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LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Susan Scott

 

One of my favorite Hawaii newspaper columns is about the marvels of the sea – and who would guess its writer grew up in a land-locked state? As a kid, Wisconsin native Susan Scott would page through National Geographic magazines, imagining herself traveling to distant lands. When she moved to Hawaii, she was afraid of the ocean. Today she loves sailing her own sailboat to distant shores. On LONG STORY SHORT, I get to talk with Susan about her discoveries and delights in living on and near the ocean.

 

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My neighbors were two sisters; they called them the old maids in those days—it was in the 50s, and they subscribed to National Geographic, which was the enormous of my attraction to go over there to their house. And I would sit on the couch, I remember it vividly, and page through the National Geographics, which we did not have. My family were not readers. And they would explain things to me. And I remember Easter Island was a big one. I’m going there, and I’m going here, and I’m going here, I’m going here.

 

Susan Scott of Oahu has been to those places she dreamed about in her childhood, and then some. She’s a familiar name to those who followed her weekly Ocean Watch column in Honolulu’s major daily newspaper, which she’s been writing since 1987. Susan Scott, 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. In addition to her regular Ocean Watch column in the Honolulu Star Advertiser, Susan Scott has written seven books about Hawaii’s wildlife, including publications about plants and animals that live in the ocean as well as on land. Yet, having grown up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Susan Scott knew very little about Hawaii when she and her husband, Dr. Craig Thomas, decided to move here in 1983.

 

What was it like for you, your childhood? How would you characterize it?

 

My childhood was very loving and happy. We had a big extended family until my mom remarried. And she married a man who was not very enamored with children or really comfortable around children. And I was the oldest, so we didn’t get along that well. He was pretty strict with manners, and all kinds of things that I hadn’t really ever heard of before. [CHUCKLE] So, we had a hard time of it. They were heavy drinkers. Everybody in my family drank. All four grandparents, all my aunts and uncles; everybody. It was a drinking culture. It is a German-Scandinavian community, and drinking was an enormous part of the culture. I didn’t know people didn’t live like that until I left home. I just decided pretty much when I was fifteen that I was not gonna have children, and that I was gonna have a different life.

 

At fifteen?

 

At fifteen.

 

What did they encourage you to do with your life?

 

They encouraged me to be part of the extended family, and work in factories, and stay there. And I think the vision was that we would all stick together and do the same thing. But whatever it is, I don’t know what happens, but I think some kids just grow up with the travel bug, an adventure bug. And that was me, and I really, really wanted to do that a lot. And everyone thought I was crazy. They didn’t get it. They still don’t get it.

 

I left home when I was eighteen, and the first time in my life I heard a foreign language. I heard a migrant worker in Milwaukee who had been through our county to pick cherries, and he asked me a question in Spanish. I remember it vividly. I was dumbfounded. I could not believe how beautiful this language sounded. And so, he was lost, and in a little trouble, so I took him home where I lived, in a little commune kinda thing with some other hippie kids, and we found someone who spoke Spanish, and on the phone, and he said what he was looking for, a bus station and a place to sleep for the night. But it was this enormous thing. I’d never heard Spanish, I never heard any other language, really.

 

It was all Caucasian people in your small town, too.

 

Yeah; yeah. And I’d never seen Black people, or Asians, or anyone. And so, just leaving was just a really wonderful thing for me. And you know, I certainly had ups and downs as an adolescent and as a hippie, kinda wandering around, wondering what to do. ‘Cause I didn’t go to nursing school until after that. And then, that’s when I decided if I went to nursing and got an RN, I could go back to Europe and maybe live and work in Ireland. When I met Craig, uh, which was in 1980, it was the end of that whole hippie thing, and he was really instrumental in helping me stop doing drugs and alcohol, and smoking, and all of those things.

 

How did you meet?

 

I met Craig in the hospital. He was an intern, and it was his first week there, and it was my last week there.

 

And where was this?

 

In Denver. He had gotten a residency there, and I had gone to nursing school in Denver. And so, we had just met just barely as we were both off going to do different things. I was going back to school to do something else.

 

You had decided not to be a nurse.

 

Right; I decided not to be a nurse.

 

Why not?

 

I think it was too indoors for me. I think I really had an adventure outdoor travel bug.

 

And it’s kind of hard, isn’t it? I mean, devote years to this training and this education, and you did it for a good reason, then you decide it doesn’t work for you?

 

Well, it was only two years.

 

Still, two years.

 

It was an associate degree. Yeah, it was two years. I didn’t feel that I could do it. I’m not sure why, exactly. I worked in seven different departments in seven years. I was a nurse for seven years. And I finally thought, I don’t think moving around the departments is gonna do it for me.

 

And even though it helps with my travel bug, you decided, No, try something else.

 

Yeah. It just didn’t work for me. And I did my pre-med courses after that, at the University of Colorado. And then, Craig finished his residency and really, really wanted to come to Hawaii and rest, and have some time off before he started working. And so, we came to Hawaii in 1983 just for the summer. And that was it; we’ve never, never even considered living anywhere else. But we always said if there’s another place we find—‘cause he likes to travel, obviously, too. If we find a place better, we’ll go there. And we still say that, but you know, the places that we’re going now are wonderful, and I really enjoy the South Pacific and the other islands, and Mexico, and the places that I’ve been sailing these last few years., but I would never leave Hawaii.

 

What was it about Hawaii that made you know, We’re gonna stay here, we’re putting down roots?

 

Well, part of it is, I feel really at home here. I think the culture is American, and there’s a lot of wonderful things about America that I really like. But I also think that the multicultural part of Hawaii really spoke to me. Well, I went to Chinese New Year and had a fantastic time. We just loved it so much. You know, we watched the lion dances and the dragon dance, and we had Chicago hotdogs. And all this different ethnic mix is really, really fun, and I appreciate that all the time. I like the mix here. And I feel like I’m always kinda traveling while I’m here at home and meeting people from different places. So, it really works for me.

 

The multi-ethnic cultures and people may have been Susan Scott’s initial reasons for wanting to stay in Hawaii, but there was something else here that she hadn’t discovered yet, something she probably would never have guessed would become her life’s passion.

 

When you came here, you enrolled at UH Manoa.

 

I enrolled at UH Manoa because I was so afraid of the ocean. And Craig and I both really liked Hawaii and the cultural part of Hawaii, and we loved Oahu.

 

You were afraid of the ocean?

 

I was afraid of the ocean. Well, I grew up in Wisconsin and went to school in Denver. I had barely seen the ocean. So, I didn’t know what a tide was. And when people said the surf was up on the North Shore, I didn’t know. I remember thinking, Up where?

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

What does that mean? [CHUCKLE] So, it was interesting to go to school, and thinking I would just take a couple of courses. And I had just come off the really hard pre-med schedule, which I’d finished, and so, it was really fun. And I had all these different people from all over the world at school. My lab partner was from Singapore, and I met a lot of local people who made fun of some of the things I said, and about the ocean, and they thought that it was just crazy that I thought, wana, for instance, was really a cool interesting thing. ‘Cause I had thought that sea urchins were plants.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

I had no idea. So, the more I learned, the more interested in got, and I finally ended up with a degree in biology and a certificate in marine journalism from the Marine Option Program. So, I’m a very proud graduate of MOP.

 

Well, what is your job?

 

I’m a freelance writer. And so, I’ve contracted with the Star Advertiser, the Star Bulletin for many years, to do a weekly column. And one of the things the editors were interested in the beginning was that I would have the science point of view from the animals. So, I could write about the marine animals and marine science in a way that reporters probably wouldn’t. And so, those were sort of my sample columns, and the editor who hired me said, Well, let’s just try this for a while and see how it goes. And that’s the only contract I ever had.

 

And as the Star Bulletin dissolved, here you are with the Star Advertiser.

 

Star Advertiser; right.

 

You continued along with them.

 

Well, I was lucky. I made the cut.

 

You did.

 

Yeah; I was very lucky.

 

From being afraid of the ocean to essentially spending your life around it.

 

Right; exactly.

 

In it, on it, around it.

 

Yeah. I think part of the feedback I get for my column and my books is that the sense of wonder is still in the writing. And I feel that; that’s very genuine.

 

And the curiosity is the case there too.

 

To me, I feel like I’m in a movie sometimes; just even walking on the beach, I don’t have to get in the water. And I feel so lucky that I not only got to study and learn the science part of marine biology, but that I get to live it. You know.

 

Well, I love your column. And you know, I think so many people read it and say, Ah, I always wondered about that. In fact, I was gonna tell you that there was this period, I think it was a month; it was one June, I can’t remember which June, but I remember thinking, Everything you’re writing about this month, every week I open it up, and it’s something I really, really wanted to know.

 

Oh, that’s great. Oh, I’m glad to hear that. Yeah; I get really good feedback from the column, and it really keeps me going, keeps me interested. I think I’ll be a little old lady going into the newspaper, still writing about my experience with the ocean. But it is a lot of fun.

 

A lot of it is based on observation. You see something, and you wonder about it.

 

Right.

 

You do the research, and then you talk with people.

 

Well, and I have lots and lots of really interested readers, like you, who write me notes and say—

 

Yeah; what is this?

 

I found this, can I send you a picture? Or, Have you ever heard of this? And uh, I just feel really lucky that I have so many readers now. And I have readers in Australia, now that it’s online, the newspaper’s online. I got an email from Switzerland last week, and another from Malta.

 

And there are infinite things to learn about the ocean. It covers, what, three-quarters of the Earth’s surface. You’ve got a lot of material forever.

 

I’ll never run out of material. Yeah.

 

Tell me about some of the columns that have resonated most with your readers.

 

Well, I think that sailing columns resonate the most. And it’s interesting, ‘cause I worry the most about those being boring to people. Probably because I feel like the column should be about discovering marine animals, and I think the thing I like writing best about is, what you said, finding something and wondering how it works, and then discovering, like, Oh, my gosh, this nudibranch has its own little garden on its back. Which we have right off on the North Shore, we have a bunch of these. And so, if I’m writing about sailing, it feels more like a little bit of a travel log. Like, I did this, and then I did this, and then I did this. And I think, I’m probably driving people crazy. It’s like, Oh, big deal.

 

What’s the latest new thing you’ve learned?

 

Chitons; I’ve never seen a Hawaii chiton. And so, when my friends emailed me that from California and I looked it up, I looked it up in the Hawaii books I have and said, We have those. They wear a girdle. [CHUCKLE] This is called a girdle that goes around. I found a website by Sam Gon, who’s the Nature Conservancy biologist here, and who I’ve meet several times, and so, he had something about chitons, and trilobites. He calls the chitons trilobite imposters. [CHUCKLE] Pretenders, or something. ‘Cause he gets emails from people that say they found a trilobite.

 

Chiton; so that’s C-H-I-T-O-N.

 

Right. That was all new for me. I spent two days doing it. So, I don’t earn very good money, because I spend so much time writing each column. But I have really a lot of fun doing it. And then, I think if I quit the column, would I still work so hard at getting all the little details and getting it right? And I don’t know.

 

Gives you a reason to give structure to your positive wonder about the world.

 

Well, it does. It does.

 

Makes you more alert, too, I would think.

 

It does. ‘Cause I’m always thinking, Oh, I’ve gotta write about that.

 

Right.

 

Well, then I have to remember what kinda day this was, or what beach it was, or was it rocky beach, or sandy. A lot of my observations are not actually in the water. Which is one of the things a lot of my readers write and say, I’ve never been in the ocean, I don’t swim. I love your columns, because I can relate to it through your eyes, but I don’t feel like I have to actually get in the ocean to know about these things. ‘Cause I don’t always get in the water, either.

 

And meanwhile, you’ve been writing books as well. I’m fascinated by All Stings Considered. And I know everyone has asked you, I’ve asked you, when you get stung by a Portuguese Man ‘O War, which is very common, there’s always someone willing to give you their home remedy.

 

That’s right.

 

But do any of the remedies work, or is it just time that works?

 

Well, I had a doctor friend that used to say, tincture of time was the best remedy. And what we say for almost all jellyfish stings.

 

Almost all.

 

The reason so many things work, and everyone has so many different remedies is because it’s a self-limiting injury that goes away by itself anyway. Craig and I did some studies with the City and County lifeguards, and we had a really good time. We had unmarked bottles, so it was a blinded study, so no one knew what they were putting on. And then, we had victims of jellyfish stings fill out a questionnaire; spray this on and tell us on a pain scale how it was. And so, we had a statistician from City and County running the numbers, ‘cause we wanted to make sure we weren’t making something worse. And we had meat tenderizer mixed in a concentrated form in water, and we had Sting Aid which they were selling at the time in all the stores, and fresh water and sea water. Sea water was our control. And the statistician called us, I remember the day, and said, I think you might as well stop the study, ‘cause the sea water is so far ahead of all the others. So, that told us that it was statistically significant. So, don’t do anything. Rinse it off with sea water and go home.

 

Sea water seems to be an answer to so many things.

 

Yeah; it really is.

 

I always remember a prominent coach who had a progressive disorder, and I asked him what he was doing for it. And he goes, The ocean is my therapy, and it’s made me happier than anything could have.

 

Well, I could say the same thing. Yeah. There is something about sea water. And even walking next to it works for me. [CHUCKLE]

 

Yeah.

 

I don’t have to actually get in it.

 

Discovering new wonders about the ocean and wildlife and writing about them has never stopped being exciting and fulfilling for Susan Scott. Yet, after doing this for eighteen years, she came to a point in her life where she needed to do something different.

 

You know every type of animal you could ever find in a tide pool.

 

Yeah; exactly. Well, I’m still learning. That’s the fun of it. So, I still really find the thrill of it and the joy of it.

 

As your life has gone along, you’ve actually gotten more and more, well, immersed in the ocean.

 

Right. Yeah; I started sailing. I didn’t know how to sail before I met Craig, but uh, in 2005, I sailed to Palmyra. I learned how to sail.

 

Wait a minute; that’s a big jump.

 

Oh.

 

First, you’re afraid of the ocean.

 

Yeah.

 

And then you’re sailing with Craig, and all of a sudden you’re sailing to Palmyra?

 

Well, I had a big midlife crisis. I had a really, really hard menopause shift in hormones, I think. I don’t know; I felt crazy. And I think a lot of women have these hormone times in their late forties and fifties, and people do think they’re crazy. People thought I was crazy. I felt like I did lose myself. I thought, I don’t know who I am or where I’m going, or what’s happening. I had been trying to write a novel, and like most novel writers in the world, it was rejected, rejected, rejected. And that’s normal, but I took that so hard. I took to my bed and didn’t get up for days. And I’m not like that at all. And so, I had a really miserable time with it, and that Women’s Health Initiative study came out that said hormones are bad for women, so I was not on hormones. And finally, I said, [CHUCKLE] I’m going somewhere. My life feels like it’s over anyway, so whatever happens, it’s gotta be better, it doesn’t matter what I do. So, I learned how to sail a boat by myself, without Craig, which was the first time. And a lot of people said, Well, he taught you how to sail, or you learned how to sail with him. Taking it myself was an entire different universe, and making all the decisions was really different.

 

Were you a solo sailor going across the ocean that way?

 

I got a job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a volunteer in Palmyra. They really needed some help doing a study there, and it would take four months. But they didn’t have any way for me to get there, or a place for me to live when I did get there. ‘Cause Palmyra is a pretty remote camp. And so, I thought, Well, I have a sailboat. I’ll just go there. I’ll sail there, and I’ll live on the boat, and then I’ll see what happens after that.

 

How long did it take you to sail there?

 

It took me a week to sail there, with some big catastrophic boat failures, actually. And I sailed with a biologist friend, a young man who’s still a very dear friend. And he had never been on a sailboat before or never sailed. So, the two of us were really novices. And we made it to Palmyra. We managed to patch the boat together enough to sail there, and Craig sent down the parts to fix it.

 

What was that failure? What happened?

 

The forestay broke. Which for sailors, if you know boats, is what holds up the mast and the sails. And so, we managed to save the mast.

 

It broke in bad weather?

 

It broke because it was put together wrong.

 

Oh!

 

Here in Honolulu. It was new. That’s a very big deal. It’s about as bad as it gets without getting a hole in the bottom of the boat where it’s sinking. But we did fine. We didn’t know much then. I know a lot more now. I think I’d be a lot more calm now.

 

All the elements are bigger than yourself, and can combine against you.

 

Yes. And I learned too, that you’re really dependent on the boat for your life, but you’re also dependent on your wits to fix the boat, because things break all the time. The most common conversation among sailors is what big thing broke, and what did you do. And I wrote a book about it called, Call Me Captain, which is a really big part of my life. I’ve been writing that for a long time. And University of Hawaii Press is publishing it.

 

It’s so hard to write about yourself, I would think.

 

It was very hard. I actually had a wonderful editor from San Francisco, a really good editor who’s a professional editor, and she helped me. And I think the big part of her, besides being a good editor is, she didn’t know me personally. And so, she could say, I can’t picture this; I don’t know what were you feeling. And so, I rewrote with her over years.   And the UH Press does not usually publish memoirs.

 

Oh, congratulations.

 

So, I feel very lucky. So, I sailed to Tahiti from Palmyra, and then to Australia. I really got the bug.

 

That’s amazing.

 

I had different friends help me. I never sailed alone until I got to Mexico. And in the Sea of Cortez there’s only seventy-five miles across, and so I started sailing alone there. ‘Cause I thought, Oh, I’m never gonna be that far offshore. My big problem with going offshore alone is, if something breaks that’s beyond my strength, I don’t feel very strong, and as I age, I feel less strong. I lift weights, but it doesn’t make me feel capable. And on the way to Palmyra, when we had the big boat failure, I really needed Alex’s strength.

 

You’ve seen some amazing visuals at sea. I know you’ve described spinning dolphins.

 

Right.

 

What else at sea have you seen that’s amazing?

 

Well, one thing that I saw that was amazing, but I didn’t really realize it until later when I looked it up and read, it was pilot whales. And pilot whales are among the very few—I think there’s only two species, maybe three, in the world of animals that have menopause, and females live long after they stop reproducing. And pilot whales are one of them; Hawaii’s pilot whales. So, when they swam up to the boat, on my trip to Palmyra, they were the only whales that came to the boat. And then later, when I read about them, I thought, Well, there you go.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

They were coming over to see me, and that was a really good sign.

 

How’s that going for you? [CHUCKLE]

 

That was good.

 

Do you sleep well on the boat in the middle of the sea?

 

No. I don’t sleep hardly at all. I sleep; I feel like I’m not totally exhausted, but when I get somewhere, I sleep a lot. But I’m always on call.

 

And yet, you love being on a boat where you don’t sleep much?

 

Well, I’m not offshore that much. So, the trip from Mexico to the Marquesas that I did this year was a twenty-eight-day crossing. And that’s really a long, long crossing. And then, the rest of the year was just little trips, so you know, a day or two. And then when you get where you’re going, it’s a wonderful, peaceful anchorage usually, and you can sleep just fine.

 

How big is your boat? Tell me about your boat.

 

Oh, the boat’s thirty-seven feet. It’s French ketch, and it’s easy to single hand. It’s set up so you can single handed maintain the sails and do what you need to do by yourself. But it’s also roomy enough to sleep comfortably six people. So, there’s three separate cabins. It’s a center cockpit boat with an aft master cabin, and a center and a forward.

 

So, you could conceivably go alone, although that’s not advisable.

 

I could go alone. And people do go alone. I think part of it, too, it’s a social event. You know, it’s been really a good social thing for me to have, to be able to skipper the boat, and have friends come along. And as a biologist in Hawaii, I have a lot of friends who are really good on the water and they’ve been on research vessels, and they know the water, and they’re not afraid of big waves. And so, they may not necessarily know a lot about sailing, but they do what I tell them, and we’ve had a really good time.

 

You like being the skipper?

 

I do like being the skipper. I do. Sometimes, there’s times when I think it’d be really fun to just be on somebody else’s boat and let them worry about what’s going wrong, or where we’re going, or should we go all night, or should we pull in. But mostly, I like it. I enjoy it.

 

And you’re telling me menopause is what triggered all of this?

 

It is. I think, Leslie, I would have never gone on that sailboat by myself, unless I was really desperate and miserable.

 

I’m wondering if those people who you said thought you were crazy; did they think you were even crazier when you started taking the sailboat out virtually on your own?

 

That I was crazy when I got home?

 

Well, no; you know, once they heard you were—

 

When I got home, I was fine. [CHUCKLE] It cured me. [CHUCKLE] I think getting outside of my own self, and I think if there’s a lesson there, and I would never presume to tell anyone else what to do with their own. Menopause or misery, or midlife or early life crisis; I felt as confused and mixed up as I had when I was a teenager, with all those hormone storms and things, and trying to figure out what I was gonna be, where I was gonna go. And I came from a place where I really wanted to do something different, but didn’t know what. And this was the same kinda thing. And I thought, whatever happens, I’m losing it here, so it’s gotta be, it’s gotta be good. And if I never come back, or Craig and I don’t stay together, well, that’s just life.

 

Susan Scott has made it through many challenges. She continues to sail and explore with the same passion and wonder that she’s always had, and through her writing, we all get to tag along. Mahalo to Susan Scott of Oahu for sharing her stories with us. And mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.

 

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

 

Where are the places you’d still like to go?

 

Well, I’ve never seen the pyramids of Egypt, and that one of the pages of the National Geographics of the Imer [PHONETIC] sisters. And we talked about the pyramids. I remember that, and Easter Island, which I did get to see the moai. So that was good. So, I would like to go to Egypt, but there never seems to be a very good time, politically. I’m never sure.

 

Because think the open ocean is safer than Egypt.

 

Oh, I do; I do. I think it is.

 

[END]

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.

 

Lessons on Leadership Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

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
Colbert Matsumoto

 

Colbert Matsumoto grew up on Lanai when it was a pineapple plantation employing both his father and mother. He didn’t set foot on the Continent until he was a college freshman. And he grew up to become an attorney, insurance company executive and business and community leader in Hawaii. Like many successful people, he had some misgivings and missteps along the way. On the next LONG STORY SHORT (Tues., July 7, 7:30 pm), Matsumoto humbly recalls his journey. And he tells of a test of his courage, as court-appointed master overseeing the dealings of then-Bishop Estate.

 

This program is available in high-definition and will be rebroadcast on Wed.,
July 8 at 11:00 pm and Sun., July 12 at 4:00 pm.

 

Colbert Matsumoto Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

You said your dad was a 442 vet, so that means he qualified for the GI Bill. He could have gone to college, but you’re saying he did not?

 

Yeah; my dad unfortunately, as soon as he came back from Europe and returned to Lanai, his father died unexpectedly. And so, my father, because he was the youngest in the household, and his siblings had all left the island already, stayed on Lanai to take care of his mother. So, he was from a generation that had this Japanese value of oyako-ko imbued in him. And so, I think that, you know, basically he said, It’s my responsibility to take care of my mother.

 

Do you think he ever regretted that choice?

 

No. If I he did, I never heard him articulate it. But I think that that was probably why he expected my brother and me to go to college.

 

That sense of doing what’s right was passed on from father to son. Born and raised on Lanai, Colbert Matsumoto would remember his dad’s leadership by example when he took on some of the most powerful people in Hawaii, and helped reshape the multi-billion-dollar Bishop Estate. Colbert Matsumoto, 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. Colbert Matsumoto went from plantation life on Lanai to become a business and community leader in Honolulu. He’s chairman of Island Insurance. Matsumoto’s life and career have been driven by a desire to impact lives, a motivation he’d seen his parents put into action as workers on Lanai’s pineapple plantation.

 

I grew up in a time when—I like to call it the Golden Period of the Plantations in Hawaii. Life was really nice growing up on Lanai. You know, our family, I think, you know, we had a comfortable lifestyle. We didn’t have a lot of extravagance, but you know, we had a TV set, you know, I was in the Boy Scouts. You know, my parents were members of the PTA, you know, we went to church on Sundays. And so, it was a nice place to grow up in. And so, as I look back on it, you know, I realize how almost idyllic it was to grow up in a place like that. But when I was growing up there, I couldn’t wait to leave.

 

Because it was too small a town, people all knew each other’s business, maybe?

 

Yeah; it was confining. I grew up in a community of twenty-five hundred people. Oh, there were many occasions when, you know, I would get into mischief as a little kid on one side of the town, and by the time I got home, my mom would know all about it. You know, and so, yeah; it was hard to remain anonymous.

 

When you said you couldn’t wait to get away, were there other things besides getting ratted on for mischief?

 

Oh, yeah. Growing up, we had a TV set, and I would watch shows about other places, and I always longed for the opportunity to experience some of the things that I saw on the TV programs. Because I didn’t get away from Lanai very much. I had never had the opportunity to visit the mainland until I went to college. And so, I felt somewhat isolated and confined as I grew older, and wanted to have the opportunity to experience different things.

 

The main employer on the island at that time was Dole; right?

 

Right.

 

And did your parents work for Dole?

 

Yeah; both my parents worked for Dole, as my grandparents also. Pretty much everybody on the island worked for Dole, unless you worked for the State or the County, or some of the retail establishments in the town.

 

There are drawbacks to company town, obviously, when you’re held in their thrall; they’re the main gig—

 

Right.

 

–for employment.

 

Well, you know, I think that, yeah, the only jobs that were available were on the plantation. Which is why, you know, growing up, we all knew that once we graduated, we were expected to leave the island. Because there were no opportunities for young people after they graduated from high school on Lanai.

 

Which your parents had that expectation of; right?

 

Oh, yeah; the parents. But you know, it was also the economic reality of the island.

 

I mean, were you concerned? What am I gonna do? How am I gonna make it?

 

No. You know, I think my parents always raised me with the expectation that I was supposed to go to college. They themselves had not gone to college, so they didn’t care which college, or what I studied. You know, they just wanted me to go to college and graduate from college.

 

Did they explicitly give you lessons of life?

 

They did, you know, in different ways. So, you know, they would basically try to teach me certain values. But then, they also, I think, taught me a lot just by their example.

 

Your father, for example; what did he teach you? What did you come away with?

 

One of the things that he was heavily involved in was with the ILWU. Because the union figured very significantly in our community. So, my father would share with me some of the stories of the struggles that the union and the employees had to go through in the beginning. ‘Cause he was a 442 veteran, and so when he came back, one of the things that he and, you know, people of his generation were struggling for were not just economic justice, but also social reforms in the community. So, the union, the ILWU was very significant in, I think, bringing about some changes back on the plantation. ‘Cause many of them didn’t have the opportunity to own their homes. So, one of the things that they struggled for was to have the opportunity to buy their own homes, which many of the workers did.

 

Under your dad’s tenure?

 

Yeah; during the time that he was involved with the ILWU.

 

What was your mother like? What is she like? Because, you know, she’s still with us.

 

Right. My mother was a strong woman. You know, she made sure that my brother and I kept out of trouble, which she didn’t always succeed at.

 

But she always found out.

 

Yeah; she found out. But she was a stickler for the rules, and you know, she really had a strong sense of fairness, of right and wrong. And I think that that enabled her to go from being a pineapple picker to one of the first female, wahine lunas on the plantation.

 

What was that like? So, did she boss men around?

 

No; she usually headed, you know, gangs of women who were ipicking pineapple for the plantation.

 

Oh, that’s wonderful; a wahine luna.

 

Right. But that wasn’t until, you know, the late 70s, when equal rights became more of an issue for women.

 

So, it sounds like both of your parents challenged; challenged for more fairness, for equity.

 

Right. I think that, you know, that generation, they were second generation Japanese Americans. That generation really was focused on bringing about social change for the benefit of the community. And so, both of them made contributions in various ways through the activities that they were involved in and volunteered in. And they were among many in the community that were also, you know, engaged in those kinds of efforts on behalf of the group, as opposed to just for their own personal benefit.

 

Colbert Matsumoto was valedictorian of his high school class on Lanai. He went on to college in the Bay Area, and graduated from law school at the University of California at Berkeley. He wanted to be a lawyer to have an impact on society.

 

When I went up to college, it was the first time I was up on the mainland. So, it was a total culture shock for me. I had never been on the mainland before, I had never seen an urban environment like that. So, was definitely an eye-opening experience.

 

How was your college experience? What’d you decide you were gonna do with your life? Did you decide then?

 

Yeah; I had gone to college with the intent of becoming a high school social studies teacher.   So, that was my objective going in. About halfway through, I came home for a summer and worked at a warehouse on a nightshift crew, and there were three other guys that were working on the crew that had already graduated from UH in education. One had a master’s degree, the other two had fifth-year certificates, and none of them could find jobs with the DOE.

 

That’s right. I remember that was the time of a teacher surplus.

 

So, I figured I needed to find something else. And that’s when I decided, Well, I guess I’ll try applying to law school, which is what I ended up doing.

 

Any particular reason?

 

Well, you know, I had never met a lawyer before. I had never been in a courtroom, or knew anything about what the practice of law was. At the time, you know, I just knew that lawyers went to court. Perry Mason, The Defenders; those were my images of lawyers. And I thought, you know, lawyers made a lot of money, and didn’t have to work hard.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

And so, I thought that, Okay, maybe that would be a good profession to get into. But I also knew that lawyers had the ability to bring about change, that they had a certain knowledge base that allowed for an advocacy of different ideas. And so, I thought that by becoming a lawyer, I would be able to have an impact in terms of society. Because, you know, I grew up in the 60s, so it was a time of a lot of social change; the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement. It was also a time when, you know, the environmental movement first started to get started. And so, there was a lot of idealism, I think, with my generation. And so, I looked at, you know, practicing law as being an opportunity to become more of a contributor to the kinds of social changes that were taking place in society.

 

You were used to being a really smart guy in all your classes up ‘til now. Now, in law school, everyone was probably the smartest in the class they came from before.

 

Right.

 

What was that like?

 

It was very intimidating. Like I said, I had no clue what being a lawyer was all about. And so, I almost flunked my first semester of law school. Because I thought a contract was a piece of paper that, you know, you put an agreement on. I didn’t realize that it was a legal concept that had, you know, certain components to it. And so, the concepts associated with law were so foreign to me, so I had a hard time grasping a lot of that when I first went to law school.

 

Do you think maybe part of it was because you were used to more of a handshake, and your word was good, and it was sort of uncomplicated on Lanai?

 

No, I think I was pretty much just naïve and clueless about what I had elected to pursue in law. So, fortunately, I had a professor who was very sympathetic, and I had some fellow classmates that were very supportive and encouraging. And so, I stuck it out, and managed to do okay.

 

Colbert Matsumoto did something quite unusual after he passed the Bar Exam and was qualified to practice law. He embarked on a six-month journey that continues to inform his life.

 

I entered a Zen monastery. So, I shaved my head, and then went into this Zen monastery and trained.

 

Where was it?

 

It was in Kalihi Valley. So, it was Chozen-ji. It’s a Rinzai Zen temple. And I had heard about the teacher there, Tanouye Tenshin Rotaishi, who was an accomplished martial artist, but also a Zen teacher. And so, I had trained in the martial arts when I was a kid growing up, and so, you know, I had an interest in it. But I had also realized that Zen was the philosophical underpinnings of Japanese martial arts and so, I wanted to learn more about that. And so, that’s why I asked him if I could, you know, train with him at his temple.

 

And what did you learn?

 

You know, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. It was a very rigorous and arduous kind of training, physically demanding training that I went through while I was there. But it was also psychologically very stressful and difficult.

 

When you said arduous, I don’t really know what that means in terms of meditation or Zen studies.

 

We would get up at like, you know, four-thirty in the morning. We would sit in meditation for hour and a half from five-thirty. And then, we would have breakfast and then, we would do martial arts training from eight to ten in the morning, and then we would have to work out in the gardens or do some construction activity. And then, in the afternoon, you know, we would bathe, and then we would go through another period of intense meditation, and then we would do martial arts training from seven-thirty to like, ten o’clock at night. And you know, it was just physically very demanding. And I mean, I lost a lot of weight while I was going through that, and it was very tough, both physically and psychologically.

 

And was it meant to reduce you to who you really are, to take away the external stuff?

 

Right. Basically, the training had a lot to do with, you know, freeing you from your dependence on the kinds of things that you grow up with, thinking that these are real things that you can hang onto in terms of defining who you are, and defining your life and how you lead your life. There definitely are gonna be times when you’re not gonna be able to overcome certain things. But you have to try. So, it’s more about the effort and how it transforms you as a person, by taking on that challenge.

 

That’s interesting, ‘cause as a lawyer, I think you’re pretty goal-oriented. But you’re saying you learned how to accept that the effort is the main point.

 

Right. I think, you know, as human beings, you know, we have the capacity to continue to evolve and change, and grow. But you have to make the effort at it, and you have to be willing to take the risk associated with experiencing those kinds of changes in your life.

 

Following his Zen training, Colbert Matsumoto went into business as a solo law practitioner. He shared office space with a man who would become governor, Ben Cayetano. Later, he joined the law firm of the late Wallace Fujiyama, one of Hawaii’s finest trial lawyers. Yet, Matsumoto says his early years in law were hardly a success.

 

 

The first thing I did was, I hung my shingle and tried to practice law on my own for two years, which was a disaster.

 

Why?

 

Because I wasn’t prepared. You know, law school doesn’t really prepare you to practice law.

 

To run a business; is that the part of it that got you?

 

No; there is so much more to being a good lawyer than what you learn in law school. And so, I really needed to be mentored and with some people that were more experienced, who could in turn teach me the ropes and help me understand, you know, what you did as a good lawyer. So, I ended up giving it up and getting a job with Wally Fujiyama’s law firm. He established himself, even on the national scene, as a very accomplished trial attorney. But you know, Wally, for all his success as a lawyer, never forgot his ties to the community. And I think that for him, that was an important—he saw it as a social responsibility that he bore to not just focus on his own law practice and pursuing opportunities for himself, but also to contribute to the benefit of the community in terms of, you know, the lives of other people. The other thing about him that I thought was really admirable was that he was a risk taker. And so, he wasn’t hesitant to put himself out front and to become the subject of criticism.

 

Do you remember that time when you were struggling to run your own place, do you remember feeling embarrassed that another lawyer saw you do something?

 

Oh, yeah. No; there were many times when, you know, I realized that I was over my head in terms of the assignment that I had. And it was frustrating. It was frequently humiliating.

 

Did you second guess yourself, saying, I shouldn’t have done this, I shouldn’t have gotten, this is not my—

 

Oh, definitely. No; I thought to myself that, you know, I mean, this was not the right career path. Which is why I abandoned it.

 

But you stayed in law; you didn’t abandon law.

 

No; no. But quite honestly, I hated practicing law. I thought it was a mistake to have become a lawyer, because I just didn’t enjoy it. It took me over ten years before, you know, I finally started to feel more comfortable about what I was doing, and began to enjoy it.

 

In 1996, Colbert Matsumoto was appointed the Court Master for Bishop Estate. It was a role that required him to examine the finances and structure of the multi-billion-dollar trust for Native Hawaiians. Within a year, the Estate came under fire amid allegations of gross mismanagement, and many called for the powerful and highly paid trustees to resign. Matsumoto unexpectedly found himself taking on the trustees in a scathing 120-page report he issued to the court.

 

When the judge appointed me to be the Court Master, the controversy hadn’t erupted.   I knew that being Court Master for Bishop Estate was a high-profile of engagement, but I had no clue that it was gonna be as controversial as it ended up being. So, it wasn’t until almost a year after I had been appointed that things kinda erupted. The Broken Trust essay was published, the march on Kawaiahao Plaza occurred, and by then, I started to realize that, you know, this assignment that I had undertaken was gonna require that I take on the trustees. And that was kind of an intimidating notion to think about at that time. Because I had just started my own law firm a couple of years before that. And so, I actually thought to myself, you know, Okay, here I’m in this situation where if I do my job right, I’m gonna end up getting five of the most powerful people in Hawaii upset at me. So, I did think about tendering my resignation to the judge. But as I was kinda weighing that decision, I reflected on, you know, why did I go to law school, why did I want to become a lawyer. And I thought about the idealism that I had when I was in my twenties, and wanting to, you know, make a positive contribution to society. And so, I thought to myself that, you know, here I’m a positon where I could make a difference if I did my job right, and if I did it in a professional way, and am I gonna walk away from it. And so, when I looked at it in that way, I decided that, no, I should stick this out. And that’s what I ended up doing.

 

And what did you find? You saw the raw data, or at least what raw data was presented to you.

 

Well, I found a lot of issues with respect to accountability and transparency. You know, a lot of the investments that they had engaged in were not going well, were not performing as they should have. The other thing that they had done was, they had divided up areas of responsibility among the five of them, so that each of them basically had control over a different aspect of the estate. Which I found to be a violation of the trust that had been given to them, because Princess Pauahi had basically designated that there were five trustees that were all supposed to act in concert, rather than, you know, five individual trustees—

 

Five CEOs.

 

–that had their own kuleanas, and could make decisions that would be unchallenged within their kuleanas. And so, you know, that was part of the governance of Kamehameha Schools that I felt were not in conformity with what the Princess’ original wishes were, and certainly not in conformity with trust law.

 

What was the turning point, do you think, in the legal case that really turned the trust upside down, and resulted in the removal of a trustee?

 

Well, things started to deteriorate over the three years that this was going on, for the trustees. And I think that they, as I said, hunkered down. They were very resistant to making a number of the changes that the court expected of them. And then, the real blow that I think did them in was when the IRS came in and raised a number of concerns about their behavior and their management of the estate.

 

A lot of that was based on what you had put out; right?

 

Yes and no. You know, the IRS had done a lot of their own homework, and they had other issues that they wanted to raise with the trustees. But you know, IRS has a very heavy hand, and when they enter the picture, you know, it’s pretty tough [CHUCKLE] to fight them.

 

Colbert Matsumoto ended his twenty-year legal career in 1999, and became chairman of Island Insurance. Matsumoto is known as a strategic problem-solver. He used his skills and his influence to help save the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii from foreclosure in 2002. Matsumoto led a team that successfully raised nine million dollars in just a few months.

 

How did you actually get the money?

 

Well, you know, it took a lot of hard work and effort. And so, you know, our group—and we called it the Committee to Save the Center. We knew that this was a desperate cause, and that nobody likes to contribute money to what they think is gonna be ultimately a failed effort, because you know, you’ve heard the term, you know, throwing good money after bad. And so, nobody wanted to throw good money after bad. So, what we pledged to the audience was that we would only cash their checks if we had raised enough money to save the center. But until then, all we were gonna do was collect checks. And so, that’s what we did. And I think that that gave people the confidence to contribute to us. Whenever we would receive a donation, we would do a personalized letter to that person, thanking them for their contribution. And I would sign every letter. And so, my wife would stay up with me at night to help me stuff envelopes, and get the letters ready to be mailed out to the people that donated. And so, yeah; it took a lot of work, but it was very satisfying.

When you look back at that, did you learn new things about yourself?

 

Not so much about myself, as much as my confidence in my community was not misplaced. It reaffirmed my sense that, you know, we are a special place, we are a special community, that you know, Hawaii is a place that retains a lot of the qualities that growing up on Lanai, I think, I felt were unique once I was able to contrast it to my experiences on the mainland. And so, it reaffirmed my desire to try to maintain those qualities about our community.

 

Colbert Matsumoto chose the business boardroom instead of following his parents into a labor union. However, his strong sense of community goes back to his parents’ values and the sense of extended family in his upbringing on rural Lanai. To that, he added higher education and Zen training. Thank you, Colbert Matsumoto, for sharing your story with us. And thank you, for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, a hui hou.

 

My own daughters, my two daughters, when they were in elementary school, we went to Lanai for a visit, and I remember giving them like ten dollars and telling them, you know, Why don’t you go buy some ice cream, you know, from the ice cream store? And so, they looked at me like, you know, Well, aren’t you gonna take us? And I said, No, you know where it is, so why don’t you walk from Grandma’s house to the ice cream store. And so, they did. And it was the first time they had ever done that.

 

And you felt okay, ‘cause it was Lanai.

 

Oh, yeah. No, I felt perfectly fine about it. And it was definitely a new experience for them.

 

[END]

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Marie Milks

 

When retired State Circuit Judge Marie Nakanishi Milks was just three years old, she boarded a bus on the heels of an adult stranger and went on her own to her auntie’s house across town. Meanwhile, her frightened parents had called police, thinking she’d been kidnapped – and an island-wide hunt was underway. That was just the beginning of a life of discovery and travel. Milks recalls humble beginnings as the daughter of a waiter and a house cleaner in a modest rental home in Honolulu. She would take a job in Washington D.C. with Congresswoman Patsy Mink, go to law school, and become a respected judge who presided over major criminal cases in Hawaii. Today, in retirement, she travels the world.

 

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

 

Marie Milks Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

I would say that of all the cases I had, probably my highlight as a public defender was Henry Huihui IV, who was charged with robbery. The jury went home late at night. The next day, he saw me on the doorsteps. He said, You know, Marie, when the trial started, I thought I was guilty, but after your closing argument, I had reasonable doubt. And you know, if you’ve tried a case, that’s gotta be classic. And I said to myself, I think he just admitted to me he might have done it. You know.

 

Retired judge Marie Milks had a passion for criminal law. After serving as a public defender for seven years, she was appointed by Chief Justice William Richardson to a judgeship on the State District Court. Four years later, Governor George Ariyoshi appointed her to the Circuit Court, where she spent much of the next twenty years judging criminal cases. Marie Milks, 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. Retired Judge Marie Nakanishi Milks was not only the first woman to be appointed to the State District Court in Honolulu, she was also the first Asian. She went on to become the first woman appointed after statehood to the Circuit Court, where she was a judge until she retired in 2004. Marie Milks grew up in Honolulu in the late 1940s and 50s in a family that didn’t have a lot of money. Despite that, her parents made sure she got a good education, both inside as well as outside the classroom.

 

I had a very different kind of upbringing, partly because my father was really old when I was born. First of five children; forty-five years old. And so, he was very proud, you know, that he had a child. And I call him my first male friend. My father worked at night as a waiter; he was at the Waikiki Tavern, and then the Oahu Country Club. So, he would take me to the beach. I spent time with J. Aku Head Pupule’s children. He took me to Chinatown, where he played chess with his buddies. And then, on almost a daily basis, we would go to the Art Academy, then the Honolulu Art Academy, and then to the zoo. Mostly to get me away from home, where my mother was taking care of the other children that came two years at a time. You know.

 

So, you had a private audience with your dad.

 

I did; yeah.

 

All those months or years.

 

Yeah.

 

Years.

 

Yeah. And it was, I guess, an introduction that men were okay. You know, older men were okay. And I think it helped me in later life to accept a lot of the mentoring that I got from some of the male judges. And you have to understand, when I started at the Public Defender’s Office, some of my fellow public defenders would grouse about Judge this and Judge that, and I was them in a different light. A lot of them were like my uncles, my dad. And when they criticized me, I just took it as they were correcting my behavior.

 

Your mom didn’t speak in English, and she wasn’t schooling you in things.

 

One of my earliest memories of growing up with my mother was going to my friend’s house one day. Judith Angel, in the third grade. And I just thought she was the cat’s meow; she had blond hair. I wanted to be a Haole; I wanted blond hair. And we were in the living room, and I heard her radio, and I heard English voices. I said, Wow, your radio has English. My radio only has Japanese. She turned dial, and I went …

 

So, your dial never left the Japanese channel.

 

No.

 

Ah …

 

I thought that was volume control. Third grade, now. I mean, slow in the head. I was ten years old almost before I realized that radios actually had channels on them, you know.

 

What about your dad? ‘Cause you had a lot of time with him.

 

My father was very, very strict about English. He was working as a waiter; he was with members at the country club. And we could not speak Pidgin in the home. I mean, really.

 

What happened if you did?

 

Oh, he would call us bakatare, and tell us, low class, and made us speak English.

 

Even with your buddies?

 

Yes. I mean, I was teased in elementary school. Haole lover, that kind of thing. Because I wouldn’t speak Pidgin. I couldn’t. I mean, that was a no-no in the family. So, one day, we had neighbors come to the house. They went up the steps, jumped, and broke the punee. And Rodney says, I never do ‘em, I never do ‘em. I said, It’s not I never do ‘em, it’s I didn’t do ‘em.

 

You know. So, I was the one correcting people.

 

And Kaahumanu School; that was a lot of town kids, lots of Pidgin. A lot of them didn’t do Standard English as well as Pidgin; it was Pidgin only.

 

Yeah, but we had teachers. You know, I had wonderful, wonderful teachers in elementary school. And I had one teacher in particular who was into poetry, in the third grade, Mrs. Macario. We had to recite poetry. But my recollection of Kaahumanu was very competitive for grades, and test scores. You know, we had to do well. And we were required, I mean, not only by the teachers, but by my parents; I had to produce. If I had a report card with all pluses and one check, I had to explain the check. What’s … what’s this?

 

What was your explanation?

 

I didn’t blame it on the teacher. I said, I guess I have to study harder. You know, that was always—

 

And that was an acceptable answer, probably the only acceptable answer.

 

M-hm.

 

So, your father is this Renaissance man who loves art, music, chess.

 

Polo; he played polo, he surfed. We have pictures of him with a surfboard. You know, with his horse. So, I was exposed at a young age to a whole different kind of world, even though I wasn’t financially or in a class that was, you know, high, middle, and felt very poor. I used to have to walk to the Natatorium from Nuuanu, from Country Club Road, because we couldn’t afford the bus fare. I had to sew my own clothes, you know. I think, though, looking back, that probably is the best thing that happened to me, because it really allows you to have gratitude, you know, for everything you have. I had one good friend, who’s now deceased, who believed in me. And you know, when we were seniors in high school, going on to be senior, she asked me, Why aren’t you in the Honor Society?

 

M-hm.

 

I said, Nobody told me. And she went to the registrar and found the information. On my GPA, my card—back in the days, they had index cards—was paper-clipped behind somebody else’s information.

 

So, you’d been making good grades, but you weren’t recognized as someone who made good grades.

 

Yeah, I had about a 3.9, whatever it was, which is pretty good. So, I got into the Honor Society, and my friend Mamo who got me into the National Honor Society was going off to college. And she said, Why aren’t you going to college? And at that time, you know, the tuition at the University of Hawaii was a hundred dollars a semester, and my parents were not going to pay; they couldn’t afford it. And the only way I could have gone to college would have been a scholarship. She filled out an application for me, and got me a State of Hawaii scholarship for four years through then Councilmember Frank Loo.

 

Amazing. And what’s Mamo’s last name? I know you said she passed away.

 

Yeah; Mamo Kuwanoe Powers. And her daughter, you know, recently got married and has a son. So, I’m kinda like a grandmother.

 

That’s a life-changing friend.

 

It is. I mean, I didn’t even apply to college. You know, so this is somebody to whom I owe not only her, but her daughter and grandson, you know, gratitude.

 

Retired State Judge Marie Milks finished college in three and a half years, graduating Phi Beta Kappa. She was considering options for what to do next when, once again, a helpful classmate made a suggestion, which led Milks to law school.

 

There was a big scandal in Hawaii with Hiram Fong; there was a nepotism issue that he was hiring relatives. So, Patsy Mink decided she would hire somebody through the Department of Labor. There was a posting for a job with her, and a classmate of mine said, Hey, you should go to Washington. So, I applied, went to an interview. I was a great typist; I could type a hundred and twenty words a minute; really fast. But the day she was going to call me, I had changed my mind. I had decided I didn’t want to go to Washington. So, I practiced. Mrs. Mink, I’m sorry, but I’ve decided—no. I’m sorry, but I decided to take another semester. So, I practiced and practiced. Phone rang. Marie, Patsy Mink’s on the phone. And I say, Hello. And she says, Can you start on January 19th? And I said, Okay. What did I just do? This is the end of my life as I know it. But you know, another opportunity. And working for her, think the biggest revelation to me was how you could be a woman and be a professional. You know. And she was remarkable. I wished more people knew her the way I got to see her.

 

I know she was considered an absolute workhorse.

 

Oh!

 

And she expected so much from her staff.

 

Oh; we had to work Monday through Friday, and four hours on Saturday mornings. Which is what was almost a nonstarter for me to go to law school, because I had Saturday classes as a night student. And I had to talk to the dean, and he said, I think it’s going to be too hard for you to do this. And I said, I wouldn’t have applied.

 

You went to Georgetown.

 

Georgetown.

 

Working five and a half days a week?

 

Yeah; yeah.

 

And that was a tough school to get into.

 

Yeah.

 

Were you a first there, too? Were you a first?

 

I think that’s what helped a lot. If I were to apply to Georgetown Law today, I … tell you, my chance of getting in would be zero, next to zero.

 

Why was it good then?

 

Because I was first Asian woman to ever apply.

 

Ever to apply?

 

Yes.

 

Ah …

 

First. And there were so few women. This is during the Vietnam era. The number of male students had been reduced somewhat, so they took on a few more women. And I just happened to be lucky, you know.

 

And you met all of their criteria, which were high.

 

Which helped; yeah. Well, you know, I had good grades in college, and I had the Phi Beta Kappa admission, so that helped me. But … it was happenstance. And that was when I first wrote to Sam King. He corresponded with me and advised me about law school. And I thought, Hey, I think I want to be a family court judge. I applied to law school, by the way, to be a judge. That was going to be my career move. But it was family court that I was aspiring to at that time.

 

In law school, one of Marie Milks’ professors was Sam Dash, who was also her boss at the Criminal Law Institute, where she worked on a criminal offender program. Dash became one of the Watergate scandal prosecutors, and John Sirica, who presided over the Watergate trial, was one of her trial practice instructors. Milks’ exposure to criminal law shifted her interest away from family court.

 

After I started law school, criminal law became the thing for me. I just wanted to be a criminal …

 

Judge.

 

At that time, I had kinda just wanted to start as a criminal attorney. Prosecutor, defense attorney; didn’t matter.

 

It didn’t bother you which way you’d be arguing?

 

My own personal family background, and feeling like an underdog in many ways, I thought I was a pretty good champion for the oppressed. And I related; I could relate to a lot of the clients who came from, you know, family with very little. Although, I have to tell you, I used to get into fights with my clients who were very anti-Japanese. Back in the 70s, they felt that Japanese people had things easy. You know, DOE; oh, look at all the DOE people, and da-da, and you Japanese. You know, I used to get that from some of my Waianae clients. And then, the the Kawananakoa public school came out of me; I said, Eh …

 

Eh, you know what? If you want to see who had a tougher life, I’m gonna win. So … back off. You know? And not that I had a tougher life, but I didn’t go to Punahou, you know. And that was the expectation of many of the clients, that I had the silver spoon, that I must have come from a rich family.

 

How did you develop their trust?

 

I worked hard. See, that’s the other thing. I don’t think that any one of them could ever feel that I sloughed off on things. Although, you know, I didn’t have the world’s best clients. I had some who were just horrible. I had three of my aunties go to court to watch me do a trial. It happened to be a sex assault case. And after the first day, they didn’t want to go back. Oh, it’s terrible, the kinds of people you represent. So, they didn’t come back to watch me anymore.

 

How did you put it together in your mind? You know, in some cases, sure looks like your client’s guilty.   And you’re associated with that person.

 

Yeah; yeah. You know, and it wasn’t that they looked guilty; a lot of them were really, really guilty. But there’s a little bit in some of us when you have a challenge or something difficult, it makes it almost easier. Because I always felt that even if my client was in fact convicted, it wouldn’t be that they were innocent and were convicted. That, you know, the case was proved. The harder question for me as a public defender was a question people asked all the time. How can you do it, when you know they’re guilty? How can you represent them, you know, when you know they did it? And my answer was, Well, the prosecutor went to law school; it’s their job to convict. It wasn’t my job to get them off. But it was rational; you know, it’s something that you have to kind of understand yourself, what your role is. Your role is to defend; it wasn’t to prove innocence, and it wasn’t to prove that my client didn’t do it. So, it was, I think an easier approach.

 

So, your job was to provide a spirited and and aggressive defense.

 

Yeah, yeah. Yeah. You understand your job, and that’s when you can have pride in what you’re doing.

 

After serving as a public defender for seven years, Marie Milks was appointed to a Hawaii State District Court judgeship in 1980.

 

You know, I remember when you went from the Public Defender’s Office to Circuit Judge, hearing criminal cases. I was a journalist at the time. There was a lot of concern that you would be a softy. Oh, poor defendant.

 

Oh, yeah.

 

You would go on that side. But actually, that didn’t happen. That was rarely the criticism leveled against you, if there was criticism.

 

M-hm. But see, I had career criminal defendants, so a lot of the sentences were mandatory. So, even if I wanted to be a softy, I couldn’t. But, you know, in all honesty about my own self-assessment, I thought I was pretty fair about what the appropriate sentence was. And from the general public’s standpoint, you don’t get to read everything, you know, in the pre-sentence report. And as a judge, you can’t repeat a lot of what you see. But if people saw the full extent of the reports we have, I think more people would be appreciative of what judges evaluate.

 

The other thing was, and I actually was called on a jury at one point; I realized, and I saw it for myself that the very people who say throw the book at him, send him away, didn’t want to convict.

 

Exactly.

 

It’s hard to decide that somebody might have to go to jail.

 

Yeah. That, plus you know, proof beyond a reasonable doubt is not what you feel. Because there were a lot of cases where there was that sense that the evidence wasn’t sufficient, and you have to learn to distinguish levels of decision making. But I really honestly believe that ninety-nine percent of people, if they were given the same kind of information that any particular judge had, would likely agree with most of what judges do. You know, I had one client, for an example, who was a serial rapist. He raped a lot of women. And back in those days when I was a public defender, they called it rape; they didn’t call it sex assault. He was the nicest client you would ever meet, admitted his wrongdoing every time. But he still … sexually assaulted people. But only people who handicapped or in wheelchairs. I mean, right? I mean, the reaction is, Well, what kind of horrible person would do this? Well, then I, as his attorney, got the pre-sentence report. Horrors of horrors; when he was three years old, his mother put firecrackers in his ear and lit them. You know? So, a lot of the defendants themselves have been very badly treated. Not an excuse, mind you. I’m not saying that gave him an excuse. But it can explain, you know, how people can go bad.

 

Yeah; I’ve heard the expression, Victims often victimize others.

 

Exactly. You know, one of the bigger points for me in my entire legal and judicial career was handling the Xerox, the Uyesugi case.

 

And the Byran Uyesugi seven-murder case was probably the biggest—well, one of the biggest legal cases in Hawaii over the decades. I remember that morning; I listening on the police radio as a reporter.

 

Oh, me too.

 

And you know, shots were ringing out at the Xerox building and there were seven deaths. And you were the judge presiding over the trial of the Xerox employee accused.

 

Right. Very interestingly; during the trial, he kept staring at me. You know. But he never scared me. I felt sorry for him. I did. And lot of my associates think there’s something wrong with me when I said I felt sorry for the defendants, but I did. I felt sorry for the father.

 

He lived with his father, as I recall.

 

Yeah; and the father went out and apologized for him. And we see that so many times in crimes that happen; parents apologizing for their children. And you know, I feel for them, because it’s tough to be aligned with somebody who does something, you know, heinous. Really; it was heinous. I feel sorry, actually, for a lot of the defendants and the families, what they go through. But I’m saying that this feeling sorry is more about the humaneness of what I’ve done, but the punishment was well-deserved. But that’s not to say I didn’t feel sorry for the victims, either. You know, it’s just that it’s sad when people do things like that, you know.

 

You sent him away for a life term without parole.

 

Consecutive.

 

Consecutive.

 

Right. There were several gratifying things about that case, one of which is—and I always subscribed to this as a judge on the bench, and that was to have regard for the victims. You know, you don’t take their side, but you always have to appreciate what victims go through. People don’t ask to be robbed. People don’t ask for their homes to be burglarized. But a couple years ago, one of the widows wrote to me and asked me for a job recommendation. You know, and I’ve had a good relationship with victims in other cases as well. But with respect to that case, one of the most gratifying things for me is, very few people know who the presiding judge was on that case. And to me, that’s the ultimate compliment to a judge who presides on a case; and that is, they don’t identify you with the case. It was about the facts, it was about the defendant, it was about the victims, and very little about the judge.

 

While Marie Milks was spending long hours as a public defender and then as a judge, she and her husband, Bill Milks, now a retired attorney, were also busy raising a family.

 

My daughter, her friends would say, Oh, you’re so lucky, you know, your mom’s a judge, you’re gonna da-da-da-da. And … not so true. Our son, on the other hand, really liked the idea that I was a judge, because the male-female thing; right? Having a mom as a judge, from a male perspective, was easier for him to handle than our daughter. I regret that I didn’t spend more time with them. But if I didn’t have decent kids who I didn’t have to go to parent-teacher meetings all the time, where would my career have gone? So, it was a family adventure, so to speak.

 

Did it work the other way with your husband?

 

Bill has never been intimidated by me at all. And one of his lines to me is, Marie, you know, you can’t be a judge twenty-four hours a day. But he’s been really, really supportive, everything I’ve striven for.

 

State Circuit Court Judge Marie Milks retired from the bench in 2004. Since then, she’s been serving as a part-time mediator, helping people resolve cases through compromise rather than through the courts. At the time of our conversation in summer of 2015, she and her husband were traveling the world, a passion that, as you will see, Marie Milks has pursued since she was a little girl. Mahalo to retired Judge Marie Milks for sharing your story with us. And thank you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, hui hou.

 

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

 

When I was three, I said to my mother basically, I was gonna go to school. So, my mom says, Okay. Fixed me a little brown bag with some books and some Lifesavers, and … ‘Bye. Off I go, and I cross the street … to take the bus. And I got on the bus.

 

The bus driver didn’t say anything to this three-year-old girl?

 

He saw me get on the bus with somebody else. I knew where to get off, and this was at Keeaumoku and King Street, the old Sears building, which then became HPD. And my cousin and auntie, and everybody else lived on Young Street. So, I pull the signal, and I went to my auntie’s house. Now, here’s my auntie thinking that my parents just dumped me off at their house without telling her. So, I’m playing with my cousins. Meantime, she goes to the corner of Young Street and Keeaumoku, and they had this wagon. They had the sakanaya-san and the yasai-san, where they pull their sides up and sell fish or sell vegetables. So, my aunt is there when somebody comes up and says, Did you hear on the radio your niece was kidnapped, and the police are looking for her? And she says, She’s in my house.

 

 

It got to be the family story; Marie is gonna travel the world when she grows up.

 

[END]

 

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