we get to tell.

 

Michael Titterton has been in the business of storytelling most of his life. Yet, it’s only one of the many skills that he needed to transform Hawaii Public Radio from a small faltering station into a robust statewide network. Michael Titterton, distinguished 2016 Alfred Preiss Honoree, next, on Long Story Short.

 

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

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Michael Andrew Titterton moved to Hawai‘i in 1999 to take over as president and general manager of Hawaii Public Radio. Under his leadership, HPR expanded its reach as a vital community resource, broadcasting on every island, and serving the entire state. He stepped down in June of 2016. This conversation took place six months later, after he did some traveling with his wife, artist Madeleine McKay. Travel and moving on have always been Michael Titterton’s passion. In fact, his time in Hawaii was to be just another stop in his roaming life journey. But after ending seventeen years at Hawaii Public Radio, he’s still living happily in Honolulu. Michael Titterton started out life in postwar London. He’s restrained in that very English way, in the way he describes tough times.

 

At the time I was growing up, the part of the east end that I grew up in was the most populated, most densely populated urban area in the world, with the exception of Calcutta. I was born immediately after World War II. And the east end of London being industrial, was an area that was a focus of attention for the German air force during World War II and so, a great deal of bomb damage. Every block, you know, for as far as I can remember had houses that were missing or that were just walls. You know, earliest memories is walking around the block and looking at houses, and into rooms that had two walls left, and the other two walls were gone, so you could look in and see pictures still hanging on the wall, and wallpaper, and looking into people’s intimate lives. And it was a routine, very routine occurrence. Never thought it was odd.

 

Did you feel unsafe?

 

No, not at all. Not at all.

 

So, it was kind of a homogenous diverse neighborhood?

 

Not that diverse; it was mostly Irish.

 

And your family is, by background, Irish as well?

 

No; not at all. My father is English, my mother is Welsh. So, you know, yeah, we were outliers, I suppose. But it never really seemed that way. Life was sufficiently challenging that you didn’t give any thought to social standing, or any of that. It was later in life, I became acutely aware of it, and acutely aware that I was motivated to leave. I didn’t want to stay there. Once I became aware that everybody didn’t live this way, then I began to form the idea of a wall that I had to sort of scale and get over, and I tried all sorts of ways to do that.

 

Did you feel deprived of anything as you were growing up?

 

Only books. My my father was not an unintelligent man, but he was very uneducated and was quite defensive about that. And he wouldn’t have books in the house.

 

Oh … and you loved books?

 

Yes, perversely, as one does, you know, forbidden fruit.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

And … yeah. I developed a relationship with the local library, and smuggled books into the house. And I’ve had a romance with books ever since. And that was how I found out, ultimately. That, and radio. That, and radio.

 

That’s how you found out that you were living a life that many people did not live.

 

Yes, yes, yes. It was my first glimpse over the wall. And it was an intoxicating one, and it’s one from which I’ve never sobered up, at all.

 

So, how did you scale that wall to get out of the east end?

 

Oh, well, I left school at fifteen, as everyone did. Moved out on my own. I did an apprenticeship as a tool and die maker. Factories, you know, was the thing. You went on the line, or you learned a trade.

 

Was it expected that that’s pretty much what you would do?

 

M-hm; that, or become a criminal, which was quite popular option. But that was the skill that I had early on, and I parlayed that into a little business which I ran for a while, making specialty parts for racing engines. Very long story; we don’t have time for that.

 

Because you love autos, too; right?

 

Well, it was an automobile environment. Dagenham was the principal factory area where I grew up. And that’s the Ford Motor Company. And it was all about automobiles, and you know, this was the 50s. And yeah, I have gasoline in my veins, I think.

 

So, you did build a business.

 

I built a little business. Just a very modest thing, but it was quite successful in a surprisingly short amount of time. But I had no judgement; I was very young.   And I took in a partner who brought in a little capital which I desperately needed. And he developed a romantic association with another one of the employees, and they disappeared to Australia with all the fluid assets of the company. And that got me quite vexed. [CHUCKLE] And actually exhausted the last of my patience, and I liquidated everything. Sold off machinery and whatnot to make payroll, couple other people working for me. And I was reduced to a minivan and a couple of sleeping bags, and I took off to Europe. I just wanted to be anywhere other than England at that point. I was just really quite over it.

 

Without much more than the clothes on his back, Michael Titterton left home. He had no plan, other than to see the world. Now, he didn’t have to mention to us his stint in a foreign jail over an incident involving the concentrated form of marijuana, known as hashish, but he did. Because that’s part of his story, and he is a storyteller.

 

I just took the ferry across to France, to Callet. And spent little over two years, I think, going from place to place. North Africa, Middle East, and Europe, Western Europe, doing odd jobs.

 

What were some of your odd jobs?

 

Oh, working in garages. I could always pick that up. A a job in Marseilles for a while, cleaning boats, you know. I had a job on a trawler in the North Sea, and some disgusting adventures.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

That you don’t want to hear about. Just things like that. And then, every now and again, I’d go back to Dagenham and I’d get a job on the line at the Ford Motor Company.

 

And essentially, you were always making a living with your hands.

 

Oh, yeah; yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

 

And what did you aspire to? Were you happy with that? Were you …

 

I was thoroughly occupied with that. It was wonderful. I was getting to see the world, or at least a part of it. And I remember a moment when I was still an apprentice toolmaker, and we’d clock in, you know. And the clock was at this counter outside where you could see up. And I was coming in for a night shift, and I looked up and I saw the moon. You know, regular old moon. But I had this moment when it occurred to me that this moon could be seen just like this by people who weren’t in Dagenham, but were all over the world. And they must have thoughts just like that. And I knew I wanted to meet some of them. I couldn’t meet all of them, but I’d like to meet some of them. And that we had this experience in common. And that moment has just always haunted me. I think that might have been a propellant. But I’ve always had this real need. It is a need to travel, and see different things. And I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to gratify it in all sorts of ways, some more comfortable than others.

 

Well, when you approach a new city, or a new region, how do you decide you’re going to see it? There are so many vantage points.

 

Well, in those days, it was simply a matter of how am in gonna manage breakfast, and how am I gonna make the money to, you know, buy the next tank of gas. Or after a while, actually, I sold the van, and so, it was, you know, little more survival oriented even than that. So, it was how do I get by, especially when you don’t speak the language anywhere.

 

Were you all on your own?

 

M-hm; for most of the time. I mean, I had the occasional traveling companion. But no, pretty much on my own.

 

So, you were just living day-to-day.

 

Absolutely; yeah, moment-to-moment, really.

 

That’s a great formative—

 

It was the best time of my life.

 

Was it? Even though you must have been anxious, too.

 

I was anxious, I was uncomfortable, I was wet. A lot of the time it was too hot, a lot of the time I had rocks in my shoes. I mean, it was horrible by any rational measure, but it was a joyful, wonderful time.

 

Because everything was new?

 

Yes; yes. And there was no safety net, but at the same time, there were no barriers.

 

Did you ever fall into a hole that you thought you couldn’t get out of?

 

Oh, yes. It happened in Morocco, and it went on for about three months. And I really didn’t think I was gonna get out of that one, but ultimately did. It had to do with a camel saddle that I had, I thought, quite skillfully repackaged. Took the stuffing—you know what a camel saddle is; yeah?

 

What is it?

 

What is it? Well, [CHUCKLE] I’m not sure I’ll ever go near a camel. But it’s shaped like a saddle on the camel, and it has a cushion on the top, and it’s used as a piece of furniture. And tourists like to take them home and call them camel saddles. So, I replaced the stuffing in the top of this camel saddle with a quantity of very pure white hashish. You’ve heard of hashish?

 

Yes, yes.

 

Yeah. And attempted to mail it back to myself in London, and enlisted the help of a young man to do this. And he agreed, ‘cause you know, you can get anybody to do anything in Morocco. And he took it into a post office with this. And I thought that would be the sensible thing for me to do. And he did, and he disappeared. Oh, he didn’t disappear, he just didn’t come back for a long time. And I got curious and a little antsy after a while, and I poked my head in the door and this was another moment that I shan’t forget, the tableaux, this young is standing up against a counter. And as I poked my head in, I see him and the camel saddle, which has been ripped apart. And there’s two or three officials behind the counter there, and the child is in the process of turning around, you know. [INDISTINCT]. And you know, That’s the man. And that was that, really. I was the center of attention for a little while. And three months later, I find myself hitchhiking away from Tangier.

 

It sounds like you were lucky to get off with three months.

 

Oh, yes. I had one visitor, the young man that I’d been rooming with. And he sold my van and he got for me a lawyer, or at least some sort of representation. And I’m sure a portion of the money went to the legal representation, and another portion went to whatever happens to money that flies around in Tangier at that time. And to my immense surprise, I was in a room with uh, with a number of other people. Suddenly, I had a visit from the attorney type, and I had no confidence in this at all, but a week or two later, I was summoned into a court, with no preparation, no fanfare at all. The proceedings went on that I didn’t understand a word of, and within half an hour so, I found myself back on the street. And that was that.

 

You could have been left there a long time, and …

 

It was the one point at which I’ve ever considered suicide as a rational alternative. And in that sense, it’s been extremely useful. Because, you know, life has had its bumps, as life does, but it’s a wonderful thing to know, or at least believe that you know what your limits are, how bad things really have to get.

 

You could have ended up locked up and wasted away.

 

I could have. Yeah.

 

Wow.

 

Instead of in management.

 

Michael Titterton next went to Greece, where he met a young American woman who traveled with him to Israel, where they both worked in a kibbutz. She returned to the United States to attend college, and he later followed.

 

So, love brought you to America.

 

Yeah; yeah, pretty much. Well, I knew I wanted to come to America anyway, ‘cause I just hadn’t been there yet. But yeah, it was very romantic. And this young lady hitchhiked out from Oregon and met me in New York, and we spent a little while there, and I bought a car from a junkyard in New Jersey for, I think, ninety dollars; 1962 Tempest.

 

But you could fix it.

 

Yes, I could. Yes; I’m a very capable fellow. And fixed this thing up, and we drove it back to Ann Arbor, which was where her family was. I worked at odd jobs in Ann Arbor for a little while, and then got convinced that I really needed to investigate higher education. So, that’s what I did. And it was a little dodgy, because I hadn’t finished high school in any technical sense, but found that I could go to school in Canada, which wasn’t far away.

 

I notice you got your master’s degree in public speaking and rhetoric.

 

Rhetoric; yes.

 

Why did you choose that?

 

Bear in mind, this is the very, very early 70s. It’s 1971, actually, and coming into ’72. And I knew the US was … I mean, this was … social mobility was here, and that’s what I was really after. I didn’t know it at that time, ‘cause I didn’t know the words. But social mobility, and meritocracy. You know, if you work hard, you can get places. And it’s really what everybody dreams about, when they dream about America when they’re not from here. If I was going to understand this place, the quickest way to do it might be to study the media, because that seemed to be the bottleneck through which everything passed. And it was a very busy bottleneck at that point. Watergate, for example, Vietnam War, all the unrest on college campuses. Glorious time. And all of it was being fed through a media, which was under suspicion, as much of it is now. And so, I specialized in that. Wayne State had a particularly strong rhetoric department, and that was where I found myself, with a lot of wonderfully eccentric people.

 

And you’d already had experienced storytelling, because you had stories to tell along the way.

 

Well, everybody does. Yeah. But I did. Just because of the basic courses that I had to then take as part of being in the rhetoric program, I began to learn something about the mechanics of storytelling, if you like, the idea of a narrative. And I was very quickly drafted into teaching public speaking. So yeah, I hadn’t really thought about it, actually, as being part of the whole storytelling business, but I seem to keep coming back to that. But that’s what it is. That’s what life is, it’s the stories we get to tell.

 

And sometimes, you do things without having a name for it; right? And then, you find out—

 

Oh, yes; most of the time, actually.

 

Your real self keeps popping up in the form of what you do.

 

[CHUCKLE] Yes; that is true. That is true. But storytelling, I guess that’s a lot of the attraction that I have, or that radio has for me, because it’s a storytelling medium, and storytelling is … there are few human behaviors that go back further than storytelling. It’s the quintessential social act. It’s a wonderful vehicle for healing, for illumination, for understanding, for being civilized.

 

And radio has that intimate quality.

 

Mm. It’s a one-to-one medium, and it’s frighteningly intimate. And the best of radio is indistinguishable from pillow talk. It’s that intimate. And that’s what I love about it. I mean, what’s not to love?

 

Michael Titterton started his career in radio by volunteering at his campus radio station, which he helped to become one of the first national public radio stations. From this valuable experience, he went on to spend the next twenty years building, managing, and consulting for public radio stations across the United States. He was thinking of moving on to a new career, when an unexpected opportunity arose.

 

Hawaii advertised this job at Public Radio for someone to take a very troubled station and make something of it, and you said, That’s for me. [CHUCKLE]

 

Oh; yes. And actually, it was funny the way it came about. Because I’d been consulting for a couple years, going around fixing broken stations. And that was great fun. But I’d reached a point where I thought, this Public Radio thing has been wonderful. And it really has. I mean, I’ve never regretted a moment I’ve spent with it. But I’ve done everything I really want to do. You know, I’ve been an operations manager, I’ve been a reporter, I’ve been a producer, I’ve been, you know, pretty much every position, and I’ve been building stations and running them. Time for me to go back to Europe now and reinvent myself again, and see what happens next. And I was in the process of doing that. I had my house on the market. I was winding up all my little business things. I hadn’t known about the situation in Hawaii, and I had three phone calls in the space of a few days from different people that I knew. And essentially, the message was, If you like broken stations, have I got a broken station for you. Anyway, I wrote to the folks here. In all honesty, I thought, you know, this will be one more fix-it job, and then—you know. But I came out and met with the board, and they were all very interesting people. They were clearly all agents of change. That’s why they were doing what they were doing and were so committed to it. There was a real will, there was a real spirit about the organization, [INDISTINCT]. It just felt right. And we reached an agreement, and I came out and went with them.

 

There was a real will, there was a real spirit about the organization, [INDISTINCT]. It just felt right. And we reached an agreement, and I came out and went with them. Uh, as I say, Honolulu was a big surprise. I—uh, you know, you have this idea of a tropical paradise, and Honolulu is anything but. You know, it’s a—it’s an intense, very densely populated city with a lot of uh, um … issues of its own. Uh, it’s uh, multiethnic beyond imagination. It’s uh, like all those planets that shows up in Star Wars Trilogy, you know. Um, everybody’s from somewhere else. And HPR was that way. I—when I met uh, the crew, everyone was from somewhere else. It was like taking over the Enterprise. You know, there were people from different planets. Um … and, yeah, grateful, jump in, and uh …

 

How did you get it to rise, when it was definitely in the hole in the ground?

 

[CHUCKLE] I think probably the … the lever that had the most benefit to it was the one of taking on the challenge of convincing a community that had begun to really give up on this. You know, this is a good idea, but it’s just not gonna happen. And convince them that it was a success. That it was a success. Not that it could be a success, but that it was a success. And in that first year, we did three fundraisers, and we’ve been doing two a year ever since.

 

And were you on the desk for HPR? You were handling the pledge interviews and appeals?

 

Oh, sure. Oh, yeah.

 

Okay.

 

Yeah, yeah; yeah. I’ve always enjoyed pledge drives. I get a lot of credit for being a fundraiser. I’m really not, but I love this business, and the pledge drives are a means to an end. You’ve got to have the money. The money is a means to an end. It’s not about the money itself. And I believe in the thing sufficiently, that getting on air and begging and pleading doesn’t bother me that much, because I believe in what we’re raising it for. And it was successful, and it seemed to turn around the consciousness somehow. And if people believe you are a success, then they’re gonna get behind you.

 

And there was always another problem after the one you solved; right? Because you were facing a situation that was layered, upon layered, upon layered with, you know, obstacles, which is exactly what brought you here.

 

Well, [CHUCKLE] yeah. I mean, I just thought it was gonna be, you know, another quick gig in this exotic circumstance. But then, you know, the idea got hatched of, Well, we seemed to have stabilized this, now there are a number of things technically wrong with the thing. You know, the old KIPO transmitter, and the fact that we weren’t heard in a great part of Oahu, much less the rest of the State. And we built the station in Hilo just because we happened to have a license that was about to expire. We were very motivated to build that station, which we did. And that got us to the point where, Well, you know—

 

Let’s go statewide.

 

Let’s go statewide; we’re Hawaii Public Radio, after all, and let’s try and make it so. And that was the narrative for the next two years.

 

Do you reach farther than for-profit radio stations with your broadcast signal?

 

Oh, absolutely; yeah. Yeah, we’re the only radio station with statewide reach. Yeah; absolutely. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished here in Hawaii with the industry that I love so much. I like to think that Hawaii is an even better place now, than it was before we developed our Public Radio the way it is. It’s grown up now, it can stand on its own however many feet it has.

 

Hawaii Public Radio has received national recognition as a nonprofit organization for its achievements in news programming, fundraising, and fiscal responsibility. Michael Titterton, now HPR’s former president and general manager, was awarded the 2016 Alfred Preiss Honor by the Hawaii Arts Alliance for his lifetime support of the arts and community building. Mahalo to Michael Titterton of Makiki, Honolulu, for putting his skills and service to work for our community, and for delightfully sharing some of his many stories with us. And thank you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, a hui hou.

 

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

 

Looking back at how much physical ground you’ve traveled, and then of course, how much emotional and social ground you’ve traveled, you’ve had a chance to reflect a little bit on your life, and how you were gonna be a tool die guy.

 

Yeah.

 

And then, with a business, and all of a sudden, you’re getting a master’s degree and getting into public media, and being a turnaround expert.

 

Well, yeah. I never expected any of it. In terms of reflection, I’m still coming to terms with all of that. I feel enormously grateful. I mean, I don’t want to be too sloppy about it, but not everybody has the breaks that I’ve had. And I’ve been fortunate. I used to think it was a rotten break, but I was fortunate enough not to be born wealthy. Life is good; life is good. It’s been a fascinating journey, and it doesn’t seem to be quite done yet.

 

[END]

 


LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Sam Low: Raising Islands

 

As a crewmember on the Hōkūle‘a, waterman Sam Low experienced the chicken skin moments when, as the canoe would approach a Pacific island, the island itself would appear to be raised out of the distant horizon as the canoe sailed closer.  As a documentarian, author Sam Low heard the vision, fears and dreams of master navigator Nainoa Thompson and those involved with sailing the canoe. On this episode, Sam Low shares his stories of sailing on Hōkūle‘a.

 

Sam Low Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Nainoa has said that early on he’s been hindered by a fear of failure. Do you know how he resolved that? Because he certainly succeeded.

 

Courage. He resolved it by being courageous, I think. It was Nainoa’s job to be the first Hawaiian in perhaps a thousand years, after that devastating accident, devastating loss of Eddie Aikau, to take the canoe as navigator on the first voyage in a thousand years that a Hawaiian has navigated. So, naturally, he was fearful. He was fearful for his own ability, but he was fearful for his people. Because if he failed, that would have been, Oh, Hawaiians, yeah. I have the feeling that his father helped him understand that there’s a deeper mission. That everything is based on helping your community, helping your people, and that your fear or your immediate reluctance is nowhere near as important as pushing through it to get that mission accomplished.

 

In researching his book, Hawaiki Rising, Sam Low spent hours interviewing his cousin, Nainoa Thompson, talking to him about the double-hulled canoe Hōkūle‘a, and what drove his dream to voyage in the wake of his ancestors. Sam Low, next on Long Story Short.

 

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

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Sam Low was born and raised in Connecticut. His Hawaiian father left the Big Island to attend prep school on the Continent, where he got married, never to return home again. Their son Sam inherited his father’s love of the ocean and of boats, and grew up spending summers at the beach on Martha’s Vineyard, where he still lives at the time of our conversation in 2014. Sam Low made his first trip to Hawai‘i as a young naval officer, and has been coming here ever since, connecting with his family that includes Nainoa Thompson. Sam’s background as a documentary filmmaker, his ocean skills, and his family connections eventually led him to become a crewmember on Hōkūle‘a, where his role on the voyaging canoe was that of the documentarian. His job was to observe, and through that, he got to experience what life is like sailing on a canoe in the middle of the ocean, thousands of miles away from land.

 

My role on Hōkūle‘a has always been as a writer, as a documenter. Usually, on Hōkūle‘a, you’re a crewmember, and so that’s basic. You know, you stand your watch, and you do all that. But you have another role as well, which is, you could be a cook, you could be a watch captain, you could be a carpenter, or you could whatever. And my role was as documenter. And so, that fit, you know, what I had been doing for so many years prior to that, going out and documenting, either filming or writing about, or doing a thesis at Harvard about a way of life that I wanted to bring back and I wanted to give you, wanted you to have this gift. I have seen this, I have been there. And now, I want you to have it. And that was a perfect blend of what the job was. As a documenter, the kuleana, or actually as any crewmember, the kuleana on Hōkūle‘a.

 

Isn’t it interesting that all your interests sometimes come together and inform each other into one wonderful culmination?

 

Yeah. I probably never would have gotten on the canoe if it hadn’t have been that I did have this skill of being able to write. And of course, it didn’t hurt that Nainoa was my cousin, and I had a relationship with him. I was invited on the voyage to Rapa Nui. And that was actually my first trip on the canoe. The voyage to Rapa Nui was supposed to be the hardest voyage, because the prevailing winds are against you. And so, Nainoa had predicted that it would have to be tacking into the wind. So, this would be a zig-zag all the way. So, what was maybe, I think about seventeen hundred miles could easily become three thousand miles, if you had to tack. So, he chose a veteran crew. He had on board those folks like Tava Taupu, and Michael Tongg, and Snake Ah Hee, and Bruce Blankenfeld, and you know, Kalepa Baybayan. The best of the best. They set off. Now, I should say that this was the first voyage that I was actually invited to go on. But Nainoa wasn’t quite sure about me. I had made one voyage on the escort boat, and that went fine. So, he just wasn’t sure, and he put me on the escort boat and he said, You’re gonna be on the escort boat for four or five days, we’re gonna see how it goes, and if everything’s going okay on the canoe, then we’ll bring you over.

 

Why was Nainoa unsure about whether to have you on the Hōkūle‘a? ‘Cause you’re a waterman, you’ve been around water all your life in different kinds of craft.

 

Right; but you have to remember that on that voyage, there were the tested men, they were the best of the best. These men had probably voyaged thirty thousand, forty thousand miles. Not only that, they’re surfers, and they’re athletes.

 

And did Nainoa figure you could document it just as well from the escort boat?

 

I think he knew I couldn’t do that. But I think he wanted to just be sure. I think he wanted to go out and to see, and if it was a slog, and it was what he expected it to be, the most severe test of endurance, then maybe I would have stayed on the escort boat. But it didn’t turn out that way; it turned out to be easier. And so, I think that’s why he invited me.

 

So, it had to do with physical conditions?

 

Physical training.

 

Not fit?

 

Not fit. Not like those guys. No; uh-uh. Those guys, well, look at them. I mean, look at Tava. You know, look at Snake. All of those guys are watermen, all the time. You have to remember, New England, it’s the winter, so I get to swim four or five months out of the year. I was not in the kind of shape that those guys were, so I think that’s what his reservation might have been. So, I think on the fifth day, we got word that they wanted me to go over. And I’m like, Yes! And it was one of those rainy, kind of drizzly days, not a lot of wind, and I was rowed over by one of the crew on the escort boat. And Hōkūle‘a is up here, and I kind of crawled in. You crawl over the hulls, and then you crawl up over this canvas kind of space shield. And I remember crawling out and looking up, and there was Mike Tongg. His appearance is like this gentle, loving Buddha, you know. He has that kind of loving appearance. And the rain was just dripping down off his face, like this. And he was looking down at me with this beneficent smile. He didn’t say a word; just … Welcome, good to see you. And so, I just immediately felt at home with Mike’s blessing. He’s such a veteran on that canoe. But Nainoa had felt that we had to be prepared for the slog of wind. But as it turned out, fortuitously, at that time of year, down in the roaring forties … I hope I’m right, but I think that we were probably up around twenty degrees south. And down around forty degrees south, there were a number of low pressure areas that were spinning storms up toward us, spinning wind up toward us. And so, they broke the trade winds, and they created following winds. So that Nainoa seeing that, set off basically in a storm, and sailed along with the wind coming from behind, spun up by these storms down in the roaring forties, until that storm went through, and then we were kind of the calm. And then the trades would fill in again, and we’d do a little tacking, and then another storm would come along. And we made the trip so much faster than what was predicted, that we got there a week before our welcoming party.

 

Nice when storms are your friends.

 

Yeah; yeah. So, it turned out to be a lot easier in terms of the crew, and in terms of the endurance than we thought it was gonna be. More difficult from the navigation point of view, because often you would have cloudy skies. In fact, on that voyage to Rapa Nui, two or three days before Nainoa found the island, we started to have cloudy skies, and he had no real sight of his guiding star. He was steering pretty much by swells, and he was navigating by dead reckoning. So for three days, he was navigating by instinct, trained instinct. And on the day that we sighted Rapa Nui, the winds shifted. He was going to do a zig, and instead of doing a zig, the wind shifted and kind of pushed us in the direction that he thought we wanted to go. And he said, We’ll follow the wind; we’ll just stay, we’ll follow the wind. Hōkūle‘a knows where she wants to go.

 

Now, when you can’t navigate by stars, does he sleep at all? I mean, because he’s always watching current conditions.

 

Yeah; he is. Well, when you’re not navigating by the stars, you’re navigating pretty much by the swells and the wind. Of course, the wind was gyrating around and changing, so he was using the swells to navigate. Normally, if he’s alone on a voyage, then he will sleep in catnaps. He’ll sleep for maybe twenty minutes, thirty minutes, and then jump up and be awake for, say, eight hours, and then lie down for twenty or thirty minutes, and jump up. And he’ll do this for thirty days at a time. One of his great fears on that first voyage in 1980 was he wouldn’t be able to stay awake. That’s Mau’s secret, not mine; I can’t do that. But it was one of those first, as he calls them, the doors of perception had opened. One of those first doors that opened was that when they set sail out of Hilo and started on the voyage, after about fourteen hours, he decided he was really tired, he was gonna take a little nap. And he lay down, and he lay down for about fifteen or twenty minutes, and he jumped up and he was refreshed. And he said that was the first kind of sense that there is something in navigation, there is something in accepting the challenge and the risk that comes from another level, and that he was able to that, on that first voyage. And that’s what he normally does. On this voyage, the Rapa Nui voyage, he had Kalepa Baybayan on board, he had Bruce Blankenfeld on board; he had trained navigators with him. So, he could sleep.

 

If you don’t have enough sleep for enough time, I mean, I would think your judgment becomes impaired. So, I guess you have to have a limited goal in terms of time? How do you do that?

 

He does it for a month at a time.

 

Amazing.

 

I have no idea; I couldn’t do it.

 

So, maybe because you have a goal and you’re trained, and you’re generally in good shape, you can manage your mind and your brain cells for that amount of time.

 

Yeah; it’s a mystery to me, how he can do it. You know, it’s always chicken skin if you’re crew, and/or a documenter particularly, my job being to watch everybody, and to record. But you know, I’ve watched Nainoa pretty intently, and it’s always that moment when he says, Post lookouts, land is near. And then, I would get to go ask him, Well, what’s going on? He’d say, Well, I think Rapa Nui is there. And he put Max Yarawamai, who is Carolinian, who has great eyesight, he put him on watch. And about five hours later, there it was, Rapa Nui. And it was pretty much where he said it was. And Rapa Nui is tiny. And so, he found this island after seventeen hundred miles.

 

After sailing to Rapa Nui, Hōkūle‘a navigator Nainoa Thompson invited Sam Low aboard the canoe for the trip home. This second experience gave Sam even more insights into how Nainoa used nature and his intuition based on experience to guide him to exactly where he wanted to go.

 

The second voyage I got to make was from Tahiti to Hawai‘i. And we’d been at sea for, I think, about twenty-four, twenty-five days. Had lots of storm on that particular voyage, lots of squalls. I’m going to say it was the twenty-fifth day, I forget exactly, Nainoa turned the canoe downwind. We’d been headed into the wind all the time to get to the east of the Hawaiian Islands, and he turned downwind. So, we knew something was up. And steering downwind on Hōkūle‘a, the sails are on either side, wing-on-wing, ‘cause the wind is directly from behind. And we were steering that way for a while. We couldn’t see anything; there was this gentle mist wafting over the canoe. You could feel the sun, but you couldn’t see it. Visibility ahead was maybe oh, I don’t know, half a mile.

 

And during this time, do you say, Hey, Nainoa, what’s going on? Or do people not talk about what’s up?

 

Well, I got to be bratty, because I was the documenter. So, I didn’t say anything for a while, but we went wing-on-wing, and then the wind changed slightly, and so one of the sails came over. So, now, we’re sailing like this. We felt that. And around six o’clock, I saw Nainoa was just back there on the navigator’s platform, just peering intently ahead. Again, this mist was coming over. We couldn’t see anything; I couldn’t see anything. So, being a documenter, I get to go back and say, you know, What’s going on? He said, Well, Hilo is right there. After twenty-five hundred miles, twenty-five days, Hilo is right there? So, I said, How do you know? And he said, Well, do you remember when the sail, when we couldn’t sail wing-on-wing? Well, that’s because we got into that place where the winds are coming and being broken by Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, and churning around the island. And so, that wind shift, that gentle wind shift told me that we’ve gotten into that zone where the winds are breaking. You know, these mountains are fourteen thousand feet high. And he said, Look ahead, you see that mist seems to stall, it seems to slow down. So, I looked. Yeah; okay. Keep going. I know I couldn’t see it. And he said, If you look—the sun was starting to go down. If you look on either side, you can see it’s kind of dark ahead of us, and it’s a little bit lighter there.

 

You couldn’t see it?

 

I couldn’t see it. And so, I wrote it all dutifully down. And then we sailed on for a while, and then he tacked. And I said, Well, why’d you tack? He said, We’re on the Hamakua Coast, and I don’t want to get too close. Of course, none of us can see this. This is after twenty-five days. I don’t want to get too close, and Hilo is right over there. And so, I said, Okay; write it down. And then, we all felt it. And we all went over to the rail, and the whole crew is standing there looking, and Nainoa said Hilo is there, and they know Hamakua must be there. And we waited for about fifteen minutes, and then fortuitously, that low cloud layer lifted; just lifted. And there it was, the twinkle of the coast, Hilo over here, the lighthouse. And at that moment, Nainoa just said, We’re home.

 

Wow.

 

After twenty-five days. So, that’s the chicken skin, that when you’re navigating with someone like Nainoa or Kalepa Baybayan, or Bruce Blankenfeld, or Chad Paishon, or Shorty Bertelmann, any of these great navigators who have dedicated their life to merging with the signs of the sea, and you have the privilege to be on a canoe after that much time, and to see land is there, exactly where they say it is.

 

What happens over the twenty-five days, say, of a voyage? Is there a lot of talk? Is there a lot of laughter? What do people do, day-by-day?

 

I think it depends a lot on the crew and on the chemistry of the crew. And I think it’s all of that. But if I think back on it, I think more of a kind of … quietness, actually. I don’t think so much of laughter; there’s that. I don’t think so much of talk; there’s that. I don’t think so much of music, although there’s that. I think of the quietness of being at sea, and the feeling of being out in an immense ocean, completely alone, and you don’t see another ship, you don’t see another person, you don’t see land, and you get into kind of a rhythm of watch-standing, of being alert, and being relaxed, and being alert, and being relaxed, of the stars turning, and the moon and the sun. And there’s a blending with that diurnal rhythm so that it’s a meditation you get into. I think it’s a meditational state. I think it’s a very relaxed state. I think that even in storm aboard a vessel like Hōkūle‘a, which is so staunch and so seaworthy, and so sea kindly, that you’re not afraid. You know that if you do everything right, if you follow the instructions of your captain, if you bring the sails down, if you stand your watch properly, you’ll be fine. So that’s not it. It’s not anxiety, it’s not fear; it’s contemplation, it’s meditation. And actually, I think for most of us, say after five or six days, you’re just in the rhythm, and then when the canoe turns down and the navigator says, We’re there, we’re almost sort of like saying, Well, that’s good, we can have a hamburger, we can have a beer, but you know, why don’t we just keep going. ‘Cause you’re in this world. You’re with your crew, you’re with the weather, you’re with the canoe, you’re in this meditational almost Buddhist, Hawaiian meditational state, and you don’t want it to stop.

 

Sam Low started working on a book about Hōkūle‘a after he returned home from the Rapa Nui voyage in the year 2000. At first, he didn’t know what would be in the book, but it finally came together, and Hawaiki Rising was published in 2013. It tells the story of Hōkūle‘a, Nainoa Thompson, and the Hawaiian Renaissance.

 

There was a period of time, and I think it was uh, 2010. See, I’d been working on this book for ten years. I mean, I didn’t really know that I’d been working on it for ten years. I was just recording, and I was writing articles. The first idea for a book would be a picture book, and then I went off and did my grandpa’s book. And I got partway there, and then I came back onto this. But there was a time, I think it was 2010, when I did have a chance to interview Nainoa very extensively. I was living in the family compound, and the guest house is, you know, a hundred yards from his house. And I would sit and wait, and every time he came out, I’d say, Hey, Nainoa, how you doing? You know, and he’d say, Not today, Sam, not today. Okay, okay. And then, How you doing? Yeah; okay, come. And so, we’d sit and spend two or three hours with a tape recorder, and I think the exchange did help him bring together all his experiences. Well, it was certainly great for me, because I was able to get this raw material for Hawaiki Rising. But I think it also helped him bring together his own experiences and correlate that, and put it together into kind of a set of values and a philosophy. It’s his philosophy, but I think in being able to exchange with another person who he was fairly intimate with, that it did help him in that. And at that time, about three years ago, the concept of moolelo became very important. And he expressed that; he said, You know, we stand on the shoulders of heroes, and it’s very important that as we move forward around the world, that we look back, and that we celebrate and bring with us the spirit of those people who made all of this possible, and the lessons that we learned from them, from his father Myron Pinky Thompson, from Mau Piailug, from Wally Froiseth, from Ben Finney, from Herb Kane, from all of those who had built the canoe, who had the vision of the canoe, who had sailed the canoe, and that evolving vision, that gift that they gave to all of us who’ve sailed on the canoe. He wanted that to be celebrated, and part of that was the book, Hawaiki Rising. It is a celebration of those heroes whose shoulders we stand on today. He expresses in Hawaiki Rising very clearly how fearful he was of that time of his first voyage. You have to understand that everything depended on it, that the canoe had capsized, that they had lost Eddie Aikau, and that Hawaiians were on the cusp of being able to, through voyaging, and all the other arts as well, not just voyaging, but Hōkūle‘a was the symbol of the Renaissance. Through voyaging, to recapture this great pride of ancestry. And the canoe had capsized. There was a great deal of anxiety, which he expresses in the book. And he pushed through, and he discovered deeper reserves, I think, of courage and of a sense of connection to his ancestors that allowed him to enter a world of understanding and of comprehension that was deep and that was powerful.

 

You went back and talked to a number of the people we associate with Hōkūle‘a over the years. What did some of those conversations yield in terms of insight about the voyages?

 

Well, they were key. The book is made up of what I like to think of as a chorus of voices. See, I’m not in it. It’s not my story. I’m the person that’s behind the camera, if you like, or that’s writing the story, singing the song, I hope. And I had this opportunity to interview dozens and dozens of crewmembers, and I wanted the book to be a chorus of voices. I wanted it to be told in the voices of the people that experienced it, not an impersonal narrator, a personal narrator. And I didn’t know that that would work. It’s like an oral history. And I’ve been very interested in oral histories, something told directly, authentically from the person who experienced it. So, the opportunity—and of course, I was very kind of shy and bashful. I mean, Tava Taupu, and Snake Ah Hee, and Herb Kane, and Nainoa and Pinky, and Marion Lyman-Merserau, and Dave Lyman. I mean, these are heroic figures to me. So, to have the honor that they would sit down and talk with me was terrific. And I didn’t want that to end. You know, so writing the book, you have to eventually do that; right? But the great pleasure was to have those moments, those intimate moments with people on whose shoulders we all stand on, and to have them tell me their story. That in itself, was the process, is sometimes more important than the product.

 

Through the eyes and ears of Sam Low, we all get to experience what it’s like to sail aboard Hōkūle‘a as she makes her way across vast oceans, guided by the stars and other natural elements, to faraway destinations. Mahalo to Sam Low for sharing his stories with us, and mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.

 

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

 

Pinky evolved a philosophy that came out of voyaging. He said, You first have to have a vision, and you have to have a vision of an island over the horizon. And once you have that vision, then you have to formulate a plan to raise that island from the sea, Hawaiki Rising. And then, you need to have discipline to train, to achieve that plan. And then, you need to have the courage to cast off the lines, and then you need to have the aloha to bind your crew together to find the island. So, those are values that were inherent in Pinky’s view in voyaging, and also in the world, and also all cultures of the world. So, he brought this philosophy from the past, brought it to the present, and made it a possible future. And Hōkūle‘a is voyaging around the world with that philosophy in mind.

 

[END]

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Alberta de Jetley

 

Alberta de Jetley’s life has been a winding path, taking her through the island chain. She was born on Moloka‘i, raised on Lana‘i and spent her married life in Hana, Maui. She eventually returned to Lana‘i after the death of her husband, Tony de Jetley. A journalist since 1985, she has served as publisher, editor, photographer and advertising salesperson of her own newspaper, Lanai Today, for the past nine years.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, July 26, at 11:00 pm and Sunday, July 30, at 4:00 pm.

 

Alberta de Jetley Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

We had horses, we had dogs, we had a whole island right in our backyard to explore. So, the first thing I did is, when I was about seven years old, our neighbor who was one of the last cowboys from the ranch, my Uncle Ernest Richardson, he taught me how to ride. And from then on, I never walked.

 

Alberta de Jetley grew up during the Territorial days of Hawaii. She’s lived almost all of her life in rural and, some might say, idyllic places in the islands. Horseback rider, hotelier, writer, and community newspaper publisher, Alberta de Jetley, next on Long Story Short.

 

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

 

Aloha mai kākou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Alberta Sophia Morita de Jetley loves open space, fresh air, and life in small communities. She’s lived on Molokai, Lanai, and in Hana, Maui. She’s the publisher and editor of Lanai Today, a community newspaper she founded in 2008. Alberta de Jetley was born in Kaunakakai, Molokai. At age six, she started school on Lanai, graduating from high school in 1963. Some may think there isn’t much to do on a small island, but she found plenty to do growing up.

 

When I was six years old, my family moved to the Island of Lanai, where my dad became the island’s game warden during the Territorial days.

 

He’s a Morita.

 

He’s the Morita side. His father raised hogs in Kalihi, and my grandmother was actually one of the Japanese brides that came over. When she came over to Hawai‘i, she was sent to someone on the Island of Kauai, and lived there, and had one child with them, my Uncle Harry. Unfortunately, he died, so she came back to Oahu, and she married my grandfather.

 

How did she find him?

 

He was a marriage broker. The story I heard was, my grandfather didn’t want to spend the money to send her back to Japan, because there wasn’t really anything for her to go back to. So, he decided to save the money and married her, himself.

 

So, that’s the Japanese side.

 

Yes. And then, on my mother’s side of the family, my grandmother is pure-blooded Hawaiian. And she married my grandfather, who was pure German. And my grandfather had been previously married, and I don’t know what the circumstances were, but he was no longer married to whoever he had been married. And the story I heard was that—and my grandmother told me this, that he wanted a housekeeper, and one his friends said, Oh, just marry, you know, Grace, because she’s not married, and then you don’t have to pay her.

 

Did you learn Japanese and Hawaiian?

 

No. We came from that period of time, unfortunately, when it wasn’t politically correct or socially acceptable for young Hawaiian families to speak Hawaiian to their children. So, I don’t even have a Hawaiian name. It’s always been a bone of contention for me; I wish I had a Hawaiian name. But my grandmother spoke Hawaiian to her friends whenever they met up. She never spoke Hawaiian at all to us. And on my father’s side of the family, I know my father spoke Japanese in their home, but as we were growing up, we weren’t really exposed to the Japanese side of our family, because they lived on Oahu and we were living on Lanai. So, we didn’t speak Japanese at home, either.

 

Did you make a seamless adjustment to Lanai? When you moved there, you were six years old.

 

When we first moved to Lanai, I remember that it was really, really cold. Every day, the fogs came down and covered the trees. There was fog all the way down to the ground all the time, and it was really cold. Whereas on Molokai, we lived right by the ocean. After living in the town, in Lanai City for a year, our family was moved to Koele, where the old Lanai Ranch was located. And that was a fabulous place to grow up. When I was about seven years old, our neighbor who was one of the last cowboys from the ranch, my Uncle Ernest Richardson, he taught me how to ride. And from then on, I never walked.

 

I always rode.

 

How nice that must be.

 

But I would ride anything. I could ride anything, and everything. They couldn’t keep me away from horses, and many times, it didn’t matter if it wasn’t a horse that I had permission to ride. So, I’ve been called on the carpet several times for riding other people’s horses without permission. I should have been hung.

 

Yeah; horse thief used to be a really bad thing to be.

 

Oh, yeah; I was. My nickname in those days was Alberta the Horse Killer. Or the Horse Thief, depending on who was calling me out.

 

But it sounds like you were an adventurous little girl; you were ready to get up and go.

 

I don’t know how my parents allowed us to do the things that we did. My Uncle Ernest, you know, the day before, he’d say, You fulla. He always called us, You fulla. You fulla want go, you be here four o’clock. And we would be there at four o’clock. He would come out of the house, and we would be there with our horses, waiting for him. And then, we would ride up over the hale with my Uncle Ernest. And I couldn’t have been move than like, ten, eleven years old. And Albert was seven or eight years old. And we did stuff like this all the time.

 

And meanwhile, your parents were having more children, too; right?

 

Yes.

 

Including a certain young girl who became the chair of the Public Utilities.

 

Public Utilities; yes, my sister Mina. When we moved to the Island of Lanai, my parents came with five children. And then, they had my sister Mina. Her real name is Hermina, but everybody called her Mina.

 

And she was a State legislator and the chair of the PUC.

 

So, my sister Mina was hanai’d by the Richardson family, my Uncle Ernest. And then, my sister Trudy, and then my brother Wally. So, he’s the baby of our family. So, we call them the ratoon crop.

 

Right.  Well, explain what that means.

 

It means it’s a last crop, you know, the last harvest. In the pineapple days, usually the first crop is your biggest pineapple, the second harvest is the one that most of us like, and the third crop is the last harvest before the field is plowed under. But then, they experimented, and they found that you could get a really, really sweet sugar crop; so that would be your ratoon crop. So, the last three were the sweetest.

 

So, you’re starting school on Lanai. And how was that?

 

It was difficult. I didn’t quite fit in, in any group. You know, in those days, the population was predominantly Japanese. The Filipino population was just beginning to come in. So, the main push into Lanai was 1947, 48.

 

Okay, but you were a Morita girl; what’s the problem?

 

But we were also, you know, Haole.

 

Hawaiian, Haole.

 

Hawaiian, Haole, Japanese; whatever you want to call it. In those days, they would say, Oh, you’re Cosmopolitan. And it’s okay; it’s kind of fancy to be called Cosmopolitan. But in actuality, you don’t really fit in anywhere.

 

That is so interesting. You know, I’ve heard so many local people who look local and everybody thinks, Okay, local-local. But it depends on your mix and who else is around; right?

 

Yes.

 

There are so many people who don’t feel like they fit, who would seem to.

 

Well, all the Japanese girls in my class were so studious, and they were always so polite, and they did their homework, and they, you know, did everything that was asked of them.

 

Oh, they weren’t stealing horses?

 

No.  They weren’t stealing horses, and I would cut school to go steal horses, too. And it was like it was really boring to be around them. For me, it was really boring to be around them. And then, I had some friends who were part-Hawaiian, you know, mixed, and I played with them too. But they didn’t do things like go out into the forest and build forts, or make tunnels, or you know, just go out and climb trees, and do all kinds of stuff like that. They wanted to come up and play with dolls. And playing with dolls was one of the last things I wanted to do. So, I was always around horses and dogs, and out in the forest playing. After our chores were done, we had this whole island to explore, so why would I want to sit around and visit with people who were playing with dolls. It just wasn’t gonna happen.

 

So, it was more of a temperament, personality disconnect.

 

Yes. And then, at school, I wasn’t very well-liked. I had a few favorite teachers, but I always had difficulties with my teachers because I never paid attention in school.

 

I can see how that would be a problem.

 

It would be a problem. Especially because I would have a book in my lap. The teacher would be out in front of us, and I would have a book in my lap, and my head would be down. And every now and again, I would—Oh. And I would be hiding and reading a book. Well, how do you discipline a child that’s reading a book? It’s almost impossible. You can’t say, You shouldn’t be reading. Because you want children to read. But I would build myself a tent. You know, at recess, I would build myself a tent under a table, and I would sit there and I would read the whole recess. And that was my world. If I wasn’t on a horse and out playing with my dogs, I had a book. One of the things that really made us that way was, of course, it was before television. But my Hawaiian grandmother bought us a World Book Encyclopedia as a present, as a gift. And she bought it on time payments; I think she said that she paid about five dollars a month for thirty months, or something. But my brothers and I read that encyclopedia from back to front, and back to front again. That’s how we grew up; that was our entertainment.

 

After graduating from the public high school on Lanai, Alberta de Jetley left for Oahu to attend the University of Hawaii at Mānoa. Or at least, that was the plan. Didn’t last long.

 

After I got out of high school, I was supposed to come down to the University of Hawai‘i. And I had a lot of adult friends who had horses on Oahu. So, as soon as I came down to go to college, they’d call up and say, Hey, what are you doing? We’re gonna go pick up some horses at blah-blah; do you want to go down to Waimānalo, or do you want to go down to ‘Ewa, or do you want to go down with us to go get some horses? And I would be gone; they’d pick me up. So, I had a very short stay at the University.

 

What did you expect your life would be after graduation from high school and starting the University?

 

Well, I knew that I didn’t want to stay on Lanai and work in the pineapple fields. In those days, as soon as you got out of high school, you pretty much left town to go into the military, to go to college, to come down to Oahu to get a job. So, when I was asked to leave the University, I had to go and get a job. And one of the people I interviewed with was Elmer Cravalho, who was in the Hawai‘i State Legislature.

 

As the Speaker.

 

Yes; he was the Speaker.

 

Of the House.

 

And I was offered a job as one of their, you know, aides or whatever you want to call them. But we were the gofers. And I was living with my sister. And she said, You can’t work there, you need to get a real job, because the Legislature is only in session for part of the year, so you have to go and get a real job. So, I became a dental assistant for a dentist. Hated it. I learned a lot. I liked the physical part of working with patients and learning all this stuff, but it was a difficult job for me; it didn’t suit my personality. So then, I became a mail clerk at Theo H. Davies in Downtown Honolulu. And I liked that, because you know, it was a five-story building with one of those old fashioned elevators. So, I’d go up and down, and deliver mail all over the building, and that was kinda cool. But I eventually ended up working in Waikiki for a company that represented hotels and other travel-related businesses on the neighbor island. The best part about my job was walking up and down Waikiki, delivering pamphlets and talking to the people in all of the travel desks. So, I like to tell people that I was a streetwalker in Waikiki. But it was fun days, and that’s how I met my husband.

 

He was in Honolulu?

 

No; he was the general manager of the Royal Lahaina Hotel. It was one of the properties we represented, so I was sent to Maui to look at all these Maui properties, and the first person I met there was my husband.

 

British person who was twenty-two years your senior.

 

Yes.

 

And you were, what, twenty-three?

 

Even younger.

 

Even younger; okay. So … then?

 

It was very difficult. My husband was married. We had to go through the whole process of figuring out what we were doing, what in the hell were we even thinking of. Separated, and then came back together. He was married to a lady who was a citizen of New Zealand. And in those days, the only way that you could get a divorce is if your divorce papers said that you were an adulterer, which—you know, big A on top of your forehead. So, we both had to go back down to New Zealand to be served with papers. And we stayed there a year; we stayed in New Zealand for a year, and we were married in New Zealand on May 31, 1968. Later that year, we moved back to the United States, moved back to Hawai‘i. My husband was offered a job at Hotel Hana Maui, and we moved to Hana, and stayed there until he died.

 

How many years was that?

 

We moved to Hana, I think it was 1969. At Christmas, 1969, and he died on February 1, 1981.

 

And you were helping him with hospitality. I think you did two or three cocktail parties a week.

 

Yeah, that was a different era, a different world. Our guests were mainly a lot of repeat people, guests coming to the hotel. But we had this house right across the Hana Ballpark, which was huge, and we gave three cocktail parties a week. You know, my husband Tony was twenty-two years older than me. So, people couldn’t understand how this Englishman who lived across the world, who traveled and ended up in Hawai‘i, how in the world did we ever get together, because our cultures were so different. So, they were always very curious about us, and would ask questions that really weren’t polite. But they would always ask how we met. And my husband started saying, Oh, I found her under a pineapple plant.  And that would keep things quiet for a little while. But it was fun. It takes a lot of adjustment to be in a May-December type relationship, but we had a very, very loving and good relationship.

 

In some ways, you had it easy. You didn’t have to cook, you didn’t have to clean, you had help with your two boys.

 

Ah … we did not live normally, because we lived on the hotel property, and we had two children. So, the entire time we were at Hana, we had daily maid service, somebody came down and cleaned the house because of all the cocktail parties; right? So, they took care of that. They took care of the flowers. When it was time for a party, they came down and did the setup. And then, we also had nannies while the boys were young who helped to take care of them. So, when my husband died, and we had to move … well, we didn’t have to, but you know, we weren’t gonna be involved with the hotel, my son David was ten years old, my son Tony was five years old. So, we moved to Lanai, where we had to make our own beds, and where we didn’t have daily maid service.

 

And was there a job waiting for you there? How did you support yourself?

 

We did have a job. I had a big job. We had acquired the lease of Hotel Lanai. In 1980, the lease was up, so I applied for it, and we got the lease. And my sister Mina moved over to Lanai and managed the hotel. So, when Tony died, I said, Okay. Mina wanted to go back to her life on Kauai, and I said, Okay, I’ll come over and take care of the hotel myself. So, we moved over to Lanai, and it was like, Oh! We had gone through a very, very sad period in our lives, because my husband had cancer, he was very ill. My boys really needed a lot of time together with me. So, we went horseback riding, we went fishing, we went sailing. The first thing I did is, I bought us dirt bikes. And we just turned into these dirt bike fanatics; we rode all over the island. We took our bikes down onto the ocean, we just went everywhere. And it was really, really fun, but it was also a very bad time economically for the Island of Lanai. I had a five-year lease, but in 1984, I had decided that we really had to bite the bullet, sell the lease, and stop spending money. So, I sold the lease, and we moved back to Maui. We lived in Wailuku. And that’s about the period of time that I became a writer.

 

How did you get to be a writer?

 

I was selling real estate for Carol Ball and Associates in Kahului. Our office is in Kahului. And then, I later decided that I wanted to live more in Hana rather than Kahului. So, I transferred to Cathy Paxton Real Estate. And one of my clients that I was showing property to was a lady named Joan Arnold. She decided that she was gonna have her own four-color magazine, not a newspaper. So, it was called The Mauian. And she said, Do you think you could develop an article for me for the magazine? So, I said I thought I could. And she taught me all kinds of wonderful things. Her son was eighteen years old, fabulous; a genius, really. And he taught me all I know about graphics and layout, and art direction, and photo direction. And that’s how I ended up back on Lanai.

 

The company that owned most of the island, Castle and Cooke, asked Alberta de Jetley to write a newsletter for its one-company town. She accepted the offer, and after moving back yet again to Lanai, it didn’t take long until she met Castle and Cooke’s CEO, David Murdock.

 

I worked in the old Dole administration building. My office was there. So, I was working there, and the phone kept ringing, and ringing, and ringing. I answered the phone, and it was Mr. Murdock’s speechwriter. So, he wanted me to go over to the fax machine, pick up a fax that he was gonna send to Mr. Murdock so he could review the speech he was giving on Oahu. So, I said, yes, I could do that. So, I went up there and I thought, Perfect, Alberta, perfect, perfect, perfect. Because I hadn’t met him yet. I can tell him exactly what I want him to do to my island; right? I’m gonna ask him what he’s gonna do, and then I’m gonna tell him what I would like to see him do. So, I went up and I knocked on the door, and he came to the door and he looked at me, and I said, This is for you. And I gave it to him, and he took it. And I said nothing; I turned around and left. And when I left, I was so mad at myself. I was staying with my parents, and when I walked in, my mother said, Where have you been? This man keeps calling and asking you to go to see David Murdock; he’s sending you some stuff, he wants you to take it back to him. So, I went up to the office, and I went up to the house, and I knocked on the door, and Mr. Murdock came. He took the papers from me and he said, Stay; don’t leave. So, I stayed, and I heard him yelling and screaming the way he does at people on the phone. And then, he came back out to where I was waiting for him in the living room, and he said, Who are you? So, I said, Well, I’m the person who does the newsletter, blah-blah, you know, and my name is Alberta de Jetley, and I’ve been working for you for the last few months. So, after I got through telling him who I was, he said, Well, let’s go to dinner. So, we went down to the Hotel Lanai. I walked in with Mr. Murdock. There’s dead silence. We had the longest, most uncomfortable meal ever. And when we left, he said, What are you doing? I said, I’m just going to go back to work. And he said, No, you’re not, we’re going to go for a drive. And he drove around, and he showed me everything that he was going to do. You know, and it was all up in his brain. You know, it wasn’t anything on paper yet. And I was just fascinated. And that was my first meeting with Mr. Murdock.

 

Did you tell him what you thought he should do to the island?

 

No. Because I liked what he was telling me.

 

So, the man who inspired such fear … gained followers.

 

Oh, yeah.

 

And sold the island, and then there was more fear.

 

Well, it’s a different kind of fear. You know, being afraid of change is normal. People worry about their futures.

 

Especially that kind of control, because it the control of the island.

 

Yeah.

 

And what will the island be like in a few years, do you think?

 

The sad thing I see about the changes occurring now is, we have priced our kama‘aina travelers out of the Lanai market. We still have a lot of vacation rentals, we have bed and breakfasts. There’s other places, smaller places to stay. It still allows our kama‘aina visitors to come back to Lanai. You can come over there from Oahu, which is so crowded, and you can walk up to Koele or you can walk up toward the mountains to the overview, you can go down to one of the beaches and be the only person down there. Five minutes out of town, you’re out in the boonies, and you’ve got all this space to enjoy. It’s just a wonderful feeling to have all this space around you.

 

And cool air.

 

Cool; it’s cool, cool air. And our town is really friendly.

 

At the time of this conversation in Summer of 2017, Alberta de Jetley continues to publish Lanai’s only print newspaper, Lanai Today. The island is still a one-company town, now owned by tech billionaire Larry Ellison, whom she says she does not know well. She’s an empty-nester, with her older son David living in Maryland, and her younger son Tony making his home in Hana, Maui. Mahalo to Alberta de Jetley of Lanai for sharing your life story with us. And mahalo to you, for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, a hui hou.

 

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

 

I have a community newspaper, and I’ve been doing newspapers since 1990, you know, on my own. And I look at the newspaper as a vehicle to keep people informed of what’s happening in the community, and trying to encourage them to show up for public meetings, to make their feelings known, and to be out there and not just to sit at home. We all live in this community together, and we should all take part in making the community work. So, that’s what I feel that I can do best, is through my newspaper, bring all of these different things together.

 

[END]

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Connie Mitchell

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Connie Mitchell

 

As Executive Director of The Institute for Human Services, Hawai‘i’s largest homeless services provider, Connie Mitchell has worked ceaselessly to find effective ways to heal and comfort her community – mind, body and soul. Bringing experience from careers in nursing, financial planning, pastoral work and more, she takes a multifaceted and compassionate approach in her stride toward solutions.

 

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, July 19, at 11:00 pm and Sunday, July 23, at 4:00 pm.

 

Connie Mitchell Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

We’ve had a couple of deaths recently. One lady was in the park, you know, someone that we knew, a homeless person that died. And … sometimes when those things happen, in some ways, it just kinda galvanizes my desire to make things different. And sometimes, people might mistake, you know, my passion for some of that as anger.

 

Connie Mitchell has spent her life serving those in need, especially those who often need the most help. Connie Mitchell, executive director of The Institute for Human Services, next, on Long Story Short.

 

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

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Connie Mitchell runs Hawai‘i’s oldest and largest nonprofit agency dedicated to the problem of homelessness. But for all of her efforts—and she generally gets high marks for her work from a range of community stakeholders, Hawai‘i has one of the highest homeless rates in the nation. She’s known for her positive attitude, in fact, a fiercely positive attitude despite challenges, and she’s known for seeing the homeless population as people, as individuals. Born Constance Kau Yee Fong to immigrant parents from China, Connie Mitchell grew up in the same town neighborhood where The Institute for Human Services is based, and where she leads the agency in serving the homeless and affected communities.

 

I grew up on Vineyard Street. And the duplex that I actually lived in isn’t there anymore. They actually used it as a prop and bombed in Tora! Tora! Tora! Yeah. But anyway, I grew up there, went to school at Kauluwela Elementary School right around the corner there. And I didn’t think I would end up being so close, you know, to where I grew up, but I am now.

 

Does it feel familiar?

 

It does. You know, in some ways, it does and yet, the neighborhood has changed, you know, a little bit. But of course, when I was a child there, there was a really different context, you know, and I might not have noticed, you know, the things. But I ‘m sure there weren’t as many homeless people back then as there are now.

 

Well, what was your life like as a child?

 

Well, I grew up, you know, with an older sister and two younger brothers. And my mom dad are actually immigrants from China.

 

What part?

 

Guangdong. And they came separately, actually. My dad came as a teenager, and then afterward, you know, brought my mom over.

 

How did he know your mom?

 

You know, I asked her that question the other day, and she said, Oh, you know … I think he knew a relative of hers, you know, her mom’s aunt or something. And so, they kinda got together. I always say it was a semi-arranged marriage, ‘cause I think there was, you know, an attraction there. But she didn’t know what she was coming to when she was gonna come to Hawai‘i; right?

 

And they stayed together?

 

They did.

 

Four kids.

 

Four kids. And so, we ended up moving when I was in the fourth grade, I think, or seventh grade, up to Liliha. So, it still wasn’t that far from where I am now, either. But that’s where she lives, still. And we grew up, you know, pretty Spartan lives, but you know, I learned a lot about living simply, but never feeling like I was poor or anything. You know, because we always had what we needed, had our imaginations, had really good friends to play with, you know, and really just enjoyed it. So, I think, you know, I learned a lot from my mom and dad, but didn’t really fully appreciate, I think, the experience of being an immigrant until I was much older.

 

What did your parents do for a living?

 

So, my dad had a restaurant in Kapālama.

 

Called?

 

Called Nam Kok Chop Suey. I don’t know if you remember it. But it was, you know, a small Chinese restaurant, and my mom helped him in the restaurant. I even worked there, you know, in summers when I was in high school to wait on tables. And it’s right where the Central Pacific Bank building is, you know, on Dillingham now. You know, it was really the times that I worked was when I saw my mom and dad, because they were working all the time. And I think that’s real typical a lot of times, you know, of people who have family businesses. And … I think it was great, because I could still connect with my Chinese culture, but you know, they weren’t really there so that I explored a lot of other things and really learned a lot from friends, you know, because my parents weren’t around that much. You know, my dad would bring dinner home, and then he would be back at the restaurant afterwards.

 

And you saw this as a positive thing; that you had your parents, but you also had your friends.

 

Yeah. You know, and I didn’t know the difference. I didn’t know how other people were growing, but that’s how I grew up, and I’m just really thankful for it. I think my parents really were … I know they loved us and cared about us, and really wanted to make sure we were safe and were provided for. But you know, when I would watch TV, and you would see those TV shows about families, and I’m thinking: Well, that’s just not how our family is.

 

Did you have an extended network of family at all?

 

We did, and it’s because my dad and my mom would sponsor other relatives to come over. And my uncle on my dad’s side actually worked for him as a cook, also. You know, so we did have family that came. My grandmother came when I was in the seventh grade, I think, and she was a part of our family for a short while, and then she ended up leaving and finding a place of her own. But it was really sometimes challenging, ‘cause you know, like being bicultural, I went to Chinese school like, from first grade to ninth grade. So, for nine years, I went to—

 

Did you learn to speak Cantonese?

 

Yes; uh-huh. And you know, my parents spoke it at home. But you know, it was a way to really hang onto my ethnic culture, you know. But I think all the while it was being shaped, I also had, you know, a lot of influence from the fact that my parents, being really open, said, Why don’t you go to church? You know, and they actually encouraged me to go. And I went to a church on Judd Street for many years. And, you know, that helped shaped my own faith.

 

Was it the same faith church that they believed in?

 

No. You know, they weren’t Christian. And I think there was a woman that went into the neighborhood and was just, you know, looking for children that might want to go to church. And so, I started going to Sunday School, and then ended up really just learning so much about God’s love, you know. And that was like, a little foreign in some ways, you know, from the culture that I was coming from. But I’m thankful for that, and I think that my faith has actually inspired a lot of the choices that I’ve made, you know, throughout my life and work, particularly.

 

And your parents never said one thing to you about, Don’t go there, that’s not what our Chinese family has always done?

 

Right, right. Yeah. So, I kind of like, you know, was embracing the Christian faith, and then at the same time, you know, my parents practiced their own cultural practices and faith. So, … I think it’s in some ways typical, you know, of people who grow up in Hawai‘i. You know, you’re exposed to a different way of thinking. And I’m thankful for the way that Hawai‘i is, you know, that we are able to … no matter how we think or how we believe, that we’re able to get along most of the time.

 

Did you feel that Honolulu was friendly to immigrants?

 

Yes; and I really felt like … I didn’t feel like I stood out or anything like that. You know, a lot of us maybe came from the same kind of background, and I think as a child, you just know. If you’re playing with other people, you’re playing with them, you’re getting along with them, and you don’t think about those other things. But that kind of childhood, growing up in a diverse community very much shapes how you feel when you grow up.

 

As a child, did you see college in your future?

 

I did, ‘cause my parents really valued education.

 

And had they had a college graduate in the family yet?

 

No.

 

So, who was the first?

 

Well, my older sister was. You know, she graduated from the University of Hawai‘i, and then, I did also. She left right after college, you know, and went to San Francisco. And my brother who’s a couple years younger than me, he did also. And they’re both there now. You know, he’s an architect in San Francisco, and my sister was teaching in the Berkeley school district for many years, and just recently retired.

 

And what did you go to college to study?

 

Oh, I became a nurse, and later on went back to get my master’s in psychiatric and mental health nursing. And you know, at first, I wanted to be a pediatric nurse, but I couldn’t deal with the pain of seeing the children, you know, suffering so much. And I thought: Okay, I don’t know if I want to really do this. You know, but … I think I really … have always seemed to gravitate toward serving underserved people. Like, when I was in San Francisco, my first nursing job was at San Francisco General Hospital. And it was a county hospital, so you had people who were prisoners, and people who were on Medicaid, and you know, people who just didn’t have that much. But it was an excellent medical center, and I learned a lot when I was there.

 

Where do you think that comes from, wanting to serve the underserved?

 

I don’t know. I’m always for the underdog, number one. You know, but I also feel like … maybe because I’ve been given so much, and I feel so blessed … that … for one, I think everyone … it’s a basic need, a basic right, you know, to have healthcare. And I really want to make sure that people are afforded that opportunity.

 

So, you’re in San Francisco getting your master’s of science in nursing. And how did you get back here? And I don’t think it was a direct path to IHS.

 

No, it wasn’t. So, actually, I graduated here at the University in nursing, and then I went to San Francisco. I came back. and I worked actually for a doctor and managed his office. You know, an internist. Internal medicine practice, and then kind of saw that a lot of people who were coming in, they seemed to have a lot of mental health issues also, lot of anxiety and stress that were causing a lot of, you know, their illnesses. So, I did a stint, you know, just really after that, going to work on a demonstration project that really addressed the connection between mind and body. You know, so we were actually trying to demonstrate that if you’re provided mental health services, behavioral health services, you could actually reduce the amount of medical utilization, you know, of a person. You know, this holistic medicine, you know.

 

It was just common sense to you.

 

Yeah; really. And you know, I think along the way, I’ve also done a little bit in financial planning. I think I spent about seven or eight years serving as a pastoral associate at a church. And you know, all of these experiences just kinda come together in my work at IHS, you know, because I think it’s given me skills and perspectives, you know, that are very … maybe different, you know, from somebody else who might be coming from just strictly a social work perspective.

 

You also saw acute mentally ill patients in residence at Hawai‘i State Hospital in Kaneohe.

 

Yeah. And so, after I graduated with my master’s in psych mental health nursing, my first clinical position was as a clinical nurse specialist there. And I worked with people who were dually diagnosed with cognitive impairment, as well as mental illness, so they might have been developmentally disabled also. So, it was just really a wonderful learning experience there. We were under a Department of Justice consent decree and was really needing to upgrade, you know, the quality of the care that was there.

 

It had to be sad to see that, you know, the place wasn’t taken care of as it should have been.

 

Oh, yeah. I mean, I think when I first started there, it was really …

 

And it was dangerous for employees too; right?

 

It was. You know, and at one point when I was there even, you know, I had to take out a TRO on someone, because I thought, Okay, I don’t know if this person’s gonna kind of retaliate or anything. But we also had like a car fire that was set, and it was, you know, very much a retaliatory thing from one of the patients, we believe. And the hospital was evolving at that time. I mean, it was facing the fact that it was a forensic hospital. Almost everybody that was coming in the hospital was coming in from a court order, you know, after that. But I think we really need to maintain a sense of the fact that these were also patients. And I think learning to triage and understand, okay, some people have some criminal tendencies that make them dangerous in a different way, and some people have more mental illness and are impaired by their mental illness. That needs to be acknowledged and recognized, because sometimes, if you just say, Okay, well, they’re all mentally ill, and so we need to just, you know, always take the tack that they’re not responsible for their actions, then some people who are responsible for their actions don’t really get the consequences that they really need.

 

After spending most of her career in the field of nursing and healthcare, including fourteen years at the Hawai‘i State Hospital in Kaneohe, which included a tenure as the director of nursing, Connie Mitchell leaped into tackling homelessness in Hawai‘i.

 

Well, a friend of mine knew that they were looking for an executive director. And you know, I had never worked nonprofit before.

 

You had a stake in the State retirement system.

 

Yes; uh-huh. When I was looking for what next, you know, for myself, I really wasn’t sure where it was gonna be. And that’s why I really think it was almost divine providence that, you know, this really came about. Because I heard about it through a friend of mine, and I applied. But I had applied a while ago, and I thought, Oh, well, I guess they found somebody. So, you know, I didn’t think twice. And then, I got a call back, and I went for a second interview, and then was offered the position, you know, shortly after that. And I thought, Well, okay, do I take a break? You know, ‘cause I was just moving out of, you know, my place and had just left the hospital. And I thought, No, I think this is really what I need to do. And even when I was being interviewed, they asked me, Well, how long are you gonna stay? And I said, Well, I don’t know, and all I can tell you is that when you give me a chance to do something, I will give it my all. And I said, You may not like me, you know, so we’ll how it goes. And I think that it’s been a really good match for me in terms of the work.

 

What is your goal? Is it eliminating homelessness?

 

I think as a group, you know, our Partners In Care consortium of homeless service providers and people who are concerned about homelessness, what we’re trying to do is develop a system where we no longer have unsheltered homeless, and anyone who becomes homeless will quickly get into housing. You know, so it’s not about just managing homeless, like let’s just put ‘em in the shelter and leave them in the shelter. We have long left that model behind at IHS. You know, we have been trying to house people as much as possible, you know, and as quickly as possible. And as the system has changed and as funding has become available, we’ve been able to do more and more of that. I think there’s very few people who just absolutely don’t want help.

 

So, I mean, it seems like there are people who, if you offer them a job, they say, Can’t you just give me money? I mean, I’ve met a couple of those.

 

Yeah. You know, I think the people on the street, you know, people who are unsheltered, there’s a really big mix. But remember, the people on the streets unsheltered are a small population compared to everyone who experiences homelessness. Once you hit the streets, you know, a lot of people stay there for quite a while. And what we’re trying to do is like, try to bring them in so that they don’t stay there. ‘Cause once you become homeless for a long time, it’s harder to get people off the street, because they realize, Oh, I can do this, this is fine. You know, and they don’t realize that their lives are changing, their health could be threatened, and when they do get sick, they’re gonna get more sick. You know, ‘cause we see infections that are just ridiculous, you know.

 

Somehow, they get accustomed and prefer it?

 

I think they lose hope. That’s what it is. You know, and they just don’t think that it’s possible. And you know, if you’re using drugs, you probably can’t get a job. If you can’t get a job, you certainly can’t get a place. And if you can’t get a place, then that’s why you’re out there on the street; right?

 

Hawai‘i has a great compassion, doesn’t want to see people on the streets, doesn’t want to see people suffering. And on the other hand, you know, there’s, Hey, are we using our money well? Because aren’t these people just being moved, moved, moved, moved? Is anything really happening?

 

M-hm.

 

What do you say to that?

 

I think that there are a lot of people that are coming off the street, and you know, they are being tired of the movement, you know, of the enforcements that are going on. But I think what I envision is being able to try to convince people that they can be a part of the community again. You know, they don’t feel a part of the community; that’s why they’re out there. You know, they don’t have a place to go, and we have to, as a community, figure out how to do that. I believe that if every one of those people who is capable of working could work if they weren’t using drugs, or you know, their mental health was stabilized.

 

Those are big ifs.

 

Yeah; but we could do it. I believe that it can be done, if we have the will to provide the services, you know, and to walk alongside some of these people so that they can believe also. Because I don’t think they believe it right now; they don’t think that there is a way out. And I’ve seen it happen, that when they start to believe and they actually take a chance on us, they’re able to get out of that situation.

 

The day-to-day challenges of running a large nonprofit organization and navigating the highly politicized issue of homelessness can take its toll on anyone. Connie Mitchell continues to maintain her positivity through her faith, and through the inspiration of the late Father Claude DuTiel, who is beloved for founding The Institute for Human Services through his Peanut Butter Ministry of handing out sandwiches on Downtown streets.

 

You know, Father DuTeil has always been sort of the person that I think of, you know, in terms of his values and his approach to people.

 

Who started IHS.

 

Yes.

 

Or the forerunner of IHS.

 

Right. You know, he did start IHS, and he himself was someone that suffered from both mental illness and alcoholism. And … he just had that kind of heart, you know, that really wanted to give back to the community. And I think that, you know, it’s a person like that who galvanized the community to want to do something that is my inspiration in a lot of ways. And on the other hand, you know, I feel like the heart part comes from that. I think my husband Mark is someone that has really taught me a lot about systems, and how to be willing, you know, to kind of … change things, so that things can be better. And my husband is just awesome; you know, he really understands, because he was in the mental health field as well. I shouldn’t say was; he still is.

 

Okay; now, how did he come into your life?

 

Well, we met at a conference. And then later on, you know, he was doing some consultation, and when he ended up coming over to Hawai‘i, he was the CEO at Kahi Mohala, you know, for a number of years. And then he retired again, and then he ended up not retiring and going back to work for the State at the Department of Public Safety. So, you know, he’s very well versed in systems issues, you know, with mental health, with developmental disabilities, with health in general. And so, we had a lot in common, you know, and really, I look to him for a lot of wisdom sometimes, you know, about how to proceed. But he also has a lot of experience that he is able to share with me that I’ve learned a lot from, I think. So, emotionally, intellectually, you know, I’m really grateful for a lot of the friends that I have had. You know, a good friend of mine, her brother had committed suicide, and this was when I was in college in nursing school. And I just thought, Wow, you know. I mean, that impacted me. And then, I had another friend who committed suicide later on who was in my Bible study group. And mental health seemed to be a theme in my life.

 

As of this conversation in June of 2017, Connie Mitchell has grown The Institute for Human Services from its original two shelters in Iwilei to eight facilities, including locations in Sand Island and Kalihi Valley. A believer in servant leadership, Mitchell remains passionate about the job, overseeing one hundred and fifty employees.

 

So, one of your staffers, Kimo Carvalho, says he really likes working with you because of course, you’re serious, but you’re also silly. What does that mean?

 

Oh … I can be … pretty silly in terms of, you know, when we get together and we do like little office parties and stuff like that. You know, I will sometimes surprise people, you know, when I would dress up at Halloween, or something like that. But, you know, it’s like I’m just like anybody else, and I’ve always felt like being a leader doesn’t mean you put yourself above. You know, it really means that you’re willing to do whatever anybody else is doing, and you’re working alongside them, you know.

 

So, servant leadership?

 

Yeah. It’s gotta be about that. You know, I think it’s really trying to bring out the best in other people, you know, and really helping them to really blossom and find their voice, and find their strengths.

 

You have so many. How do you spend your time?

 

Well, um …

 

And you’ve got to talk to lawmakers.

 

Absolutely.

 

You got to talk to funders, you’ve got to talk to homeless people, and supervisors, and community leaders, and business owners.

 

So, there’s no … usual day at IHS. Everything is urgent. And you know, you’re right; you know, we really look at the community as a major stakeholder. You know, we serve not only the people who are homeless, but we serve our community. You know, and as a part of that community, we have people who are policymakers, we have people who are funders, people who are just the public. You know, we really want to help people understand better what homelessness is about in Hawai‘i, and we want them to understand how we all can help them better.

 

I think it’s so wonderful that after—is it eleven years on the job now?

 

Yeah.

 

Eleven years on the job, you’re very positive, you continue to work at a very high performance rate. What keeps you going?

 

That’s a good question. I think it’s really seeing people turn their lives around when we are able to help them. And it happens quite often, I have to tell you. So, I think just, you know, being able to … do some new things, find some new solutions, partner with new people who have similar passion and, you know, just really want to make a difference; that’s really exciting to me, to see so many people like that.

 

Connie Mitchell, executive director of The Institute for Human Services, is a hard worker and a respected leader, and Hawai‘i still has a high homeless population per capita. She says we’re making headway in slowing down the rate at which homelessness grows. And she says that if different parts of our government would just agree to work together at important junctures, such as when inmates are released from prison, we could do better. Mahalo to Connie Mitchell of Honolulu for sharing your story with us. And thank you for joining us. For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, hui hou.

 

[END]

 

Where Everyone Knows Your Name

 

CEO Message

Where Everyone Knows Your Name
A Surprise for Our Board Chair


Where Everyone Knows Your Name: A Surprise for Our Board Chair

Left: PBS Hawai‘i outgoing Board Chair Robbie Alm and PBS Hawai‘i President and CEO Leslie Wilcox. Right: The newly named Robbie Alm Board Room

 

It’s not my practice to keep secrets from my outgoing Board Chair, Robbie Alm. I’m doing it this once, because it’s a one-of-a-kind secret that really should be a surprise.

 

By the time you read this, the cat will be out of the bag and Robbie will have retired from the Board following a long and successful tenure. Among his many achievements as leader: diversifying our revenues, investing in revolutionary tech advancements, founding the nation’s first statewide student news network, and building a new $30 million home on time and on budget.

 

Even before he was a Board member, Robbie was a champion of public broadcasting. He’s been involved in supporting this station, in one way or another, for more than 30 years.

 

So, of course, Board and Staff are having a party for him. We’ll give him lei and an engraved keepsake, and there’ll be a special song from former Board member, Hoku Award-winning performer/composer Kawika Kahiapo. Robbie also will have to endure a few speeches.

 

And – here’s our secret. PBS Hawai‘i’s handsome Board Room, which doubles as a second TV/video studio and has a view of our large studio below, will be named after him.

 

Robbie displayed both battle-hardened confidence and quiet humility in getting our new home built. He likes the results so much, that he’s known to stop by when he could simply make a phone call. He enjoys the natural light, the openness of the floor plan, the cheerful colors, the way the space accommodates work flow.

 

And now his name will be on the room where he presided over high-level governance decisions. We hope he continues to stop by and enjoy – without any worry.

 

In next month’s guide, I’ll write about PBS Hawai‘i’s incoming Board Chair. We’re proud to have our first ever Chair from a Neighbor Island: Jason Fujimoto of Hilo, an accomplished executive whose family-founded, employee-owned business is nearly a century old.

 

A hui hou – until next time,
Leslie signature

 

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