Skippa Diaz

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Lessons on Leadership

 

This special edition revisits conversations with Hawaii’s business and community leaders as they share their thoughts on leadership. Featured are: Maenette Ah Nee-Benham, the late Skippa Diaz, Glenn Furuya, Hokulani Holt, the late Daniel Inouye, Thomas Kaulukukui and Colbert Matsumoto.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, Jan. 27 at 11:00 pm and Sunday, Jan. 31 at 4:00 pm.

 

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I had my responsibilities as the platoon leader. And we had this code in the regiment; Don’t expect your men to go up if you’re not willing to go up. In the so-called book, the training book, it’s never led by the officer. Patrols go out. Scouts out, or something like that. The leader stays in the back. But in our code, as the boys would say, You go first, buddy.

 

Don’t ask anyone to do something—

 

Yeah.

 

—you’re not willing to do yourself.

 

 

The late Senator Daniel K. Inouye learned the intricacies and demands of leadership on the battlefields of World War II. He took these lessons with him into the world of government and politics, where he became one of the most powerful and influential leaders not only of our state, but of our nation. In this edition of Long Story Short, we will look back at some of our previous Long Story Short guests and their lessons on leadership, including how the nuances of local culture helped to shape their … leadership styles. Lessons on Leadership next, on Long Story Short.

 

Aloha mai kakou, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Master navigator Nainoa Thompson defines leadership as “stepping up….knowing … the right thing to do,,, and making it happen regardless of the consequences.” Doing the right thing can sometimes require an extraordinary amount of conviction, courage, and the ability to inspire others. In this special edition of Long Story Short, we revisit some of the stories and challenges shared by Hawaii … leaders. We begin with Thomas Kaulukukui, Jr., Chairman of the Board and Managing Trustee of the Queen Liliuokalani Trust, who, like Senator Inouye, picked up many of his first lessons in leadership on the battlefield.

 

I went into the Army in 1968.

 

You went to Vietnam?

 

I went to Vietnam for a year, 1969, ’70.

 

What’d you do in Vietnam?

 

I was a platoon sergeant in the paratroopers. Uh, did well in training, because I had the Kamehameha School ROTC background. And I ended up leading a platoon of men in … uh, basically jungle fighters.  Young men, at the time, uh, um, they’re like a pack of wolves. And they will do whatever the pack wants to do, unless there is an alpha wolf that keeps them on track. And um, if you’re not that person, they will get rid of you and get somebody else. So, you know, you really have to learn to step up.

 

Was there any particular event or moment when this all came clear to you, when you had any epiphanies over there?

 

Well, it was clear to me from the beginning. It’s uh, it’s—you know, when you’re with a group like that, it’s really clear. Uh, I’d never been in a fight in my life. I was in three fights in the first month I was there, because the men decided to test me. You have to realize, this is Vietnam War—

 

And you—

 

–and look at the way I look.

 

Uh-huh.

 

You know, I’m not a six-foot uh, uh, fair-skinned, round-eyed person. Uh, I was brought in to lead them, and I was obviously Asian. So I looked more like the enemy, than I did look like them. So it was an interesting experience, because um, I was in three fights with my own men, um, shortly after I got there, because they wanted to test whether or not I was tough enough to lead them.

 

And part of it was your culture?

 

Part of it was what I looked like. Uh, part of it was there was another leader there who they wanted, who had been there a month longer than I was, and they weren’t sure about me. So …

 

So you saw no—you had no—you had to fight. There was no—

 

Gotta fight.

 

–other way to do it?

 

Yeah. Fortunately, I was a black belt in taekwondo by then.

 

Before I got there, so without having to really hurt anybody, I guess they kinda … got some religion and said, Well, I guess he can beat up everybody else, so he’s all right.

 

We were someplace where uh, another unit got in trouble, and they called us and said, You need to go help them. Uh, there’s a battle going on, you need to go help them. And you need to get from Point A to Point B, right now. The trouble was, to go from Point A to Point B, you had to go between two hills. General rule, bad idea to go between two hills, because if the enemy is up on both hills, they’re gonna ambush you, and you’re gonna—you’re never gonna get there, you’re gonna be dead. So I called my squad leaders together. I ran a platoon of about thirty-five men. And I said, We have to go from Point A to Point B. They looked at the map, they said, We can’t go through there. I said, We don’t have a choice, because if we don’t go through there, by the time we take an alternative ro—route, our … people will be dead. So I gave an order. All the people kinda sat around, and they looked at me when they figured out where we were going. And they said, We’re not going. Now, think about the magnitude of that problem. Battle commander, give an order, people won’t go. Okay. Squad leaders, gave an order, they wouldn’t go. I tried to exhort them to move, they wouldn’t move, because … you know, the consequences were deadly. Uh, so finally, at that point, I got my radio telephone operator, made him saddle up, put on his backpack. I put my mine on. I said to everybody else, If you’re afraid, I’ll go save them myself; will fight this battle by myself. But you better hope I get killed, because if I’m not, I’m gonna come back and fix this. Off I went. Took the longest, slowest, smallest ten steps of my life down the trail waiting for—to hear if anybody else got up. And—and—and fortunately, I started hearing people getting up. They got up, and … they followed me, and off we went, and we—we made—we made it all right. Difficult experience, um … I’m not sure what would have happened if they didn’t follow. But one of the things I learned from that is, you gotta lead in front; can’t just tell people to go, especially if it’s difficult. You gotta be willing to pick up your rifle, put on your pack, and lead in front.

 

And be willing to go it alone.

 

And be willing to go it alone, if you have to.

 

So do you have a, you know, 25-word nutshell definition of leadership?

 

I have a … three-word definition, a three, word definition of leadership. My definition is that leadership is influence; nothing more and nothing less. If you have influence, and can influence, people and their thoughts, and emotions, and, actions, then you have leadership ability. That says nothing about your morality, because Hitler had leadership ability. But in—in a very … condensed, sense, I think leadership is influence. And—and learning to, influence in a positive way people’s thoughts, and emotions, and actions, were what—are the core of leadership, I think.

 

A wartime battlefield can shape leaders. So can growing up in a rural environment, where shared values help to create community well-being…. Colbert Matsumoto, born and raised on the Island of Lanai, is the Chairman of Island Insurance Companies. He also is a community leader in Honolulu, serving on … nonprofit boards in addition to corporate boards. Glenn Furuya, President and Chairman of Leadership Works, a leadership-training company he started more than 30 years ago, grew up in Hilo, on Hawaii Island. At the heart of the leadership style of each of these men is their understanding of local culture, and how being an effective leader in Hawaii can be very different from anywhere else.

 

Being local is not about where you were born. You know, it’s really about the kind of values, you embrace and the kind of philosophy that you use to guide your life, and the decisions you make in your life. So, there are many local people that you know, who were born and raised here that, you know, I don’t think espouse local values. You know. But on the other hand, there are many people that have moved here that clearly you know, the things that make, I think, Hawaii special resonated with them, which is why they chose to, come here and live here, and stay here.

 

This whole idea of local culture and what works; it used to be that certain positions in Hawaii guaranteed authority and respect. But that’s less and less true now; isn’t it?

 

Uh, yeah, I think that’s, definitely the case. You know, I think that you know, when I grew up which was when, you know, I think in the 60s, the plantations were still uh, very influential … forces in shaping our—our—our community. And there tended to be, you know, informal, leaders within those communities that people looked up to provide leadership. So in like the time that I grew up in, well, the principal of the school was, considered a very important figure. Some of the union leaders were considered important figures. Some of the, plantation bosses were also—

 

M-hm.

 

— looked up to as being, you know, important, community leaders. And so, um, people gravitated to them, and as they would in turn communicate, different, you know, projects or, concerns, you know, people would rally around them. And so, I think that those days have passed. I think that it’s harder to get people to align behind uh, different initiatives. In my experience, you know, run across, two different kinds of leadership. One—one is, implied leadership; leadership that is the result of the position that you hold. And most people fall into the category of having power because of, you know, the implied authority associated with them.   Whereas, you know, there are other people that, you know, have I think real power; a power that, you know, it generates from, they are able to assert themselves and the kind of vision and their ability to art—articulate concepts and ideas in a way that makes people feel like it resonates with them.

 

Definitely, you know, leadership requires a level of trust and confidence. It all starts from that. And if you don’t have the ability to engender the trust of the people that you’re trying to reach, you cannot lead them, you cannot convince them to move in any particular direction. That’s why, you know, great leaders have a certain special ability to engender that kinda trust.

 

You know, you have to be able to stick your neck out, because that’s how, you know, you progress. And, so asserting leadership involves taking risk, being willing to stand apart from the pack. And that takes a level of courage.

 

And so, you know, those kinds of leaders are fewer and harder to come by. But—but those are the kinds of leaders that I think exercise real, ability to move people, to affect change. And I don’t know why. I mean, it just seems that I don’t find as many of those kinds of people around as I think used to exist in the past.

 

I really do believe that the upbringing in Hilo— one thing it does is, you know, you’re humble. You you grew up humble.

 

Do you think humility … we prize humility—

 

M-hm, m-hm.

 

–in the Hawaiian culture—

 

M-hm, m-hm.

 

as well. But humility is seen as a weakness, other places.

 

Yes, it is. It’s viewed in many Western cultures as a weakness. But to me, I think that’s strength, when I can stand in front of my group and say, You know what, guys? I’m really sorry; I messed up, forgive me. You know, and just lay it out there. What’s the—what’s the alternative? What, blame people? Make excuses?

 

I do a lot of work on island style leadership, because I do believe it is a distinct and unique form of leadership. There’s this thing I call the same-same equilibrium; the same-same equilibrium. And it roots back to ahupuaa, where it was—society was an egalitarian society, where everybody in the society had a role, and everybody did their part. But all of the contributors within that society were viewed as equal, so everybody same-same.

 

M-hm.

 

Right? Okay. So, here’s the deal. Centuries later, the same-same essence mentality still is—is embedded in all of us. You’ve got to stay in this equilibrium, same-same. Everybody same-same, everybody does equal in their contribution. What’s very interesting is, whenever you break same-same, okay, and you think you’re—you act as if you’re better, right—‘cause if everybody’s same-same, then nobody’s more important or better than anybody else; right? But the minute you break it—and this is where a lot of times people who come from away, good people, they don’t understand this equilibrium. They break it. As soon as you get to this I’m better than you mentality, through your tone of voice, through your being too direct, not listening—

 

M-hm.

 

–showing everybody how smart you, the immediate response always is, Who the heck does he thinks he is? Who the heck does he think is? Immediate response.

 

Right.

 

And once that response comes out, you can’t lead in Hawaii. Who the heck you think you are? And they don’t tell it to you in your face. It’s—Hawaii is—

 

They just turn away.

 

I always say—

 

Right?

 

–to my leaders that I work with, Hawaii is the world capitol of passive aggressive behavior.

 

I do a lot of work with mainlanders coming down, to try to help them understand some of these little nuances of this place. Do not break the same-same equilibrium. Because as soon as those words come out, that question pops, it’s really hard to recover. The other thing with island people; they don’t—they don’t forgive. They—they take forever to let go.

 

The way I teach it is this. There are two types of leaders, Leslie. There’s circular leaders. These are people are who are very collaborative, they’re relationship-oriented, they’re kind, they—they really engage people.

 

M-hm.

 

Circular. Island people are generally more circular.

 

M-hm.

 

Okay. And that’s because in Hawaii, we’re a three-way blend of cultures. We are influenced heavily by Eastern culture, ‘cause in the 1940s, forty percent of the population of Hawaii was Japanese. So, heavy bushido code influence here.

 

The one element of the—the bushido code is this; you always operate from a sense of imperfection. You always come from a state of dissatisfaction. ‘Cause—

 

Oh, I didn’t know that.

 

Yeah. So, if you’re always dissatisfied, and you’re kinda imperfect, you always gotta work harder. You gotta try harder, you gotta study harder, you gotta go to school, you gotta learn. I never got praised by my parents; they never, ever praised, said, Good job, Glenn, won—you did a wonderful job. Nothing. And I think, bushido. They didn’t want me to get all big-headed and arrogant, and thinking I’m better than anybody else; right?

 

Right.

 

So, they kept—they kept it really, really restrained, the praise and things like that.

 

M-hm.

 

And yet, we’re all Americans; that’s the Western influence. We’re all Western educated folk. But at the same time, the host culture here is Hawaiian.

 

M-hm.

 

We have a major Polynesian influence. And there’s no place in the world these three forces come together like it does here in Hawaii. So, the Polynesian and the Eastern, Asian, right, give us the circular. We understand circular; that’s why people are so collaborative and warm, and aloha spirit, and ohana. Western culture is much more linear. You know, there’s the goal, here’s the plan, now do it. Now, move—

 

And if you have to run over somebody—

 

Yeah.

 

–to get there—

 

Right.

 

–it’s okay.

 

Right.

 

‘Cause that’s the goal.

 

Right, and there are a lot of island people who are just very linear, too. The biggest mistake you can make in Hawaii is take your linear approach, and slam it on the circular. Right? And then, that equilibrium gets broken. Who the heck does he think he is?

 

You’ve gotta be both. Circular, collaboration, involvement, build a relationship. But at the point of execution, we all gotta go linear; we’ve gotta get the job done.

 

I’ve always believed, Leslie, that whenever you impose things on people, when you just shove it in, you’ll get compliance. They’re gonna do it, because I’m afraid if I don’t do it, they’re gonna scold me or fire me, whatever. When you inspire people bottom-up—

 

M-hm.

 

–you get commitment. That’s real leadership.

 

Teachers are among our most important leaders. They have the power to influence and shape the minds of young people who will … become the next generation of leaders. Kumu hula Hokulani Holt, who is also the Cultural Programs Director of the Maui Arts and Culture Center, and Dr. Maenette Ah Nee Benham, Dean of Hawaiinuiakea at the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s School of Hawaiian Knowledge, are two such leaders. Their career paths are based on kuleana, the responsibilities handed down to them from their families and ancestors….

 

Hula has always been in our ohana. My grandmother was a kumu hula, she had seven daughters. Of her seven daughters, three became kumu hula. And of her granddaughters, first just me, and now my sister. And then of her great-granddaughters, my cousin Melia.

 

When did you decide you’re gonna be a kumu? Or—

 

Oh, I didn’t.

 

–did you decide?

 

I didn’t.

 

I guess that’s nothing you decide on your own, right, in the hula world?

 

Yeah, yeah; I didn’t decide. My mother decided for me.

 

She said, Well, I think it’s time for you to—to begin teaching. And I went, no, that—that belongs to other people, that doesn’t belong to me. And she said, No, I talked to your auntie, and I think it’s time for you to begin teaching. So I went kicking and screaming, but I went.

 

What kind of a kumu were you and are you?

 

I believe that I’m—I’m pretty strict. I hope to instill in my students a love for hula, but also a love for this place that we call home, and for all the many generations of people that came before us that created the—the chants and the songs, and the movements that we use. What a kumu hula is, is we want things our own way. And we demand that.

 

It is your world.

 

It is my world. I always tell my students, This is the world according to Hoku within these four walls.

 

And as a kumu hula, you get very involved in other people’s families.

 

Oh, yeah.

 

They become your family.

 

Oh, yeah.

 

So you’re privy to a lot of the struggles that—

 

Yes.

 

–people go through.

 

Yes. You know, you get parents coming and saying, You know, my daughter’s not paying attention to school, Kumu can you please talk to her? Or, you know, someone’s marriage or passing; you get involved in your students’ lives, and it’s a good thing.

 

Halau provides, focus, it—it really gets you to appreciate every little thing, I believe. And halau is not only learning hula, but it also teaches you about yourself. How to push yourself a little bit more, how to think about the welfare of others within the halau, and then that translates to others outside of halau, how to practice or do Hawaiian values, because that’s what you must have in halau as well, how to get past pain and tired, and late hours for a goal that you would like to reach. So those are all life lessons also.

 

So you were possessed at an early age of a conviction you wanted to lead.

 

M-hm.

 

Why?

 

Because I was always told that I would. I was always told. My grandmothers— both my Grandma Ah Nee and my Grandma Padeken explained to me when I was very young about my name, Kape‘ahiokalani. And it is a name of—of one of my great-great aunts, who was a chanter in King Kalakaua’s court. And basically, what they said to me was that because I held this name, I had the responsibility of—of remembering the moolelo of our family, and I had the responsibility of contributing to … the health and wellbeing of my family. That was it. That’s what they told me. And … you know, I said, Okay. Because that’s what you do. Your kupuna tell you that, and you say, Okay, so what do I need to do?

 

And there are all kinds of ways to accomplish that too.

 

Yeah, there’s all kinds of ways to do that. And I just found this to be my journey, you know, in educational leadership. I just found that to be what really gets me excited, um, what really inspires me is—and it all started because um, in fifth grade at Koko Head Elementary School, Mrs. Kwon made me do flannel board stories for the kindergartners. And I loved it. I loved just telling stories, creating stories and telling them to young kids, and watching the light bulbs go off. So my first job was as a kindergarten teacher. What a great job, you know, where you get unconditional love every single day.

 

And I know you’ve said you always want to be a teacher.

 

I always—

 

No matter what else you do, or how you do it, you want to be a teacher.

 

Yeah. Always; always. And that came from the stories and teachers over the years. You know, and good leaders are great teachers.

 

The genius of leadership is living into grace. And it’s—it’s that—that idea of creating a space where people can feel really safe, even though you say the worst things. I want you to feel safe here, I just want you to feel safe. And no matter what you have to say, no matter how angry you are, go ahead, go and do that. And when you’re pau, let’s get to work. You know, cause otherwise, we’re not gonna get it done, we’re not gonna—we’re just not gonna do it. And that’s how I—that’s how I lead. You know. And I try really hard to listen; listen, listen, listen. And as I listen, you know, I try to move it back to the core issue, as you said. Ask more questions about how that has to do with the issue, keep moving it, moving it, moving it.

 

But sometimes, there is no consensus.

 

And sometimes there’s not.

 

And then you have to figure out—somebody has to call it.

 

Yes.

 

This is not gonna be solved this way.

 

Yeah. And I do that. I do that too. You can ask the people who work for me. You know, it’s very open, we’re safe, we’re gonna talk about it, and this is how—this is the road we’re gonna take. I’m not afraid to do that. No; I’m not afraid to do that. It’s—it’s nice to know— I want people to know that everybody has a voice. You know, everyone has a voice. It’s a labor-intensive process, but everybody has a voice. And in the end, you know, there will be – everybody will know that there will be uh, a direction we’re gonna go. You know, and move on.

 

Because people want closure. I mean—

 

Yeah.

 

You can’t talk everything to death.

 

Yeah. In a microcosm, yeah, you know, we have a lot of diverse perspectives, but across the United States, across the globe, you know, there isn’t one way to do anything. But I do think that we’re reaching a time where there—there are more young people and young leaders who are seeing the promise and the potential of bringing together different groups, and really talking about hard issues, of renewable resources, about food safety, about education and wellbeing that’s very issue-oriented. And doing it in a way that is grounded in our religion, our stories. I think we’re ready at that point to do that, and I—I think that’s—that’s our work at the University to help prepare, you know, my community leaders to be able to do that.

 

I learned that, you know, you do good work. You have good intentions, you know. Doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter how much I can tell you about what I wrote, or what I studied, or what whatever, right? What matters is that I have good intentions, and I work really hard, and I try to be fair in everything that I do. And I try to be kind, you know. And I—and I lead in grace, developing a space where people can feel grace and welcome, you know. And then, we’ll move forward. Ohana does not always mean that we are of the same blood, ohana means that we can agree on a set of principles and a mission for the work that we’re doing, and we’re gonna be innovative and entrepreneurial, and we’re gonna work together really hard to get there. That’s ohana.

 

Humility, trust, listening, fairness, influence… all important qualities that Hawaii’s leaders say are critical to good leadership. These are values that we can use in our own lives, whether it is how we act with our families, in our jobs or how we conduct ourselves in the broader community. Our closing words of wisdom will be from the late Skippa Dias, legendary football coach at Farrington High School in Honolulu.

 

Mahalo to our Long Story Guests who have shared their stories and insights with us, and mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha a hui hou.

 

I developed um, an acronym. And the acronym was spelled out HEART, H-E-A-R-T. And—and each letter represented a basic tenet and belief that … you want the other person to acquire and mind for the young kinds. And the word HEART, the five five words are H refer to humility, the ability to … you know, to … listen to another person and … bite your tongue if—if he’s saying something that’s different than what you want. But being humble is a quality that is really, really … sought after for a lot of people, but never acquire. But humility is a good one. E, education. That one was very, very significant in my family’s upbringing. A, attitude; a positive attitude, making sure that, you know, whatever the goal, whatever the project, you set yourself out to be positive and g—and get the darn thing done. R, responsibility. You gotta be responsible for all the things that you do, and sometimes for the things that your friends and your loved ones are doing. But being responsible in that manner has—has some beautiful connotations that—that grow from it. And then T, of course, stands for team.

 

[END]

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Skippa Diaz

 

Original air date: Tues., Nov. 2008

 

Legendary Farrington High Football Coach

 

PBS Hawaii honors legendary Farrington High School football coach Skippa Diaz, who passed away on August 30, 2014.

 

In this episode recorded in November 2008, Leslie Wilcox talks story with Skippa about relocating to Wisconsin to help care for his in-laws; his philosophy on football and life; the importance of education; and much more.

 

Skippa Diaz Audio

 

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Transcript

 

Skippa Diaz is a big guy with a big heart who has had a big influence on the students he taught and the athletes he coached. He’s best known as the head football coach at Farrington High School for two decades, starting in the 1980s. Many who avidly followed his career are unaware that Skippa and his wife Mary spent more than four years caring for family members in Wisconsin. We caught up with Coach Skippa Diaz during a visit back to the islands.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, produced with Sony technology, is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in HD, high definition. It’s in Sony’s DNA.

 

Aloha no. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. Mahalo for joining me for another Long Story Short. Before Skippa Diaz coached football, he played football at Farrington High School in Kalihi, where he was an all-star lineman, and Oregon State University, where he earned all-conference honors, and even played for professionally in the Canadian football league. But as a boy, Skippa Diaz was too big to play football.

 

You were a big guy, even when you were a little kid; right?

 

Right. Oh, I was a bambula. Yeah. I mean, I was such a bambula that I loved to play sports, particularly football, but unorganized. When it became organized, they put weight limit on you. [CHUCKLE]

 

So how big were you?

 

I was bigger than the average bear. [CHUCKLE]

 

I heard you were two hundred pounds in third grade.

 

Yeah. [INDISTINCT] say about that. But you could be a hundred pounds [CHUCKLE] to play football, and I was a hundred eighty, two hundred. And so, I never got to play football when I was eight through when I was fourteen.

 

What’d you do instead?

 

I ended up doing a sport where they didn’t weigh me; I went swimming, and I swam at Palama Settlement. Jeff Yamashita, Lincoln, and several of the other guys, Larry Oshiro; they’re all from Palama Settlement. And I tell you, the guys that were around … you know, when we were young, we were looked at and said, No, he ain’t gonna make it. You know. But lo and behold, majority of them came out preachers, policemen, firemen. They were hardworking people. And ministers come up from the group that I was around. And it was affected by the people who were at Palama Settlement, or at the various schools that we went to. They helped mold us. And even my parents at home. So, education was always a major aspect for me, and I’m glad I did get into that area. Because it allowed me to do stuff with kids, and affect their lives somehow during their lifetime.

 

I would think that a big guy wouldn’t be that fast in the water, but I’m told you were fast.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

You were a competitive swimmer.

 

Well, I did okay.

 

Butterfly?

 

Fly was my stroke. But I liked the I.M. the individual medley, too. See, there’s two kinds of swimmers. There’s sinkers, and there’s floaters. I was a floater. And it’s easy, you know. When you’re buoyant, you stay on top of the water. When you’re a sinker, three-quarters, you gotta almost swim straight up to stay above the water. And I think I allowed that to make me do what I was doing.

 

Bill Smith, the world champion swimmer; he said that if you kept at it, you could have been an Olympic prospect.

 

Him and I were of the same mold, but yes, he said that. I don’t know. You never know, when you start a new track, you know. When I was fourteen, fifteen, I finished swimming and I went with football and track, because I think it was more popular at the time.

 

You know, some of the guys who go back a long time with you said … you know, I was asking, Why has Skippa been so effective with players and with young people? And they said, That’s because he came up the hard way. So, my question to you is, how tough is the hard way?

 

Well, low income, you know, and I had seven sisters and brothers, and Mama had hanai’d about another seven of us.

 

Living in Mayor Wright Housing?

 

Mayor Wright Housing; right.

 

How big was your place, with fourteen kids?

 

Was three in a bed and two in a bed. [CHUCKLE] Was a lot. And over the years, when one went, then another one came in. Mom took care of a lot of kids, besides us.

 

What did your dad do?

 

Dad worked at Pearl Harbor. He was working on the boats. And then, when he had his heart attack, he couldn’t work anymore, so he spent a lot of time going to the library. And I was the book carrier. The guy was a tremendous reader. He could read almost a book a day. I mean, those fat ones, too. But I was the guy who had to carry all those books from Mayor Wright, down Kukui Street to get to the library. And then, he ordered another one, and I’d pick ‘em up and go back. I was the carrier for that.

 

Did you mind doing that for him?

 

No, no; I didn’t. ‘Cause I found a lot of good solace in the library. Lot of different stuff; I got to reading a lot of things. I think that’s one of the reasons I became a history teacher, because of the amount of reading I did with Dad.

 

When your mom kept bringing more kids in the house, did you ever think, Oh, what about me, Mom?

 

A few times.

 

Or, how small is the dinner gonna be tonight? Did you ever have those thoughts?

 

Oh, yeah; indubitably. But somewhere, somehow, she managed to spread it all around, and everybody had something to eat. And I did a lot of different kinds of things. I shined shoes, and I helped wash cars, and stuff like that.

 

Did you keep the money, or did you give it to your family?

 

All went to Mom; all went to Mom. Everything went to Mom. I felt like I was contributing to the family that way.

 

Well, when you have a lot of kids, she has less time to divide up; right?

 

Oh, yeah; yeah, yeah, yeah.

 

So, you probably could get into some big trouble on your own.

 

Yes; yes. A person could do that real easily. And I got on the outskirts of that area, but I didn’t think I was getting into that kind of trouble. Mom and Dad were always very educationally inclined. They felt that we needed to go to school, and my aunts and uncles steered me in the right direction. I had coaches, and I had teachers that straightened me out. I had a principal at Central Intermediate, Mr. Manual Kwon. Oh, jeez; he let me know which way to go in the door and go out the door. And he got it across to me in no uncertain terms. I sort of liked that. I liked when somebody put a line down and said, Hey, you do this or you do that. And it’s nice; life is good when you have things that you know you gotta do, and then you do it.

 

It’s structure.

 

Structured; yes.

 

And that’s how you coach too; right?

 

I coach that way, too. You know, with the upbringing from my family, my sisters, as well as Mom and Dad, I made education the top of the rung. You do that first. If you come play here for us, you get your grades squared away, you make sure that you kiss Mama and Daddy every morning. You know, I required that. Sing the alma before and after practice, every practice. Before you know it, they get out on the field, and they’re doing stuff, besides themselves, for somebody else. And you get good results when you get a kid to take in those terms to go ahead and do it because of Mom, do it because of my friends. You got somebody pushing you to do something right, like Tom Kiyosaki, or Mr. Shigemi at Likelike Elementary, and demand that, and you know, you end up doing it. Mrs. Chun, sixth grade, Likelike Elementary; she was beautiful lady, but she put the law down, and I followed the law. If I did something wrong at school, when I went home, my mom and dad just chastised me for not being a good guy. So, I got my upcomings because of my family and the people in the community, and you know, that’s what made me do what I did. Go to college, play some sports, get an education, come back home. And my dream job was Farrington High School.

 

You went to OSU?

 

I went to Oregon State University.

 

And you know, my daughter went there, and so, I’ve traveled there in the last ten years. And today, it still is a very white bread university. How did you do over there? Did you feel at home?

 

Oh, yeah. Yeah. Well, there was a large community of local kids.

 

There’s a Hawaii Club, in fact; right?

 

Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. All up and down the coast. Oregon competes with Oregon State for the luaus, who’ll do a better luau. But we had a lot of kids that you could fall back on when you get lonesome for home. And Rockne Freitas and I were going to school together at the time. And then, we had all the other kids that we knew from Maui, from Molokai, that was going school over there. Made it easier for us to make that transition.

 

Throughout his life, Skippa Diaz has navigated some pretty big transitions. After earning bachelors and masters degrees in education from Oregon State University, Skippa returned to Hawaii. He taught and coached at Washington Intermediate, and at Kalani, Waialua, Mililani, and Farrington High Schools. Skippa’s wife Mary, also a lifelong educator, was vice principal at Waialua High and Intermediate, and at Roosevelt High School. In 1995, a major health crisis gave the two of them a wake-up call, so to speak.

 

You’re a big guy, but you used to be a bigger guy.

 

Yeah.

 

In physical stature.

 

Yeah; yes.

 

What happened?

 

Well, I just ate too much, and I had a condition called sleep apnea. And I didn’t realize I had that. I just thought I was … I thought I was sleeping at night, but I get up in the morning, and I was tired. And this went over about a six, seven-year period. And ended up, I had not a heart attack, but congestive heart failure.

 

Because of lack of oxygen?

 

Because of lack of oxygen. And the way I got that one was, when you get sleep apnea, your air passage closes up. And when it does, you ain’t got no air coming in. And I took a sleep study after I got into the hospital. They took me to Kuakini Hospital to give me a sleep study, and what I found out was, when I’m sleeping—they have this thing called episode. It’s a period of time when you don’t take in oxygen at all. And usually, the episodes range from twenty to maybe sixty times at night that you stop breathing. And I think when I was there, I had thirty-seven times when I stopped breathing for almost two minutes per episode.

 

It’s a life-threatening problem.

 

Oh, all the way; all the way. See, oxygen gotta go all through your body so you can function well. And the darn thing was breaking down in my liver and my lungs, and all of that.

 

And you were toughing it out, thinking, I don’t feel so good.

 

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

 

But I’m going to work.

 

I going, I going. I going do ‘em, I going do ‘em. But I was at a meeting one day, and George Kamau was our trainer. And he looked at me and he says, Hey, something wrong with you. He took me in his truck and took me down to the hospital, and they diagnosed me and said, Hey, this is what you got, man.

 

And they told your wife.

 

Told my wife; yeah.

 

Almost make-die-dead.

 

Yeah, yeah, yeah. He almost passed. But somehow, you know, they helped me; it’s possible for me to stay alive. And that was in 1995.

 

Did you feel like you were …

 

Oh, I …

 

I mean, you must have been getting so little oxygen and feeling so exhausted.

 

Oh, yeah.

 

And then carrying this weight around.

 

Oh, yeah. That was big-time scary. [CHUCKLE]

 

In fact, I don’t know if they gave you that great a chance.

 

No, no. They thought it would be, you know, this guy; better bring the priest in.

 

Yeah.

 

But somehow, it didn’t occur. I don’t if the Lord said, Hey, wait. [CHUCKLE] Thank you, thank you.

 

What has changed, then? You’ve lost weight. That’s been the plan, right, to lose weight?

 

Yeah, yeah, yeah; yeah, yeah. And maintain one good healthy lifestyle. And for me and the wife, we’ve retained, at least for the last four years that I’ve been away from home, we made it a point to swim a minimum of three times a week. And that really helped.

 

How are you getting the oxygen you need?

 

With sleep apnea, what they do, they give you a—certain ways that they can do it. Mine was, I have a machine called a CPAP machine. CPAP; acronym for continuous positive air pressure. And it’s like a machine that’s operation reverse of a vacuum cleaner. Instead of sucking the air in, it blows the air out, and it’s a box about this big. And it has a flexible hose, and then some Velcro to wrap around your forehead. And then, you have what I call the opihi. Now, I promote that to anybody I know who has sleep apnea, or they snore a lot. That’s a big sign. I tell them, Hey, go get one sleep study, and if the stuff is at the level it is, go use the CPAP machine.

 

Some people who die, quote, in their sleep; that’s sleep apnea.

 

Yeah; it’s sleep apnea. It’s doing that. And it’s really something that can be avoided.

 

By 2004, Skippa Diaz was helping to lead the City’s Parks Department, when another health concern led to another major transition for him and Mary. Not his own health, but that of Mary’s parents and Mary’s disabled brother Butchie. Coincidentally, Skippa had a brother-in-law and a brother named Butchie. This transition took the couple to Wisconsin for more than four years.

 

My wife found out while we here that Mom, Dad, and Butchie were going to be put in a home, because Mom and Dad couldn’t take care of Butchie.

 

They were in their nineties.

 

They were in their nineties; yes. Mom was ninety-four, and Dad was ninety-five. And my wife told me, You stay here, because I had a pretty decent job with the City and County.

 

Deputy Director of Parks.

 

Right, right, right. And she said, she’s gonna go up there and take care all three of them. And it took me a month, and I said, Timeout, I cannot do this, I gotta be with my woman. And I said, I’m going up, too. So, I retired, and then I went up. And jeez, I had a good job. But then, I found out that I don’t care what job you got, if the person you love with all your life is not with you, it’s a miserable life. So, I went up there.

 

Had she already gone when you figured that out?

 

Well, you know, she was always with me, so I figured, I can handle. Mm-mm. I couldn’t handle. [CHUCKLE] So, I went up there. And then, that’s when I just had a tremendous revelation that, you know, when you take care the people you care for, when they need the help, there is gonna be reward. Not financial, but you know, your brain going stay right, you’re gonna be able to go to sleep real easy, you know, when that’s finished. But the journey took four years, four and a half years, but it’s just something you do. And I feel real good that I went and did that.

 

And it wasn’t a hobby. It was a fulltime, twenty-four/seven commitment.

 

Twenty-four/seven; yeah. That’s what it is. And it was my wife, too. At first, she was taking care of three. You know, just to take care of one, twenty-four/seven, is a mean chore. You put two, or three. Oh. So, you know, I had Butchie twenty-four/seven. Mary was taking care of Mom, and then we both could take care of Dad because he was just using the two canes. He went from the two canes to the walker, from the walker to the wheelchair. And same thing with Mom. You could see, you know, in the tail end of their lives, they have certain things they’re gonna do, and that digression is gonna end up with them leaving you. But, whoo; couldn’t beat it.

 

Yeah.

 

All the money in the world ain’t gonna make me want to do something other than what I did these past four years.

 

There’s this great picture of you and Butchie.

 

Oh. Yeah, yeah. This one has always … [CHUCKLE] this guy, he used to smile, and he used to tap me on my shoulder when I was going too fast. You know, I’d be swimming in there with him. Yeah; this guy was … he was just the apple of my eye.

 

Downs Syndrome, autism.

 

Yes.

 

He was in a wheelchair.

 

He broke his hip, and he was just confined to a wheelchair.

 

I notice you never say brother-in-law. He’s your brother.

 

He’s my brother. From the day I saw him, I said, I get two brother Butchies. Was really a great feeling to have both of them. But this one here, he was something else. Dad was something else, too. The guy was ninety-nine years old, and he could remember stuff. I mean, I’m sixty-three, sixty-four; I’m forgetting stuff. And the guy was ninety-nine, and we’re talking about a certain person. I don’t know the guy’s name; boom, he remembers the name. We’re playing cards, and he tells me what my score is. And I said, I got this much. We’re playing cribbage. He says, No, you got two more points. I go, Ah.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

And he’s correct. And he’s ninety-nine years old; he was just superb. When he got sick, you know, hard to slow down the movement of that. But he was a darling. He was one father.

 

You know, sounds like you live your life so that you don’t have regrets.

 

Oh, yeah. Yeah. You going get small stuff in the way, but you gotta put your heart in one position, and find out where that bugga aiming, and you go that way. And it comes out pretty good.

 

And your heart’s always right?

 

So far; so far. With my wife, with these guys, yeah. With my family, yeah.

 

Do you think after being married for decades already, you got to know her better then?

 

Oh; yeah, yeah. That’s the part that came full circle. I says, Hey, this is the right one, I got. You know? I don’t know if she’s saying that about me, but [CHUCKLE] as far as that is concerned, it’s really something. Boy, if I had to pick a thing I did that was pretty good, it was that. To be with my wife from now until whenever. I’m totally involved in what she does, and know she is in mine. From day one.

 

It seems that Skippa Diaz takes pride in everything he does. Whether it’s caring for family, or molding young people, or competing in athletics, he puts his whole heart into it. His warmth and energy can light up a room and deeply touch people. Evidence of that? Half a dozen teachers at Farrington now were his students, practically the entire coaching staff for his football team played for him. And his secret? He’s got heart.

 

I developed an acronym; and the acronym was spelled HEART, H-E-A-R-T. H refers to humility, the ability to listen to another person and bite your tongue if he’s saying something that’s different than what you want. But being humble is a quality that is really, really sought after for a lot of people, but never acquired. But humility is a good one. E, education. That one was very, very significant in my family’s upbringing. A, attitude. A positive attitude, making sure that whatever the goal, or whatever the project, you set yourself out to be positive and get the darn thing done. R, responsibility. You gotta be responsible for all the things that you do, and sometimes for the things that your friends and your loved ones are doing. But being responsible in that manner has some beautiful connotations that grow from it. And the, T, of course, stands for team, team sports. So, I always tried to slip those five things in on the kids in conversations and developments, and it helped; it helped. And I always wanted to try to emulate Lorin Gill King. I don’t know if that many guys know him now, but he was one of my favorites. And like Tom Kiyosaki, all these guys, they gave me the juice to go ahead and try to do something good. And if you can do it for a person, that’s pretty neat. And the kids, you know, when I walk down anywhere in the community, and I hear that word Coach, I think that’s better than Skippa. And it’s really like one parent would feel, the goodness, because of what the kid is doing. I just pop my buttons all the time. Right at Farrington High School right now, I got about six kids that played for me, that are teachers over there. Now, what better thing that you can see than a kid make the circle and follow you down the road? And it’s nice to see that stuff happening by people that I worked with and coached. That’s good stuff.

 

And all of his athletes remember his crushing handshake at their first meeting, letting them know in a friendly way from the get-go, he’s nobody to trifle to with. Skippa Diaz came up the hard way, and came out on top, using strength of heart and strength of mind to inspire others all along the way. The latest move for Skippa and Mary; transitioning back to Hawaii after caring for their ohana on the mainland. I’m so glad Coach Skippa Diaz stopped by PBS Hawaii to join us for this Long Story Short. Mahalo piha, Coach. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is produced in HD by PBS Hawaii with Sony technology. High definition; it’s in Sony’s DNA.

 

So, the people in Wisconsin call you Skipper.

 

Yes.

 

And do you forget sometimes and say, Oh, are you pau?

 

Yeah; oh, yeah. When I start talking fast, my friend up there, all the guys up there, they say, What language are you speaking? But they know pau, or we go. We go; you know. Ainokea. [CHUCKLE] They pick up on that. But good people in Wisconsin. At least the area I came from, you know, they’re always watching you, but they know you. Oh, boy; they’re just like Hawaiians, but speaking English. They’re real good people.

 

What do they call the aloha spirit in Wisconsin?

 

The Wisconsin spirit. They call it that. That’s what they do.

 

They really do?

 

Oh, yeah, yeah.