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What Drives KEN BURNS?

 

CEO Message

What Drives Ken Burns?

 

Ken Burns, Photo courtesy of Justin Altman

 

Filmmaker Ken Burns, who’s coming out with an 18-hour Vietnam War film to be shown over 10 evenings this month on PBS Hawai‘i, freely admits that he’s a workaholic; that he’s obsessive in his pursuit of archival material for his films; that his detractors dismiss him as long-winded.

 

And Burns can laugh at himself.

 

As he did when he was being honored as the greatest American documentary filmmaker of his generation. Stepping up to receive a lifetime achievement, he joked that he’d prepared a nine-part response.

 

He had to learn about laughter, since sadness and loss were prevailing childhood themes.

 

Burns, 64, is clear about what drives him and his compulsion to look at the past. It is the death of his mother, Lyla Burns, just before he turned 12. She had suffered from breast cancer for nearly a decade.

 

Burns remembers coming home from school or play every day and telling his ailing mother stories about what had happened, in effect sharing life with her. After she passed away, he recalls watching movies with father, Robert Burns, and seeing him cry, which was something his father didn’t do in other circumstances. That’s when young Burns says he grasped the storytelling power of film.

 

In a short video posted online at creativeplanetnetwork.com, Burns says: “I found myself becoming a documentary filmmaker, trying to tell stories and using American history to tell those stories that I wanted to tell. When you look back at it, the job that I try to do is to wake the dead. And it doesn’t seem too far a leap to understand, from that early decision to be a filmmaker, who I really want to wake up.”

 

From the earliest time that he can remember as a child, he says he knew his beloved mom was sick. He was not close to his father.

 

As a young man, he rejected chasing a Hollywood-type career. He says he innately knew, and was taught at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, that “there’s much more drama in what is and what was, than in anything the human imagination can dream of.”

 

Delivering the commencement address at Stanford University last year, Burns explained that delving into history can lead to personal and professional breakthroughs.

 

“The past often offers an illuminating and clear-headed perspective from which to observe and reconcile the passions of the present moment, just when they threaten to overwhelm us,” he told new graduates.

 

Burns wants this newest film with his creative partner Lynn Novick, about the divisive Vietnam War era, to spur national healing.

 

As he told an interviewer from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee:

 

“We caught something during the Vietnam War – like a virus – and we are still suffering from the effects of that virus today. I’m hoping my film is a bit like a vaccination – that it exposes you to a little bit of the disease to permit you to go past it and heal from it.”

 

I invite you to join me in viewing this new Burns/Novick film series, starting at 8:00 pm, Sunday, September 17, on your TV station, PBS Hawai‘i.

 

A hui hou (until next time),
Leslie Wilcoxʻ signature

 

 

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Leslie Wilcox, President and CEO of PBS HawaiiIt’s not unusual for someone I meet on the street to tell me: “You were just in my living room last night.”

 

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LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Kitty Lagareta

 

If you think you know Kitty Lagareta – business owner, public relations professional, University of Hawaii Regent – you’ll be surprised at the second career she almost had, how she got into public relations in the first place, and what she can do on a skateboard.

 

Transcript

 

You said you got in trouble a lot. Was that a trend that would continue later in your life?

Well, I really try not to, but I tend to be a little bit outspoken, and I tend to have opinions about things, and I tend to get involved. And I think when you do all that, sometimes it looks like you’re causing trouble.

When you raise a question, or when you are outspoken, is it with the intent to shake things up?

No; it really isn’t. Sometimes it’s just a question, or sometimes it’s just wanting to delve a little deeper into understanding something. I’m kind of an introvert, actually, in my private time. I’m not looking to cause trouble.

Kitty Lagareta is not one to back down from a challenge or hesitate to go against the grain. Honolulu business owner and operator, Kitty Lagareta, next on Long Story Short.

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

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Katherine Lagareta, better known as Kitty, joined the public relations firm Communications Pacific in 1986 as a junior account executive. Nine years later, she became its president and CEO. Kitty has always been a risk-taker, having grown up with teenaged parents who gave their children lots of independence.

In small kid time, I grew up in the Mojave Desert in California. I was there from about the time I was eleven, twelve. And my parents still live there, so it’s a place I go back to as home. And in those days, it was about five thousand people in this vast desert, and it was an amazing place to grow up.

What did you for playtime in the desert? 

You know, rode motorcycles. I love motorcycles. I hardly wear dresses, ‘cause I have all these motorcycle burns on my legs from falling on the tailpipe. But rode motorcycles, and chased lizards all the time. I can’t even believe I did that, but we chased lizards and we caught things, and looked at ‘em. And we played hide-and-seek on this vast desert. It’s amazing to me how much time as kids we had, unstructured, alone, to explore or hang out with friends, where parents weren’t hovering over us. Some of the best adventures are the ones that were misadventures.

You lived in a place that may be considered more dangerous than others, because of the climate, where you could get lost, and there’s too much heat in the desert.

Yeah. You know, way out in the desert, you never know who’s out there. And honestly, I was a very protective mom. My kids were born and raised here. I was a very protective mom, and I thought, You know, this would have never flown when I was a kid. But you know, it’s the way it was, and I’m grateful for it.

Were your parents people who explicitly gave you life lessons, or did they teach you by example?

They always tried. My parents were very young; my parent were sixteen. My mother was sixteen when I was born, and so, it was kinda like … there were times in my childhood where it was, which of us is raising which one? But I have wonderful parents; I adore them. They were very responsible parents, they were great parents. But no, they were not overprotective parents at all.

And what of life did you grasp from them?

You know, they always made me feel like I could do anything. You know, it was like, they gave me the freedom to make mistakes, take risks, do things that maybe were different or new, like ride motorcycles when you’re twelve, thirteen years old on the desert. They kinda gave you the sense that the world may not be a perfectly safe place, but you can handle.

And what were they like individually?

They both came from sort of broken homes at a young age, and my dad grew up in Pennsylvania. When he was eleven, his dad left, and he has a much younger sister and his brother was an infant. And he kind of became the man of the house then. Very responsible, great values. He ended up going to trade school to become an engineer and had a very wonderful career, did very well over the years with that kind of vocational education. And when I was a kid, he was managing cement plants by then. That’s why we were in the desert, because there was a large cement plant there that he managed. And then my mom, you know, had my sister two years later when she was eighteen, and then we adopted my two brothers, one when I was about twelve, thirteen, and one when I was about fifteen.

So, no sibling rivalry there; they’re so far apart in age.

But think about it; she had toddlers and she had teenagers at the same time. That’s got to have been a very difficult thing. And she was kind of a 50s, 60s mom. And she hadn’t finished high school, ‘cause she had me. And basically, she got me into college when I was sixteen on this special program, ‘cause she was so determined I would go to college as her oldest. And in the course of being counseled and all of that about my education, the counselor said to her, Where did you go to school? And she said, very embarrassed, I didn’t finish high school. And that counselor, I think my mom is grateful to her, but I had to love that woman. I don’t even know her anymore. She got my mom to start taking classes, take the GED test, and my mom got her master’s in psychology. It took her a number of years, ‘cause she went to a few classes at a time, but she had a great career as a clinical psychologist. And I’m really proud of her.

Is that right?

Yeah.

When did you leave the desert?

You know, the first time I left was, one summer I thought I was gonna go to school in Santa Barbara. That was the summer that they burned the bank, and then I went down to the beach. My apartment was on Sabado Tarde Road, this little road, and I loved this town. And everybody was playing naked volleyball, and so all it took was my Italian Catholic parents to come down and it was, You are out of here, you are so out of here. So then, I went back up to the community college, and met a boy from Hawaii. Grown up in Hawaii, not originally from Hawaii. And I had started college young; I had two years by the time I was eighteen. And he was a couple years older, and he was from Ewa Beach. And we got married when I was like, nineteen, and came here shortly thereafter.

That’s what brought you to Hawaii.

Yeah; that’s what brought me to Hawaii. The marriage lasted about thirteen years. We have two great sons from that marriage. And I think a lot of people thought after I got divorced, I would probably leave.

Did you ever consider it?

No; no. My kids’ father and I wanted to have them in the same place together with us, so even though we were not together, it never occurred to me to go anywhere else. And I love this place; I felt at home here from almost the first moment. My first husband was kind of a hanai family member with Al Harrington and his family, and Al was a big entertainer when we first came over here, and he worked for him. So, we immediately kind of got into cultural things with him, a lot of the people in his show, native Hawaiian, a lot of the people were Samoan, Tongan. And we hung out with them a lot in those early years, and so, I kind of got exposed to different cultures almost immediately, and I loved it.

Did you finish college at the University here?

I did; I went back. I took a couple of years to just kinda get settled here, and then I had my second son, and then I went back to school. And then, he got spinal meningitis when he was eleven months old, and that took me on a journey. I thought I was gonna go to law school; that was my big goal, was to go to law school. And I was like, vice president of the pre-law society, and all of that. And after his hospitalization, I heard about the Ronald McDonald House and some people here were starting one, McDonald’s and some community people. And that took my life in a whole different direction.

Your second child had spinal meningitis, or bacterial …

Yeah; bacterial spinal meningitis. He was born very, very healthy, big huge healthy baby, and I was one of those all natural childbirth and breast feed, and all that kinda stuff. So, when he got sick, we almost lost him, and he was in the pediatric intensive care for weeks at Kapiolani Hospital. And I really credit them, because the care was so good. There was another child with something similar, older child who died in the bed next to him. He was in a coma for almost a week, and it was a very scary, scary thing. He lost his hearing pretty much as a result, but that’s not stopped him in any way.

I can’t imagine the fear of having your child in a hospital bed next to someone who passes away from the same thing.

Yeah; it’s terrible. It was like moment-by-moment, and you get through it with your child. That was absolutely the most horrendous, scary thing I’ve ever gone through in my life.

How long did you go through it?

It was several weeks. And then, he had a long recovery.

And that’s when you came across the concept of Ronald McDonald House?

What happened was, there was a mom there from the Big Island, and she was a single mom, and they’d flown her over on a medvac. And I got to know her over a period of the first week or two. And I noticed she didn’t have any clothes, she was kinda living on whatever she got at the vending machine. And as we got to talk, I realized she didn’t have a place to stay. And then I kinda looked around, and I realized that a lot of neighbor island families, they rent a car and get an ice chest, ‘cause they want to be real close to their kids. They were essentially living in the parking garage and kinda using the facilities at the hospital, but that was it. ‘Cause you can’t afford a hotel if your baby’s in neonatal intensive care for months, or your child’s in the hospital for weeks. Nobody can, and nobody wants to be that far away. So, I was concerned about it, and I went down and talked to the hospital administrator. He was very kind; he said, You know, we can’t take care of all the parents; we’ll try. If there’s somebody special you think needs our assistance, we’ll send up our social worker. But we use all our resources to take care of the kids. So, he remembered me, I guess, because a year later, he called me up and said, You know, you were so concerned about that; well, these people are having a meeting here, some people from McDonald’s and some people from the community, and I think they want some parents who had kids in the hospital. And I think you should come down for this meeting. And I said, Okay.

That meeting was the beginning of a new journey that took Kitty Lagareta into the world of fundraising. The efforts of the group were successful, and after the Ronald McDonald House opened, Kitty became its first staff member. While this experience eventually led to her future career in public relations, she pursued another interest; one that pushed the limits of risk-taking. She became a standup comic.

Some friends of mine were auditioning for a comedy troupe that Rap Reiplinger was putting together. So, in the middle of that for a couple years, I did standup comedy with this group called Hats. And I was working on Ronald McDonald House during the day, and at night we would perform, and in between somewhere I would write stuff. It was a great adventure.

What kind of comedy did you do?

You know, it’s very common now. You see a lot of kind of feminist comediennes, and they do some pretty risqué stuff. And that’s exactly what I was. You know, I grew up as a tomboy and I cussed a lot. I didn’t cuss in my monologue. I finally have tried to wean that out of my vocabulary. But it was edgy stuff. I did a whole thing on masturbation; a whole monologue on masturbation.

Personal subjects, and then to go in front of a whole bunch of people … didn’t it frighten you?

Well, for me, it was a weird plaything. It was, Do women do it, or not? We only hear about men. Is that because they have language to describe it, and we don’t have any? And so, the whole thing was about what kind of language women should have to even talk about it, if they did it. And it kind of … you had to be there.

[LAUGHTER]

And it got laughs, good laughs?

It would bring the house down, once I especially got my rhythm. Rap loved it. And I remember my proudest moment, ‘cause it was a very short career, was when we had a big review by Wayne Harada. And he said—I thought it was kind of a play on words; She talks about some very touchy subjects, but it’s a display of astonishing wit. And I said, Okay, maybe this is something I can really do, because he said that.

And you wrote your own lines.

I wrote my own.

It wasn’t improv; it was something you wrote.

We did some improv, Rap wrote some skits, but we were all responsible for our own monologues, and we wrote our own stuff.

They say that’s one of the scariest things to do, public speaking, especially when you’re mining for laughs and people may not find it funny. You don’t know.

I think because Rap was there, and Rap was so brilliantly funny, and when we were trying out something new and it didn’t quite click, he would mentor us and

say, You know, that’s actually a good piece. And he did that with all of us; there were eight of us. But here’s what’s not working; here’s what would really make it work. Try this. And so, that gave us kind of a safety net, and he was almost every time right; but I wouldn’t say he was right every time. And you’d go out there, and people would howl, and that was the most exhilarating feeling, ever.

I bet. At what point did law school go off the table?

Law school kinda went off my radar screen when I discovered that side of me that like to be creative. You know, I really think I would have loved to do comedy forever, but other things intervened, and living out here in Hawaii, it was kind of a small market for it. Rap kept trying to get us all to go to the mainland, and we actually had a couple of chances to do that. But it just never was the right time to do that.

Did you think you’d found your profession at the Ronald McDonald House?

I did. And the fundraising part of it is a skill I learned, that I use a lot still today in things I do, and the communications part. I was terrified; I was the client of the PR firm I now own, and I was terrified.

What a switcheroo. I mean, you were the client of the public relations company you now own.

Yes.

And you hadn’t gone to school for public relations or marketing.

No; even though I guess I was doing a lot of it. I like to write, we did a million presentations.

And you were an advocate.

And an advocate. And the PR firm was supporting; I was the client again. When they offered me a job, ‘cause the House went into a phase where they were looking for somebody to be there that was more social work background and all of that once it opened, and I totally understood that. And they offered me a job, and I said, So, what exactly do PR people do? And it was kinda like, Well, you’ve been doing it.

I see.

I was like thirty-two, and I started at a very junior account exec level. Usually, most of the people that age were vice presidents in the company, so I kinda started at square one, so it gave me time to learn everything.

You got immersed almost immediately in meeting with people who were decision makers and influencers.

When I look back on Ronald McDonald House, I was such a newbie to any of that kind of thing. And that experience, I always tell people, volunteering if you have a passion, even when you go into it [INDISTINCT] yourself, you have amazing experiences. And I sat in a room; Sully Sullivan was our fundraising chair, and I think he was probably about eighty then, or late seventies. And there was like Sheridan Ing, and Bill Wall, and Bobby Pfeiffer, and we’d all meet once a week for breakfast, and I was like the fly on the wall note-taker. And they’d do their fundraising reports really quick, and then they would stay around. And they always said, Oh, stay around, kid. And I’d listen to them talk about business stuff, and I don’t even know if I fully appreciated it at the time, but years later, so many of the things that I heard by being in that group for a year or two, just fundamental stuff about business and the way people think, the way those types of people think, was brilliant. And I use it every day, I think.

And it’s an incredible memory when I think about it. That came through Ronald McDonald House. So, that was an experience.

It’s so interesting that you’re not an MBA.

No.

And yet, it all sort of evolved naturally. You know, these things happened, you took advantage, you thought about it, and you made it work. You were Pacific Business News’ first Businesswoman of the Year.

I know; can you believe that? You can learn every day from people. If you go in thinking, I don’t know it all, it’s amazing what you can pick up. And I think my whole life has sort of been that way, especially starting with Ronald McDonald House and just feeling like I didn’t know what I needed to know, but I would find out, I would figure it out, I would learn from people around me. And my first client was Dr. Richard Kelley; he was probably in his early fifties, and he was the CEO of Outrigger Hotels. And because I had fundraising background, and he was trying to put together the Hawaii Convention Park Council to raise money to lobby for a convention center, that was my first project for almost the first two full years.

Well, that was an auspicious first client; Dr. Kelley.

Yeah; yeah. And you know, I still do a lot of writing for him, and work with him, and I admire him fiercely, and his family. They are some of the hardest-working people I know, and most down-to-earth people I know. And he was just a very dear mentor to me.

Communications Pacific had downsized considerably by the time Kitty Lagareta bought it and became its president and CEO in 1995. Under her leadership, the company started growing again, and revenues reached new highs. Then, in 1998, she was given an opportunity that many people in her position would probably have turned down.

A lot of times, public relations companies will not take on politicians, because it’s a good way to find yourself a couple years later looking around and saying, Where’s our business?, because the other side one. A lot of people stay away from it like the plague, but you didn’t.

Yeah; no. Well, people always give me a lot of grief. You know, that was a switch for me, and I think because I had become very disillusioned with a lot of things in Hawaii, and I’d actually been offered a job to run the FleishmanHillard office in L.A., and it was after my kids had just kind of grown up and they were out the door to college and everything. And I was seriously thinking about it, because Hawaii wasn’t a place that I liked so much anymore.

Because?

I kept volunteering, and trying to change things at the not-for-profit level, and it started to feel like it was political. It was around that time when a number of legislators went to jail. You know, I’m thinking of the Milton Holts and others, City Council members going to jail. And I thought, You know, I just don’t know if I want to live in a place like that, and it felt like it was sort of inbred politically. And I thought, I don’t know if I want to deal with that. And I went and explored this job and thought, I can’t live in L.A. I came back and I thought, You know, maybe I should pay more attention to politics, and maybe I should get involved there. And I looked around, and I’d met Linda Lingle when she was mayor of Maui through some volunteer work with high school students that we’d gone over there to do, and I didn’t know her very well at all. And she called one day and wanted to meet with me. She was thinking about running for governor in a couple years, and I knew nothing about politics. And she said, That’s okay, we’ll figure it out; it’s a big race, I need a communications person, I think you’re kind of a smart person. So, I started helping her in ’98, and I immediately got calls from a lot of people around town, friends, my parents and kids. You know, if you’re gonna do politics this time, it’s really kinda stupid to get involved with the party that has no power. [CHUCKLE] And I said, Yeah, but I like this candidate, and I really want to do this. And I didn’t lose any clients; no clients said, I’m gonna quit. They just, I think, were kind of bemused. And Linda came within five thousand votes, and it was a huge learning and a wonderful experience for me, except for the losing part. But we all took it harder than she did. And before we had even let the dust settle, she was saying, We’re gonna do this again in 2002. And I remember thinking, Ee, I don’t know. But of course, I was onboard for 2002.

You weren’t following the playbook of most public relations executives. You were following your mind and, to some extent, your heart.

Yeah. You know, I believe in that, because I think a lot of executives, if they can, they do that. And I just feel even when it’s a learning experience, having the experience makes me better overall. And that was a learning experience. And oh, gosh, in 2002, we pulled it off, and that was interesting. And that was the other thing, kind of still in naïveté, not having been in politics, it was like, Okay, we’re done, I can go back to my life. And I remember Linda called and she said, You know, I think you would be one of the people I want to recommend for Board of Regents. And I remember saying, Oh, why that? I mean, you know, I don’t know.

Talk about political. [CHUCKLE]

She had to talk me into it. And it was my alma mater, it was something that sounded interesting. And that was another journey. But I thought we were done. So, that was the first lesson; you’re not done when you get somebody elected.

That was such an interesting chapter in your life. For those of watching as well. I remember thinking, you know, what you got into was a mire with the president of the University, Evan Dobelle.

Yeah.

And a very slippery situation. And your expertise is public relations, but it was very hard to manage it.

Yeah; and it’s hard to be in it and manage something. I know that.

And as the chair of the Board of Regents.

Yeah.

I mean, I think there was a perception at some time that you were bungling it.

Yeah; yeah. I actually thought it was. I knew it was bungled, but I also had the perspective of there was a whole bunch of stuff. You know, it was an employee-employer relationship between the Board and Evan. And there are certain laws you have to follow, confidentiality and things. So, we were not in a position to say, Hey, we tried this, we did this. And I think the employee can say whatever they want pretty much, really. And you see that over and over. So, that was a disadvantage, and it was hard. The other part was, you know, you will never know the effort we made to do it carefully. And the sense, I think, that was there was that, I have this contract, no way you’re gonna get me out of it, and I’m not going anywhere. And as time went on, I think it became clear the University was suffering, and we had to do something. And in fact, our creditors told us that. And it felt very bungled. It felt like there were lots of pieces that you couldn’t control. It was horrible watching the public perception of it, and knowing there was another story, but you can’t be the one to tell it. You’re the employer.

I recall the Kaleo O University.

Kitty Litter, or whatever.

Their banner headline, the student newspaper said, Bad Kitty.

Yeah, yeah. Yeah; yeah.

So, that had to be a low point in general when people were saying, What are they doing over there, can’t they get their act together on the Board of Regents?

It was a low point in terms of not being able to do anything about it.

Especially since you were used to the other party, in your view, bungling it. And then now, you’re perceived that way.

Yeah; absolutely. That was really rugged; that was really rugged, I think for all of us. And yet, I found the decision we made to be the right one. I’ve never regretted that decision. How it unfolded and what it looked like on the outside; yeah, there was a lot of regret about that, but not the decision. And I don’t think any of us did.

So, the right outcome.

The right outcome; and it really was. You know, that’s the decision. I mean, there were regents who quit because they didn’t want to go down. They knew what needed to be done, but they didn’t want to be in the middle of all that. And there were some amazing people who stuck around and said, This needs to be done for the good of our university. And I think there is some vindication in what happened at Westfield College.

Many times, especially over politics, you felt, no doubt, uncomfortable.

You know, I’ve never found discomfort to be an inhibiting factor.

I’m sure you had some sleepless nights over the regents matter.

Many; I think I didn’t sleep for like a whole year. I think that’s what you call political courage. I call it that when I see it in other people. And when you’re in it, it doesn’t feel like any kind of courage; it feels like a nightmare. But in the end, if something good came out or a group of people were able to come together to make something happen that was right or needed to happen, or bigger than they could do on their own.

What if it fails?

Yeah; it does. I failed in ’98. Do you know how many people wouldn’t even talk to me after ’98? She’s the one who went to the other side, you know. I lived through it.

It sounds like you’ve been able to do what you want to, what you feel strongly about, and not really suffer too much for it in business or personally.

I mean, I don’t know if somebody may be out there trying to get me, but I’m still here, and I’m probably not even aware of most of the time. And what I am aware of is that I have a whole lot of folks in the community I love working with, I have fabulous clients and a team that I work with day-to-day. I pretty much wake up enthusiastic and say, I want to go make this happen today. And so far, nobody’s stopped me. [CHUCKLE]

From riding motorcycles, to fighting for her child’s life, to risking her reputation, to making difficult decisions, Kitty Lagareta has shown herself to be a risk-taker and a fighter. Mahalo to Kitty Lagareta of Honolulu, and mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.

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

I started skateboarding when I was nine with those little metal wheels, and I thought it was the most exhilarating thing ever, and I just loved it. And I continued doing it past my first child being born, and then I used to skateboard with my sons. I remember we were at Manoa Elementary School, and there was a big driveway down to the school, and we were going down it, and it had a lot of loose gravel. And I was about forty-three and my sons were, you know, older. Anyway, I hit the bottom, and I was so excited that I’d made it down that I put my foot down, and I went sliding across the gravel, and just took all the skin off. And I had to go to the doctor to get cleaned up. He goes, You know, a woman in her forties has no business skateboarding. And so, I kinda took that to heart, but when I turned fifty, I started again.

[CHUCKLE] Do you remember saying this? There’s nothing quite like rolling along with the wind blowing by, not sure if you’re going to crash.

Yeah; that’s sort of my motto, my life experience, yes. Yeah. There’s something about kind of pushing the edge. I think if you can keep that feeling you had as a kid in some of your life day-to-day, those are things that felt good then, and they still feel good.

[END]

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Richard Ha

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Richard Ha

 

Original air date: Tues., Nov. 11, 2008

 

Richard Ha, Visionary Farmer

 

On this episode of Long Story Short, Leslie Wilcox sits down to share stories with Hawaii Island farmer Richard Ha.

 

Never heard of him? Well, Richard Ha isn’t your average farmer. He’s been called a visionary farmer. An innovative small business owner, Ha offers his employees profit sharing, has found a way to generate electricity on his property outside of Hilo, initiated an adopt-a-class program at Keaukaha Elementary School, advocates native Hawaiian practices of ahupua‘a and writes a blog on his website.

 

Interested in hearing more about him? Then tune in for an engaging conversation with Richard Ha, a visionary farmer, on Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Richard Ha Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Aloha no, I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. Welcome to another Long Story Short. Today we get to meet a man who wears many hats: visionary farmer, Vietnam veteran, college graduate, innovative small business owner who offers his employees profit sharing and who’s found a way to generate electricity on his property, community activist who initiated an adopt-a-class program at a local school, and Hawaii Island grower Richard Ha.

 

Farmers, in order to be successful, need to understand complex issues of diversification, sustainability, resource management, land use and planning, even global economic cycles, as well as farming. Hawaii Island farmer Richard Ha even follows the worldwide price of oil, advocates native Hawaiian practices of ahupua‘a and writes a blog on his website. Interested in meeting him? So was I. Let’s start our conversation on the farm. Richard Ha is a farmer partly because his father was. But his father only became a farmer when he received 40 acres of farmland outside of Hilo through the GI Bill.

 

What kind of farming did he do to start off with?

 

Well, I remember him growing tomatoes, and cucumbers; and small kid time, we would go pick the tomatoes and have tomato fights. [chuckle]

 

So much for that harvest.

 

Yeah. [chuckle] Yeah.

 

And had he been trained in farming, or was he picking it up as he went?

 

No; he didn’t have any training in farming. It was pretty much, you know, back then I think a lot of people understood about farming and gardening, and it was kinda second nature. It wasn’t difficult to do.

 

They were closer to the elements, weren’t they? They noticed the cause and effect of the winds, and that kind of thing.

 

Oh, yeah. Tutu folks were taro farmers down at Maku on the ocean. But what I remembered about that time was that they had few pigs. But the big deal about it wasn’t that they had few pigs in the pen. There was a stone wall around the property, and they’d leave the gate open. And what would happen is, the wild pigs would come in. So they—

 

And they’d catch them?

 

Yeah. [chuckle] Yeah.

 

When you saw your dad farming, and you were playing with tomatoes, did you think, I want to grow up and be a farmer?

 

No. Actually, what happened was I ended up wanting to go into business or into having some kind of organization to be in charge of. And the reason that happened was because Dad used to tell stories when I was about ten years old. We had this kitchen table that was like a picnic table; bench and everything. And he would tell stories about impossible situations; you know, a business situation—he had all kinds of different situations. And it would come down to—he came up against a stone wall, there was no way to figure it out, and he’d pound the table, and the dishes would all fly, and he would say—boom! “Not, ‘No can.’ Can!” [chuckle] I remember that pretty clearly.

 

Not, ‘No can.’ Can!

 

Yeah.

 

It’s about problem solving and the will to overcome the problem.

 

Yeah; it was just a given that you just don’t come up to a problem, and look at it and say, Oh, that’s it. You know, there was always a way around it.

 

Was it hard working the farm in those days? Was that a tough way to make a living?

 

The chicken farm was really tough; yeah. And the reason for it is because he had too many chickens for the Big Island, and not enough volume to supply Oahu. So he was caught in between there. But yeah, it was kinda tough.

 

So would you say you were middle class, poor?

 

Oh, I thought we were—later on, I found out we were real poor. [chuckle] But at the time, you don’t have a concept of being poor, yeah? But yeah, later on, I found out we were actually pretty poor. I think you’re pretty poor if your mom is making pancakes, and then you can’t—I don’t know which is baking powder that would make it rise, and get fluffy. We didn’t have that. [chuckle]

 

Were you conscious that you didn’t have what you needed?

 

You know, not really, except for maybe Christmastime. And at Christmastime, my aunts from uh, Oahu would send us toys. And that was something you looked forward to all year long. You know, and it may be just little toy plastic soldiers. You know, so we didn’t have very many Christmas presents, but that was extremely, extremely valuable to us small kids.

 

Well, normally, what did you use as toys?

 

Make your own.

 

Like what?

 

Make sugarcane rockets. Cut the sugarcane leaf, and peel it back a little bit, fly ‘em as far as you can fly ‘em. [chuckle]

 

Make swords out of, you know, the hedge, and fight sword. All kinds of stuff like sling shot.

 

And that was good fun, right?

 

Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I don’t know if anybody was any happier having anything more than that, actually.

 

Richard Ha’s father didn’t teach him, “If can; can. If no can; no can.” He taught him, “Not ‘No can.’ Can!” – meaning that every problem, no matter how impossible it seems, can be solved. And Richard embraces that can do, make do with what you have attitude. Although he was raised on a farm, Richard didn’t go into farming until much later. Straight out of high school, he went to college to study business.

 

Well, actually, you know, I didn’t know what I was going to do, exactly. I knew kind of that I’d like to get into business, and so if I was going to college, it would be good to major in business. You know, so I went to college, and I spent two years, and I finally flunked out. Just too much things to do, people to see; stuff like that. [chuckle] And it was at the time when uh, if you flunked out of school, you would get drafted and go to Vietnam.

 

You flunked out?

 

Yeah; flunked out. And got drafted, went to Vietnam. But then, you know, I had the opportunity to apply for officers candidate school, which I took. And I eventually became an officer. Yeah. So then you have to really get serious, because you know, end up in Vietnam—you know, in the situation where it’s life and death. And what I learned in Vietnam was really important to me in later life. I was an artillery officer attached to a infantry unit. And the rule was—and it didn’t have to be spoken; leaving someone behind is not an option. Not even a consideration. It’s, we all come out, or nobody comes out. Kinda like that. And it’s a good lesson.

 

Did you ever have to take a lot of risk in order to make that happen?

 

Some. You know, more than you’d like to. But you know, it’s just something you have to do. It’s not—you don’t even weigh it. Yeah.

 

And when you were in Vietnam, were you concerned about what you were hearing from the U.S. about the objection to the war, and the protests against the war?

 

No; uh, actually, you know, I looked upon the thing as a patriotic thing to do and just assuming everybody was doing the right thing. And so my main concern was the people we were you know, responsible for, and we had to take care of each other. And beyond that, I didn’t go there.

 

In a sense, well, you were leading a group meant for business. You know, life and death business.

 

Kind of, you know, yeah, when you think about that. Yeah?

 

Did you have any close calls, personally?

 

Actually, yeah. And probably because of what Pop taught me. The situation was like this. We were in a rice paddy, and we were coming to this village. And then we got incoming sniper fire. So we all ran into depression. And I looked around; I said, Holy smokes, this is not a place to be. So I grabbed the radio operator; I said, Let’s go. So we jumped up and ran about fifty feet or so, and bullets flying and everything like that. And a few seconds after that, a grenade landed just where we left. But it was kinda like well, Pop taught us a lot of lessons, and it had to do with survival. Just do what you gotta do, and plan for the future, and if it—you know, make decisions. You gotta do it, do it now. Kinda thing like that.

 

And not no can; can.

 

[chuckle] Yeah; absolutely.

 

So you came back alive from Vietnam.

 

M-hm. Yeah; and then at that time, I had some time to grow up. There was six years in the military as an Army officer. You know, things are pretty serious. It gave me a lot of time to think about going back to school. And going back to school, I knew I wanted to go into business. But this time, I figured, I’m gonna major in accounting, because accounting will help me keep score.

 

M-m.

 

And then, that’s what I did. And it worked out pretty good.

 

You liked it?

 

I like keeping score. I never did work in accounting.

 

You didn’t?

 

No.

 

But you liked learning it.

 

Yeah.

 

But what were you gonna do with your accounting degree?

 

You know, actually, I didn’t really know. I just knew that I had an accounting degree, if there was anything came up, I was gonna do it. But it just so happened, Pop asked me to come back and run his chicken farm. I said, Okay, well, I don’t have anything planned; I’ll do that. So I came back, helped him run the poultry farm. And in the course of that, met the supermarket people, learned how marketing and that kind of stuff worked. And—

 

And you learned from the ground up on that end, right?

 

Yeah; yeah. Didn’t have—I mean, we raised chickens when we were little. But the business end of it, it was different. You know, and with accounting degree, it helped me to analyze stuff. And so what happened was, we had forty acres, and twenty-five of it was in the chicken farm. So we had some extra land. And so we needed to find out what could we do with no more money, ‘cause we—I only had a three hundred dollar credit card, back when it was hard to get a three hundred dollar credit card. [chuckle] So started doing some research, and found out that there was about six million pounds of Chiquita bananas being imported into Hawaii. So I said, Ho, man, if we could get into that, we should be able to do okay. So we started trading chicken manure for banana keiki, and started two acres. But you know, we didn’t have a tractor, we didn’t have anything; just had my Toyota Land Cruiser. So we’d make lines by driving down, knocking the California grass down, get a sickle, cut a hole, get a ‘o‘o and shovels, and planted bananas. That’s how we started. [chuckle]

 

Wow. Hoeing by land cruiser. [chuckle] Was that a success the first time out?

 

Well, you know when you only got two acres and you’re actually working in the chicken farm, there’s not that much risk. You know, it was all labor. You know, so it wasn’t too much risk. But what it did was, it helped me learn.

 

At what point did you have your own farm?

 

Well, yeah; that was my dad’s farm, and we made it into a four-way corporation with my brothers. And then from there, I went to Kapoho to lease some land over there. And that’s when it started; maybe two years after we started the first banana farm. And then when the sugar plantation started closing down, we were able to move closer into Hilo at Keaau. So we moved the farm there. So there was little bit more soil. And the time we got into big business was, I had an Opal station wagon. It’s a small, little thing; maybe you can hold five people. And as long as our employees were only five, that was fine. But as soon as we went to seven and eight, we went into big business. Because it was communication, people were thinking you know, that they weren’t getting the right information because they weren’t the car with me. [chuckle] And then we started realizing, you know, you want to be good to everybody, you want to be liked and all that; but the best you can do is be fair. And once I realized that, then that was pretty important. Yeah.

 

And then you got two vehicles. [chuckle]

 

We got two vehicles, and we got more workers—

 

More land?

 

And more land. At Keaau, we ended up with—expanded to three hundred acres. And by then, we became the largest banana farm in the State. Yeah, but you know, we were still basically local boys.

 

Local boy Richard Ha is more than just a farmer. He’s also a blogger, operating a website he updates several times a week. He recently gave the keynote speech at a local college graduation. And he orchestrated a community effort to help students at Keaukaha Elementary School. Located on Hawaiian Homelands with an underserved population, Keaukaha faced federal action under the No Child Left Behind Act – until a new principal, Lehua Veincent, stepped in – and invited in – community support.

 

Keaukaha Elementary School; a Hawaiian Homelands community, and a school that was in the academic basement for twenty years. You adopted a class there.

 

Yeah. What happened was, I volunteered to be on this thirty-meter telescope subcommittee on the Hawaii Island Economic Development Board. And so when you talk about telescopes, you automatically talk about the culture; Mauna Kea. You need to talk about the culture. If you talk about the culture, and you end up at Keaukaha. It’s a seventy-five-year-old Hawaiian Homes community. And so that’s where I ended up. Yeah, so I went over there, talked to Kumu Lehua about telescopes, and had to learn a lot about the culture. I didn’t know as much as I do now. I was mostly worried about farming. But you know, the more I got into it, the more I needed to learn. But so talking to Kumu Lehua, I invited them to come to our farm to—you know, just an excursion. And in the course of the discussion, you know, I asked him, Where else you folks go on excursion? He says, We don’t go on excursion. And you don’t go; how come? Too much money; three hundred dollars for the bus, we cannot afford that. So what we do is we take walking excursions around the school in the neighborhood. I couldn’t believe it. I thought every kid went on excursions. But they didn’t. And then what was ironic was, here I am on the thirty- meter telescope subcommittee, and you’re standing in Keaukaha, you look at the mountain, there’s hundreds of millions of dollars of investment up there. You look back at the school and the community. So you know, there’s nothing here of tangible relationship to that. And but whatever the case; we decided, this no can. We had to do something. So the simplest thing that came to mind was adopt a child thing.

 

It’s amazing. This is a Homelands community that really is right in Hilo, right a walk away from Ken’s House of Pancakes. But um, they had been kinda shut out, and they felt like they didn’t have anything going for them, and the school was in disarray for many years.

 

Yeah. But you know, Kumu Lehua is a special guy. What he did was, he brought the community together, and tied the community and the school together, and then the relationship with the business community made the community and the kids see the bigger world. They’re part of a bigger thing now.

 

We’ve talked with Kumu Lehua at PBS Hawaii, and uh, we know he looks at everything through a prism of pono. You know, what’s—

 

Yeah.

 

— not who’s right, but what is the right thing to do at this time.

 

Yeah. Yeah; and he’s real consistent that way. And it’s a wonderful thing.

 

Do you hear young people say, I want to be a farmer?

 

More and more nowadays, because I think a lot of people are starting to see that this is a serious business. We’re about feeding people. Yeah.

 

Yeah; and they can really identify with hunger, and with the need for food. You’re a Hawaiian who knows the issues. The community has been split over the use of the mountain, which is a considered a sacred mountain for astronomy purposes. What do you think; what are your thoughts on that?

 

Well, you know, I think with the oil crisis coming up now, the world has changed. You know, several years ago, when the oil—our supply prices started going up, and we didn’t really know what was going on. But after researching it a little bit, we found out it was related to oil prices. As the oil prices went up, fertilizer, chemical, everything else went up. And so we started looking around; gee, now—and I went to the Peak Oil Conference in Houston, and we found out that the world oil supply is not gonna be able to keep up with the world demand. And if you think about that a while, then you realize all these different things will follow. You know. Planes are gonna have a hard time flying, people gonna have less discretionary income, fertilizer costs are going up, and all these different things. So we needed to kinda change the way we’re doing business. So as soon as we came back, as soon as I came back, we actually had thought about making our own electricity, but when I came back, it was like, Boy, we gotta get going soon.

 

We have to.

 

No more choice; we have to.

 

How are you gonna make your own electricity?

 

Well, we have a flume that runs through our property, and it was for the plantation. Yeah; and for those who weren’t around during the plantation days, it’s a water line. It’s a waterway, Yeah. And what they do is, they take water from the stream, and just divert it to where they want it to go. And in lot of cases, it was to throw the sugarcane in and run it down to the mill. So it was one of those kinda flumes that we have; and it just was sitting there. So we got a consultant, and sure enough, we could put in an eighteen-inch pipe about this big. And we could generate enough electricity to power fifteen forty-foot reefer Matson containers. So that’s quite a bit. Which turns out to be about twenty-five percent more than we use. And our electricity bill now is fifteen thousand dollars a month. So we’re gonna be able to pay for all that electricity, and still have twenty-five percent extra.

 

What are you gonna do with that?

 

Well, we’ve got all kinds of plans. We’re thinking that with the excess electricity, we can do a plug-in thing so that our workers could plug in their hybrid cars in the future, as a benefit for working for the company. That was the first thing we thought of. Another thing is, because fertilizer prices are going up, we want to take the waste bananas, feed it to fish, use the fish waste, run it through a biofilter, convert it into fertilizer, fertilize the plants, and pump it back up with free electricity. And then even, you could fool the plants into thinking it’s winter, when it’s summer. [chuckle]

 

Wow. And so pretty soon, you won’t have a fifteen thousand dollar a month electricity bill?

 

Yeah; that—

 

 

That’s on the way?

 

That’s true. Now, all the farmers and everywhere on the island in the State face the same situation, rising fuel and fertilizer costs. And everybody’s talking about food security. Now, how do we do that? And uh, the answer is, if the farmer can make money, the farmer will farm. So it doesn’t get much more complex than that. So in an effort to figure out ways to help farmers make money, we went—you know, with the help of the Department of Ag, and the legislators, and a bunch of people, we pushed through legislation so that farmers could get cheap loans, low interest, long term loans for renewable energy projects.

 

And does that mean your problems are over?

 

Oh, no.

 

Your challenges are pau?

 

No; no, no, no. We know that one day, the boat not going come. Like, you know, you talk to a lot of the Hawaiian people; it’s a given that sooner or later, there will be supply disruptions.

 

What is the stat I heard, that because we depend so much on imported food, if we don’t get a barge in for ten days, we’ll be virtually out.

 

Oh, yeah. Yeah. We’re talking about probably seven days worth of food supplies. But if there was a hint of something disrupting the supply, people would just go down and clean the stores out in two days. My thought. So it’s a tough place to be. So what we need to do is we need to have more farmers. We need to support farmers more, we need to have more food security. So that’s really what we’re reaching for. Now, the objective is to feed people. So now we have to have a calorie— we have to have the concern about what is the mix of calories. So that’s why we’re thinking of doing aquaculture for protein, and leasing land to other farmers so they can do what they’re good at, and we do what we’re good at. We all bring everything down to the farmers market, and people won’t have to travel as far.

 

Are you confident that local people will buy local produce, even if it’s more expensive?

 

Well, you know, it’s really what we need to do, to support our local farmers. Because to be food secure, farmers gotta make money. And come the time when we feel like this is really a serious situation, it’ll happen. I’m confident it will.

 

Do you think we’ll be motivated to do the right thing, go in this direction, without first a disaster? Usually, we learn from disaster. Usually, we’re not really good about looking ahead and saying, Let’s prevent a disaster.

 

You know, actually, I’m pretty optimistic that it’ll start happening. As a matter of fact, I see it happening already. You know, so it’s just gonna be a matter of time. Yeah; I’m pretty optimistic.

 

Farmers, by their very nature, plan. They plant and plan. And then plant again. So it’s only natural that Richard Ha would consider the future as much as he does. And it’s refreshing to see his optimism and activism looking toward Hawaii’s future.

 

Sustainability means basically surviving for the long run. And how we look it at is how it affects our workers, our community, and the environment. So our workers, I just mentioned a little bit about, you know, every Thursday, our workers can come and just pick up all the different things we grow; bananas and tomatoes, and whatever. You know, as much as they need for their family. And we have profit sharing, although it’s been tough the last few years. We have profit sharing, and we want to look, you know, toward—whatever we can do to help them with the food side of it end. Because it’s hard for us to raise our workers’ salaries, because we can’t raise the price; everybody’s having a hard time. So we have to figure out other ways to help our workers.

 

Do these look like particularly bad times for you? I know that tourism is down, and I mean, everybody’s talking about soft economy. How is it affecting you? Flowers have had it rough lately, anyway.

 

Yeah. It is pretty tricky. But you know, we always plan five, ten years out. We’re always looking for where we need to be in the future. And we already know that this is happening, it’s gonna get worse; so we’re already moving in that direction. So I think we’re gonna be okay.

 

What do you see yourself doing in ten years?

 

You know, it’s hard to say what it’ll be; but I’m pretty sure it’ll be something. What, I can’t imagine now. Because we always end up doing something that’s new and different. Yeah; so I expect that it’ll be something new and different, but it’ll be something, for sure.

 

And it’ll be in farming?

 

I can’t even say that. [chuckle] Yeah; I don’t want to just say one particular thing. But it really has to do with where our society is going, what our circumstance will be. And it has a lot to do with alternate energy, I think.

 

How that’s gonna shape our future?

 

Yeah. Yeah.

 

 

Well, like it or not, the future’s on its way! And the best we can do is prepare for it. Mahalo to Richard Ha for growing our awareness of what the future holds and showing us what one farmer is doing to prepare for it. Mahalo to you for joining me for this Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii, looking forward to seeing you in the future. A hui hou kakou!

 

 

I read a review of your fruit that said that, if you’ve gotten used to these cardboard tasting tomatoes that you buy at some places, you gotta taste Richard Ha’s tomatoes ‘cause they’re just full and juicy, and …

 

Yeah.

 

Is that true?

 

Yeah; it is.

 

[chuckle] I suspected you—

 

Yeah.

 

–you were gonna say that.

 

And there is a reason for it. We actually test the fruit every week for sweetness. Because it’s about value to the customers. And so what we try to do, if you think about value, really, it’s about taste for tomatoes. So that’s what we do. We spend a lot of time monitoring that. So; yeah. [chuckle]