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LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Chipper and Hau’oli Wichman

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Chipper and Hau'oli Wichman

 

Original air date: Tues., Sept. 20, 2011

 

Heading the National Tropical Botanical Garden

 

Leslie Wilcox sits down with Chipper and Hau’oli Wichman, a longtime husband-and-wife team who head the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kauai. Chipper, chief executive officer of NTBG, grew up on Oahu in a privileged family but attended Roosevelt High School. His wife and executive assistant Hau’oli had modest beginnings in Nanakuli before her family moved to Kahului. The two reveal how the Hawaiian language and Hau’oli’s tutu led to the couple’s romance and discuss their “bigger kuleana” of land stewardship.

 

Chipper and Hau’oli Wichman Audio

 

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Transcript

 

For me, the work that we’re going is just like being on a fifteen-foot tube ride. It’s amazing. You get the same kind of adrenalin, same kind of feeling of satisfaction that we’re doing something pretty extreme, and pretty meaningful with our lives.

 

They came from different backgrounds, but found a common purpose in their personal and professional lives. This couple is working overtime to protect nature, culture and community. Chipper and Ha‘uoli Wichman are 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 this edition of Long Story Short, you might think taking care of gardens would be a mellow line of work, but for Chipper and Hau‘oli Wichman, it’s a high stakes, twenty-four/seven venture. This couple complements each other at work and at home, and together, they’ve forged a life, a profession, and a mission to preserve nature and culture in Hawaii, and beyond. The Wichmans’ story starts with a seed, planted decades ago by Chipper’s grandmother, that has grown into a garden tended with passion and intensity by this dedicated duo.

 

Tell me about each of your backgrounds. What was it like growing up, when and where you grew up? Chipper?

 

Well, I was born in 1957, and Hawaii then was really so much more relaxed. I remember never having to lock the doors on the house. And we spent every summer on Kauai with my grandmother, which just really was just one of those fond memories that really influenced us in the course of our life.

 

And what were your interests as kid?

 

Well, started with baseball and stuff like that, but graduated pretty quickly into water sports. And love surfing; surfing became really pretty much the focus of my life as I was growing up.

 

And did you have a vision in your head at that time of gardens?

 

Not at all. I was not on the garden or plant track at all.

 

You were all water.

 

It was like surf, surf, surf, and when the surf wasn’t good, we’d go diving, and really just enjoyed growing up around the ocean and being part of that.

 

Now, your parents sent you to some very private pricey schools; Hanahauoli, Punahou.

 

Yeah.

 

And your dad was an attorney.

 

M-hm.

 

But you didn’t continue in the private school mode; you went to a public school, Roosevelt for your high school years.

 

Yeah. I guess you could say maybe I was a challenging teenager, and didn’t probably really appreciate the opportunities they were giving me in terms of education when I was growing up. So, we had a little parting of the ways, and I really enjoyed going to Roosevelt. And for me, what it did also is, Roosevelt with Papakolea right there, is it really connected me with our Hawaiian community. That was a real benefit for me. And certainly, I think, to a large degree, Punahou recognizes that, and celebrates the fact that, you know, we’re here in Hawaii and the Hawaiian culture. But you get to a place like Roosevelt, where it’s not pretend, it’s for real.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

And back in the day, there was still Kill Haole Day. And so, you know what I mean?

 

How did you fit into that scenario?

 

Hey, I made friends with the biggest mokes right away, man.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

That was—that was my buddies.

 

And that worked. [CHUCKLE]

 

Yeah. Sure, was good, because in the end, people really see right through your exterior and see who you are on the inside, what kind of a person you really are and what your values are. And I think that was what made me successful at Roosevelt.

 

Do you have regrets about not being more into school at the time?

 

Very much so. And I didn’t really truly appreciate that until after I had worked for several years at the garden, and had an opportunity to go back to school. And when I did, I went to UH Manoa, got in through the community college system. And what I found was really amazing. I saw a lot of kids that were eighteen-year-olds, and they were there because Mom and Dad said, You gotta go to school, you gotta to the University after you graduate. And they didn’t have a strong interest, they weren’t driven. I was there, totally like a sponge, and for me, it was awesome. Whereas, I practically almost flunked out of high school, I graduated from UH Manoa with a 4.0.

 

And you went up to get a master’s.

 

Phi beta kappa.

 

Yeah.

 

I mean, so it’s more than the grades and everything. It was a learning opportunity, and I continue to benefit from that for my entire life. So it’s really—I regret not having taken advantage of those opportunities my parents provided for me, but on the other hand, everything in my life has been there for a reason. I don’t regret the fact that I got to really connect with our Hawaiian community at that early age.

 

The School of Papakolea is a good school.

 

Absolutely.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

Still get plenty friends from there.

 

So, Chipper, it seems like you were born from a privileged kamaaina family.

 

M-hm.

 

Grew up in Honolulu.

 

M-hm.

 

Mostly. And, you’re from a Nanakuli family of modest means. You’re the first person in the family to go to college.

 

That’s correct.

 

And Hau‘oli, tell me about your background in Nanakuli.

 

Yes. So I grew up in Nanakuli, born and raised there. Born in ’58, so Farrington Highway was two lanes. And my grandparents—we lived in my grandparents’ home. And later, we moved next door, ‘cause my aunt lived next door, then she moved to Maunawili. So, we were always with Grandma, and family was always around. The aunties and uncles that lived in the neighborhood, everyone was our cousins, and we played and went to the beach, and just enjoyed life out there in the country.

 

And went to public schools in the area?

 

Yes. Nanaikapono Elementary, then Nanakuli Intermediate.

 

Tell me about your dad. ‘Cause you have this great story about him digging holes.

 

Well, he graduated from Waipahu High School, and got a job at Hawaiian Electric. And his first—well, one of this first jobs, he was a laborer, and he had to dig the holes for the electric poles. He became a foreman, and eventually retired from Maui Electric, where he was the superintendent of construction there.

 

That’s right; you moved to Maui for your—is it high school or college years?

 

High school; high school. Yeah; I was fourteen, and then we moved our whole family of—I’m the oldest of five, and we moved, and my dad started working there in the early 70s, first as a foreman, and then, superintendent when he retired.

 

What was it like moving from Nanakuli to—what part of Maui?

 

Right in Kahului. Well, it was a big change for me. And I was kind of wondering, Should I stay in Nanakuli and live with my grandparents? But no, we just all moved together to Maui. And the school I attended was Maui High. So it was a feeder school, and all country folks from upcountry and Paia and Haiku all came to this one school. So, it was really easy. It wasn’t like I was coming in as a stranger. Everyone came together at the school.

 

Everybody had to meet at the school.

 

Exactly; yeah.

 

Though they didn’t know each other at the time, Chipper Wichman also went from Oahu to a neighbor island at about the same age, but for very different reasons. As Chipper recalls, his parents had reached the end of the rope with their fifteen-year-old son.

 

They were a little worried about you for a while back there.

 

They were very worried.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

They were very worried. And you never appreciate that until you become a parent.

 

Oh, how did they act when you were kind of acting up at Punahou?

 

Well, they may have a different recollection of it, but I think I’d really driven them to their wits’ end. And fortunately, my grandmother was willing to take me in, so I actually went to live on Kauai with my grandmother during that very, I’d say, pretty stressful period of time for them.

 

Which turned out to be formative in your life, because she would eventually encourage you to get an internship in horticulture.

 

That’s right; that’s right. I mean, she was a woman of great vision, and really ahead of her time, and she was such a champion of the Hawaiian culture, as well as plants. She was working to preserve native plants when she was growing up. She was born in 1901. So I mean, people hadn’t even truly appreciated our native flora and understood its threats back then. So really, an amazing woman who provided for me those seeds of conservation and research, and culture that have grown into, really, the values that have driven me in my life.

 

And you two met at UH Manoa, right?

 

That’s correct.

 

Tell us about the meeting.

 

[CHUCKLE] Actually, our first class we had together was ethnobotany, which was very appropriate, considering our lives are so involved with plants. And our teacher at that time, Dr. Isabella Abbott, who recently passed away, is really an icon in the plant world. And so being able to have her—she was in her prime back then, thirty years ago. And so, I was really looking forward to that class.

 

Did sparks fly in ethnobotany?

 

Not really. We saw each other, but we barely talked. But we do recognize that was where we first saw each other.

 

It was a big, huge auditorium classroom, so there was a lot of people there.

 

When did you meet in earnest?

 

Actually, in Hawaiian Language class, couple of semesters later. And Hau‘oli’s grandmother on her father’s side was Mama Hale. And Mama Hale was one of the manaleo, or really the kupuna who helped bring the language back after the Constitutional Convention. And she was somebody I had actually got to know very, very well, and didn’t even realize it was Hau‘oli’s tutu lady. So, later, we—actually, our first date was to go to her grandma’s birthday party.

 

Grandparents played pivotal roles in the lives of Hau‘oli and Chipper Wichman. Between high school and college, Chipper’s grandmother, Juliet Rice Wichman, urged him to apply for an internship with the National Tropical Botanical Garden. Little did he know that he would make his career there, working his way from intern to CEO. Since 2003, Chipper has run the Garden Organization, a family of tropical gardens and preserves across Hawaii, and also in Florida.

 

It really is an amazing organization, chartered by the United States Congress as a nonprofit. And that’s really confusing to people, how did that even come to be. The vision was, our founders wanted to see this organization funded privately, with private money, and not being just another federal agency. But having that Congressional charter really set the bar high. It was clear that this organization had a destiny that needed to be fulfilled in terms of making a global difference. And that means today for us, working on not only a regional scale here and helping to really fulfill immediate needs here in Hawaii in terms of stopping the extinction of plants and helping to preserve our culture, and meeting educational needs. We really have a three-pronged focus; education, scientific research, and conservation. And we fulfill all of those on both local, national, and international scales.

 

How about telling me a couple of things that people may not know about the garden.

 

We are a nationally chartered organization, chartered by the United States Congress. But that idea, that thought came out of the Honolulu Garden Club by very visionary women, including Loy McCandless Marks, who was the president. I was recently given a packet of the minutes of the Garden Club meetings from like 1954 or 1955, when they talked about creating this organization. And it’s amazing to see how it went from a Garden Club meeting all the way to succeeding in convincing the United States Congress that this was indeed an action worthy of a public law. We have the world’s largest collection of endangered species, federally listed endangered species. It’s really an amazing collection of plants, but it’s not what the visitor is typically looking for, like the beautiful Bird of Paradise that are right behind you, or Heleconia. We have amazing plants, but they aren’t collected or arranged or displayed for their beauty.

 

Are they homely little plants? Is that what you’re saying?

 

Many of ‘em are, but some are majestic trees. But they’re not what the average visitor expects when they come to see a botanical garden. Our gardens have really been developed by scientists and conservationists as these living laboratories. It’s time for us to make them public venues, so that the public can come and really get a better understanding some of these global issues and what we’re dealing with, and there is no better way to convey that than in the beauty of a botanical garden.

 

In 1987, three years after Chipper and Hau‘oli Wichman were married, their family and professional lives once again collided. Chipper’s grandmother passed away, and left him the thousand-acres Limahuli Valley on Kauai. It was not exactly a gift, but a duty to carry out her vision of protecting the valley’s natural and cultural resources.

 

This was a kuleana, that this was a responsibility to preserve it in perpetuity, but more than just preserve it. This was an area that was crying out for active management, and it took us seven years, but we succeeded in getting the State to create a special subzone called the Limahuli Valley Special Subzone, and approve a very active comprehensive management plan, a master plan for it. And today, it’s considered really one of the poster childs in the State in terms of biocultural conservation, celebrating the importance of the area as a cultural area to native Hawaiians, and restoring the cultural values, practices, as well as plants.

 

After your grandmother, Juliet Rice Wichman, gave you the kuleana, you in turn gave it.

 

That’s right. We gifted that property in 1994 to the garden, after we had put in place the special subzone, after we knew that indeed the garden could properly manage it. And when we gave that property away, our kids were pretty young. So our son was born in ’85, this was ’94, he was nine and our daughter was seven. So here we were, we gave away the only piece of property we ever owned. And they looked at us like, Mom and Dad, are you nuts or what? And in fact, I think they thought we were pretty nuts anyways, raising them out in Haena at the end of the road, with no TV, or radio.

 

And in those days, it seemed more remote.

 

It was much more remote. And, it was not nearly as crowded as it is today, and the traffic was less. It was really, really wonderful. But what impressed them were the values that they grew up with. And later, as they got older, and especially after they went to Kamehameha School and University of Hawaii, they look back on that with so much pride, and they are so proud to bring their friends and show them their home, and where they grew up. And they’re very proud of what we accomplished with that property and the gift of it. It was an important experience for us in terms of learning how to fulfill a kuleana, what it really means to malama aina, and to care for the land. Because far too often, we think of aina as a commodity to be bought and sold, and that its highest and best use is the economic return you can get from it, when indeed, the aina has so much more to offer us.

 

Hau‘oli, at what point did you get passionate about Chipper’s dream, the garden? And because you do it a hundred ten percent, so you can’t be lukewarm about it.

 

Well, it was after our children were grown up, and we started managing the Kahanu Garden in Hana. And then, I realized it was serious work, and there was a lot to do, and there was a bigger kuleana out there.

 

And you had family out there, so you saw community connections building.

 

Oh, definitely. And that was very important for us to come into a small community, Hawaiian community, but having family made it so much easier for us to get to know the other people there, and accomplish what we needed to do in taking care of Kahanu Garden and the Piilanihale Heiau.

 

So, you’ve got to give us some relationship tips, because you were together constantly, and you have such a good relationship. How does that happen? Or are you good at pretending?

 

No, I don’t think you can pretend for twenty-eight years. [CHUCKLE]

 

He’s the boss. [CHUCKLE]

 

Well, I think relationships, it’s hard work. And I hope that, if nothing else, we can convey that to our kids, is we really, really understand and believe that the future of our island, of our communities are dependent on strong families. And maintaining a marriage is never easy. It’s give and take, and it’s being able to really hear and understand the other person. I think she’ll tell you I do all the talking than listen. It’s hard sometimes when you have a dominant personality to slow down and be a good listener. So that’s something that I really try and practice. She said I’m the boss, but I think she’s got some very, very valuable ideas, and feelings, and when I really stop and listen to them, she’s almost always right.

 

What do you do when you can tell he’s not listening?

 

Sometimes, she jokes around; I gotta send you an email, even though I’m sitting three feet away, to get your attention. Because our life is so busy, I think that can be frustrating. Communication is so important, and being able have common activities that you enjoy doing together. I think many couples end up going different ways because they don’t have enough common enjoyment together. So, one takes off in this direction, and the other one takes off in that direction, and before long, your lives are kind of heading in very different directions. For us, we’re probably the extreme example of the other mix.

 

How much time on a typical day do you spend together?

 

[CHUCKLE] Twenty-four hours. [CHUCKLE]

 

All the time?

 

Yeah.

 

Pretty much.

 

How do you do that?

 

Well, you know, it’s not for every couple, but the requirement of the work that we’re involved in, in leading a major nonprofit organization, as I’m sure you well know, you live it yourself, is pretty consuming. And for us, it’s given us a chance to be able to do it together, and be together. Hau‘oli said something many years ago. She goes, It’s a good thing we do this together, otherwise, we’d never see each other. And especially now, with the extensive itinerary and travel schedule we have to do, being involved with a national board and international programs, that’s really true. And I feel very blessed that she’s really embraced it, and enthusiastically made it a part of her life. And I can honestly say, I would not be sitting here having this interview, if it wasn’t for her and all the support that she’s done. It also means there isn’t a whole lot of separation between work and home, because we go home, and we’re eating dinner and we’re talking about work. But you know what? That’s our life.

 

You have to both be passionate about it, or it doesn’t work, right?

 

Exactly. Yeah.

 

What do you contribute, Hau‘oli, and how does your working partnership go? I mean, usually, it boils down to who’s better at what, right?

 

Well, I just kind of, I guess, keep him organized, and pick up all the loose ends, and try to just do the housekeeping. And he’s just going forward, and just lot of meetings, lot of telephone conferences, and so I’m just in the background, mostly.

 

And you’ve heard him described as the man with the big vision.

 

M-hm, m-hm.

 

And that’s true, isn’t it, Chipper? You think big. You’re not making small plans.

 

That’s right. Yeah. When they asked me to become the CEO of this national organization, I knew, in fact we talked extensively about it. We knew that it would be a major change in lifestyle. We’d have to move from our family home where we raised our children, and it would mean extensive traveling and really giving up almost everything we were previously doing, in order to take this on. But it also meant that it gave us an opportunity to really make a difference on a global scale. It’s been an amazing journey for us, and I think Hau‘oli is excessively modest. She does not like the limelight, and when we have all these international meetings, she isn’t up there at the podium giving presentations. But, she provides for me some of the most valuable input, because when everybody’s gone, we talk a lot about what’s going on, and she’s really a great strategic thinker and a great identifier of people and their personalities, and what motivates them. And so, we have a lot of really important conversations behind the scenes, that people are never really aware of.

 

You’ve got another sharp pair of eyes—

 

Exactly.

 

—with another perspective.

 

Exactly.

 

And Hau‘oli, your kids are actually going in the footsteps of landscape, and land management, right?

 

Pretty much; yeah. Mikioi studies ethnobotany, and she’s taking a little time off right now traveling. But, she’ll go into a master’s, either botanical garden management or education. And our son is studying landscape architect right now.

 

What’s your goal with the gardens? Where do you go next? What’s your vision for the future?

 

Great question. We’re right now in the process of developing a new five-year strategic plan, which takes the garden really to the next level, in terms of both developing the funding base as well as really tying us in with more international programs, and making a global impact.   At some point in the course of the next five years, we also need to begin thinking about planning for the future in terms of transitions and leadership. While I’m not looking at retiring any time soon, I think it is really important to think about transitioning the organization at some point to new leadership, and assuring its sustainability. And that’s never easy to do for somebody who makes that their life every day.

 

But you’ve gotta do it, because you want the organization to go on.

 

Absolutely. Yeah. We need to understand our role in the global picture and how those factors outside of Hawaii affect what we’re doing, and as well as the fact that what we’re doing here can be a leadership model to help others around the world. And I think Hawaii has a lot to offer. We were at a meeting a couple weeks ago that was convened by the United Nations on the global strategy for plant conservation. Several of us from Hawaii went and gave presentations. And Hawaii is a microcosm of the world. We’re dealing with all of those issues, whether it’s endangered species, invasive plants, overdevelopment, lack of water. We’re dealing with it here, and yet, we’re dealing with it on a small enough scale that we can develop models that can then be scaled up and applied to larger areas. And I think being able to put Hawaii on the world stage will help us. It will leverage our work in Hawaii in a tremendous way, as well as, I believe, contribute significantly to making the world a better place, and helping other countries with their strategies.

 

Do you ever resent the gardens for the toll they take on you and your personal relationship?

 

I don’t think so. I mean, it’s just a wonderful place to work. It’s a very healing place to be in. Of course, some things are very intense, but to me, the garden is a very healthy and healing place for us.

 

And having common goals is huge.

 

Exactly; yeah.

 

We really do try and protect our weekends, because those are having time for yourself, and even if it’s just working in the yard, or working in the taro patch, or walking in the garden, or walking on the beach, it is important.

 

Chipper and Hauoli Wichman pursue their conservation and research efforts across the State, the Continent, and around the world. They lead a frequent flyer lifestyle. A big part of their mission at the National Tropical Botanical Garden is to educate the public, and share their tropical treasures. So, if you get the chance, they’d welcome your visit to the award-winning gardens on Kauai and Maui, as well as in Florida. For Long Story Short, and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.

 

I accepted the directorship of that garden on three conditions when our chairman of the board called me up and asked me to take it on. I said, Under three conditions; one is, I’m the captain of the ship. We’re gonna have to make some hard decisions, and you’re gonna support it; don’t question it. Number two is, we’re gonna make good on every promise we’ve made to the Hawaiian community there. And number three is, I need some money. [CHUCKLE]

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Leona Rocha Wilson

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Leona Rocha Wilson

 

Original air date: Tues., Mar. 30, 2010

 

Maui-Based Entrepreneur and Inventor

 

Leslie Wilcox talks story with Maui-raised and based entrepreneur Leona Rocha Wilson, a one-time national spokesperson for the home sewing industry and inventor of the “fashion rule”, a tool still in use today. Leona is also a passionate advocate for education, and uses her Maui-based cable show, Go School, No Come Like Me, to inspire people through stories of lives transformed by family support of education. Her colorful life, which included a stint in the military and writing a book, is a shining example of how to constantly reinvent oneself.

 

Leona Rocha Wilson Audio

 

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Transcript

 

 

This is from Khalil Gibran, the philosopher. And he said that we are a collection of broken mirrors; each piece reflects those we’ve met along the way.

 

Leona Rocha Wilson has collected many shiny chapters in her life since she was born in a small Maui community that no longer exists. She invented a device well known to people who sew at home and she became a successful East Coast businesswoman. Today she advocates passionately for education, hosting a Maui-based cable show, Go School, No Come Like Me. 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. Leona Rocha Wilson is not coy about her age…72 when we spoke on Long Story Short in 2009. I’m mentioning this because she looks younger and when she talks about her generation, you’ll need to know that it’s a generation that grew up with sugar as king. Leona moved back to Maui after a successful career on the continent. Her first years were spent on a sugar plantation located between Paia and Haiku. Its name was Hamakuapoko Camp, but residents called it H-Poko. Leona’s father was a truck driver and her mother cleaned houses and worked at the cannery. Her family was eventually able to buy a home in “Dream City,” better known today as Kahului. Leona, the youngest of six children, attended Maui and Baldwin High Schools. In years to come Leona was influenced by mentors whom she credits with helping her achieve success as a businesswoman, as a national spokesperson for the home sewing industry and as an inventor of the “fashion ruler”, a tool still in use today. Leona Wilson’s self-determination was forged early on, inspired by the example of her grandmother from Portugal.

 

My grandmother gave up her life, actually, to come to come to Hawaii. She and my grandfather came over with my mother, a nine-month-old child, to get on a ship to come to a place that she had never seen before, no one else had seen. They spent six months traveling. And my mother—my grandmother coming here never, ever to see her mother again. Never, ever to see her sisters and her brothers, and her aunties and her uncles. My thinking was, if my

 

grandmother gave up so much, I owe her, I really owe her, and I owe my grandfather to be the best person I could be.

 

And how did you go about doing that?

 

Ah, my mother. [chuckle] My mother, remarkable woman, fourth grade education, and my father, probably the brightest man I’ve ever met with a fourth grade education. My mother had more common sense than a hundred people. Her common sense was the very thing that helped the entire family.

 

What kind of common sense? Give me an example.

 

Well, give you an example. Being raised in the plantation, she realized that that was a very small part of the world. And so she said to all of us, Upon graduating from high school, go to the mainland, go see what else is happening there.

 

Had she ever been to the mainland?

 

No. No. Now, my father did, but not my mother.

 

Go to sights unseen.

 

Yes. Go try, to see. You don’t want to end up with your life saying, I should have done that, and I should have done that. She said—here; so upon graduating from high school, she gave us—not me, but my sisters and my brothers, a roundtrip ticket to the mainland. Her feeling about that roundtrip ticket was that, if you went to the mainland and you found that you wanted to remain, you could cash in that ticket and use it to live on.

 

M-m.

 

And if you didn’t, you always had that ticket to come back. She was so sensitive to everyone’s needs that in her bedroom, she had three statues; [chuckle] the Blessed Mother, St. Joseph, and Christ. And under those three statues, she put five dollars, ten dollars, and twenty dollars. The entire family knew where that money was, and she told all of us, If you need money, you know where it is, under one rule. And the rule was, if you take it, you must eventually replace it. Her sense of dignity, if you will, we didn’t have to ask for money. When we worked, we gave everything back to our parents, and they used it to support the family. So the family became very, very important, and to this day remains very important. My sisters and brothers, which is really one of the reasons I came home, to be with the family.

 

Do you remember instances of sibling rivalry? How come he gets that, and I don’t have that, kinda thing?

 

Oh, no. You know what? No, not ever, but I can tell you this. My sisters were so attractive [chuckle] that one of the things I made up my mind was, which is why I became the student, was that my sisters were so pretty, and I couldn’t match up to them. So I said, Okay, if I can’t be what they are—that’s where the only competition came in, was that I was gonna be the best student I could be. And so I studied really very hard, and tried to get the most out of education.

 

Because that was what … we knew in our family that the one thing that was going to propel us, if you will, or move us forward, was education. In high school, I was a fairly good student. Not the best. I was a song leader, so I spent more times being a song leader than I did … uh, though I was okay in school. When I graduated, or before I graduated, my mother and I sat down. And she said, What are we gonna do? I said, Well, Mom, I can go to University of Hawaii. And she said, Do you know how much Daddy makes? We can’t afford it; there is no money. I said, What if I get a scholarship? Even then, I can’t afford it. She said, I don’t want you to work in the fields. I think we can do—I think you should do more. And so we sat down, and we tried to figure out the best way for me to get an education. Well, the one thing that came come—kept coming up was the military. You go on the GI Bill, you join the service. I had to join the service for three years. And the reason I did that was that she decided that I should be a dental technician. Where that came from, I can’t tell you. She actually originally wanted me to be a hairdresser. [chuckle]

 

But the military didn’t pay you to go to college.

 

[chuckle] There was none in the military, right?

 

You know, I know a number of men of your generation who went to the military and got wonderful educations on the GI Bill. But you know, you’re the first woman I’ve met—

 

Really?

—from Hawaii who’s done that. How many were there in your group? When—

 

Well, I think when we left, from Maui, I think we had something like four, maybe a little bit more. I’m not sure. But there were just a handful of us, just a handful.

 

And I have to tell you, Leslie that was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my entire life, was to leave my mother, leave my father, and my sisters and my brothers. To this day, feel that it was the very thing, though, that gave me the strength to continue to pursue the wonderful life that I have enjoyed.

 

Leona Rocha Wilson grew up in small-town Maui, rich with ethnicities and mutual respect. Her military experience was a wakeup call to the realities of racial segregation on the mainland.

 

The first thing they told us that first weekend in Anniston, Alabama, that we could not, us White—supposedly White folks—could not go with the other local girls to town, because the prejudice existing in those days. So I remember; they said I couldn’t go with my friends, so I stayed home. I didn’t go. I mean, I stayed in the barracks, didn’t go. It was difficult, it was really difficult.

 

What ethnicities were your friends?

 

They were a mixture. They were Asian, they were Hawaiian, they were Filipino. They were a mixture—my friend, Yvonne Yamane was a mixture.

 

And segregation was in full swing.

 

Was in full swing. We had to use separate bathrooms, separate toilets. Not in the military, of course, but certainly in town. And I then went to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where all the dental technician schools—school took place.

 

What was interesting about that was that we were the first group of women to go into the dental technician school. And we started, I think, with probably about seven, eight, maybe ten women and thirty, or forty, or fifty men. And only four of us graduated.

 

Why is that?

 

All the other girls dropped out, it was so difficult. And two of the girls—one was a girl from Oahu, and one was myself, and the other two were mainland people. And so we were the first group of women to graduate. So it was dental technician. But then I ended up going to uh, Fort Belvoir, Virginia and they put me as a dental assistant. And that’s where I got my training. And during the entire time I was in the military, and I have to tell you this ‘cause I did bring those bonds. My mother again [chuckle] said, Well, Leona, you know what? You’ll have the GI Bill when you come out of the service, but you’re also gonna need money when you come out. Out of the money that I got every month from the military, I had to send home two US savings bonds. I ended up sending home the bonds. And I have them to this day.

 

Oh, you never needed them?

 

Well, actually, I did cash in a few. But the rest, I kept, because it reminds me that, again, how important parents can be and should be, and if not parents, grandparents and aunties, and uncles, in the development of a child’s life. Uh, this is from Khalil Gibran, the philosopher. And he said that we are a collection of broken mirrors; each piece reflects those we’ve met along the way.

 

After her military service Leona Rocha Wilson moved to Brooklyn with her husband, whom she married while in the service. She was ready for new things, including a new profession. She just didn’t know what it was going to be.

 

 

People ask me, Did you want to study fashion in high school? I mean, did you draw pictures and no. I had no idea.

 

And you didn’t want to continue on with your dental career?

 

I worked at it for two years in New York, on Madison Avenue. I had a wonderful mentor there. He taught me how to speak English, he’d read the paper to me and I—

 

What do you mean, he taught you how to speak English?

 

Well, what he taught me was there is an educated way of saying something or an uneducated way.

 

Well, how were you saying things?

 

Give you an example. I used to say, Well, this is cheap. He’d say, Leona, this is inexpensive. [chuckle] So there are ways in which you can use more educated words, and he was trying to help me with those words.

 

So, social graces in terms of language.

 

Yes, and I’d serve tea. I was working for him and he was on Madison Avenue, so he taught me how to speak properly to people, how to serve tea, which we would probably see two or three patients a day, and so I had plenty of time. He taught me about the stock market. I listened to him during that time. So he was a wonderful mentor. I think to grow, you must listen. And there will be many, many people in your life that will share many wonderful areas of improvement for you. And I did listen, and I did work at it. And for him, I’m very grateful. So I worked for him for a while, then I went to 7th Avenue, and I worked for a woman called Eloise Curtis. She was a designer. I worked there as a secretary, switchboard, whatever. I went to secretarial school too; that was something else I did. I worked for her in the garment industry, and she taught me how to dress. And it was interesting, because I had no idea, I had no idea what size I was. Coming from Hawaii and in the military, I had no idea what size I was. I mean, it was just—

 

How did you dress?

 

Well, not well, obviously. [chuckle] ‘Cause Eloise said, We’re gonna have to do this for you.

 

She hired you, though.

 

Yes, she did. She did. As a matter of fact, at one point, I helped out with her sample modeling, and I think I was a size one. That was long—Leslie, a long time ago. [chuckle] Many, many sizes ago. And so she did help me to dress, to understand, scale and proportion and color, and my figure in relationship to what would be appropriate for me. And after her, I went to work for the aviation industry as a secretary. And at that point, I was married, I got pregnant. And when I was pregnant, I realized that the maternity clothes were awful. They were so ugly that you ended up—I looked at it—and expensive. So then I said to myself, Hey, you know, why can’t I sew my own? So at that point, I looked to see what other classes I could go to, and went to the Y or YW, and they had a class on sewing. And I decided to sew my maternity clothes, and it was at that point I decided that fashion was great. Here I was married, I was pregnant, I was working during the day. So that being said, I had to go to school at night.

 

That was the only way, because we needed the money, I had to work. So that’s when the GI Bill came into play. And I went, got the GI Bill, went to Fashion Institute of Technology. Now, not even knowing there what I wanted to study, I signed up for pattern making. This is why you gotta go out there and find out what you don’t like, and then do something so that you know what you do like. And I didn’t like pattern making.

 

[chuckle]

 

All those numbers, and math is not my strong suit. So I ended up saying, I don’t want to be a pattern maker. So at FIT, then I went to see one of the teachers, and I said, Look, is there something else. He said, Yeah, why don’t you study apparel design. And that’s where you drape fabric, and you don’t have to worry about math. [chuckle] And so I decided to do apparel design and it was at that point that eight years at night later, I finally got my degree in apparel design. Though, I must say, with the help of my husband, the father of my son, my mother-in-law. Because without them, going to school at night would not have been possible.

 

You continued to work?

 

I continued to work.

 

And take care of your child, and go to school.

 

M-hm; yeah. And on weekends, that’s all I had time to do, was to do my work, my homework. And I did graduate with honors, which was an incredible task for me, and I’m very proud of it. My son came to my graduation at Carnegie Hall, interestingly enough. So people say, How do you do these things? I can only  say that my mother gave me this wonderful sense of positiveness. She was so positive; it’s like, go do it. What’s the worst thing can happen? You fail, so what? At least you know you don’t want to do that or you’re not good at that.

 

It’s not a waste of time to find out you don’t really want to do this.

 

No.

 

While sewing her own clothes Leona Rocha Wilson came up with the idea of creating a tool to assist the home sewer. With no clue of how to market her design she reconnected with her former mentor Joe Barta who became a trusted advisor. Manufacturing her new device led to the creation of her own company, Fashionetics.

 

Home sewers had no idea how to change dress patterns. Dress patterns is made for a standard size, which is, I think, a ten. They might have changed it now, ‘cause we’re getting a little bit larger. But the average size was, I think, for size ten. And some of us were down here, and some of us were a little bit larger than the ten. So dress patterns—and some of us have sloping shoulders, and some of us have full breasts, and some of us have large hips and small hips. So the variance in figure types required that you take this pattern that you purchased and change the pattern to suit your figure.

 

And until you invented the fashion ruler, people were just eyeballing it?

 

Well, they would fold the pattern, or they would kind of do what the pattern companies told them to do, which is primarily work from inside the pattern. And so when I came up with the fashion ruler, we used that fashion ruler to do the same thing a professional would do. And that is, if you want to change an armhole, you take that part of the ruler and you put it on the armhole, and you lower it, you raise it. It was—it’s simple. It makes—it was just—it simplified changing dress patterns to customize it for you personally. Now, how I got into [chuckle] a little bit more difficulty was this. I had the ruler, I had designed the ruler, and I went—

 

Was it exactly the same as the ruler a professional uses, or was it—

 

No, it was a—

 

—different?

 

—combination. The fashion ruler is about three or four professional rulers made into one.

 

I see.

 

So I just combined all the lines into one. It was just simple. But I’d not thought of it until my mentor, Joe Barta, said to me, Go ahead and try to do your own.

 

And so when I created this ruler I needed to have a—it was plastic, I needed to have a mold made, which was very expensive. I needed packaging. I needed marketing. And you know, I designed the ruler, but I had no clue about these other areas. So I went back to Joe Barta and I said, Look, I have the ruler. He was the one that found the next person for me to be involved in, to make the fashion ruler. We then created the fashion ruler. We packaged it, and were ready to sell it and bring it to the retail stores. Now … new ruler, no one ever saw it before. So what that says is that nobody knew how to use it. [chuckle] So I had to go out to the stores to teach women how to use these rulers. And that’s how I got started, talking with women, which I just love. I travel the country, I show them how to change dress patterns using the ruler, and that was the very thing that got me involved with television and set my company up. I did get a US patent, I created more rulers and more devices for the home sewing industry. So have I ever worked in the garment industry to create fashion? No. I started my own business called Fashionetics.

 

An inventor.

 

 

Yeah. It was fun.

 

And were they big selling items?

 

Oh, it’s being sold today, as we speak

 

Leona Rocha Wilson also authored the book Discover Fit Fashion and You and married her mentor, Joe Barta. After his death she sold her business Fashionetics and took on a new challenge as a national spokesperson for the home sewing industry.

 

I got this call from Simplicity, and they said, Would you want to do television? And I said, Look, I’ve never done television, what do I know about TV? He said, Leona, you can talk. [chuckle] So based on that, they sent me to California. We did a shoot. They said, [INDISTINCT]. Carol Lawrence was the hostess at the time. She did the show. And she and I had the best time. Oh, we just loved each other. We had a great time, we laughed and had a good time. By the time I left the set, the producer asked me if I would take on the show for the following season, which I did, which was on Lifetime Cable, which is Lifetime today. And we did the sewing show. And that got me started on—I’d never done television. But I remembered my mother saying, What’s the worst thing can happen? They send you home; what’s the worst thing can happen?

 

And it was a national cable show.

 

M-hm.

 

Wow.

 

And from that, Simplicity needed a spokesperson. A lobbying firm in Washington came to Simplicity; they said, Leona, would you like to travel the country doing all their television show for—you remember the thing called, Made In USA, Crafted With Pride, Made In USA? Well, I was their spokesperson. They sent me throughout the nation to do all the television shows, AM Los Angeles, New York Today Show, you name it. And I did it for them in order to represent them on television, radio, and newspaper.

 

Leona Rocha Wilson became the first woman president of the national organization, the American Home Sewing Association, comprised of fabric companies, sewing suppliers and sewing machine makers. Industry giant Vogue/Butterick would woo Leona away from the Simplicity Pattern Company to become its national spokesperson. And eventually Vogue/Butterick’s owner

 

would woo Leona into marriage. At the time of this conversation in 2009, Bill and Leona Wilson had been married for more than two decades. Bill has been a strong supporter of Leona’s continuing efforts to promote learning. Her show on Maui Community College’s cable television channel showcases individuals whose lives have been transformed through family support for education.

 

They wanted me to sort of have a little bit more educated title for the show. But I insisted that Go School, No Come Like Me took us back to the plantation days. It was when they would say, Go school, no come like me. You don’t want to work in the fields, better yourself, become the best person you possibly can. Leslie, I’m sure you’re aware that for every hundred students that enter our high schools here in Hawaii, twenty-two drop out of school. Nationally, we have a higher—thirty dropout nationally. The dropout rate really, really bothered me and my husband. So we came up with this program, Go School, No Come Like Me, and it’s to bring attention to the dropout rate and to reach the parents, the grandparents, the aunties, and the uncles, this one small segment, to let them know and to listen to stories of people who have made it … not necessarily always financially, but have lived fulfilled lives because they have had and they pursued an education. And so what we’re trying to do is reach these parents, these families in their homes so that they know that it takes more than just raising a child. The input that they have, and the friends and families they have play an important role. So, Go School, No Come Like Me, we have wonderful people that we’ve interviewed, people who have taken three jobs. Harrison Miyahira today owns a company that has over four hundred people and has in forty different countries, came from Kuau, and today, went to school to Purdue, starved, and today owns this company, HM Electronics. These are the stories that just inspired me, anyway, by listening—chicken skin kind. We hope that through Go School, No Come Like Me, and Maui Community College, that people will be aware of the dropout rate, and will be aware that it takes a lot to make up or to influence a child to be the best he—or she can possibly be.

 

I think of your life, you did devote yourself to school, but you also did a lot of learning informally through mentors.

 

Oh, yeah. I continue to. I continue, continue to learn. I’m learning about building. We have a farm now. I have a farm; I’m a farmer. Look at my nails. [chuckle] I’m a farmer. We have three hundred koaia trees that we put in. I fertilize it. I have someone that helps me with it, but I’m out there pulling weeds. My sister Patsy and I; she’s eighty-two, and the two of us, typical Portuguese people, right?

 

[chuckle]

 

I’m back to the soil again. I’m raising trees, and I’m learning about it. It is a most enlightening—it give me purposeful living when I am learning.

 

An endowment scholarship for students attending Maui Community College has been established by Leona and Bill. The community college’s cable channel 55 is the home of her show, Go School, No Come Like Me. Thank you, Leona Rocha

 

Wilson, for sharing your “Long Story Short,” and thank YOU for joining us on PBS Hawaii. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A Hui Hou Kakou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.

 

And once you find that passion, to make that commitment that you’re going to do everything you can to accomplish that goal. And during that time, and even after that, you cannot lose sight of your own self respect. You don’t lose sight of your word. All of that plays—that part, who you are, you don’t lose it. You maintain it, and you manage to fulfill your dreams by pursuing and making that commitment to that passion.

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Takeshi “Tak” Yoshihara

 

Original air date: Tues., Dec. 10, 2013

 

A Quiet Struggle

 

There’s a humble man living in Honolulu who isn’t one to let people know of his extraordinary history. We finally persuaded him to sit down and share it.

 

Takeshi “Tak” Yoshihara is the first Japanese American admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, MD. He also is a former internee, whose family was held for three years in so-called “relocation centers” that America built during World War II. Now retired after a Navy career as an officer, Mr. Yoshihara recounts in A Quiet Struggle what life was like living in internment camp cubicles. Despite that loss of freedom, you’ll hear him express great gratitude for his country and what it’s done for him.

 

Takeshi Yoshihara, A Quiet Struggle Audio

 

Download: Takeshi Yoshihara, A Quiet Struggle Transcript

 

 

Original air date: Tues., Jan. 7, 2014

 

An Historic Journey

 

After hardships during the Great Depression and World War II, Takeshi Yoshihara became the first Japanese American appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy. In this conversation with Leslie Wilcox, Takeshi talks about what made him an unlikely Naval Academy candidate, and his journey through the ranks and, eventually, to Hawaii.

 

Takeshi Yoshihara, An Historic Journey Audio

 

Download: Takeshi Yoshihara, An Historic Journey Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Part 1: A Quiet Struggle

 

I like to say that there was this great injustice to me, but on the other hand, what the country has meant to me, the opportunities that were offered to me, far outweigh the injustice.

 

For three years, Takeshi Yoshihara and his family lived in two small cubicles in a Japanese American internment camp. The experience, while traumatic for the young Takeshi and his family, did not leave him bitter. In fact, this Nisei would grow up to be a U.S. Navy officer, and make history in the process. Takeshi Yoshihara, 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. More than one hundred ten thousand Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. What was it like to live in these camps? Tonight, Takeshi Yoshihara of Honolulu shares his story, which begins with his father’s arrival in American more than a century ago.

 

Your father came to the United States when he was a teenager. Why did he come?

 

I think he came, as so many from that part of Japan came; their economic opportunities were very limited.

 

What part of Japan was that?

 

It was called Hiroshima – ken, so it was in the vicinity of Hiroshima. And Japan was having a very difficult time economically, so a large number of Japanese immigrants came during that period in, probably the early 1900s. He arrived in maybe 1905, or somewhere in that time as a teenager. He was one of those recruited to work on a timber mill that was being built in the middle of a forest not far from Seattle, but on the foothills of the Cascade Mountains.

 

So, when he wanted to get married, what did he do?

 

Well, on his trip back, he had complained that he needed a wife. And so, while he was there, his father and my mother’s father made some kinda deal that they would send a young lady after my father returned to the United States. And sure enough, a few months later, she arrived by herself on about a fifteen – day journey aboard ship.

 

So, his parents picked his wife for him?

 

Oh, yes; oh, yes. And they were from a neighboring family.

 

Well, what was your life like as a boy in the sawmill camp?

 

Well, I came along as the fourth child in a family that was to grow to eight children. My parents were living at that time in a small village. I’m not sure I would call it a village. They called it a camp, Japan Camp. I lived there until I was eight years old, but I still remember going to Japanese schools, learning Japanese culture, and especially the values of Japanese that I still remember to this day, and has contributed to my life. And it was a wonderful life. I think all my brothers and sisters look upon that period there as the most stable and happy lives, beginning lives.

 

Even though there wasn’t much materially.

 

Nothing materially. We lived in a little old building that people would call a shack now. But as a youngster, it was comfortable and warm, and we enjoyed it.

 

But it wouldn’t last. The Great Depression hit, and the sawmill closed down. Takeshi Yoshihara’s family was forced to find a new home, and a new way of life. Not easy for a family from a foreign country who could speak little English at the time.

 

My father had a neighbor from Japan who was farming a strawberry farm in Oregon. He and his wife had done very well, and they lived in what we considered a very fine home. Through their compassion and kindness, they invited my whole family of eight to live in their home. And there were two of them, and eight of us, so we kinda took over their home for a year. And he offered my parents both to work on the strawberry farm, and that continued for about a year until my father, his friend’s encouragement, thought it was a good time to start his own strawberry farm. And that’s what he did. Now, the home we lived in, and I can remember this very clearly because first thing one noticed is weeds growing out of the floor. Over the years, the land had shifted, and the roof leaked, and there was no water or plumbing.

 

Definitely a fixer – upper. [CHUCKLE]

 

[CHUCKLE] Fixer – upper would — not much to do to …

 

So, it was a property that probably nobody else wanted, and your dad —

 

Oh, it was an absolutely abandoned house. And I remember, to contain the leaking roof, we got these big vegetable cans of tomatoes or something, gallon cans, and we’d put it wherever it rained. And that was our —

 

And walked around the cans.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

I’ve done that. [CHUCKLE]

 

That’s right; you did that as well.

 

[CHUCKLE] But not with weeds growing up out of the floorboards.

 

We didn’t have water, we didn’t have sewage, or we didn’t even have electricity. So, we had a kerosene lamp, and …

 

How did you keep warm?

 

Well, we had blankets, so we kept warm all right. And stoves with plenty of wood to heat up the stove. They had a wood stove.

 

Strawberries take two years to grow. During that time, Takeshi Yoshihara’s family wouldn’t make much money, but the family was willing to make the sacrifice to become successful farmers. Then, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and America joined the Second World War.

 

It was really a shocking incident for them. And of course, your reaction is, what’s gonna happen to us? They were aliens in the United States. Of course, we who were born were American citizens. They feared for a time that they would be picked up and put into prisoner of war camps. And then, I remember we got visits from the local FBI and the police. And here, they knew nothing; they could hardly speak English, and were just doing their business, but they felt intimidated. And then, there was a curfew that came along, and they were restricted from going anywhere. So, it was a heightened and stressful time for them.

 

Could you feel your parents’ fear?

 

I could always feel their fear, very definitely. I could feel their disappointment. But I never felt their despair. First of all, they were virtually in survival mode without income, working hard, and their concerns were primarily keeping alive. I mean, feeding their children, having shelter for them, sending their children with clothes to school.

 

Because those two years had been so very hard.

 

Very, very difficult years.

 

But you’d think they’d say, Oh, now what? How can this get worse? But you said they didn’t feel this way.

 

Well, when that notice came, they weren’t prepared to abandon the farm. Even through Pearl Harbor and all, they had worked dawn to dusk, tried to keep up the farm, not knowing what’s going to happen. But when that notice appeared on that telephone pole, they realized that this was it, there’s no alternative, they’ve got to leave the farm.

 

It was a heartbreaking decision. Takeshi Yoshihara’s father found a friend from church who agreed to run their farm and pay off their debts. The family was then sent to a relocation camp in Portland, Oregon.

 

They had taken two – by – fours and just built cubicles throughout this large pavilion area with very high ceilings, and used canvas as a doorway for the opening. So, if one were to look upon what we called our assembly center, it would be looking down from the ceiling and seeing all the open ceiling area, but it would look like an egg crate, and you could see maybe twenty, thirty families in each. And every family was given one little cubicle.

 

Now, could you look over the wall and see the next family?

 

If we stood on our beds, we could look over the family and see them fighting or having a good time, or whatever.

 

So, there was no audio privacy, no visual privacy if anyone who wanted to look.

 

That’s right. And especially in a situation like that, it would be surprising how noisy the night times were. All kinds of noises; people arguing, playing, that sort of thing. So, it was very … there was not much privacy. Then they had an area where we lined up to eat in shifts on picnic benches. But it was supposedly for a short time, so we endured it. The worst part was, right next to this exposition center was large stock butchering facility. Just next to it.

 

In operation?

 

In operation.

 

A slaughterhouse?

 

Slaughterhouse; that’s the word I’m thinking about, a slaughterhouse. And we could sense the effects of all the slaughters going on, especially when the wind blew in our direction. It was almost nauseating; it was so bad. And that was combined with one of the hottest summers in Portland. And Portland can get very hot and humid, and without ventilation, it was just suffocating. The authorities were telling us, Well, we’re putting you in here to protect you. And some of the in — I say inmates, but internees [CHUCKLE] looked up and said, How come the rifles are pointing at us instead of the other way if they’re protecting us? So, they changed the name assembly center, I don’t know if for that reason, but we never used it again. It became a relocation center.

 

Relocation; when we say that today or we say internment camps, there’s a significant minority of people who will correct you and say, You know what, let’s call it for what it is, that’s a euphemism, it was a concentration camp. What’s your feeling about that terminology?

 

I’ve looked up the word concentration camps, and technically, concentration camps is correct. As I understand, concentration camps is a place where people are imprisoned, not because of what they do, like crimes, but because who they are. And we, of course, were all homogeneous Japanese blood. So, in that sense, concentration camp is the correct term. But from my own perspective, and my deep appreciation for my country and what it has meant to me, I hesitate, because if I were to say it, I would feel like I’m getting close to a Nazi concentration camp. We were not treated unfairly. There was a lot of compassion, understanding by the authorities.

 

So, day – by – day, you were treated well, but did you think it was the right thing to do to bring people together like that, for that reason?

 

As a youngster, I didn’t think much about that. My parents didn’t really think much about that, because, here again, it’s the perspective of my family who were really in survival mode, being relieved in a sense. Have all our meals provided, have a good roof over us. So, the word they used so often was “shikata ga nai”, which means, it can’t be helped. And that was their attitude.

 

So, accept it.

 

To accept it, and do the best they can with it.

 

Takeshi Yoshihara and his family stayed at the relocation camp in Portland for four months. By then, they were ready to leave because of the stench and cramped conditions. This time, the family was forced to take a train to a more permanent internment camp in Idaho called Minidoka.

 

They had built this camp for ten thousand people to house them with all the facilities, all the utilities, and the main buildings were like Army barracks. They were very, very hastily constructed of wood framing, and covered with black tar paper. You could almost see holes through some of our walls. The floors were bare wood panels, and a little potbelly stove sat in the middle of the room to provide heat. So, when we got there, I remember we were issued canva — I guess they call them ticking, where you stuff straw in to make mattresses out of. And we were all given a satchel bag and taken to a place with a big pile of straw, and made our own mattress and returned to our assigned rooms, where there was a canvas cot. And that was our house for the next three years.

 

One room for a family of eight?

 

No; I think it was family of six children and below, it was one family; one room per family. We had eight children, and we just couldn’t physically fit into one – family, so we were given two families. And I think we were kind of the privileged families in the camp, because we had two. Everybody we knew had one room, and we had two rooms, and so my parents lined up … let’s see, seven cots in this one row for all my brothers and sisters. And they had one infant, so they took the other room and put the infant with them. And no chairs, no furniture, not else; just a place to sleep.

 

And was there a cafeteria? Nobody cooked without a stove, I take it.

 

That’s right. In addition to the barracks, they had … well, the barracks were arranged in blocks for about two hundred and fifty people in a block. And within that block, they had built a central mess hall, and washing facilities, and toilet and shower facilities where we all used it together.

 

How did that work, exactly?

 

Well, as a teenager, it was one of the most sensitive time of my life, privacy especially.

 

I think you were in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades while you were in camp?

 

That’s right; sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. And I remember being so shy about using the facilities, because both the showers and the toilet facilities were all lined in a row, with no partition between them.

 

Men and women in different facilities?

 

In different facilities, but —

 

But no stalls for toilets.

 

No stalls; no stalls for toilets. And so, sometimes I would get up like three o’clock in the morning, just worrying about whether anybody would be there with me. [CHUCKLE] But that never went away. I felt very, very humiliated. And I would have preferred at that time, those years, going back to that survival mode where we had an outhouse; one whole outhouse. I would rather have had that than the modern toilet facilities we had in camp.

 

What was day – to – day life like?

 

Well, I always have to compare it with how it was before. Before, we were in survival mode, working on a farm, walking to school each day. No friends; just hard work. All of a sudden, we’re in this community of ten thousand people, lots of kids my age. And it wasn’t long before the new normal took hold. And the new normal meant lots of play friends. You don’t have much to play with, but if you get a ball or football, a lot of good times. I didn’t feel like a minority in camp. The new normal took on a life of its own, because the camps were designed for all the residents to find some employment, and everybody who wanted to work found some employment. My father became a garbage collector, and my mother worked as a helping hand in the central mess hall.

 

So, the internment camp would pay federal wages?

 

I’m not sure federal wages; they got sixteen dollars a month. Doctors got nineteen dollars a month.

 

Woo – hoo. [CHUCKLE]

 

[CHUCKLE] So they were the upper class in camp. But they were mostly paid sixteen dollars a month; that was the going rate. And that’s like fifty cents a day.

 

So, was there a Minidoka School?

 

Well, when we went there, of course, ten thousand people arrived suddenly. They had built all these barracks. The first question was, Where will be put the children in school? And the only answer was, in the barracks rooms. No blackboards, just one room. Of course, the next thing they had to do was find teachers. Where are they going to find teachers? Some were teachers already in their professions, but certainly nowhere near the number needed. So, if one had a high school diploma, he or she became eligible to teach elementary school. And I think that was the case when I first went there. A young girl, I’m sure she was just a high school graduate, but taught, and taught very well. And I don’t regret in any way the quality of the education I received, even under those circumstances.

 

When the war ended in 1945, Takeshi Yoshihara’s family was grateful they were finally leaving the internment camp, but also anxious. They’d lost everything before, and once again, they had to start over and create a new life from scratch.

 

With my family of eight children, that was an army to take care of, and I know my parents worried a lot about it, where should they go. But one day, they heard from a church in Seattle that offered to make their basement spaces available for us, and they would take care of us and shelter us, and feed us until something better came along. So, we happily accepted. That resolved my parents’ survivor fears, I should say. And, so they accepted, and everybody received a train ticket or bus ticket, and twenty – five dollars per person spending money.

 

Even your infant brother?

 

Absolutely everybody; everybody that breathed got twenty-five dollars. Which we thought was very generous at that time. And so, with that, I forget, I think we took a train to Seattle, and the people at the church were there to greet us and to take us to their church. And it was a wonderful beginning, and I consider it a blessing from God that He interceded and found a place where we could start a new beginning.

 

A month later, the Yoshihara family found a place to live in Renton, Washington. And though there was anti – Japanese sentiment in the post – war United States, Takeshi says the family never felt discriminated against, not by neighbors or his classmates when he started high school.

 

How was your first day in school?

 

First day in school; well, of course, I had a lot of reservations walking into that school. But, I think the principal and the superintendent, and the authorities had done a marvelous job preparing for my classmates to receive me. And I was just amazed at how welcoming they were to me. But all of a sudden, I was going from a place of ten thousand others that looked like me, to a place where nobody looked like me. There were only, I think, two other Asians in my high school class; everybody else was Caucasian. So, of course, I felt being a minority again, and a minority of one is a very small minority.

 

Feeling as though he didn’t quite fit in, Takeshi Yoshihara struggled to make friends in high school. Without much of a social life, he focused on academics, and that paid off. After graduation, he would go on to become the first Japanese American admitted into the U.S. Naval Academy, and have a successful career in the U.S. Navy, where his nickname was “Tak”. Mahalo to Takeshi “Tak” Yoshihara for sharing his story. 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, to the Apple iTunes store, or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

And how was your school experience at Annapolis as the first and only Asian in the class?

 

Well, it was more than that, because here, I had come from a family … well, we were at the chopstick stage, for eating, and all of a sudden you go there. Formal dining table, linen covered white tablecloths, and all the utensils out. All of them. And I’m looking at it, and looking to the side, left and right, and figuring out what’s the proper utensil to use.

 

You didn’t have computers in those days, so you couldn’t do a Wiki How. [CHUCKLE]

 

That’s right.

 

Which one is which?

 

That’s right.

 

 

 

 

Part 2: An Historic Journey

 

Have I experienced failure? Many times. Have I stumbled along the way? Many times. Have I faced dead ends during my career? Certainly.

 

Takeshi Yoshihara is a humble man who holds a special place in history. After growing up in poverty and spending three years in a Japanese American internment camp, he was chosen to do something no Japanese American had ever done before. Takeshi Yoshihara, 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. Takeshi Yoshihara’s childhood on the West Coast was not easy. His parents lost everything in the Depression, and again during World War II. At one point, he and his family of eight lived in a leaky shack without electricity. Despite his hardships, Yoshihara persevered and made history just out of high school. His journey started in 1949, with an invitation from a member of Congress; a letter that this self – described loner never expected to receive.

 

If I had my choice, I would have picked anybody but myself. And I’ll tell you why. Here I was, such an introvert; I lived my own life, I was not socially aware. On the other hand, those attending the Naval Academy, I think ninety percent were varsity athletes, they had letters or stripes on their sweaters, and they were class presidents and Eagle Scouts. And the only thing on my resume, aside from my grades, was the fact that one semester during lunch, I volunteered to be –they called it a patrolman. So, I got to wear the belt, and during lunch hour, I stood at the crosswalk to let students cross. And for that, I got a certificate, which is the only recognition that I had ever received in high school. But the congressman wrote me this letter saying, You have done very well in the competitive examination, I’m considering appointing you to the Naval Academy, but don’t say anything about it, because I have some policy issues to address before you’re notified. So, we agreed to that announcement as an opportunity. For me, it was that or nothing. I’d tried for scholarships; nothing came along, and I was resigned, as so many of us in those days, to find a job probably in gardening and earn some money for the family. So, this was my only chance. And what a wonderful chance, I thought, because they won’t charge you tuition, they won’t charge you for your food or for your room. In fact, they would pay you to go to school. And accepting it was beyond my dreams. And so, we waited, and sure enough, a month later came and he sent another letter saying, You are appointed to the Naval Academy.

 

It was a big deal. Takeshi Yoshihara was the first Japanese American appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy. However, Takeshi was worried he’d never spend a day in class for several reasons. For one, he’d have to pay his own way across country from Washington State to Annapolis, Maryland, and he feared he would not pass the physical exam.

 

Well, I had been wearing these glasses since freshman in high school.

 

That’s what you were worried about; your eyesight.

 

I was worried; very worried. Because that was the leading cause of people being disqualified in the physical.

 

Ah …

 

What I did was, I just prayed to God that He would heal me, and I just took off my glasses and for the last few months, the strength of my eyes, I think [CHUCKLES] …

 

Wow.

 

The other thing, of course, is, I got sick on anything that moved, whether in a car or a bus. I’d never been on a boat, but I can imagine being on a boat.

 

So, you were a seasick person applying for the Naval Academy.

 

That’s right. And I had deep reservations about that; very deep reservations. Yes.

 

That’s a lot of reasons not to do it, isn’t it? I mean, you have find you way for free, you were broke.

 

That’s right; that’s right.

 

You didn’t have the eyesight.

 

That’s right.

 

But you did it anyway.

 

Well, we had a family debate about that. And my older sister was a strong advocate, because she had a lot of fears about me, I guess, not being able to survive in that environment in the first place. So, she was the one that said, You must get a roundtrip ticket, because it’s cheaper, and will make sure you get home. But my argument made out that I’m just trusting God; He’ll find other ways for me to get back, and this is my step of faith to just buy a one – way ticket. So, that sounded good to the rest of the family. [CHUCKLE] So, I appeared before the physical, would you know it, the first question on this long list of do you or do not things, have you had this illness or that illness; the first question is, Do you have a serious problem with seasickness?

 

And your problem was serious; right? I mean, you got sick in cars.

 

I got sick in cars.

 

Yeah.

 

I paused a long time, and I think I answered all the other questions to come to that. And I decided, well, for one thing, I want to be truthful. I don’t want to say no, and they find out a month later that I should have checked yes. And besides, the good Lord’s gonna carry me through whatever direction He wants anyway, and if this isn’t for me, there’s something else for me. I felt that faith. And so, I checked, yes.

 

You do get seasick?

 

I get seasick. And as far as my eye examination, I think it was at the end of a hectic day for the medical technicians, and I think they just kinda waved me through.

 

And so, Takeshi Yoshihara became the first Japanese American sworn in as a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy. His nickname, Tak. As part of his studies, he had to spend two summers on a ship; he did, in fact, get seasick. He was so violently ill on his second tour that he almost got kicked out of school.

 

Well, the saying goes, when you get sick, you’re afraid you’re gonna die, then you get so sick so you’re afraid you’re not going to die. And I was in that latter stage for three weeks coming back. I wished I could jump over the rail and just end it all, because it was that bad. But when I got back in the fall, the authorities convened the board, and they said, Reports are that you’re unfit for the Navy, and we’re going to discharge you now, and will not let you permit to go any further, you will not graduate with your class, and you’ll be just discharged. And I agreed with everything they said, except I said, Well, if you look at my records, my very first physical questionnaire and every subsequent one for four years, I put what I honestly thought I was, which is seasick, and nobody questioned me about that. And I think that took them aback a little bit, and they checked it, and they called me back and said, You know, you’re right, we should have kicked you out before you entered. But now that you’re in, we’re gonna make sure that we give you the opportunity to graduate. You’ll get your diploma, but you will not get a commission to be an officer in the United States Navy.

 

How was your school experience in Annapolis as the first and only Asian in the class?

 

Well, it was more than that, because here, I had come from a family… well, we were at the chopstick stage, for eating, and all of a sudden you go there; formal dining table, linen covered white tablecloths, and all the utensils out. All of them. And I’m looking at it, and looking to the side, left and right, and figuring out what’s the proper utensil to use.

 

You didn’t have computers in those days, so you couldn’t do a Wiki – how [CHUCKLE]

 

That’s right.

 

Which one is which?

 

That’s right. And that went with so many other things. I never really learned how to Make a tie, for example. We had to wear neckties a lot. And all those other things I had to learn.

 

The things that were common to the other kids who were kind of BMOCs, big man on campus in their hometowns.

 

That’s right; that’s right. So, I think that’s part of the wisdom of the Naval Academy, that they never let you be assigned into a single room. They know that you could get help from your classmates and your roommates, and I think that’s a good way that they have there. So, I always had classmates or roommates throughout my four years, and I think that was a good experience.

 

And they mentored you, to an extent?

 

Oh, yes. We just became best friends. But being plebes — we were called plebes as soon as we were … as we took the oath of office as a midshipman, which all students at the Naval Academy are called. It was a shock and awe experience, because what they do is, they immediately do everything to strip you of any of your personal habits, personal ways. What they want to create is an empty bowl in which they start building up your character, your personality, your habits, things like that. So, I think maybe some of these hard football programs when they go out to football camp, they may face that kind of circumstance too, where they want to break you down, then build you up. And that was called Plebe Summer, and for seventeen hours a day, for six weeks, the one single thing you have is pressure. Physical pressure, mental pressure, moral pressures.

 

And the pressure, you mean to say, it was never racial discrimination?

 

I never experienced racial discrimination.

 

Even right after the war like this?

 

That’s right. I experienced a lot of mischievous tricks, but never racially motivated.

 

Eighteen – year – old Tak Yoshihara adapted to life in the Academy. In the beginning, he struggled to stand out in a very competitive field.

 

You wouldn’t believe how competitive in those days the Naval Academy was. It was important whether you stood tenth, or twelfth, or a hundred or five hundred. And we started out with twelve hundred. Everything was based on competition. It’s changed a great deal now, but back in 1949, your class standing was the most important thing, and it was cumulative over four years. And there were people in my class that were repeating classes that they had taken. My best friend at our wedding, who lives here, he had already graduated from Yale in engineering. I don’t know why he wanted to start all over again, but he was taking the exact same class in engineering. So, he played Bridge most of the time. But, here I was struggling, thinking I might what they called bilge out, which is flunk out, which many did. But, I loved academics, and that was my source of self – esteem in high school. My only source of self – esteem was to get good grades, and so, I worked twice as hard as anybody else, and I’d take home my grades, and my parents would be happy for me, and I would feel built up.

 

So, you had the discipline.

 

I made the discipline, because that was a good source for building up my own self – esteem, when I had nothing. And so, I carried that through the Academy, and I kept plugging away, and plugging away, and plugging away. And I’d start climbing up the ladder, so to speak, in my class standing. But then, every week, you knew where you stood. You took a quiz in every class every week, and on Saturday morning they’d put your results on a board in numerical order. So it was very, very competitive.

 

Did you enjoy that competition, the academic competition?

 

I don’t think anybody really enjoyed that competition. And I might say there was one exception. Everybody took the identical course, except we had a choice in language. And, we had a choice of French, German, or Russian. I chose Russian, because I knew everybody had taken French or German in high school, and I wanted a level playing field. And sure enough, nobody had taken Russian before, so that was my entry into foreign languages. But everything else identical course, identical exam, and then at the end of the week, you knew where you stood.

 

Well, from twelve hundred with whom you started, how many ended?

 

Nine hundred and twelve. And they left for a number of reasons. Just the environment was not good for some, and academics were not good for some. So, I don’t know why they left, but there was about a thirty percent reduction in attrition.

 

So, that must have been some day when you graduated.

 

Yes.

 

How did you celebrate?

 

Got married two hours after graduation.

 

So, you were busy with something other than Annapolis?

 

[CHUCKLE] I was very busy with my studies, but along the way, I met my wife Elva, and just fell in love with her. She had gone to a college in Boston, and transferred to Johns Hopkins University to get her bachelor’s degree in nursing. And she graduated at about the same time that I did from the Naval Academy, so we were both wondering where we’re going after we graduate. Of course, I was in the Navy, and not a place that she would travel to, I’m sure, so we decided best that we get married, and that’s what happened. [CHUCKLE]

 

The year was 1953; and while Tak Yoshihara was a newlywed, he thought his chance at a career in the U.S. Navy was over, until, one of his instructors at the Academy stepped forward.

 

He was an officer at the Academy who had been grievously injured during the Pearl Harbor attack or the Japanese attacked on his ship, on his battleship. And he had come from three generations of admiral, and he had every expectation to succeed as part of his family tradition. Well, I didn’t know him well; I just took one lecture from him, but he heard about it. Well, as a result of Pearl Harbor, he had lost his leg and he was the only officer on campus walking with a wooden leg in uniform. So, they had made an exception for him. And he contacted me and said, I know a remote part of the Navy you’ve never heard about where officers never need to go to sea, and I just want to know if you’re interested in serving in the Navy. Well, I jumped at that, because it would have been a shame for me to complete Annapolis and be reported that I was discharged for being unfit for service in the Navy. So, I jumped at that, and within a matter of a week or so, he had gone to Washington, D.C. and had a waiver prepared for me so that I could ultimately join what was called the Civil Engineer Corps in the Navy.

 

But first, you had to get a civil engineering degree?

 

Yes; that meant I had to wait a year, and I would be sent to a very nice school called Rensselaer Institute of Polytechnics, a private college in Upstate New York, where I got my bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, and then I received my civil engineering degree and became officially a part of this navy that I knew nothing about.

 

And what did you do as a civil engineer in the Navy?

 

Well, first of all, I had like ten different stations. [CHUCKLE] But my first trip was out to Midway Island. From New York, traveled.

 

So, definitely not the cushy first station; right?

 

No.

 

With the atoll. [CHUCKLE]

 

It was middle of the Pacific. You’ve heard of Midway Island.

 

Gooney bird central.

 

It’s only one mile by two miles. And when I got there, Elva was pregnant, and the day our son arrived …

 

Did Elva give birth on Midway?

 

Yes. She was the first one that year to give birth on Midway; it was in March. And it coincided in 1957, when a tsunami hit the Pacific that very night.

 

Oh!

 

So, she gave birth while I was out clearing out the airfield which had been inundated with trash and everything else. And so, we have memories of our little time in Midway together. [CHUCKLE]

 

You know, nothing you’ve described has been really easy so far in your whole life.

 

Well, no, I thought it was not that difficult. From Midway, I went to Las Vegas, and nobody knows that there’s a naval base in Las Vegas.

 

Who would think a landlocked state, right?

 

They don’t now; they did it for a very short time, and I happened to be along when they needed somebody to be in Las Vegas. So, I had an interesting career there. But the rest of my career was more peanut butter type things, where I built things, and took care of the sewage and the roads, and everything else, interspersed by opportunities for education. And that’s what I loved so much to do from way back. That was a passion for me that I developed in high school. I always had a passion for education; still do.

 

That passion for education drove Tak Yoshihara to get two master’s degrees, and a PhD, while serving in the U.S. Navy where he rose to the rank of Captain. At one point, he was sent to Vietnam, where he was the deputy in charge of construction for all U.S. military services. He helped build ports, runways, and barracks during the war.

 

Periodically, the Navy … I think it’s kind of a carrot – and – stick approach. When you get to the point where you’ve completed your obligated service, or thinking about leaving and maybe going to school, or getting a job somewhere, they’d put this carrot out and say, If you’re interested in graduate school, we’ve got a few openings and you’re welcome to apply. And so, you can understand how grateful I am, how the Navy changed my life. Here, I may have been a laborer as a gardener following in my father’s footstep, or being here in Honolulu, living in paradise. So, I credit a great deal to the wonderful, wonderful government that I’m so proud of.

 

Somehow, I just don’t picture you ordering people around.

 

Well, I don’t either. I would have never thought … entering the Navy in any form, whether it’s the lowest enlisted man or anybody, being able to get up and shout, Don’t give up the Navy, or Don’t sink the Navy, or these famous sayings that thank God, I’ve never been in that position to do so.

 

But you’ve led men.

 

Yes.

 

And later, women.

 

My styles have been very different, and I’m grateful for that opportunity.

 

Well, what was your military style, your naval style?

 

Well, I like to say that whenever I had people under me, I never forgot my roots. I wanted to be an encourager. I try to find ways for people to realize their hopes and dreams. I was a helper, and a leader can be a helper.

 

In 1974, after twenty – five years in the Navy, Takeshi Yoshihara retired and moved to his wife’s hometown here in Hawaii. Soon after, he took a job working for Hawaii U.S. Senator Spark Matsunaga.

 

I worked for him; I agreed to help him for two years. Elva was teaching at the Kapiolani Community College, so I felt I could take off two years, and they were one of the most wonderful years of my life. A senator who is one of one hundred most powerful people in the country, being senators, and I saw the world in a different light from power; the power that they have.

 

Did that necessitate a move to D.C.?

 

I moved to D.C. We kept our house, and Elva took her second year of teaching as a sabbatical, and so, we lived the second year in Washington, D.C. Had a marvelous time. Going to that capitol every day, and just being in awe of all the senators and congressmen, and hearing them speak, and that sort of thing. It was a wonderful experience.

 

There you are, back to government service. Did you do other government service?

 

Well, I returned, and the federal government established and wanted me to head a Federal Energy Office out of the Federal Building here, which I agreed to do, and it covered the entire Pacific. I did that for three years, and through Governor Ariyoshi, I got the privilege of starting the first State Energy Office in the State. I did that, and then I later worked for Governor Waihee. Both governors were wonderful people.

 

Throughout Tak Yoshihara’s life of ups and downs, his love for his country and his faith in God never wavered.

 

Very much so, Leslie. I’m glad you mentioned that. Because, how can a family of eight children be so blessed.

 

In the Depression, during a world war.

 

We’re still all alive; all eight of us, from eighty – eight to seventy. And our closeness is as tight as can be; and it’s because of one thing, God at the center of each of our lives. Have I experienced failure? Many times. Have I stumbled along the way? Many times. Have I faced dead ends during my career? Certainly. Well, what got me through is, in every case I had stretcher bearers, beginning with God maybe sending people on the way. They could have been friends, family certainly, people praying for me. God has given me the opportunity that I’ve sometimes taken, where I could pray for others, where I could, in raising my children act as a stretcher bearer in their growing up. And then, when I took command or supervised people that I had to lead, I could be a stretcher bearer for them. I could inspire them, I could encourage them, I could hope to see them fulfill their aspirations; and to that extent, I was a stretcher bearer. So, we can all identify, if we’ve gone through life’s trials and triumphs, as both being a patient as well as a stretcher bearer. And we’re blessed.

 

Takeshi “Tak” Yoshihara watched his younger son follow in his footsteps. David Yoshihara also graduated from the Naval Academy and also became a Captain in the U.S. Navy. And just before our conversation in 2013, Tak and his wife Elva happily celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary. Mahalo to Takeshi “Tak” Yoshihara, the first Japanese American ever appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy and a career naval officer. And mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, a hui hou.

 

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

 

Does Elva speak Pidgin at all?

 

No, she does not at all. I mean, she’s third generation, so her parents were like me; they spoke English. So, she never spoke Japanese or Pidgin. She grew up in this area, and I think she understands pidgin.

 

I’m sure she does.

 

Well, yeah, we all do to a certain extent. I love Frank DeLima.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

I can understand him. [CHUCKLE]

 

 

 

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