Wayne Rapozo


Original air date: Tues., Feb. 12, 2013


Leslie Wilcox talks with Wayne Rapozo, an attorney and partner at Dechert, a top international law firm in London. Born and raised on Kauai, Rapozo knew he wanted to practice law at a young age. Though he lives in London, Rapozo keeps Hawaii close to heart. He helps Hawaii’s underserved youth through a scholarship fund, works closely with a Kauai charter school, and hosted Nanakuli drama students when they visited the UK.


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I guess my grandmother deserves special mention. Because as a woman growing up in turn of the century Hawaii, and then being a child of the Depression, life was hard. And I suspect there was not the money available for her to go far away to school. So, I think the difficult thing for her of me not coming back home was … it reminded her of what she maybe could or could not have done.


The sacrifice of generations before us can never be measured, but the character, values, and principles that our parents and grandparents pass down to us live on, even if life takes us to the other side of the world. London-based corporate attorney Wayne Rapozo, 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; I’m Leslie Wilcox. We’ve all heard the term Brain Drain, how some of the best and brightest of our young people leave for college and never return. But you have to believe that Hawaii lives in the hearts and minds of everyone who leaves this special place, no matter how far they roam. Such is the case of Wayne Rapozo, a corporate attorney based in London, and handling big money mergers and acquisitions and leveraged finance transactions for international clients, far, far away from the Kauai plantation where he grew up.


I am far away from home. I ended up in London just in the sweep of time, and luck and chance that sometime happens in the modern world. But I began my life on Kauai, and a significant amount of time was in Pakala, which is the plantation village, which I’m associated with, sort of the Makaweli Plantation.


West side?


West side, Gay & Robinson. Part of my life was also in the household of my parents in sort of the Kalaheo-Lawai area, but the big part of my childhood, and where I identify with is a plantation village called Pakala.


You spent a lot of time with your grandparents. Were you raised by them?


In large measure, yes. And typical in the extended sort of hanai style family, you often have the aunts, and uncles, and grandparents involved in life. For a range of reasons, I ended up in my younger years being with my grandparents. I mean, I grew up with allergies. I was supremely allergic to pollen and mold.




And would sort of break apart in bronchitis attacks, and have a hard time breathing. And my grandparents lived in an area of the island that is fertile, but very dry, on the west side of Kauai. So, it could be in part the luck of nature that ended up involving me being more often at the home of my grandparents.


So, allergies take future international corporate finance attorney Wayne Rapozo to the west side of Kauai, an area where life is simple, and Hawaiian culture and values are rooted deeply in the people who live there.


At some point, as you become an adolescent, in the case I think of a male adolescent, you sort of start forming your own view of who you are, and want to choose things about who you are for yourself. And when I started reaching that point in life, I just realized so much of what I wanted to be was in the vision of my grandmother and grandfather, in a way that I thought I would never be as a child. I just saw the world the way they saw it. I took immense pride in the position that my grandfather had in being, a luna at Gay & Robinson Plantation, and the position he had, and he knew the land, he knew his job, he was respected for what he did. My grandmother was just the biggest social gossip, the family matriarch, and I really just liked that very much. It was just so much of who I was. And so, by the time I was in high school, I just wanted to just be just with them. And I think the extended family and people in the community just viewed me as belonging to my grandparents, and they did as well. And so, by the time I was eleven or twelve, I think they saw me as belonging to them, I belonging to who they thought I should be.


You stayed there all year, not just part of the time.


Exactly. I started just staying there all year.


Tell me about your grandfather; what was he like?


Stern, man of few words, man of immense authority, man of immense pride. He liked working a good day, he loved being patriarch and sort of being able to say he had a large and successful family. But he had a very stern hand, so when he said a few things and raised his eyebrow or frowned, that was code for, You should listen, and he would not compromise. Usually, he expected it to be obeyed.


What if he was tested? How far would he go in terms of his sternness?


There would never be, as there was, I suspect maybe in the generation before me, the threat of the slap across the face. But actually, he didn’t need to, because the mere threat of his anger was enough to actually frighten me in place.


So, you never saw him do worse than frown?


He kinda raised his voice.   No; Wayne, I told you no. You know, What’s your problem? Why are you being so stubborn? I told you no; is it a problem? He was like six-two, six-three, broad shoulders, deep voice, from smoking a good cigarette every day. So, that was enough to be intimidating.


And what about your grandmother; what was she like?


She was much more the softer touch, but in secret was actually the power behind the throne. She would always be warm and engaging, and want to know why, and why not, and be willing to change her mind, or would be not even phrasing things as though decisions had been made. She would just phrase things as a conversation, and always asked, Oh, how can I do this or that to be helpful? She would always be sort of warm and engaging. She would be the one who would crack the whip on money. No unnecessary spending; you spend on the family, you spend on education. If you don’t spend on education, you spend money to help the family with the business. The rest is excess, and you should eliminate excess spending. You should not be spending more than you need to.


And what should you do with the money you save?


And you save; you save for the day that life will be difficult, when you need to live off the savings. For them in my own life, their view was, you need to save for the rainy day. And the rainy day could be, you may be in a situation where you may not have a job, you may be on the political outs. And remember, they were in an era where if you crossed paths with powerful people, you may not be able to work for a chunk of time, and may need to live off of family.


Did you go to public schools?


I did. Well, I went to a Catholic elementary school, and then was the first big sort of, you know, stink in the family was, I actually wanted to go to Punahou or Mid Pac. And Mid Pac for a bunch of reasons didn’t work out, but the issue with Punahou — and I sort of talk about it now. But at the time, I was just devastated. Punahou closed their dorms. And then, although I immensely identify with being in and of Hawaii, I have no documented native Hawaiian ancestry, so Kamehameha was not going to be an option. Be that as it may, such was life when I was eleven or twelve.


Sounds like you were a very smart boy in public school, or in Catholic school.


I was smart. I was a bit rebellious.


You said Why, all the time, how come.






I loved challenging authority.




So, why? Well, that doesn’t make it right. Or, that doesn’t seem to be the fair outcome. So, in university, that worked out beautifully.


But not so much earlier?


But not so much in high school.


As a kid?


No, not so much earlier as a kid.


And Waimea High School is where you attended.


Waimea High School.


Early 80s, I think, is when you graduated.


Exactly; early 80s, I graduated Waimea High School, which is at the far west end of Kauai.


How did you navigate high school socially?


My goal was to talk to everybody. I think, and maybe this comes indirectly from my grandparents, and in just being in a plantation village. They lived in old style classic plantation village, probably the same way it was in 1840. It was the same way it was when I was growing up. And in playing the role of luna and being the small midsized rancher, they would also work on a day-to-day basis with the Hawaiian community, with the Japanese community, and more recently with the Filipino community. And I think as a result, grandfather and grandmother, they talked to everybody. Everyone was a business partner in small or big ways, everyone was part of their social circle in small or big ways. And that is very much of who I am. And what I do day-to-day in London as an attorney or socially, I try to ensure I talk to everyone. So at a dinner gathering or lunch gathering, I’ll be just at home with a group of Americans as I would with my best friends who are in Switzerland and Italy. I view myself as just as much at home, not in some contrived way, but in some very comforting, emotionally settling way, because I view them as colleagues and friends.


Talking to everyone; back in those days, before email and the Internet, that was the best way to find out what was going on in your community. Talking to everyone has served Wayne Rapozo well in a highflying corporate legal career that began with a prophecy from his grandmother.


At some point, your warm and engaging grandmother told you something that devastated you about going away.


She did. My senior year, they had the sit-down with me. My grandparents took the view that when you finished high school, they would help you do two things; start a business, or pay for your education. They viewed them as equal. Their view was paying for some fancy education was unfair for some of their kids who were a bit more technically astute and/or better businessmen. And so, they gave me the same bargain in life I think they gave their own children before me, which was, We’re gonna pay for you to start a business or we will pay for your university. And they said, We know you’re university bound, so what have you chatted about? And we talked about the range of things we could do. And I had been admitted to a range of schools, but the two favorite ones for me would have been Princeton and UH Manoa. And then, we said I’m likely to be law school bound, or business school bound. I thought eventually, I would go that path if I did well, and I was determined to do well. And we had settled on, I’ll go to UH Manoa. I’ll be closer to home, allow me and them to save up a bit. And they said, you know, and all limits go away to go off to law school. So, I got admitted, did well at UH Manoa. And when I was reviewing the law schools and where I would go, and they were all on the East Coast, in Washington, DC or in New York City, my grandmother goes, You are aware you’re not coming home. I mean, she seemed a bit angry for a bit, and I said, Why are you being so frustrated? Did I say something to offend you? She goes, No. She goes, But you are aware if you go down this path, you’re not coming home. I said, Well, why do you say that? She goes, Because I know it’s the case. She goes, Are you ready to be … you may become this person that you may not want to be, and once you become that person you may not want to be, you may be in a position where you may not be able to decide, you may have already made the decision without realizing it that you may never come home. And she goes, If you do that, all this time and money that we’ve invested in you — and she goes, It’s not just the money. She goes, In a small place like Kauai, we count upon our sons coming home. And she goes, If you don’t come home, a lot of the time and energy and hopes go with you. Are you ready to deal with that? I’m like, I’m only twenty-one, this is like a bit too much to lay on me. I said, I’ll keep that in mind, but, I know where I come from. I said, I’ll come back home at some point. But I said, This is not me — what’s the Hawaiian word, being snobbish or being haimakamaka. I’m like, No, I know, I know very much where I come from. And I said, I’ll come back home, but I won’t let go all this, I promise you. She goes, Okay, thank you. So, I end up going. For a bunch of reasons, I get accepted to all the law schools I applied to. The real favorite was to go to NYU. I wanted to be in New York. But money was gonna be tight, and New York University did not give a full scholarship. George Washington did give me a full scholarship. So, I talked to the dean at NYU at the time, and I said, It’s gonna be hard for me to swing it this year, just for a whole range of family financial reasons. And I said, But if I go elsewhere, can I come back in a year? He goes, Actually, you probably can if you do as well as you did in your undergraduate studies. And he goes, you do just as well with law school, if finances work out for you by next year, we might actually find more money for you at NYU, and you can come back and talk to us. So, I did my first year of law school at George Washington University and did well. I’ll be honest with you, did exceptionally well. And I applied again to NYU, and I spoke to the dean and he goes, You need to officially apply but, he goes, you’re basically gonna get admitted. And then, God from Heaven threw manna; He threw manna my way. So, the Hawaii Community Foundation gave me a big chunk of money, and NYU gave me a big chunk of money. So, in the process of applying to New York University and getting admitted to finish law school, I had managed to be — I never thought I would have this, but I ended up being completely financially independent. There was scholarship money for the entire amount of my law school tuition and living expenses on the table. And so, took the train from Union Station to Penn Station, and never looked back, other than with extraordinary pride for where I come from, but never looked back.


Local boy does good; starts off at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, attends law school on the East Coast. What then, for attorney Wayne Rapozo?


During, I think it was my first summer, I applied for my dream job. I applied to work at Carlsmith Wichman Case.


In Honolulu.


In Honolulu. This is what I wanted to do since I was eighteen, nineteen. They work with a lot of the establishment banks, they work with a lot of small businesses. They work both with the sugar plantations, they also work with government agencies. They have a good profile on Honolulu and on the neighbor islands and it was what I thought it should be.


You like all that engagement.


I loved all the engagement. It was plugged in politically, it was plugged in with the business community, it was one of the three or four most prestigious firms in Honolulu, some say the most prestigious. And I’m like, This is what I wanted. Grandfather was like, I’m completely behind you; in fact, I’ve already told everyone that you’re gonna work at Carlsmith. So, Grandfather was very happy about it. But at some point, I’m just realizing life may get uncomfortable in Hawaii, and that was just family and personal. I just thought, Maybe I’ll need to be away from home for a bit. But then comes the professional side. At the time, I grew up in plantation Hawaii, so I should have been prepared for this. But as I looked around in Honolulu, I just smelled a bit more of the notion of the plantation mentality, that there was a sense of discipline and hierarchy that was more than I thought would be the case, especially having spent three or four years on an elite mainland institution.


What didn’t you like about the hierarchy?


I couldn’t be who I wanted to be, in the sense of articulating fully a new idea, a political idea, something in the community that it was more than just waiting my turn. I have broad degree of respect for, in persona and professional life, you wait your turn, you don’t begin with everything on a clean slate. But I did want a bit more of intellectual independence, and I did want to have the opportunity, looking ahead, to do things in the community. And in the practice of law, I did want to have a freer hand as I started off my career in building something that I was gonna be more directly involved in. And I got the sense in Hawaii that I was going to be constrained. I actually thought if I did something too robust and controversial with a Kauai civic group that I respected all my life, will I in fact push back and not be as engaged as I would be —


They’ll think you’re an upstart.




Who the heck are you? In your home turf, you’re known as the Rapozo grandson, and you carry your family name. It’s not about you, it’s who you represent.


There was some of that. I think there was some of that. But I was kinda proud that that actually would be very helpful, that I was a Kauai boy who has done well, that I come from a big extended family doing the mix of things in plantation life with small businesses. I was immensely proud of that, and I kinda thought that wouldn’t be as much of a hindrance, even if I wasn’t a Honolulu boy. The thing that I thought would be a hindrance would be, would I be afraid of doing things for fear of being criticized on some community issue or some political issue which was, I don’t support X or Y in the State Legislature, in a manner that would be inconsistent with how a major law firm or its clientele may perceive things. I was a bit nervous that that might chill my wanting to be independent and have a view on all of those things, and still be able to be a vibrant part of the business community. I mean, in retrospect, I probably could have done a lot of that, and it would not have been a conflict. But I objectively think at that time in Hawaii there was still some of the strong hierarchy governing how people behaved, and I perceived it that way, and I was very afraid that that would just prevent me from being the best I could be, and that in New York, where I would be with a range of people as my contemporaries would be from across the United States, and that the law firm would be less concerned about the range of things that were happening in social or civic life. I always thought you do what you need to do, and the law firm would be not second guessing you. In Hawaii, I thought I would be second guessed. So in that summer at Carlsmith, when I decided I liked it immensely, I went back to Kauai and I told my grandmother, I said, I think you are correct. And she goes, I know I was. And she goes, But I think it’s the right thing for you to do. I said, Why? She goes, Because I think you’ll be better in New York. She goes, There are a range of things going on with the family, and she goes, you shouldn’t let that distract you. It’ll come to pass and just blow away, and so she goes, you go start off your life.


There’s a popular bumper sticker that reads: New York, Paris, Waimanalo. In corporate finance attorney Wayne Rapozo’s life, that bumper sticker would: Pakala, Honolulu, New York, Hong Kong, London; Pakala, Kauai being his roots. His education and career have taken him to big cities around the world. Today, he lives in Notting Hill, London and is the choice of many influential corporate clients in tricky big money buyouts and complex business issues. The boy from Kauai’s west side with the allergies is living the life he’d always dreamed of, but not in the place where his heart lives.


And so, as I say, it goes down as one of the big regrets of my life, and I think it was a direct consequence of choosing what I chose to do, and without realizing it, choosing what not to do, that I didn’t get to work as directly as I would with a range of people, personal and professional, on Kauai. And I feel a little bit like I let people down.


But you are giving back now, through your foundation programs.


I think so. Four or five years ago, it may have been longer, I stumbled on a savings book. And the savings book was probably created by my grandmother. It was her name and my name. And it was a bank account that I thought was probably put in place for my education, but I think she used it from time to time, and it just passed to me. It wasn’t that big amount, but it was emotionally a big amount to me. And so, I called the people who helped bail me out for law school. So, I called the Community Foundation, the Hawaii Community Foundation, and I said, I always wanted to give back to the community, and I’m far from home, but I said, I think I can do something. And I’d made small, and sometimes large, charitable contributions over the years to the Catholic schools, to various native Hawaiian groups, the Hongwanji Mission. These are all things that were important to me when I was growing up. But I said, I need to be more organized and systematic about it. I need to be more engaged. And so, I said, There’s some money here from my grandparents, and I said, I want to top it up in a meaningful amount. And they said, No, this is what we do. And they said, No, in fact, we remember you from years ago. Many did. And so, it worked out quite well. So, I set up several funds in the memory of my grandparents. So, one is the Rapozo Kamaaina Fund. It makes grants in the community for stewardship, for economic self-sufficiency, for education, and for cultural celebration, which I think are cornerstones of Hawaii. And there’s a George and Augusta Rapozo Scholarship Fund that gives a scholarship every year to a high school student, ideally from each of Waimea High, Kapaa High, and Kauai High. The goal is that over the course of time, a graduating senior from each of these high schools receives a grant for higher education, whether it be university, four-year college, or whether it be a vocational accredited technical school for vocational study. There’s a third fund which is the Rapozo Private Fund. I keep track of that. We make three to seven grants to a range of community organizations on Kauai and on Niihau. I’m very, very, very supportive of Niihau. And Niihau, of course, includes Niihau Island, and the Niihau community who live on Kauai, as they’ve straddled Kauai their whole lives even going back centuries ago. And sometime through my gossip — and I have extensive gossip, I picked up that from grandmother, so I call Kauai and Honolulu like every three or four days. And so, I have an idea of what’s going on in the community. And so, I suggest some of the grantees, sometime the Hawaii Community Foundation suggests grantees. And in addition to giving on Kauai, which it has over the past five to seven years, it also gives symbolic grants on the neighbor islands, Maui, the Big Island, and even Leeward Oahu which is kind of a neighbor island, on these four areas: cultural celebration, economic self-sufficiency, education, and land stewardship.


And so, the grandparents of London-based frequent flyer attorney Wayne Rapozo had passed on to him their values, their loyalty to the community, their passion for talking to everyone, and a savings book which helped him to give back to the place that means so much to him. But there was one more thing that his grandmother left him.


They did two things for most of their children. One was the big bargain one; you get to have your education, or starting your business paid for by us. The second thing is, when you get settled down, we’ll help you buy a house. I suspect in the early days, the big extended family would literally help you buy the house. I think in modern day times, they help you with the down payment. But they never lived to … one, see me settle down. Grandfather died when I was in my mid-twenties, Grandmother died when I was in my late twenties. I think I was just about to turn thirty. So, they never reached the point to be able to help me buy my house. And so, because I want to inherit as much as I can of their legacy, because it’ll help me carry on, so that one day when I have my own family, which I don’t yet, but one day when I do, that I’ll be able to celebrate some degree of continuity. So it was always the biggest blow to me that I didn’t get them to help me buy my house. So, when I worked my first summer in Hawaii, first law school summer at Carlsmith, that’s when I had the frank talk with my grandfather and grandmother. And my grandfather was like all supportive. You just go to town, go live your life in the big city. Grandmother was a bit more introspective. But she said, I know you need to do what you need to do. And she goes, I know you have managed your finances quite well, and I want to give you a few things. So, she hands me a few old books, a few crocheted items. And then, she gives me three gold coins. And she goes, I was given this when I was very young, that if there’s ever a crisis, I should use this. Of course, when you grow up in the Great Depression, nothing’s a crisis, so she kinda sits on these. I presume she just sits on three gold coins. I don’t know how she got them. I’m just guessing. Was it from some old ranch that they’d leased or sold out? I don’t know what it was. But, she has kinda three gold coins and she goes, This is the only thing of significance, other than money, I can give you that I think is valuable. And she goes, You use what you need to use it for, now or never, but I just wanted to say that you have this.


Mm; what a great gift.


It is. And so, I have these three gold coins. So, I’m buying my house. They are going to help me buy the house, because I’m going to sell one of the gold coins, which I thought never in a million years I will have sold, but I wanted to sell one of the gold coins, not very much but still valuable, and so that gold coin is gonna go to help with the down payment so that, I think, as a matter of historical significance in my little history of my life, they actually helped me buy my house.


International attorney Wayne Rapozo’s career is a story of power, negotiation, finance, and yes, law. But his life is a world where the love and devotion of his grandparents allowed him to leave Hawaii, while filling his heart with a love for this place that will always bring him back.


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


Wait ‘til you have kids.


I know.




I’m gonna probably have someone who’s like me, who will be completely self-righteous and obnoxious. And I’m gonna say, Why don’t you go to school here. No, I’m gonna go as far away from home as possible. Yeah. Yeah; I can see this happening.


And you’ll say, All that time and investment I put into you —


I know. I’m gonna have the script, right? I’m gonna be like, I spent all this time and money, but it’s not the money.




You know, it’s the fact that we’ve invested our hopes and dreams in you, and you’re gonna go far away. And they’ll probably know me well enough by then to say, Is that from Grandma and Grandpa? And I’ll say, Well, not really, but yeah. [CHUCKLE]



Neva Rego



Original air date: Tues., Apr. 1, 2008


Hawaii’s Voice Coach to the Stars


Neva Rego is known by many as Hawaii’s Voice Coach to the Stars, the wind beneath their wings, with a list of vocal students that includes Robert Cazimero, Tony Conjugacion, Jimmy Borges, Jasmine Trias and Jordan Segundo, and a waiting list with more than a hundred names.


Leslie Wilcox sits down with Neva to discuss how she followed her musical dreams, and how she shares her training and experience with her vocal students.


Neva Rego Audio


Download the Transcript




Aloha no and welcome to Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox with PBS Hawaii. We’re about to sit down with Neva Rego. Never heard of her? Neva is known by many as a Voice Coach to the Stars, the wind beneath their wings, with  a list of vocal students that includes Robert Cazimero, Tony Conjugacion, Jimmy Borges, Jasmine Trias and Jordan Segundo, and a waiting list with more than a hundred names. Neva Rego—next.


Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox – produced with Sony technology – is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in HD. High definition… it’s in Sony’s DNA.


Neva Rego is an extraordinary woman because she did an extraordinary thing. She followed her dream. Her wish was to be trained in a classical, Italian style of singing, the kind she’d been listening to on records since she was a child. So, at the tender age of 18, not long after World War II, she hopped on a freighter and shipped off to Italy to seek her destiny. She didn’t speak Italian and she didn’t even know the name of the technique she was seeking. It turned out to be bel canto.


It’s very hard to explain. It’s easy to listen to. What I think about it is, it’s so legato, meaning tied together; it’s all beautiful singing without pushing, without smashing those poor little notes. You know, it’s just gorgeous, beautiful singing; very legato. And free. I mean, if you’re singing bel canto, you’re not killing yourself when you hit a high note. It just—Pavarotti is an example of bel canto.


You know, my dad was a radio DJ and when I wanted to work in television I said, Dad, how do I use my voice? And he said, Do it the bel canto way. And of course, I had no idea what that meant. And he said, Take a candle and light it and put it in front of your mouth and speak, but make sure that you don’t blow that candle out.




No clue what he meant. And of course, when he spoke in front of it, he knew how to use his voice. But how does the candle relate to bel canto?


It doesn’t blow out. I’ve tried it so many times. It’s because your air is utilized with your voice, and no [BLOWS] comes out. No spurts of air or anything. It’s amazing.


And so that should help you as a performer to have a career over time, that you don’t destroy your vocal cords.


Oh, yeah. You don’t hurt yourself. And then it’s easier. Singing wise, you’re using your diaphragm and not your throat muscles to hold it up, you know, like some singers do.


So tell me a little about what life was like for you growing up. You were in Ka‘imuki.


Right; on 18th Avenue. And I’m still there. And I must say, we had a beautiful childhood, my brothers and myself. And at that time, there weren’t that many houses around us. You know, we had a lot of empty lots and little foresty-looking places that we built our clubhouse and all the kids would gather after school there. And I must say, it was a lovely time.


And you went to what school?


I went to Sacred Hearts Academy. And loved it. The nuns were wonderful, and I think they were a bit instrumental in my learning languages. Because all the nuns at that time were French, and I remember studying Latin and the teacher taught to us in French. How do you like that? And we had a lovely sister from Germany, Sister Polaneya, and she was a fabulous musician.


Now the girls at Sacred Hearts Academy are primed to go to college, and have professional careers. What was the goal in those days?


In those days, I do believe that a lot of the girls strived to be nurses or teachers. There weren’t that many kooky ones, like I was. [chuckle]


And how were you kooky?


Well, I wanted to something in music. I wanted singing; I loved it. And you know, here’s this little kid from Kaimuki, wanting singing. And you know, I don’t know why, but I felt it. As I recall, when I was seven years old, I heard this beautiful aria on the radio with this Italian singer. And I remember telling my mother that was the most beautiful thing I ever heard in my whole life. All of seven years, yes? And Mother said, You really loved it? I said, Oh, I love it, I just love it. Well, that did it. Mother went down to House of Music, at that time in Waikiki, and she kept buying all these records of Italian singers. And well, that whetted my appetite for opera.


What were the other kids on the block listening to? What kind of music were they listening to?


They were mostly in Hawaiian. And I loved Hawaiian; but there was something about opera that was for me, I felt. You know. And if nobody else liked it, that’s okay; but I did.


What appealed to you about it?


Oh, I loved the language, first of all. The Italian language is so beautiful to sing. You never have a bad sounding word in it.   You know, everything is so fluid and beautiful. And the drama, the music; I mean, it’s just glorious. Opera is complete, I feel. You have acting, singing, dancing, tragedies, happiness; everything all rolled up in one. You know? And that appealed to me.


So Italian opera was speaking to you from the time you were seven years old.




And you’re singing at Sacred Hearts Academy.




And looking at graduation.


Yes. And then I said, I think I want to go and study more music. I was looking all over for it; I had seven teachers here, and they were wonderful; all seven of them. But it was not what I was looking for. I kept hearing this other thing in my head, and even though all my relatives told my mother that they were sorry for her, because they felt that she had only one daughter, and what a shame she was crazy.




So I thought, never mind, they can’t hear what I’m hearing. So I convinced my mother and father that I had to go to Italy. So my mother said, Oh, my god. You don’t know Italian; what are you gonna do? But you know, when you’re 18 you think you have the world in your hand; you can do anything. So I said, I’ll learn it; no problems. So [chuckle] off I go on a on a freighter to Italy.


You know, some people follow their dreams to find fortune or fame or truth. Neva Rego heard a beautiful sound and followed it all the way to Milan, Italy simply to seek its beauty. Today, with air travel and cell phones and the internet, traveling halfway around the world, alone at that age, may not seem so remarkable. But to do it, at that time, seems so foreign.


Who did you go see? I mean, who did you know in Italy?


Well, before I left Honolulu, I was singing at the Hawaiian Village. And Rossano Brazzi, this Italian actor, he heard me singing, and he said, You know, senorina, you should be singing opera. And I said, Oh, I’m going to. And he said, Yes? I said, I’m going to Italy. And he said, Oh, wonderful. He said, I write to La Scala for you. And I thought, Well, that’s very kind, you know. But when I got to La Scala, I realized that [chuckle] it was so silly, because it was like shooting mosquitoes with a cannon; it was that ridiculous. I wasn’t ready for anything, except maybe to clean it.




You know. And but the maestro was very nice, Vittorio di Sabato. He was very nice, and he understood my plight. And he told me, Oh, senorina, I will get you a teacher and this and that. So I got set up with this teacher.


How did you pay for this? Were your parents funding this uh, adventure?


Not really. I mean, they gave me a little in the beginning, ‘cause I didn’t come from a wealthy family. We were medium, you know. And so I had saved money when I was at the Hawaiian Village. And then just before I left, I was fortunate to get an Atherton scholarship, Atherton Foundation scholarship.


M-hm. They’re still giving –


–thanks to Bob Midkiff.


Still in business today, helping folks.


Still in business. So that really helped me. And I thought, Maybe I’ll stay a year and see how I do, you know. I think I’ll understand well after a year. Oh; after a year, I didn’t know beans yet. So I knew I had to stay on. And there was no more scholarships; my mother and father helped me a bit, without a doubt. But then I started to get jobs; little jobs. I’m not ashamed to say that I cleaned a few houses in the beginning, because I didn’t know the language. And then I started to teach English, which I think was horrible, because I didn’t really understand the grammar. [chuckle] And poor Italians would study with me, but they were mostly interested in speaking.




You know, conversation. And then later on, I got a job with the designer Pucci. And that started me working in haute couture. And I went on from him to Valentino and I was with him for seven years. And all the while, studying.


Now, were you dreaming of becoming a huge Italian opera star?


You know, I have to say no, I was not. Because I was so interested in this bel canto technique, that that’s what I kept looking for. I was trying to find it. And after two and a half years with this maestro from La Scala, I wasn’t finding it. And I was so embarrassed to tell my family that I didn’t find it yet, in Italy, two and a half years. So I didn’t tell them.


Did you think maybe you were chasing a phantom, that it really didn’t exist, it was something you heard, but you really couldn’t learn?


I knew it existed; I just couldn’t find it. You know, and I didn’t know where to go. And so I quit La Scala, the maestro from La Scala, and and then I must say, I passed about three months of sheer depression. [chuckle] I just said one fine day to the dear Lord, If you really want me to sing, you better show me the way, because I’ve exhausted everything. And so now, I leave it in your lap. If you want me to find this elusive little thing, you will let me find it. And so I stopped worrying. But that night, I had to get out of my little apartment, because I was getting stir crazy, you know. And so I went to La Scala to hear a concert. And I heard this girl singing. She was studying with me before at Scala, but she had left—she was gone about a year. And she was singing divinely; just what I was looking for. So I thought, How could that be; she must have found someone. So I was sitting in the opera house in the very top, which we call the chicken coops, yes?




And I rushed down, but somehow I was too late; and I missed her. So I was so upset and depressed, because I didn’t know how to get a hold of her. And I remember walking home; I couldn’t even take the tram, because I was crying. And so the next morning, I got up, still depressed. I said, I’ve gotta get out of here. So I went—in Milano, they have this big galleria in the middle of town, glassed in, and you have a coffee, you know. And it’s a nice diversion; people are walking to and from. And I was sitting down and all of a sudden, here comes this girl that sang the night before, walking down. Wow; I ran after her, and I said, Ciao; I said, I heard you sing last night; it was just beautiful. And she said, Oh, Neva; did I find a teacher. I said, I can hear it, I can hear it. And she said—I told her that I left that maestro, and she said, I wondered when you were gonna get smart. You know. I said, Yeah, but I didn’t know enough to know I didn’t know. You know? And so she said, What are you doing now? I said, Absolutely nothing. She said, Well, I’m going to a lesson; come with me. So I followed her to the lesson one-hour lesson, and I sat in a little corner, and I listened to lesson, and I cried for one hour. [chuckle] Cried. Because it was like there was so much emotion, because it was like something I was looking for, for so long and I found it. And so afterwards, the senora came over to me and she said, Senorina Neva, she says, are all Hawaiians so emotional? And I said, No, Senora, I said, you know, it’s just because I was looking for you since—I was trying to find you since I was seven years old. And she looked at me, and she started to cry. And we hugged, and it was love from then on; for 22 years, I was with her. Yeah.


What’s her name?


Her name is—was Magda Piccarolo. She was a lyrica leggiero soprano, and she sang all over. She sang at Scala and in America at the Met.


So you continued to have lessons with her for twenty-two years?


Yeah; twenty-two.


And you became a singer in Italian opera houses.


Italian opera. I first started off in concerts, because that’s what everybody does to get going; get your feet wet sort of thing. You know, and then you get a little role here and a little role there, and it just starts getting better and better.


What was your favorite role?


There’s so many. Gosh. Lucia is beautiful; Rigoletto is beautiful. I love La Sonnambula, but we never do it, because it’s very classical, it’s very bel canto, and maybe boring. But the singing is beautiful. And those are ones I love.


To sing in opera houses in Italy. To live and achieve a dream. Can you imagine? Neva Rego did what she loved and loved what she did. And that’s what I love about this story!


You know, I love the language. And I love the people; they’re so wonderful. You know. When I first went to Italy, it was not too long after the war, so people were still quite poor. And we didn’t have a refrigerator in the house. And there was no washing machine either. [chuckle] You’re looking at it. And you know, it’s difficult to wash sheets in the bathtub.


You did that for years?


I did all of that.




Yeah, I really learned well. You know. And then I realized, silly Americans, when they complain; how beautiful our life is in America. And I think anybody who speaks against America should go abroad a while. Then you will how wonderful our country really is. You know. I know we are having problems now, but I mean, you know, the life is beautiful in America.


You stayed how many years; 26 years in all?


Twenty-six years. Really. It’s a lifetime, isn’t it?


Had you intended to come back? I mean, were you going to come back?


I think I might not have. The the thing that pushed me back was, in the late 70s, the man responsible for opera in Italy—he’s the one that subsidizes—that part of the government subsidizes opera. It was a Communist who got in. And when he got in, he decided no foreigners were gonna sing.


How high had you risen in the hierarchy of opera singers? Were you a big deal?


Well, I don’t think so. It was hard to get to be a big deal, because it was so political.




You had to do so many things; you had to make sure an empresario liked you. [chuckle] And I didn’t wish to go further than that. So I just struggled along and sang and it worked well. But say that I got to the jet stream top; no.


And was that okay with you?


That was okay. Because I didn’t start off to be a big opera star. I started off looking for this technique. [chuckle]


And you found it—


I found it.


–and then you practiced it, and –


And now, I’m teaching it.


Neva Rego is a professional voice coach, teaching her beloved bel canto in her longtime family home in Ka‘imuki.


I never intended to teach. Never. But when I arrived home, after Italy, I thought, What am I gonna do? So I decided I was gonna go to Seattle. Because Seattle had good opera. And I was still young enough. So, then my father got ill.




And had a stroke. And so that determined what I should do; I should stay home and take care of him. Because my brother was taking care of him all those other years, ‘cause Mother died so young. And so I stayed home, and this man came over and did an article on me in the paper. And the phone started ringing. And that’s the wonderful part of the story; it hasn’t stopped.


You have a waiting list this long. How many people are on your waiting list to take lessons?


Well, it used to be 200; right now, I think it’s down to about 100, 120. Which is nice; it’s security.


So the world started beating a path to your door; people wanted voice lessons from you.


Right. And one of the ones that came was Robert Cazimero.


How old was he then? Was he a young singer, just starting out?


This was in the 80s, early 80s.


In the 80s.


They were just from Manoa—


Sunday Manoa.


Sunday Manoa; and Robert came to me and said, You know, I’m having to lower my keys, and I don’t like that. He said, So I thought maybe if I studied a while, you’d help me. So 15 years later [chuckle]–


Now, why fifteen years?


Well, because he didn’t want to leave. He kept saying, No, I need it. I said, Robert, you don’t need lessons anymore; you know it so well. But we got on so well; he’s wonderful.


And this is not something that’s a quick fix, right?




A student has to commit himself or herself.


Oh, yeah. With poppy music, I would say two years, two years and a half. Classical, forget it; six and seven. And you can’t learn it overnight; it’s not like you learn to play piano overnight. You know, you just need time. And anybody can learn to sing, if they wish it.


You are such a popular voice teacher. What kind of criteria do you have in accepting a student?


Just that they really want to learn, and that there’s a voice there.


So tell me some of the people you’ve trained over the years.


Well, as I said, Robert Cazimero. And I had Shari Lynn at that time too. She’s been great. And Jimmy Borges, and Tony Conjugacion. At one time, on Broadway, I had 17 people. Really. That was great for me, but it was kind of sad, because I wanted one at the Met.


[chuckle] Don’t ask for much.


And everybody was on Broadway. I said, Oh, my lord; what am I doing? You know. We even helped Richard Chamberlain study, Betty and I, and gosh; there’s so many.


Well, and just recently, American Idol came along and—




Didn’t I hear your name with Jordan Segundo and—




–Jasmine Trias? After the competition, though; not before.


After. And Anita Hall, Les Ceballos is one of mine too; a dear one. Jasmine, Danny Couch, and John Koko from Makaha Sons. You know. So there’s a long list, and they all are like children, like my kids that I never had.


How interesting that a lot of these people distinguish themselves in singing before they had lessons from you, but they were motivated to learn—


More. And you take Jordan, for example. He’s singing so well now. I’m so proud of him. And that he’s such a nice boy. And I really want him to get ahead. And he’s learned very well. He never misses lessons, he’s so enthusiastic. See, that’s—


Now, he didn’t win American Idol, obviously. Do you think he would have gotten farther if he’d had the lessons earlier?


Without a doubt.


How would his voice have changed?


Well, he would have—now, he has a complete range. He sings down the bottom, he goes all the way to a B-flat, and a high C. He never had those notes before.


How about Robert, because he had wonderful training at Kamehameha, I would think.


Yes. Robert can go to a B-flat like that too. You see, what you do with the technique is, you tie the voice together. Especially people like Jordan and Robert; you might sing with your chest voice here; but then the minute you get near what we call the break, the passagio, you have to have a different placement for those high notes. So you have to blend in the bottom to the top, and you learn to go over that transition very smoothly with study. And they do it; beautiful. Listen; listen to Robert. After all these years, he still sounds glorious.


And after all this time, it’s still bel canto for you.


Yeah, it’s still—


You’ve never heard another type of vocal technique that works as well for you?


No; I’m in love with bel canto.


And so your mother didn’t raise a crazy daughter after all?


No, I don’t think so. I hope not. I don’t know if others feel that way, but I’m in love with what I’m doing. I love it.


Mahalo to Neva Rego for sharing her stories with us today. And thank you for joining me for them. That’s all the time we have for this Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Ciao bella and aloha hui hou kakou!


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


My name is not really Neva; it’s Aggreneva. And everybody gets all twisted ‘cause they don’t know who she is. But my mother named me after a Russian opera singer, and her name was Agraneva Schlovanskaya. I’m kinda happy Mother stopped after Aggreneva. Mother never told me that I had this name. I knew it was a kooky name; at school, they called me Aggrevacious. You know how school kids are. Anyway, all of a sudden, I said to Mother that I was in love with music and I wanted to do music. So Mother said, Well, you know, I think I’ll tell you about your name. And she told me about Aggreneva Schlovanska, who had come here years ago with some Russian group. And they sang at Hawaii Theatre. Isn’t that interesting?


And your mother obviously had a love for opera.


Yeah. But I was the one that was gonna make it my life.


Skylark Rossetti



Original air date: Tues., Aug. 12, 2008


Radio Personality


Leslie Wilcox sits down to share stories with a delightful woman with a beautiful voice – Honolulu Skylark.


This popular radio personality, whose real name is Jacqueline Rossetti, reflects on her early influences and what would become pivotal experiences in the Hawaiian cultural renaissance – visiting Kaho‘olawe with George Helm and others, co-founding the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, hosting the Merrie Monarch Festival for over 30 years, and being named Outstanding Hawaiian Woman of the Year (1984) and Hawaii Broadcaster of the Year (1991).


Skylark Rossetti Audio


Download the Transcript




Aloha no, and welcome to Long Story Short on PBS Hawaii; I’m Leslie Wilcox. The Honolulu Skylark. I remember the first time I heard her on the radio. It wasn’t just the beauty of her voice, or the image of a Skylark, that held me. It was her knowledge and understanding of Hawaii people, music, history, values. In the radio industry where companies and personnel tend to come and go, the Honolulu Skylark has made a lasting impression. We’ll catch up with her next.


The Honolulu Skylark is Jacqueline Rossetti. Her warm voice and warm personality became a fixture in island radio in the mid-1970s. Since then, she’s been named Hawaii Broadcaster of the Year and Hawaiian Woman of the Year. And today, she lives and works on Hawai‘i Island where she’s known simply as “Skylark.”


When people talk about you, they say, popular radio personality, Honolulu Skylark, or beloved personality. And they say something with you that I don’t hear about them saying with other DJs; it’s influential radio personality. What happened? What did you do?


I think I listened, Leslie. I had a passion and care for keeping our culture alive. I wanted to know why songs were written; I didn’t want to just hear the songs. I wanted to talk to the composers. And so I armed myself with going out and meeting them, caring about why they wrote a particular song, what inspired them. I wanted to hear about the careers of people that I had heard their music over the years. One of my favorite people, Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs, his big band, syncopated swing era; I loved that. And so he said, Why would you want to be interested in talking to me? I said, Because you did this, you were the ambassador of good cheer in the 30s. Why did they call you that, Uncle Alvin? And so I would sit with them, and they would tell me their stories.


Well, you’re going back to the 30s now. How did you know about them?


Well, because I had old 78s; I collected records. You know, Mom kept her collection, and that’s what started my collection. ‘Cause she would have to practice her hula to these old recordings. And so I started listening to them, and I loved the swing era, and I loved that sound of Hawaiian music with big band. And so, when I had the opportunity to seek these people out, I wanted to make sure that their stories were told, or that somebody could you know, share them with the rest of the audience so that we could all learn about that era of Hawai‘i.


At that time, was there Hawaiian music on the air?


There was one station, and that’s why I was so excited about getting an opportunity to work there, was KCCN. They were the only —




It was an AM station; it was from sunrise to midnight. And it went off the air at midnight, and it was an opportunity to share. And I have to laugh, because back then, it was the other side of Hawaiian music, as Krash Kealoha, who was the program director at the time, would call it. They were doing the Funky Hula, and they were doing you know, all this different kinds of hapa Haole, almost, music. And I wanted to bring back the Hawaiian, the traditional Hawaiian. I wanted to hear Genoa Keawe on the radio again, ‘cause she wasn’t being heard. I wanted to hear some of the traditional music.


And did they think that old school, it wouldn’t —


They did.


— draw an audience —


And they said —


— people don’t care.


No; and I kept saying, No, they do want to hear about this. I want to play chants; I opened my show every morning with a chant, because I felt that was important for us to hear that we came from, you know, beats and chanting before. And every program that I watched as a child growing up, with Aloha Festivals, you had a chanter come out and welcome everybody; and I wanted that when I performed and did my radio show. So I would open my shows with chants, and explain what those chants were about. And people started to listen, you know. They hadn’t heard the language translated in quite sometime.


And then you would get a chance to do something that radio executive Mike Kelly would say, changed the radio landscape of Honolulu forever.



Is that putting it—Hawaiian music—on the FM then?




You know, somebody didn’t want it; I don’t know why. They didn’t feel that Hawaiian music was worthy enough for FM, or something; I don’t know. Every format had been covered in FM, but Hawaiian music. And I said, Why don’t you put Hawaiian music on the FM band? And they said, Well, will you do it? I said, Absolutely. Why shouldn’t it be on the FM band? Well, what kind of music would you play? Hawaiian music. You wouldn’t put the chants on FM, would you? Yes, I would. You know. And so it was an opportunity to hear chanting, in stereo, and music that has been recorded in stereo for years but never on a stereo band. It was exciting. It was a wonderful time period.


A popular broadcaster today, Billy V, Bill Von Osdol, says you were his radio kumu, and he was so thrilled when you called him over to work at KCCN FM. And he said, basically, you folks built the studios.


We did. I mean, we hammered the nails, and we [chuckle] I mean, from the ground, up. It was nothing but an empty room and they said, Go put up a radio station in there; and that’s exactly what we did.


And once you got this traditional Hawaiian format going, how did it do?


It did really well, Leslie. I was amazed at how many people were listening. I had no idea that the young kids would gravitate to it so well. I thought, Okay, sure, we add a little color with the Jamaican music, and you know, that will keep the young kids. And then we get the kupuna and have their style of traditional Hawaiian music. But could it actually blend, and would it actually work? And it did. We did a concert at the Aloha Tower; it was the first of many which now has become the FM100 Birthday Bashes, right? And we took over Aloha Tower at the time, ‘cause it was gutted, it was empty. And I couldn’t believe how many kids showed up. We thought maybe hundred kids; there was three thousand people the first concert we threw. And it was Kapena and Ho‘aikane, and just our local bands. It was nobody, you know, fabulous to come and see; just kids that wanted to play music.


And pretty soon, we did these on a monthly basis. And we had to move out of Aloha Tower. We just — there was no room for us anymore. And that’s what started the first FM100 Birthday Bash at the Waikiki Shell.


Na Hoku Hanohano; you are a three-time award winner, and I always hear your name when people talk about the founding of the Hoku Hanohano Awards. Tell me about it.


It started as our small, little radio station promotion. We realized that, you know, in one year, we had double the amount of recordings. And I said to Krash, Look at this, we had thirty-six records this year recorded, and if next year it’s up to seventy-seven. And he said, We should do something about it; we should honor these people in the recording industry. And as a small, little radio station promotion, it turned into the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts, and we mimicked ourselves after the Grammy Awards because we thought that’s what we could be, a Hawaiian Grammy Award.


Did you have a budget for it?


Oh, yeah; all of three hundred dollars. [chuckle] We had to beg and barter, and back then, we you know, went to the Ala Moana Hotel and said, Do you want to have this event? And they looked at us like, Hawaiian music? Yeah, we want to honor our Hawaiian music. And it’s interesting, because people like Melveen Leed, they could walk down the street and nobody knew who they were. Now, Melveen Leed walks down the street, and she’s a star. You know, and we sort of, you know, did that; we made stars of our own entertainers that were just going unnoticed in our lifestyles.


You knew Brudda Iz, Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole very well. And I’ve read that you pointed out something about him, which is that he really didn’t come prepared to the studio.




And as a result, for example, in the song that has gone platinum all over the world, you know, you hear some incorrect lyrics and —


Lots of incorrect. [chuckle]


— consolidating lyrics. He changes chords.


Israel’s own interpretation of what the song is supposed to sing like. And it’s because he gets inspired, and you go into the studio, and he’ll just sing whatever comes to his heart. And he must have been thirteen or fourteen years old when I first met him. And they would call me up on the radio; I wasn’t at KCCN at the time. I worked at a station that — KNDI, at midnight played Hawaiian music when KCCN went off the air. And I think that’s what lured them to have me come to join KCCN, was I was doing a midnight to eight in the morning Hawaiian music show. And the entertainers were calling in and — and listening to me and —


And I bet Iz called you all the time.


He did.




He and Skippy.


And he continued to —


And their group.


— do that most of his life, called —


Oh, he did.


— folks up, and had his say.


He did. He loved radio; that kept him entertained. And he said, Come on out to Makaha; I have this group, I want you to hear us. And I went out there, and there they were; just these kids in, you know, puka clothes, and just — but their harmonies and their voices, and their family unit was so endearing, and I just loved them. And I brought them to KCCN, and did their first recording, and we started playing — this was when we could play bootleg music on the air. And so that’s how they started their career.


And you went and sought them out, and they knew it.


Yeah; they did.


You gave them a voice they really didn’t have. But what would move you to go all the way to Makaha to talk to a couple of teenaged boys about their music?


Once I drove into their yard, and Mama and Daddy were out on the porch, I said, Oh, my gosh, I found myself home. And I just — you know, they were just this sweet family, opened up their hearts to us, and to me, you know, and I just, you know, I felt like home.


Skylark’s passion for the people and traditions of Hawaii resonated with listeners at a time that Hawaiian music and culture were going through a renaissance. That’s when she really found her “voice.”


Well, let’s go back –




— ‘til way before the Honolulu Skylark emerged. Where’d you grow up? What was your growing up like?


It was a wonderful Hawaiian family. The Mahi’s are my mother’s background; she had ten brothers and sisters.


Are you related to Aaron Mahi, the —


That’s my —


— former band leader?


— first cousin. Yeah; his father and my mother are brother and sister. There were ten children in that family, and they all had four or five children each. And so we had a wonderful family home in Kalihi, where my grandfather lived, and our families built their beach house in some property that my grandmother had right across from what we call Baby Beach Park in Ka‘a‘awa. So our family spent weekends in Ka‘a‘awa and weekdays going to schools in the Kalihi area.


When you say it was a Hawaiian upbringing, what does that mean?


When you’re in a Hawaiian family, you learn nurturing of values and living off the land. And we did things like hukilau and did our own imu and kalua pig, and you know, fished. And it was just a warm, family thing. We all slept together in the same beds, and we all bathed together. [chuckle] You know, it was that kind of a family.


Rossetti doesn’t sound terribly Hawaiian.


No, my father’s pure Italian, and Mama and Daddy met in Pearl Harbor. And he just loved our family and became more Hawaiian, almost, than my mother. She wanted to be Americanized. You know how that was —


That was the —


— back then.


— generation, World War II.


That was that generation. And Dad wanted to be Hawaiian; he wanted to learn to fish and hukilau, and you know, do all of those things. And so he gravitated more to being Hawaiian than Mama did. And he loved the brothers and sisters, and just got along very well with them.


And traditional Hawaiian music; when did that come into your life?


I think it had always been surrounded in my life. My father — and I have to give him credit, because he loved things Hawaiian. And during our raising up, Dad was involved with something called Aloha Week back then. And he surrounded us with just wonderful mentors that were our aunties. I didn’t know that they weren’t really related to us, ‘cause we always had — everybody was aunty and uncle.


So your pure Italian dad —




— and not your full-blooded Hawaiian mom introduced —


Thank you.


— you to this.


Yes. And he was, you know, hanai’d by Auntie ‘Iolani Luahine, and Auntie Sis Wiederman, and these wonderful pillars of Hawaiiana. And they nurtured my father in this business. I remember watching Auntie ‘Iolani dancing at ‘Iolani Palace in these beautiful Hawaiian pageants. And I said, That’s what I want to do; I want to keep our culture alive.


I never saw her dance in person. Is it true what people said, that when she danced, it was as if something else was inside her, living through her?


Absolutely. Auntie enjoyed an inu, and when we were at parties, after the big pageantry, she would have an inu or two. And then all of a sudden, she’ll hear a song that somebody’s dancing or singing, and she became a whole different person. And you’d look at her like, what happened, what possessed her. And she’d just start dancing or chanting, or — she was just a marvelous woman. And then after it was pau, it was like, Oh, where am I?


[chuckle] And she’s —


And she went back to —


— back at the party.


— hanging out —




— at the party.


Absolutely. And she was just a gracious, lovely lady.


So your dad worked for Aloha Week, or volunteered for Aloha Week?


It was a volunteer thing for over forty years of his life. He’s director emeritus, if you look at the — well, I don’t know where we are with that right now. That breaks my heart terribly to see an organization like that starting to fall apart on the neighbor islands. But it got to me see what life on Kaua‘i was like, what life on Moloka‘i was like. Because we would go from week to week to the different —




— islands, meet some wonderful people who all cared about the culture. I don’t know if you remember; we used to spend time at Ala Moana Park when there was an Ulu Mau Village.




And they had all the little places that you could go and visit and learn your culture, and pound poi, and watch them weave. It was just a marvelous time to grow up.


And later, they moved that by He‘eia Kea.


He‘eia Kea; but it wasn’t the same as in Ala Moana Park, where it was closer to the people, and people could come and visit.


And that’s what Waikiki is trying to move toward now, having lost some of that authenticity.


Absolutely. Yeah.


So here we are; going to Kamehameha. Did they infuse you with Hawaiian?


I think there were wonderful people up there, like Auntie Nona Beamer, who was encouraging you to, you know, learn hula and to dance. And I had always been a part of the music scene. Mama was a hula dancer with Hilo Hattie, and she toured with the Al Kealoha Perry Show and danced at the Lexington Hotel in New York. And so she — you know, she always had her music with us, and she always taught us hula. And then we went to formal training in our neighborhood where we grew up in Foster Village with Auntie Rose Joshua. So we — at the age of five, we were dancing hula and chanting, and you know, uniki’d by the age of fifteen. And you know, I didn’t know what that was back then, but it was just a part of how we grew up. You know, and how brothers and sisters would drum and beat the tin cans or the cracker cans in those days for the Tahitian music. And it was hula schools, where you learnt ancient hula, auana hula, Samoan dancing, Tahitian dancing, and Maori dancing.


We talked earlier about the Hawaiian renaissance. One of the highlights of that period, besides the return of traditional music, was Kaho‘olawe and freeing the island from target bombings by the military. Were you involved in that?


Well, you remember the gentleman who started the theme and raised the theme of Aloha ‘Aina, aloha awareness: entertainer, musician, and a dear friend, George Jarrett Helm. In fact, I named my son after him; that’s how close we were. A wonderful family of Moloka‘i. And you know, he could sing, and his beautiful voice would transcend to the kupuna. And then when he would talk to them about aloha ‘Aina, they could relate to him. And then he started to say, This island is not a distant rock; don’t bomb it. I live right there; I can hear this. It’s paining me to just watch this smoke go up. Why are we continuing to do this? And it was his thought, his vision of freeing that island from the harshness of the bombing, and watching the red dirt surround the islands; it almost looked like it was bleeding, the island was bleeding of its red dirt. And he said, We’ve got to stop this. He went to the legislature. And I’m sure you know, people can look at the history books; he gave his life for that island. And I think we were in the early stages. Women were like Auntie Emma DeFries, who I was studying under at the time, a dear friend who I grew up with up. Auntie Frenchy DeSoto said, Do you want to go to the island? And this was in the days when nobody was going to the island; they had just arrested the nine protestors on the island, and they were giving us an opportunity to go in legally and to look at the island. And I was one of those first seventeen onboard. We were called the first warriors, as they call us today, but we went to take the kupuna to see so that they could see that it wasn’t just a rock. We weren’t bombing just a rock.


Did you feel any mana, or anything special on that island?



Oh, you could feel the island; you can still feel the island today if you to got Kaho‘olawe. It’s just chicken skin. You were there with your camera; you saw how beautiful that island is. And you know, to walk the ancient trails, and to see, you know, poi pounders and shell carvings that you don’t see on any other island except Kaho‘olawe; it was exciting. Dr. Patrick Kirch did this whole study that we were a part of, and we looked at how the sediments of the earth and how the people — it was just m-m, magical, wonderful.


You’re telling me something I didn’t know. Do you think it was George Helm who bridged, you know, he went from music to cultural –


I think it was. I think he had this magical voice that could attract people to listen to him, and then he could tell his story. He could say, Hey, this island needs to stop this bombing. And I think that’s the way he got the message across.


And that was a multi-generational protest and rally, and in the end, very successful.


And he —


Except —


— got; yes.


— now we can’t free the island of all the ordnance.


[chuckle] And you know, it’s sad, because here we thought that was what was going to happen with all that money being dumped into — we were gonna be able to get it all off the island. And when we were there, we had no idea we were tromping around with live ordnance on the island.




You know, and here we are, taking kupuna and flying them from districts. And Inez Ashdown, who was raised on the island, you know, was in our party, and she was telling the story of how the goats were here, and this water tank was here. And you know, we had no idea that we were tromping her through live ordnance. But we were so passionate, and we were so excited at the time to document these stories. And Uncle Harry Mitchell being with us, and you know, him sharing his passion for the island, because his son and — yeah, it was a wonderful time.


Rich cultural experiences have shaped Jacqueline “Skylark” Rossetti’s life. Today she’s a single mom living in Hilo – she wanted more a country lifestyle for her children. She’s still broadcasting and still promoting the Hawaiian culture.


You’re still the Honolulu Skylark, but for the last almost twenty years, you’ve had a neighbor island perspective.


You know, it’s interesting, because I grew up on O‘ahu in a rural area, right across from Radford High School in a little village called Foster Village. And we had cow pastures in the back yard, and chickens, and so to me, moving to Hilo where my mother is from, it was almost like I had to because that’s what I wanted my children to grow up knowing, was a rural area where we could have dogs and cats, and not live in an apartment or you know, the hustle and bustle of how Honolulu had changed so. And I could go down the street, wave to my neighbor, and he would wave back to me. I mean, that’s what I grew up knowing. And that’s what I still look at Hilo – as a wonderful place to ensure that the foundation for my children was there.


Are you happy with the state of Hilo radio?


I think it’s unique; it’s growing, it’s changing. You know, we don’t command the advertising dollars that we could get with Honolulu, but we’re a unique market. And I enjoy, again, like I did with the old kupuna, going out and meeting who these people are, what they’re doing. We have wonderful farmers like Richard Ha doing some wonderful things; Barry Taniguchi, who’s had this store in Hilo forever. And you know, bringing that into the mix, where people can understand who our community is, is just endearing to the listeners.


Well, how optimistic are you about this Hawai‘i nei?

You know, Leslie, I am very concerned about where we’re going. I work – another hat that I wear, Leslie, is economic development. And I find that isn’t that odd, as a Hawaiian being in economic development. But if I don’t get involved and make sure that the culture is okay, then I don’t feel that I’ve done my duty here. And Hawai‘i Island Economic Development is into sustainability, is into getting back — instead of shipping everything in, growing it, making sure that our island can be sustainable. And it’s hard. You know, there’s lots of stuff going on that are influencing, lots of pressures with Mauna Kea issues, lots of pressure with water right issues. And we just had an earth shake in October of ’06 that devastated water on our island to get the cattle fed. You know; fresh water. I mean, who is going to replace those ditches? You know. It was a wake-up call for us, on the neighbor island folks – that we’ve got to ensure, you know, that we’re strong and healthy. You know how they say you’ve been at the right place at the right time? I think I was very lucky enough to be at the right place, at the right time to be able to have mentors take me in and want to train me, like Pilahi Paki is one of my – a very stalwart woman who I just admired, and who taught me so much about who we are, and what we are as a Hawaiian, and made me proud of who I was. I endear myself to people to like Moe Keale, who you know, was this big, old bear, you know, but just had that love and aloha for people, and it transcended through his music. There’s just so many people who are – influence on me, that I want to thank them for helping to shape me. Because if they didn’t share their stories, I wouldn’t have them to share with other people.


Of all of the musicians, the entertainers, and others you’ve come across in your career, who’s impressed you the most?


You know, it’s funny you would say that. There were people, like I mentioned earlier, Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs was a dear man who had that 30s and 40s era. And then in the 50s and 60s, I would have to say there were people like Ed Kenny and Marlene Sai, and those people and those voices that shaped Hawaiian music that I’ve gravitated to as dear friends. And then in the 70s, it would have to be my friend Gabby Pahinui. I loved Pops. He just transcended this down-home earthiness about him, with that little kolohe style like Israel, always getting himself in trouble with his wife. But just this raw, loving, caring person. And then, of course, my friends from when I went to high school, Robert and Roland Cazimero, and you know, we were all at school at the same time. Keola and Kapono Beamer, they were all much older than I am, but you know, that era of music too.


Skylark continues to share her voice and her stories, hosting radio shows and, for 30 years, the Merrie Monarch Festival of hula. She has a beautiful voice. And she is a beautiful voice, speaking with understanding and love of the islands. Mahalo to fellow broadcaster, Skylark Rossetti and you for joining me for this wonderful Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. A hui hou kakou!


How would you intro a new show that you’re doing?


How would I intro? How about, From the snow-capped mountains of Mauna Kea, to the warm, sunny shores of Waikiki, you’re listening to Hawaiian music that will transcend your heart and deepen your soul. I don’t know; I just made something up. I didn’t know what you wanted me to do! [chuckle]


I wanted you to keep going! [chuckle]



Keali’i Reichel



Original air date: Tues., Oct. 16, 2007


In the premeire episode of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, Leslie sits down with Keali’i Reichel – composer; performer; teacher and an icon in the Hawaiian music and culture scene.


Keali’i Reichel Audio


Download the Transcript




Aloha kakou. And welcome to the premiere episode of Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. We hope that PBS Hawaii’s newest television program entertains, informs and perhaps even inspires you through conversations with some of the most interesting people in our community. And through our website at, you’re invited to take part in our program. Log on and see who some of our upcoming guests are. Suggest questions for them. And make suggestions for other people you’d like to see featured on Long Story Short. Your involvement in our programs – and support of our mission – will help us to make our community even more diverse, informed and perhaps even inspired. We’re about to sit down with Keali’i Reichel – an icon in the Hawaiian music and culture scene. But in this conversation, we’ll try to draw out the character behind the musician, chanter and kumu hula.


How do you define yourself? Songwriter? Kumu hula? Recording artist?


I’m Hawaiian. First, for me personally, first and foremost, I’m Hawaiian. And so I try to do things that connect myself to my ancestors, my kupuna; and find my way today through my music, through chant, through hula. I think that’s first and foremost, and everything else just happens, I think.


I recall reading a while back that you were surprised when you had these hit songs because you never considered yourself a good singer.


No. And I think most singers don’t think they can sing. I know I can hold a tune, but I’m not sure that I would go see me in concert [chuckle]. But no. I’m thankful for what we have and I’m thankful for the gifts that were bestowed upon us. And so we try to utilize them as best as we can without being too pushy about it, you know?


Are you a perfectionist?


Yes. We rehearse lots. We do a lot of practicing, making sure that songs are correct, the chords are correct, the language is correct, the ano or the feeling is correct, as much as possible. Because you know, people are – especially if they’re coming to see you in concert or at a performance, you know – they’re paying money to come see you. You know, you don’t want to disappoint. And you want to make sure that people leave happy and worth their time to come and see you.


Are you tougher on yourself or other people?


Probably. Maybe little bit of both, depending. I think we try to pick and choose of those who are around us, who have the same kind of mindset. You know, where excellence is up here. We try to reach that. We’re never gonna reach it, we’re never gonna be perfect, but at least we have something to strive for, every single time.


You mentioned to me before we got started here that this situation is a little odd for you, because—


Mm hm.


— as a kumu hula, you like to be in charge and in control; and this TV setting is not quite your way of doing things.


Yeah, it’s a little um, different [chuckle], for lack of a better word. But you know, insofar as, you know, being a kumu hula, we are responsible for everything to do with the education of our students when it comes to the hula. And when you think about the hula, you know, there’s so many different parts of our cultural fabric that’s in the hula itself. You know, within the hula you have language, you have gesture, you have dance, you have mindset, poetry, you know. And within all of that, you have little sub- things like history and cultural aspects like different kinds of practices. You know, fishing, farming, kapa making. All – everything comes under that particular umbrella of – that we know of as hula. So it’s not just dance. And so when you’re a kumu hula, we believe that you are the singular source for your particular brand or thought process of – I shouldn’t say brand – thought process of hula. And so you have to be strong. You have to make sure that your students um, follow everything to the letter as best as you can, because that’s what our kupuna did. Yeah it’s – how I teach is how I learned.


Not a democracy.


Absolutely none. Yeah, yeah. If we say jump, you ask how high. You know, that kind. But …


And you feel comfortable with that, being the source of all the direction?


Yes, yes. Because I started with that. You know, this singing thing, as I like to call to it sometimes, ‘cause sometimes it’s – you know, it just happens, is – it actually came out of my hula training and out of my oli training and chant training. So yeah, that’s always where I’m gonna go back to, no matter what. ‘Cause I know that this ‘career,’ for lack of a better word, is – you know, it’s fleeting. It can be. You know, these things don’t last forever. But our culture is much more grounded than that. Yeah. And that is where I derive – we derive a lot of our strength and um inspiration.


When you say ‘we,’ is it the ‘royal we’ or ‘halau we’?


Yeah, I know [chuckle].


Or your—


I get asked that a lot. You know, I don’t like to use the word, ‘I.’ And so sometimes it’s kinda weird when I say ‘we’ ‘cause it sounds like the ‘world we.’ But it’s an uncomfortable thing for me just to say. So kalamai, if it sounds weird.


[Chuckle] You know, I hear through the coconut wireless that you began life as a kid named Carlton.


Mm hm, yeah. That’s my English name. Carlton Lewis Kealiinaniaimokuokalani Reichel.


How did you become Keali‘i Reichel, much in demand recording artist and performer?


I don’t know. I don’t think you start off anything in your life with that kind of thing in mind. Maybe some people might, but I know that we didn’t. You know, oftentimes for us – and I can only speak for myself, you know. We work at bettering our chant, our hula, learning about our language, you know? And as you move along on this particular path, and you affect others and you teach, and you learn yourself it’s a give-and-take process, every once in a while you look up and you see what has happened. And some people go, ‘Ah yeah, yeah. Good for you.’ And you know, that kinda thing? You get all these accolades and stuff. But you know, we just put our head back down, and go back to work. So I don’t know how we got here. All I know is that we’re here, and we do what we can while we’re here in this…


There was some adversity in your background. You went to prison.


Um, almost. Not quite; almost. We – I used to hang out with a group of people that – we were very competitive. And it’s probably part of my personality where, you know, I always have to strive, yeah, to be the best at what you do. And so long story short, uh, I was convicted of grand theft. Yeah, when I was in my mid-twenties, I think.


What did you do?


Um, took some money from the company that I was working for. And uh…


Why did you do it?


Uh, why? Let’s see. In our little group, it started off small. It started off with, you know, taking a pencil, and then a pen, and then something – it just escalated. And so it was a little competition between all of us. And I had to be better. And so mine was the biggest one.


Grand theft.


Yeah [chuckle]. Gr—


That means, what, two hundred fifty dollars or more, right?


Oh yeah. I guess so; I don’t know. But you know, I was convicted. And the interesting thing was, you know, at the time, I was living with my grandmother. And I was kinda known on Maui as a kumu hula and – or at least an advocate of cultural, Hawaiian cultural things. And I received a phone call from my – at my grandmother’s house from the investigating uh detective. And he said, I’d like to come and – you know, I’d like for you to come and talk to us in Lahaina. I’m like, ‘Okay.’ So we went to Lahaina, and…


You weren’t scared, like, oh-oh?


I kinda knew. I kinda knew. And so I got there and immediately was arrested. And so I sat down with him and he was – he knew my family, he knew that I was living with my grandmother. He didn’t want my grandmother to see this at all. And so we sat down and he – after I signed all the papers that I had to, he said, ‘Okay, you can go home, and we will contact you.’ I was very lucky. A few months later I had to go to court and the judge at the time was again familiar with my work as a kumu hula. And so was the prosecutor. And they were very, very staunch supporters of what I was doing, even though they had to you know, uh, punish me for what I had done. And so they felt that it would be better if I stayed out of prison and worked towards bettering myself culturally than actually going to prison. So that was a huge turning point for me.


Was that community service in lieu of prison time?


Yeah, yeah. And I had to pay all the money back. You know. And I speak freely about it, because if I can provide one example of what you can do, how you can change your life. And it was because of the things that I was doing within the Hawaiian community that prevented me from going to prison. I had to, in my mind, turn around and pay back. And from — it was from that point forward that it became even more imperative for me to strive for, you know, cultural excellence as much as I could. So that as a huge turning point for me.


Overcoming adversity. That seems to be a prerequisite for success in the music industry. And Keali’i Reichel undoubtedly has found success – as a composer, performer and teacher. We’ll ask him what he thinks about being Hawaiian, being creative, and being a celebrity… next.


Do you think your life would have been different if you didn’t get caught?


Maybe. Uh, I think so. You know, if I hadn’t gotten caught, I probably would have done more. Who knows? I really don’t know. But I think, again in retrospect, you get to – you know, if you’re lucky enough, you get to look back on that path that you took, and all the paths that you could have taken. And so yeah, I think I did the right thing at the right – or the wrong thing at the right time.


You know, you say you are first and foremost in your life a Hawaiian.


Mm hm.


So traditional Hawaiian roots very important; but you live and you succeed in a contemporary society. How do you bridge the two worlds?


I don’t know. I think – you know, again, it’s like of those things. You don’t work at bridging the two worlds; you just work at survival and being as comfortable in your own skin and in your culture, as possible. And I think that’s it, really – you know, I enjoy electricity, I enjoy my TV. But I also enjoy waking up and doing ceremony, doing protocol, reliving and reviving, and re- articulating Hawaiian things either through chant or hula or whatever the case might be. I think it’s being comfortable in your own skin and just doing it.


You express your creativity through music, through—


Mm hm.


— the hula. Do you do art, do you do creative writing as well?


Oh, I wish I could draw [chuckle]. But I can’t.


You could do your own album covers if you drew.


M-m-m …




I – no, I don’t do a lot of that. I – most of my creativity is – it really is channeled or funneled through the hula itself. I think that’s imperative for a kumu hula to be creative. That’s what we do – we create. We create um new avenues in which to plug back into our history. And to meld ourselves with our kupuna, and to make it viable for today. That’s what kumu hula do. That’s their creative process. And they will always be doing that. Every generation of kumu hula will bring their experiences of that particular time to the forefront, couple that with their training. And their training usually comes from –not always, but most of the time, comes from a long line of kumu hula. And so those particular gestures, those particular thought processes always break through to the modern world, through that that particular person, through that kumu hula. So yeah. For myself and for many other kumu hula, that’s our creativity. And everything else just kind of gets – it’s like shrapnel [chuckle] uh, for lack of better word. And so the singing thing is kinda like shrapnel, almost for me, because it was through the hula and through chant and that particular training that the singing kinda branched out of.


You know, as I listen to you, you don’t seem caught up in the recording artist, celebrity part of it all. You really are into the hula and the halau part of it, aren’t you?


Yeah. I’m actually uncomfortable with um, this kind, you know [chuckle]. But I – there’s certain people, there’s certain times that I think it’s important. And this is one of them. And so we, you know, you’re right. We’re not comfortable. We’re not caught up. And I think once you get caught up in it, it becomes a dangerous wave to ride. It becomes distractive. And I think that, you know, whatever success we’ve had with the singing career happened in a later time in my life. I think I was thirty-two when this happened. And so I already went through the evil twenties, you know? [Chuckle]


Mm hm.


I got a lot of that stuff out during that particular time. I think, on a personal level, had this success happened when I was twenty- one, twenty-two, twenty-three, I think it would be different. And so I’m thankful for that.


And you don’t seem to have trouble saying ‘No, that’s a great opportunity, but I don’t want to do that.’ I mean, I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘Oh, it’s really hard to get Keali‘i Reichel, he’s tough to get.’


Right. Um, you can’t say yes – we learned early on, after the first or second year of this, that you cannot say yes to everything. You have to build parameters around what it is that you’re going to do.


Even though you’re asked to do a lot of good things.


Right, yeah, there. And everything is good. That’s the thing; everything is good. But once you start to spread yourself thin – um, I’m gonna quote something. It’s – you feel like too little bit butter on a large piece of bread. You know? You get spread so thin that it doesn’t taste good anymore. And so you want that butte. I like butter, yeah? So butter gotta be thick, and right on top that piece of bread. And so yeah. And so we’ve learned to build parameters to say no; and to say yes to the things that are

important. Because otherwise, you become useless to the ones that you want to help if you’re doing too many things. Especially in this community, in Hawaii. It’s a small community, and you know, you only have so many venues to perform. And you can

only perform so many times. You know, after a while, it becomes too much.


Your island is the first island I think of when I think of a lot of newcomers with new ways, and different expectations.


Um, like how you mean?




Okay. You’re correct. Yeah; the demographic is changing on my island.


And the demographic changed probably for Maui, earlier than other islands.


Yeah. And actually, it’s still different, very different.


Is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing? Can you work with this? [Chuckle]


Well, we have no choice. Yeah; that’s the thing. It’s difficult, because you see things changing right before your eyes. And very, very quickly on Maui. You know, a lot of you know, local people from the neighbor islands, you know, they criticize Honolulu, the city. Oh, it’s the city – all the traffic and the freeways. But you know if you look at it, if you look at Oahu as a whole, you still have these old neighborhoods that have mom and pop stores. There’s lots of them on this island. Um, mom and pop restaurants, where the waitresses are grouch, you know? And you get, you know, fat and gristle in your saimin. You know, that kinda stuff. And that is almost all gone on Maui. You know, because it’s a different kind of movement. It’s a different kind of… for lack of better word, maybe ‘progress.’ I’m not sure. It’s difficult to see and difficult to be around sometimes. But you have no choice. You have to work with it and stand your ground when you have to. And some people don’t like it. They think that it’s either unwelcoming or it’s even racist.


What does it mean to stand your ground?



Stand your ground, meaning, you know, that this is how we do things here. This is our mindset. You know, we – you know, I wouldn’t presume to go anywhere else in the world and change how that community thinks. Yeah, ‘cause that’s not my job. You know, my job is to meld into the community. And there are, you know – and I’m sure it happens all over the world, and there are people that just can’t meld – they just want to make it how they want to make it. And that happens yeah, kinda often on Maui. It’s just different, yeah?


Sentiments that probably resonate throughout Maui and all of our diverse communities. Coming up… Keali‘i Reichel tells us what he does to stay grounded and keep his focus.


One of our PBS Hawaii viewers has a question for you.


Uh oh.




Okay [chuckle].


When you need to recharge your creativity—


Mm hm.


–what do you do? Where do you go?


I stay home… and I work in the yard.


And where is home, and what is your yard like?


Well, I live up in Piholo.


Which is upcountry Maui?


Upcountry. It’s in the ahupua‘a. It’s namoku of Hamakua Poko. And it’s about thirty-five hundred feet above sea level. So it’s kinda cold. And you know, I do a lot of yard work. As much as I can while I’m home, anyway. You know, mow da lawn. You know, I get four dogs. We – I just planted, you know, forty ohia trees on the property. So you know, all those—and I have kalo and uala, and all of those kinds of things. So um, for me, if I’m getting just a little bit too bombarded with this kind of work lifestyle, it always feels good to go back and get your hands dirty. And I had to clean my fingernails before I came, because I didn’t realize my fingernails were so dirty. Before I got here, I was like, ‘Eh, brah! Clean your fingernails!’ But yeah, that’s where– that’s how I recharge.


And where do you get the strength from to go on? I mean, ‘cause we’ve talked about how people in the public eye tend to get criticism, or you get people pulling you on different sides. How do you find strength?


You find—I think there’s a lot of different ways you can find that, and for everyone, it’s different. I have a great family. I have really, a small – very, very, very small group of close-knit friends. Yu know, halau keeps you grounded ecause you are responsible for so many people that you can’t be you know, flitting around too much. And you have to be grounded. Your students are direct reflection off of you. So you have to make sure that you are strong enough for them to be able to be grounded, because of you. Yeah. So that – there’s a whole bunch of stuff. I don’t think it’s just one thing.


And now you’re releasing a high definition DVD. Is that a new creative challenge for you?


A little bit. You know, when we do our – every year we have a show. We have three or four – three concerts on Maui. And we’ve been doing it for a few years. And it has become the venue in which not only to – for us to be – to sing. And for our fans or for those who like our music to come and watch us sing. But also it becomes an avenue for our halau to perform. And because that’s part of the learning process, that’s part of the cultural learning process – is learning how to get on a stage, learning to how to take your craft that you learn in your – in class and actually bring it to fruition in real time. Yeah. That’s a huge part of learning for halau. And so these concerts become that avenue for us. And we do interesting stuff. We try to bring in as much modern technology into the concert itself ‘cause I think that from a performance level, that you know, we can keep up with the Joneses anywhere else in the world if we utilize video, we utilize high def, we utilize different kinds of things that you normally wouldn’t see, I think, in a local performance.


But not cellophane hula skirts.


Absolutely not [chuckle] ‘cause – and you know, there’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s where you are at the moment and if that’s what you’re doing, that’s fine, yeah. We haven’t done that. That’s not to say that we won’t in the future. But right now, no.


So you’re a traditionalist, but you can see yourself – you don’t rule it out in the future doing wacky cellophane hula skirts?


I wouldn’t rule it out. But I don’t think so [chuckle].


I thought so.




You’re just being generous, right? Don’t want to criticize the next kumu hula.


No, no, no. Because everybody has a purpose. Everybody has a place in this huge fabric. Yeah, and you put one – you pull one thread out and everything unravels. Yeah. So there is value in everything that every kumu hula does. Whether you agree with that kumu hula or not, it’s the entire whole that you have to take a look at.


What is next for you, do you think?


I don’t know. And that’s a good question, because I think I never knew. Even in my – in retrospect, you know, there are certain things that are definite. I know that halau is definite. I know that my family is definite. I know that where I come from is definite and the community that I associate myself with is there. I think that’s it, really. And whatever you do – and I’ve been lucky in my life, and sometimes not you know, that – to take whatever comes your way and roll with it and try see what happens. You know, I’m known for being able to jump off the cliff and seeing where you going land. Or if you land. Sometimes you don’t. And sometimes you fly, sometimes you crash. You know? And it’s okay. But I don’t think – I don’t know what’s next [chuckle].


Stay tuned, right?


Yeah, maybe. Yeah, I have no idea, I have no idea. And I think maybe if I was in my twenties, I’d be more definite. But you know, let’s see; I’m forty-five. And I think that you know, I’m feeling real settled with a lot of different things, you know? I think it’s time for the next group to start, you know, doing stuff. And I see it happening. I see it happening with a younger generation of Hawaiian musicians that are you know, speaking Hawaiian and singing and reviving old songs and writing new songs in the old fashion. You know? So yeah, it’s wonderful to see. And I’m glad to have been a – to be a part of that, of course.


Constantly learning … creating new challenges … and reinventing himself. Perhaps that’s what defines Keali‘i Reichel. I hope you enjoyed getting to know this man who calls himself – first and foremost – a Hawaiian … who has faced adversity and change, and remained true to his roots. Mahalo to Keali‘i – and to you – for joining me for this Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou!




Marlene Sai



Original air date: Tues., Aug. 18, 2009


Hawaiian Music “Diva”


Singer and actress Marlene Sai tells Leslie Wilcox about growing up in the golden age of Hawaiian music, of her early years as a recording artist, her unusual after-hours recording session in a bus barn, and her iconic portrayals of Queen Liliuokalani on stage and on television.


Marlene Sai Audio


Download the Transcript




So now, this Kainoa. [PIANO] I have to honestly say that I have never learned the words, because I believe that your recording is classic. No one else should have to ever record it again; and yet, at the same time, we do want the song to live. And that’s why this is such a great night, because we get to do it just one more time, and I get to play for you.


Yes; that’s my act.


When you think of walking through Waikiki at night, what images come to mind? Maybe traffic congestion, street vendors? Well, how about live music? Marlene Sai grew up in the golden age of Hawaiian music, a time when Kalakaua Avenue was full of the songs and voices that beckoned the world to the romance of Hawaii. Marlene entered that magical world at the early age of eighteen, and never looked back.


Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Welcome to PBS Hawaii’s Long Story Short. There are only a handful of true divas in Hawaiian music, women who wrap their powerful voices with grace, elegance, and beauty. You can add to the list, Marlene Sai. This product of Kaimuki and the Kamehameha School is quite comfortable in a business setting; but she was destined first to be a singer, an actor, even to inhabit the role of queen. This regal performer started out life with the most undignified of nicknames.


You know, one time, I was kind of on the fringe of watching what you were doing, and uh, and somebody called you Goofy, and I was just offended on your behalf.




Little did I know that all of your friends and family call you Goofy.


Yeah; I’m Goofy.


Why is that? How did that get started?


Oh, gosh. There is a story to that. When I was little, I had very curly, curly hair, and as my parents would say the Hawaiians would always comment, and they would say, Oh. And the older folks would say, Pupuka, referring to me. Instead of saying, Oh, she’s cute, oh, she’s pretty, oh, she’s this, they would say, pupuka. Pupuka means goofy.


Because they didn’t want you to get conceited?


No, because that’s the way Hawaiians are; you don’t compliment in that fashion. So you say the opposite.


You say the opposite.


You say the opposite. So as time went on, and of course, it just kind of stuck, and the personality became goofy oftentimes, you know.




And of course, my father would always say, Oh, gosh, she’s so goofy. Well, it was he who kind of left me with that uh, nickname. But then our entire family, we all have nicknames, you know. I have siblings; I have three brothers, a sister, and myself. I’m—


Okay; what are the—


—right in the middle.


What are the nicknames?


My oldest brother Ronald, his name is Jiggy.




Jiggy. And he works for Kamehameha Schools; he’s a retired fire captain, and he’s on the gate. So you drive in, you say, Hi, Jigs.




My second brother Dennis, he’s retired from the telephone company; and his nickname is Big Head.




Because when he was born, his head was a little bigger than the rest of his body. But then as he grew up, they all kind of blended in together. And, of course, then it’s me. And my sister just below me, her name is Yvonne … Peewee.


Does that mean she was big, or she was small?


She was tiny.   The story goes that they could fit her in a shoebox, she was so small. And ‘til today, she still is very tiny. And she still works at Kamehameha Schools. And my kid brother, Gary, retired from the telephone company, he loved Hopalong Cassidy. So his nickname became Hopalong.


[chuckle] And nowadays, the new generation probably wonders …




What is that?


Yeah; oh, yeah.


You know, you lived in Kaimuki.




Nowadays, we would consider that town, but in those days, it was a bedroom community to—


Oh, yeah.


I mean, what was it like living in Kaimuki in those days? Because now, it’s such prime real estate, because it’s so close to town. I don’t know if you considered yourself town folks, though, right?


No; it wasn’t town, but it was a family community. And what I liked about it is, because as I was growing up, I loved the ocean. So I paddled a lot, I used to go surfing.


Did you catch the bus?




HRT? [chuckle]


[INDISTINCT] or you walk it, you know. But no such thing. And, you know, we had our own little path. Made our own, because 4th Avenue never went all the way through, so you would just kinda make your way through the bushes and everything.




Did all of that. Yeah. Good memories, though.


Off to uh, Kuhio Beach—


Off to Kuhio—




—Beach. Well, you know, the wall?




Okay; we used to swim over there a lot; the wall. I would go to Ala Moana to paddle, because I paddled for Hui Nalu, Hui Kalia, uh, Healani.


And that’s a whole other kind of subculture and culture of Hawaii, the paddling community. So you were very much involved uh, in your life, first in paddling.




And then music. And not one of the others went into showbiz.


No. None of them did. I was the only individual from the group. And I think because it—you know how in life, if you’re there, and things happen, and it’s meant to be, and it just develops in that fashion—and see, we were always surrounded by music as we grew up. Always.


What kind of music?


Hawaiian music and a variety of them, really; a variety of music. But I remember our house on Kaimuki on 4th Avenue; it was our grandfolks’ old house and my mom and dad took it over. And I remember every New Year’s, we would have um, a luau. And we would—Mom and Dad would uh, kalua pig and uh, you know, dig the hole and do the whole thing. And everyone would, you know, make something, and we would have a uh, a feast. And Uncle Andy and his musicians—that’s Uncle Andy Cummings, and musicians, and I remember Uncle Sonny, another aunt’s—my mother’s sister’s husband, got on the piano. And it was music … always. You know, it was continuous.


It was your own live music, you’re—


Oh, yes.


talking about?


Oh, yeah.




So we kids were exposed to this all the time. As we grew older, Uncle Andy would be traveling, and we developed into our own music and besides hula, you know, we’d try to sing a song or two. But at some point in time in my growing up years, uh, I remember Uncle Andy and the Cummings family moved to the mainland. But when they moved back for just a spell while they were looking for a place, they stayed with us. And I remember attending Kamehameha Schools, and Uncle Andy would say uh, when he’d see me coming home from school, he’d say, Come, sit down over here. This was before doing homework. This was before doing anything. So I would sit on the steps with him, and he’d have this ukuele and he’d be playing a song, or whatever instrument. If it was a mandolin or—you know, ‘cause he played so many.


Was he—


So many.

—known at that time as a composer?


Yes. And he was I think this was my sophomore year at Kamehameha or even my fresh—I can’t remember. But in my early years. He was going to the Big Island, and he was working with a composer by the name of Jimmy Taka. And Jimmy Taka had the song, Kainoa, but he didn’t know how to write the music, to actually write it in music form. So Uncle Andy was helping him by putting it in meters an—and writing it and structuring it for him. So he was making these trips back and forth. So Uncle wanted me to listen to the song; and I said okay, and I would come home from school, sit me down, and uh, on our steps outside of the house, and he’d play the song. He said, Now, I want you to learn the song. And that’s how I started to learn Kainoa, which was the song that started me in the business.


It’s the signature song—


It’s one of—


—for you.


—the signature songs. Yeah.


How does it go?


[SINGS] I’m waiting on a warm and sunny seashore, yearning for the one that I adore. My heart is true, I’m thinking of you; forever I will love you, Kainoa.










Now, Andy Cummings is a heck of an uncle to get started—




—in the music business with.




Now, I have to ask you something about him. He was, of course, one of the greatest hapa Haole composers, ever, um, and he wrote Waikiki, which is another song you are known for.


Signature; yeah.


But I heard that he also tended to write songs about causes. I think he might have been against—


The puka in the Pali.


—statehood. Yeah; no puka in the Pali, right?




‘Cause he didn’t want to see the Pali Tunnel built.


Yeah. He did all of that.


Do you remember all that?


Oh, yes; I do. And I remember him singing it, too. You know, I—


How did it—


—don’t know—


How did it go? I’ve never heard it sung.


Oh, gosh; I can’t remember it right now. Oh; it was the puka in the Pali. But when we would have these gatherings, you know, his group, which was made up of uh, Gabby Pahinui, Uncle Andy, and Ralph Alapai, and all of these old folks, and they would come to the house, and they would jam, and they would practice. And you don’t know all of this wealth of talent that’s right there with you.


You don’t realize these are—


And you—


—very special people. You think—




—everybody’s got uncles like this.


Exactly. Yeah, it was Uncle Gabby, and it was Un—uh, Uncle, Uncle, Uncle all over the place, which is the way we are, right? And then as you grow older, and then you realize all of this talent that’s right there with you, and how privileged you’ve been through your younger years.


I don’t think Uncle Gabby was at a whole lot of backyard—




—luau. I think he was pretty selective.


Yeah, but you know, he was the baby in that group. So he was so kolohe. So when he played, you know, he was playing always from the soul, and the heart, and the seat of his pants. And he would just go into, you know, one song, and the rest of them would just jam. But it was um, it was a nice experience through those young years.


You know, when um, Uncle Andy would call to you on the uh, front porch—




—um, did he pick any of the other kids, or did he sense—




—something in you?


No one else; it was just I. And I don’t know why. And because I would try to sing around the house, and I guess he would, you know, hear. Oh, maybe there’s possibility here, you know, with this child. Or nothing in particular for him to just pick me out of the—


He never said anything to you—






Never did.




Never did. But all he said was, uh, he would help me with the phrasing. Then, if I wasn’t hitting the note, he’d make sure that I’d get up to it, and we’d go over it, over and over again.


What did he tell you about phrasing?


Like, I’m waiting on a warm and you don’t take a breath until, seashore.




You’re waiting on a warm and sunny seashore.




So we say you see what I’m saying? You see what I’m saying?


It’s the thought.


It’s the complete thought. So you’re waiting on a warm and sunny seashore, yearning for the one that I—so you don’t break up your phrases. Okay; okay. So here you are [chuckle], tenth grade, ninth grade. Okay, Uncle. But this would go on, sometimes for a couple of hours. Then my parents would step in; she has to do her homework, and she has chores to do. And so … things of that sort.


Did you have a—




—disciplinarian family or—




—or structured?


Oh, yeah; Dad and Mom were very much the disciplinarians. Yes. You know, with five kids, I guess you would have to be.


You went through Kamehameha Schools, and then what?


M-hm. You know, with all of the music besides all of the complete education that one gets, but the beautiful music that the students do learn, and that’s all the choral singing and that became a learning process too for me.


Yes, but I think you were doing it at a time when Hawaiian language was not in favor at Kamehameha.


Exactly; exactly.


So you got the music, but not necessarily the Hawaiian lyrics?


You would—


Or the meanings?


—get the lyrics, but we didn’t have, in those days the Hawaiian language was not taught at Kamehameha. This is my fiftieth reunion this year, so it’s been—’59, so 2009. So this will be fifty years for me. And back then they didn’t speak Hawaiian.


So you would sing Hawaiian songs, and not know what they meant?


Exactly. Or you would have to sit down with my parents or kupuna, and ask, you know, What does this mean and what is this all about?




Because the language wasn’t spoken, because the language wasn’t taught. You know.


Did your parents think you should learn the Hawaiian language? Probably not in that generation, right?


No, because they hardly spoke it at home. Rarely, did they speak it at home. It was hush-hush.


You’ve seen it come a long way.


I’ve seen it come a very long way.


Have you learned to speak Hawaiian since?


No. And I would love to.


You must hear it all around you now.


I do, I hear. And you know your phrases, and you know some things about Hawaiian, but that you can relate to. And yes; that, I know. But to converse; no, I don’t. And I would love to.


But you grew up at a home and at school in an environment that uplifted music as a value in life.


Well, and at that time too—well, when I graduated from Kamehameha, and during that period uh, my later years at Kamehameha as I said, you know, with all of the choral singing the music that came from there, I thought it was just a natural.




And so you apply it to oneself, and as you go to parties, and you’re with friends, and you’re sitting with an ukulele and you’re playing along with someone else, who has an instrument, and you’re carrying on; you’re singing all of these songs, knowing basically what they all mean, but not completely and totally. But you’re also bringing out what you’ve learned at the school.




All that was taught you. Because there’s music appreciation, and so therefore, you’re learning all different facets of it.



So at this point in Marlene’s life, the building blocks of her singing career are falling into place. A family that embraced the concept of kanikapila, the musical craftsmanship of her famed Uncle Andy Cummings, and an appreciation for music nurtured at the Kamehameha Schools; now, Marlene Sai just needed to be discovered.



It was when I came out of Kamehameha, and the plan was to go, because it was full-on business courses that I was taking at Kamehameha, ‘cause that was my intent to go on and further my education in business. And that was the concentration. I was working during that summer uh, in travel. Matter of fact, Uncle Andy had gotten me a job, ‘cause he was with either Aloha or Hawaiian Airlines. So he got me this job in this travel agency, and I would sell tours and do all of these things and earn some money during the summer. Well, my friends got to have jobs in the industry too, and so we would meet every Sunday. A good friend of mine, Vicky Hollinger, and this other gal, Norma, and I would meet at Joe’s in Waikiki. Because we were low on the totem pole, so we had to carry all of the Sunday work, and everyone else was home with their family. But we didn’t care; we were young. So we pulled the Sunday duty. And when we were done, we always planned, Okay, let’s meet at Joe’s, let’s have lunch and everything, and then plan from there what we’re gonna do. This one particular weekend, we’re at Joes, and in comes—and the beach boys would always come over.


Because you were attractive young women?


And because I used to paddle, so I knew a lot of them too. So, you know, they always—you know, Hi, Jessie, hi, you know, Rabbit, hi, hi, hi, and all of this. This one day, they were sitting around and everything, and said, Hey, uh, you want to come down to uh, this place. Our friend has a bar, restaurant bar, club on the other side of the island, Kaneohe. He’s taking care of it for his mom, and he manages the place. You folks want to go down next week? They have nice music, good music. Okay. So the next Sunday, we plan, and we all meet, and we all get in the car and we’re driving down. So one with the ukulele and another with the guitar, and the top is down, and we’re singing on our way down to Kaneohe from Waikiki. And we get to the other side of the island, and we get into this—park in the back, walk into Honey’s.




Honey’s. And he’s giving us the lowdown on who this guy is, he’s a beach boy, and oh, they got great music. Sonny Chillingsworth, Gary Aiko; oh, these guys, they’re good, good. So we get there, and we’re hearing this music. Oh, my gosh. So this guy comes over and he says, I want you to meet Don Ho; I want to meet—this is Marlene. Eh, this wahine can sing; she was singing in the car. You gotta call her up to sing. And this is her friend Vicky. So we sat there for a little bit, and we were having our libations, and having a nice time. He calls me up to sing. I said, Oh, gosh. Do you know Kainoa? If I sang it, do you think you could play it? Sing it to us. Sonny. So I hummed a little tune to him, and he says, Oh, I can get it, sure. So I sang Kainoa, and they asked me to sing another song. I sang another song. And then I went and sat down. Before we left, he came up to me and he said, Can you write your name and your address, and your phone number, just you know, so I can get in touch with you? I said, Okay. He says, What are your plans? I said, Well, I’m planning to go to the university, and I want to get my degree. Well, maybe you can make some money; extra money. Think you might want to sing here? Sing? Really? Oh, my gosh; how much am I going to get paid? And I’m asking all of these questions. He says, I’ll call you. One week went by, two weeks went by; and I didn’t hear from him. And I thought, oh, gosh; put it out of my head completely. And I thought, okay, that guy was just all wapa. One day, I’m driving down Kalakaua, and I’m looking in my rearview mirror, and it looked like a Thunderbird, and the top was down, and I see this car darting in and out. And it’s approaching me. And this guy’s hair is blowing; no shirt on, and he’s coming up closer to me. And I’m getting nervous. So I roll up my window, roll up this window, and I’m going further, and he comes and he’s telling me to pull over. So I pulled over, and I’m looking at this—and I’m thinking, Who in the world is this? ‘Cause he—I didn’t recognize him. He got out of the car, came over to me, and he—I had the window up, and he’s knocking on the—




—window, and he’s saying to me, You remember me? I was playing the organ for you; you remember me? And I’m thinking, What church is he talking about? I gotta remember organ? Where—and then he said, You came to my place with Jessie. When he said Jessie, my play—and I said, Oh—


Don Ho—


—Don Ho.


—is at your window.


And I’m looking at—so I rolled my window down, and he said, I lost your number. He says, I don’t know what happened to the paper, I lost that. He said, I’ve been trying to get your phone number. So he asked, Can you come down to the um, to Honey’s tonight or tomorrow night? He says, I’d like to know if we can get some songs together. If you’re still interested, I’d like for you to sing, and maybe make some extra money. And that’s really how it all started.


Singing at Honey’s. And your boss was Don Ho.


And my boss was Don Ho. Yeah. But things happened so fast. Because that night that I got down to Kaneohe, and there were these men that were sitting there; Bill Murata, George Chun, and I didn’t know who they all were, and they were all recording individuals. Herb Ono and I’m not sure if Jack DeMello was there too. And they were there to hear Sonny Chillingworth.


Because they were gonna make a recording of him?


Right; right. Sonny pulled me over; he told me what was happening. And he said, Don’t worry about it and just be comfortable, and we’re just going to rehearse. We went through rehearsal, and at the end of that time, Sonny said that a couple of the individuals wanted to talk to me about recording. I mean, it all happened that fast. So I said, What do I do? He said to me, Don’t worry; he said, just meet with them, and we’ll get a lawyer or somebody that you trust. And it just escalated from there. And in a matter of a short time, I mean, I was meeting Lucky Luck, and Jimmy Walker, if I remember correctly.


Who’s Jimmy Walker; another radio guy?


Yeah, he was a radio guy. And then J. Aku Head Pupule.


The uh, top paid disc jockey in the world—




—as they said.


Yeah; yeah. But—yeah, and things really started to escalate, and really happen very fast.


And here you were, how old; nineteen?


No; seventeen, turning eighteen. I just got out of high school. And it was just that quick.


Quick, indeed. What began as casual conversations with her Uncle Andy had now turned into the opportunity of a lifetime. In Part 2 of our Long Story Short with Marlene Sai, we’ll hear the story of a highly unlikely recording studio that was the setting for one of her iconic songs. And we’ll hear advice for anyone aspiring to pursue a career in music. Until then, thank you for spending this time with us. For Long Story Short and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.


I enjoyed Donald; and you know, his nickname is Quack.


Donald Ho?


Yeah; you knew that.


No, I didn’t. [chuckle]


Yeah; he was Quack.


You were—


And I’m Goofy.


—Goofy, and he was—


Yeah; yeah




Yeah. Uh, matter of fact, all of the uh, beach boys, everybody, all of his close friends called him Quack. Many of the songs that he recorded for all his beach boy days songs, lot of it you know, all of the different songs that he sang. And he would just sing it over and over, and over at his shows. I loved them, because they reminded me of my paddling days. So it was good fun. [SIGH] And I didn’t mean to interrupt you; I’m sorry.


Not at all.


As we’re talking, all of these different stories are just popping in my head.


Well, just the idea that you call him Donald, and if you don’t call him Donald, you call him Quack.




This is Don Ho we’re talking about. [chuckle]


Yeah; yeah. I miss him. Yeah.




Joe Rice


Original air date: Tues., Mar. 6, 2012


President of Mid-Pacific Institute


Leslie Wilcox talks with Joe Rice, president of Mid-Pacific Institute. The genial private school leader opens up about his childhood, marked by abuse and poverty. Joe is writing a memoir of his experiences – a catharsis that stings long-open wounds. Now nearing retirement, Joe supports programs serving orphans and foster children, while nurturing the 1,500 students of Mid-Pac and a family of his own.


Joe Rice Audio


Download the Transcript




Some days, we’d just eat the one meal a day, and make it last. My mom and I, we … always last to eat, make sure the others … in our family, it started off with my dad first, any of his friends second, then the babies, and then all the way up to my mom and I. And sometimes, there wasn’t that much to go around.


It’s a story that you can identify with if you’ve been poor and abused, wondering when you’ll have your next meal, or your next beating. For the down and out, bouncing from a car to a tent, and back again, this is your life, a hard scrabbled life. But surely, not the life of the leader of a distinguished private school in Honolulu. Indeed, that was Joe Rice’s life. Join us, as we get to know Mid Pacific Institute’s president and CEO, Joe Rice, here 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, we’ll meet an affable executive who laughs easily, travels in prominent circles in education, and is on first name basis with many influential people. You might guess that to achieve this level of success, he must have been born to comfort and attended Ivy League schools before eventually settling into his position as president and CEO of the Mid Pacific Institute in Manoa. Who would guess that he was dealt an incredibly tough start in life? It’s a long way from the migrant farm camps of California and Washington State to a graceful Manoa home and the leadership of a well-known Hawaii college prep school. But that’s the journey of Joe Rice.


You’re a distinguished headmaster of a respected school, and you have this very comfortable demeanor and openness about you. And yet, you’ve had this very dark and troubled childhood.




How much does that childhood play with your life now?


Almost every day. I’ve probably been spending too much time thinking about my past lately. I’m in the midst of writing a memoir about it. People have been encouraging me to, so I’ve been remembering a lot the past couple of years.


Is it painful?


Yeah. That’s why it’s taking so long to write the book.


Have you come to new conclusions and had new epiphanies, thinking about this as an experienced adult?


A lot of people ask me, yourself earlier, and others have asked me how did I end up getting where I’m at. And a lot of people think I was born with everything, and especially the nice house I live in and things. But, I reflect once in a while on how it is that I got into a position where I can help a lot of kids, and I can help a school. And I kind of trace it back to my beginnings and how I became appreciative of education and what it could do for you. And I’d have to give it all of the credit for getting me through to my position now. And I believe I’m a good example for kids who think there is no chance for them, that if they hear my story, they would say, Well, if he can do that, I can do it.


So much of your life … I know you had a loving, hardworking mom.




But in many parts of your life, adults you should have been able to trust simply weren’t there for you, or weren’t telling you the truth, or hurting you. How do you get over that?


Well, one, you come to those conclusions later. When you’re living your life, you’re pretty much focused on your brothers and sisters, and even though you fight and you do terrible things to each other all the time, they still care about each other, and they cared about me, and I cared about them. My mom was always somebody I could depend on that, if I needed an ally or somebody who would stand by me, she would be the one. And she took a lot of hurt for doing that, and she could have turned her back on me, and she didn’t. And so I gained strength from all of that. But I would be the first to tell you, and I’ve done this a number of times talking to young kids at other schools and things about there are so many people willing to help you, and giving you the hand of friendship, are willing to lift you up, but you don’t see them or you won’t take it when it’s offered. And at various times in my life, there had been people who have done that, whether it was a teacher, Salvation Army helping us out at Christmastime and bringing you a gift so that you could give your mom something. Or the local store where you go down, and you’ve been caught before for stealing food for your family, and this time, they just come in and say, What do you need?, and they give it to you. So, there have been those folks all along in my life, and I know they’re there for other kids. And sometimes they don’t see them, or they have too much pride to take it when it’s offered. But for most kids, it is offered, and they just don’t see. So I try to talk to them about that, because I certainly didn’t get to being the president at Mid Pacific on my own.


You’ve managed to navigate through very different worlds.


I learned early about getting up at four-thirty in the morning, and going to work, and dragging yourself to the car, getting your brothers and sister bundled and throw ‘em in the car, go. Either watch them while your parents work, or get out in the fields and work. Come back, work ‘til noon, one o’clock when it gets too hot to work. Go to school in the tent, go home, help cook. Take care of people, hope you don’t get hurt, make it through the day. I learned those lessons young. So, when you’re in college and you’re living in your car, and you’re eating the six burgers for a dollar at the Arctic Circle, and you drink Diet Coke or a cola, or whatever. I think it was Tab in those days, because I didn’t want to get too fat. I forgot that lesson.




But, I did that day-in and day-out. It was all better than when I was growing up.



If you worked your way through college, you have an idea of what it’s like to hold down a job and still do the required studies. Surely, Joe Rice’s rough upbringing in the fruit orchards gave him the work ethic to do whatever it was going to take to graduate from a university. But he needed to do more than work for a living and study for a degree. He needed to rise above the emotional scars, the terrible uncertainties created by lies and abuse. It’s a legacy that haunts him to this day.


Tell me about your early life.


Ah, well, let’s see. [CHUCKLE] I was born to a mom who told me she was fourteen when she had me, but I found out later she was probably around sixteen. And I only found that out when I figured out what her birthday was, ‘cause she kept that hidden. I’ve often told people I’m two years younger than I actually am, because that’s what my mom told me, that she lied about my birth, among other lies that she had and gave to me to protect me, for some reason or another. But I’m the oldest of twelve. I can even name them, if you want.


What are their names?


And it’s Joe, Jessie, Joyce, Judy, Jimmy, Bobby, Dale, Harold, Denise, and Homer. And the one that died about three days after birth was Haley. So we had a bunch of J’s in a row, and then a bunch of H’s, and then a few odd names, uh, in the mix, like a Denise or something.


And you were the oldest, so I assume your responsibilities grew as the family grew.


My parents, both of ‘em, had an eighth grade education, so it was clear they weren’t going to get good paying jobs unless they went back to school. And my stepfather, I learned that he was my stepfather. I thought he was my father in the beginning for many years, they became migrant workers. And so, the first time I went to a school steady, I was starting um, eighth grade. I went to half a year at one school, and then ninth grade, I finally went to Series Union High School in California. And I finished my four years there, living in a house. The rest of the time, we were migrants on the road. I went to school mostly in the tent out in the fields and they’d send a teacher out to us. We worked in the mornings, go to school in the afternoon.


So you had spotty childhood education.


No. Actually, not spotty, because you’d still go to school.


But you said half a day, or …


Half a day. But it would start like at one o’clock, and go to four, five o’clock. I actually started when I was three and four. My mom wouldn’t have anywhere else to send me, so they let me to go and sit with the older kids in the schoolhouse, which was just a large—


At three or four.


Large tent. But all multi-aged, so they had an elementary school tent, and a high school/middle school tent. So I just sat in the back and listened, and actually learned how to read real early that way. Went to school. One year, we lived in Hood River. I actually went one year, fourth grade, in Hood River, Oregon. I remember that. Couple other times, we went about a half a year where we lived in one place, and got a rental. But the other parts, we were on the road and went from Lancaster, California up to Wenatchee, Washington, picking apples. So wintertime you’re up North, and summertime you’re down South. We did that for many, many years. I took care of the younger ones when I was younger. You’re sitting out on the blanket under the tree, and then when they move from tree to tree, they pull along, and you sat there and stick the bottle in the kid’s mouth, or something like that. Soon as I was able to work, I was picking fruit, and got pretty good at it too, to where it was better my mom start watching the younger ones than me, ‘cause I’d do so well. That was pretty much my younger life. My dad was an alcoholic, very abusive person.


To whom?


To my mom particularly, and me second.


Because you as the oldest, or you as the stepson—


Me as the stepson, me who liked to read. Me, who … I just didn’t go and do all the stuff that the other kids were doing. I’d stay at home, I’d take care, I’d clean the house, I’d help my brothers and sisters. I did those things, and I was about as different as he could have been.


But that’s a good thing, what you were doing. Right?




Every member of Joe Rice’s large family suffered abuse at the hands of his stepfather. One night, in Joe’s senior year of high school, his stepfather gave his mother a particularly bad beating. The oldest son decided it all had to stop; and the events of that night would change the course of his life.


You mentioned how you were going up and down, up from lower California, up to Canada in a car, and sleeping in a car and tents.


Big station wagon. [CHUCKLE]


You got yourself to college, working your way fulltime through college, but you used your car … you were still living in your car, but you were going to college and living in your car.




How did you get to college from the big station wagon with all the dysfunction?


My dad did another horrible thing to my mother. And it was in my senior year. I was seventeen, and around November of my senior year. And he came home, and he beat her real bad. And left her bloody, and my other brothers and sisters were gathered around her, scared. And I was hiding in a closet. Just hiding. And I heard it. After he left, I went out and I got my mom, and I took her in the bedroom, and cleaned her up, and I told her that it won’t happen anymore. And so, I uh, kept my mom with my sisters in their room, and I had them barricade the door. And then, I went and got a knife, and I went to my room, and I waited. And when he came back, he was yelling for me. And—


He was going to beat you up?


He had been looking for me after he beat my mom, and I was hiding in the closet. It was one of those closets, if you don’t lift up the door, and if you turn it you can’t get in. And so, he gave up, and he left, and I was just sitting there. So I waited. And he came home about four. And he came in, stood there in the doorway and took off his belt, and he started hitting me. And I got the knife, and I went after him. And they said I stabbed him probably like about twenty-some times, and my family came in and held him down and said, Go Joe, go. And I ran away and hid in a vineyard near our home we had in middle of California. And I stayed there for about three days, and they said he went around looking for me. I didn’t hit anything, I just mangled him arm and his shoulder. And I turned myself in to a local grocery store, a little mom & pop, and I asked them to call somebody, and they called. And they put me in foster care for the rest of the year, and I finished high school, and nobody came. And then, I worked picking beans in the summer, and I bought a bus ticket for Washington. And I went there, and I went to the local welfare office and I asked for help. And they said, Why’d you come here? And I said, Because it’s you guys who’ve helped us all along, and we’ve been on welfare most of our life. And I said, It was either you or the Salvation Army. [CHUCKLE] And so, they found me a place to stay in this … it was like a redone house that had been put into little apartments. And they had a bathroom that they rented out, and there was a bed. So you had your sink, your toilet, and the bed. So you needed to climb over all that stuff to get to the bed. And I did that. And they got me a job at … working for the City of Tacoma on a survey crew. So I did that for six months, and they worked out a deal that a certain percentage of my pay would go into a fund, and this group called Neighborhood Youth Corps would match it if I would go to college. And so, I did. And they started me in at Tacoma Community College. So, I got a job working at a garage, and I worked an eight-hour shift after school. I got up in the morning and I went and I cooked at the cafeteria, and they fed me in the morning. Then I’d go to classes. And you’d only take like three or four classes, so it’s not like it is now where you got six or seven classes. And then, I’d go to work, live in the place. Did that for the first year. Second year, I went to work for Button Veterinarian Hospital, and they gave me a little room off of the vet hospital, and I cleaned pens and washed all the poop up, and all that junk. And they gave me a place to stay, and I did that, and still continued—that was my nighttime work after I finished at the garage.


And what kept you going as you were doing this? ‘Cause that you must have been exhausted.


Yeah. You get up in the morning, and you go to your job at the … cook breakfast before you go to school. Then you take PE for your first class, so you can take a shower and stuff, and then you go to class. It was all about I’d made up my mind that I wasn’t going to be like my parents, and I was going to show my brothers and sisters that it didn’t have to be that way for them. That even though I ran away and left them, I would show them that there was a way for them too.


When you’ve been through so much, how do you put it behind you? For many, catharsis is found in writing. In 2012, nearing retirement age, Joe Rice has been writing to tell his story, and to purge himself of the demons of his past. It’s been a challenging process. Sometimes, when you rip off the bandage, the wound reopens.


So, you’re writing a memoir about your life. How do you put all of this in context, and process it all for your book?


Well, it’s going on three years, because I start writing, and you won’t believe this, Leslie. But when I graduated from high school, troubled as I was, I was voted in the yearbook most likely to succeed as a writer. And because my mind was in the clouds, and I lived a fantasy life as you’re living the bad news, you’re dreaming of something different. And I wrote. I wrote lots of poetry.


Did you keep it?


Not too much. [CHUCKLE] I sent many things away to see if anybody wanted to publish. But I wrote a lot of things that told the truth too much, and people would read it and start getting worried about what’s happening at your house. And so I did that, and I wrote short stories and things, so people thought I would one day be a writer. And of course, after that, you’re working every day, and you’re trying to go to school, and you write lots of assignments, but you never do writing uh, like this. So as an adult, people said, Joe, you should … I know you want to help people, maybe this would help. And so, I’d start writing, and I’d get all gung-ho. And then my very first chapter is about hiding in the closet to kill my dad. And then I can’t write again. And the ending chapter of the book is when I actually do try to kill him. [CHUCKLE] And I fill in the middle with all the other stories. Some of ‘em are humorous, and this and that. So, sometimes, I can go and write a couple chapters and keep going, and other days, I break down and I then I can’t think. And I just get worried about things, and that maybe it’s all going to turn for me.


Even after all this time?


That this is not really me.


Yeah. You must have something very strong inside you, to have been able to handle all of what you did, and then all of what came later that was positive. I mean, not to minimize it, but you handled a life that was so negative, and now you’re handling a positive life. It seems like two different skills at play there.


I don’t know how to answer that one. I’d just get up and do it. I just think that someday, I’ll make a difference, I’ll do something.


Did you—


I don’t know what, but something.


Well, you already have, haven’t you?


Well, um …


Peace Corps, teaching, you know, molding minds.


I know, but those are all just stuff. Those are just stuff. It’s not like … excuse me. I … I don’t know what it is I’m supposed to do.


Do you feel like there’s something else—




–you need to do?


Something. I don’t know what.


While he gets up every day, goes to work, nurtures some fifteen hundred students at his school, minds his own children, and cares for his wife, Joe Rice still struggles with the legacy of a childhood filled with emotional and physical pain. Maybe that’s why he reached out even farther to the Future Light Orphanage in Phnom Penh.


Well, you’re supporting an orphan, right, in Cambodia?


I have a boy in Cambodia that I started supporting maybe nineteen years ago or something. He’s now out of the orphanage, and he graduated from high school, and he’s in a university in Cambodia, and I’m helping him. And he’s going to be in information technology. And so, that’s good. And I’m a member of Family Programs Hawaii, and we deal with orphans, and foster children. And I think that’s helped me a little bit.


But you still feel self doubt. Right?


I don’t know what it is. But I don’t feel like I’ve done … what it is.


You know, you had a life of such unrelieved pain. How did you learn how to feel joy, and just find joy every day?


The best times—[CHUCKLE], I don’t know, when your children are born, and you see them, and you watch them grow up. That is a great joy. To wake up with your wife, and know that she loves you, and you’ve got something good going. That’s a joy. It’s hard to express. It’s kind of like you feel like something not going to go well, or something’s going to happen. And so, do good, and ward it off.


What do you enjoy most about being the head of Mid Pacific?


Well, believe it or not, my best times are when I go to the preschool. And you go over there ‘cause if you’re having a bad day, just go to the preschool or kindergarten classes, and they … about three years ago, I must have come dressed in green, kinda like you are. And they called me Mr. Gecko.




And so now—these are three-year-olds. And so, they surround me and sing a Mr. Gecko song that they make up.




Now, these kids are like second grade, and they still call me Mr. Gecko.




And that makes you feel good.


There were times in this conversation that I could hear student crew members sniffing, fighting back tears. There were times when Joe Rice and I shed tears. The abused child who watched out for his mother and siblings grew up to have many fulfilling moments and chapters in his long, successful educational career. Yet, he’s not sure this is his ultimate calling in life.


To the head of Mid Pacific Institute in Honolulu, we say mahalo for all you’ve done for the young people in your care. We wish Joe Rice the best in his personal quest, and we’ll be on the lookout for his memoir.


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


A lot of people think I was born with everything, and especially the nice house I live in and things. But, I reflect once in a while on how it is that I got into a position where I can help a lot of kids, and I can help a school. And I kind of trace it back to my beginnings and how I became appreciative of education and what it could do for you. And I’d have to give it all of the credit for getting me through to my position now. And I believe I’m a good example for kids who think there is no chance for them, that if they hear my story, they would say, Well, if he can do that, I can do it.




Pat Saiki



Original air date: Tues., Sept. 16, 2008


Former Hawaii Congresswoman


Pat Saiki, Hilo-born public school teacher, wife and mother of five, became a U.S. Congresswoman and head of the nation’s Small Business Administration.


Not one to let racial discrimination, gender bias, government bureaucracy or social injustice get her down, Pat worked to put them down and was elected, as a Republican, to serve in the State House of Representatives from 1968-1974, the State Senate from 1974-1982, and the U.S. Congress from 1986-1990.


Today, Pat continues to advocate for women, minorities and those less fortunate, taking a special interest in elder care. And she continues to inspire those she meets.


Pat Saiki Audio


Download the Transcript




Aloha no; I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. In today’s Long Story Short we get to chat with a former Hilo girl, public school teacher, wife and mother of five who became a U.S. Congresswoman and head of the nation’s Small Business Administration. A conversation with Pat Saiki, next.


Patricia Fukuda Saiki is not one to let racial discrimination, gender bias, government bureaucracy or social injustice get her down. She’s worked to put them down. Obstacles she faced early in life and early in her career motivated her to take action. And to hear her stories, you can see why.


My parents were, well, let me put it this way. My father was the original feminist. He had three daughters. There were three of us; I was the eldest. And he said, You can be anything you want to be. But look at school teaching and look at nursing as the first two priority occupations. But other than that, you can choose to do whatever you want to do. And he wanted each of us to be a star tennis player, like he was. He was a tennis coach at Hilo High School. So he trained each of us to play tennis, and he called us Sonny Boy; ‘cause he had no sons. [chuckle] But we felt a sense of independence, and my father gave us that. My mother, of course, was a seamstress; she worked with her hands. And she supported us all the way.   So growing up in Hilo was nice.


When your dad said you can be anything you want —



Did he truly mean that? Because —


He really —


– he did direct you to teaching and nursing.


Well, he thought those were two honorable professions. But, he said, if there’s anything else you want to be, go for it.


And were other parents of that age saying, Find a good guy, get somebody to support you?


[chuckle] I don’t know. I would suspect so. But he was very independent, so he made us feel very independent.


Why do you think he was so independent with his girls?


I don’t know what it was. But he was a sort of a trendsetter in that he wanted to excel, and he wanted to push us into competing, and you know, that sort of thing. Even if we were girls, just girls, he felt that we could win. So he was a champion, in my book.


Did you feel racial prejudice?


No, not at all. No racial prejudice. Maybe some sex bias. But other than that, nothing that we couldn’t overcome.


What kind of sex bias?


Well, you know, girls are not supposed to march forward and speak up too loudly. You have to sit at the table on the ocean side, instead of the mountain side, because men are higher than women. That sort of thing. And that’s old, old style Japanese folklore, I used to call it. And I broke all those rules.


And what —


It was okay.


– happened to you when you broke those rules?


Nothing. Because my daddy backed me up. [chuckle]


Okay; so you became a teacher.




And you thought that was what you were gonna do for the rest of your life?


Yes, I really did think so. I found it challenging. I graduated from the University of Hawaii. And the interesting thing is, because we were not a wealthy family, we knew that we had to help each other—my two sisters and myself, we knew we had to help each other. And because I was the eldest, and I stayed in the dormitory for one year, at Hale Laulima, which is right across the street from your studio. And I was able to stay there for one year. After that, I said, the sister below me wants to go to the mainland to school, we don’t have the money, so give to her; I’ll work. And so I got a job with Rudy Tongg, who started Aloha Airlines. It was called TPA, Aloha Airlines. And we had those propeller planes, the D6s, you know, propeller planes. And we worked—there were five of us from the University of Hawaii who were the weekend girls that came down and took over from the regulars.


Back before they were called flight attendants; you were a stewardess.


I was a stewardess; that’s right. And we worked weekends, holidays, vacations, and we got double pay when the volcano erupted. In those days, we’d fly right into the crater. Of course, my parents almost had a heart attack every time I took that flight. But it paid my way through school. And so my second sister—my sister just below me—got to go to Teachers College in Iowa. And we both helped the third one to go to school. So it was an adventuresome period, a fun time, and we earned our money, worked hard. Oh, and then my first job was at Punahou School. Dr. Fox, who was then the principal of Punahou, came up to the University and looked over the flock of people that he could hire, and he said, Well, Pat, why don’t you come over and teach at Punahou; we need some local girls. So I was one of the few local girls, the first ones, to be on the staff at Punahou. And it was exciting, because you know, here, you’re breaking ground and you’re forging ahead into an arena where nobody else had been.


Were you sort of a quiet groundbreaker, or were you pretty flashy?


[Chuckle] some people would say I was flashy.


Because you spoke up quite a bit?


Oh, yes; because I was outspoken, and because I said my piece. And I enjoyed the years at Punahou. And after that, of course, I got married to my dear husband who was an obstetrician gynecologist. We went to the

mainland, I taught there in Toledo, Ohio. And that’s a whole new and different adventure, because the people in Toledo had nothing, no idea about what Hawaii was. And now here I was, teaching their kids. So I—for discipline purposes, what I did was I told the—my children—I shouldn’t say children, they were eighth-graders, eighth and ninth-graders. I challenged them to behave and perform, and I will teach them the hula. Now, I was not exactly what you would call a connoisseur of the hula. But I had watched it enough to know —




— what to do. [chuckle] And we would put on a May Day program, and we rehearsed, and we got those kids in line. And I’m telling you, I never had a discipline problem. In fact, at the same time, the parents invited me to their homes, because I had never been exposed to the bar mitzvah, I had never been to a Polish wedding, an Irish wedding; I had never been to any of these ethnic celebrations. And so I was exposed. First time I went to a Jewish store and ate those nice, big pickles. And it was wonderful teaching there and meeting these kids and these families while my husband was doing his residency in OBGYN.


Sounds like you got a chance to introduce them to Hawaii and break some of the misconceptions about this place.


Exactly; right. Of course, they thought we lived in huts and —




— wore hula skirts all the time. But we were so dynamic in our May Day presentation, that the chamber of commerce of Toledo, Ohio invited us down to put on a performance in middle of town. And the school was very happy; they got a bus for us, and we went down there, parents all came and joined us. And you’re right; they were exposed to what Hawaii really can be like, or is like.


So at that point in your life—you eventually had five children –


Yeah. [chuckle]


And you’re married to—he became chief of staff at —




– at a hospital. You could have just settled into a life of raising kids, and done a wonderful job being a wife and mom.


Oh, I could have; yes. Except —


Im not saying you didn’t, but you also did other things.


Yeah; I could have done a lot of things. I had many, many choices. But there were several things that pushed me into the political arena.


Pat Saiki was a woman of action and the arena she chose in which to take action against social injustice was politics.


The one thing that really hurt my feelings was when we came back from the mainland, and we wanted to buy a house in Aina Haina. Well, the Aina Haina association met, and denied us.




We were Japanese Americans. People forget that this kind of prejudice existed, you know, just fifty years ago, sixty years ago.


So this was in the 50s?






We came back, and that didn’t set well with me. Okay; that was one reason.



So what did you—where did you relocate? Did you take no for an answer from Aina Haina?


We had to. So we rented a house on Crater Road, and then eventually bought a house in St. Louis Heights. But the other reason is that, as a schoolteacher, I was teaching at Kaimuki Intermediate then; today it’s the Middle School. Here, we had a different set of rules that were dictated to teachers by the central office of the Department of Education. And I’m sure the old-time teachers will remember this. We were told what to teach, when to teach it, and how to teach it. And we had to teach history from the beginning of the book, to the end of the book. No skipping; no idea of doing team teaching with a teacher who was teaching English. I wanted to join up with


English and history




— and we could time it so that we could see American history growing, along with English literature. No, no, no, they said, you can’t do that. I mean, you have to stay in your classroom and do what is supposed to be done. Well, I said, Is that right? Is that how we’re going to teach here in Hawaii? And as an eighth grade teacher then, I began to realize that I had the thirty children in my class in my hands. I could determine their destiny, because I had to track them. I had to say which ones could go to college, and which ones can’t.


Because they—in those —


They tracked them.


– days, you were in different tracks?


Tracked them. That’s right.




Different tracks And so I said, That’s not right. You know, who am I to tell a child, that child can never go to college? Forget it. We’re gonna give that child every opportunity to excel, and go as far as he or she wants to. Well, this was not according to the rules. So I had a few difficulties with the principals and district superintendents, et cetera, et cetera. So then, I organized and got other teachers who felt exactly like I did; and we formed ourselves into a loose association. I went down to the HGEA office, and talked to the leadership and said, What you need is a teachers’ chapter of the HGEA, because we have no unions around here.


Was that before the Hawaii State Teachers —


Before —


– Association?


— the HSTA, before the AFT, before anything. No other organization existed. So HGEA created a chapter for teachers. And I said, Under those circumstances, I want to sit on the board of directors and have an equal vote. And I want to be able to lobby the legislature on behalf of teachers. And Charlie Kendall was the big boss then. There’s a building named after him today. But he was farsighted; he and I sat on my patio and drafted up the charter for the Hawaii teachers—the teachers chapter of the HGEA. And that kicked in to a very vibrant organization, and we gathered many, many members, about three thousand teachers all signed up. And we became a force. Then, the HSTA was created through the HEA at the national level. And that’s when I said, We are going to disband because the HEA, Hawaii Educational Association can lobby in Congress. Whereas, the HGEA cannot. And we need Congressional help. And so I disbanded the whole organization. [chuckle]


You ever heard of an association being disbanded? Well, it did happen. And then the teachers came to me and said, Well, why don’t you run for office, you can represent us in the Legislature, not through the organization but as an independent. And so I did run for the Constitutional Convention, though, at first.


Was that a nonpartisan race then?


Nonpartisan race.




Yeah; 1968, and I got elected.




So then, I was approached to run for the State House of Representatives, and by the Republicans.


Now —


And I decided, well, that would be a challenge, wouldn’t it, in this state.


Well, you know, I’ve always wanted to ask you that.




I mean, you were probably a young teacher at the time of the Democratic revolution of 1954, where AJAs, got into power.




And you weren’t among them; instead, you went against the grain a little later and —


That’s right.


– ran as a Republican.


Because I saw what was going on in the State, and I knew that we had to have alternative choices. We had to have representation from both sides; not just one party, but two-party representation. And I felt very strongly at that time, that the Republicans were not doing well at all, and the Democrats were running roughshod in many ways. So I decided that, Hey, what I’ll do is, I’ll run for the other party, and make a few more waves.


Did the —


Which I did.


– Democrats try to woo you?


Oh, yes; oh, yes. Oh, yes; they did. But they were not successful. [chuckle]


Because you wanted to shake things up.


Yeah; yeah. That’s what I wanted —


But it was a lonely job much of the time.


Lonely, and difficult.




But you know, people can—people who believe in you don’t care about your party; they care about you as a person, as an individual, what you stand for; and they’ll vote for you no matter what party you’re in. And that’s what I learned, as I ran for public office.


Pat Saiki was elected, as a Republican, to serve in the State House of Representatives from 1968 to 1974, the State Senate from 1974 to 1982, and the United States Congress from 1986 to 1990. Thanks to her efforts and the work of many others in her lifetime, we know the truth of the cliché, “You’ve come a long way baby.”


In the State House, you were able to do some things that when women look at what they have in society now, it’s hard to believe that all of these things occurred just in the last thirty, fifty years.


That’s right. It’s been —


Certainly within —


— very recent.


– your adult lifetime.


Absolutely. When I got involved in politics then, President Nixon appointed me to the National Association of Women.




It was kind of an interesting organization at the national level. And so I was, of course, pleased at being appointed, and went to Washington and sat in on many of the meetings, and watched the Congress perform, et cetera, et cetera.


This is while you were in the State House?


This was when I was in the State House. And at that time, the whole interest of women being equal rose up.


And you had—you remember some of those women who were really outstanding in what they were—they burned their bras and, you know, they marched around and they did all their things. And they were stunts, but they called attention, the media’s attention to what was going on. And it aroused my curiosity to come home and take a look at the laws that we have. And by golly, with Pat Putman’s help in the Legislative Reference Bureau, I asked her to review all the laws that were on the books, and see where there may be discrimination. At the same time, I asked her, and the lawyers, to draft up an equal rights amendment; because this is where the national effort was going. And so we prepared this package of twenty-eight bills, and the Equal Rights Amendment. And I had some good friends in the Legislature—I didn’t work alone; I mean, this was a bipartisan effort, although a lot of people didn’t know it. But people like Senator John Ushijima from the Big Island, his wife Margaret; we had Pat Putman, we had quite a few others —




— who were Democrats, and committed ones. John Ushijima introduced a companion –


In the Senate.


In the Senate. And I told him, If you can do this, I’ll do the lobbying in the House. And we did; and we were successful.


Well, what are some of those bills that came into law as a result of your steering things through?


Well, there was so much. I don’t think the young people today remember. A woman could not have a credit card in her own name. She couldn’t own a mortgage in her own name. And if she were divorced, she had all kinds of problems; her husband—ex-husband had to give permission for her to be able to have access to the bank account. I mean, these were crippling things that held women back. And the private sector, as well as the public sector, could determine the wage of a woman according to the lowest wage of a male in the same job.


That was all legal.


All legal.


And people took it for granted?



And took it for granted. We changed all that. And a woman who was pregnant couldn’t get maternity leave, with pay. You just couldn’t do it. And we had to change that. We had to change—oh, and if a person wanted to use her maiden name for whatever reason, professionally, or whether when—after divorce, she wanted to retain her maiden name, can’t do it. We changed it; so that today, a woman can use any name she prefers. But the Equal Rights Amendment went flying through our Legislature, because people here understood. The legislators knew that this was the right thing to do for all the women in the world, especially in Hawaii. And you know, we had the very highest percentage of women who were working.


Mhm. That was in 1972, when the ERA —




– passed here.




In fact, a Star-Bulletin columnist, Richard Borreca, did a column a year or so ago where he said an intern in the office couldn’t believe that it was such a big deal when you steered that —




— that bill through, because —




— it just seemed like that should have happened, you know, a hundred years ago. But it didn’t.


It didn’t.


It happened in 1972.


That’s right. And that wasn’t that long ago.




And those were fun years, because we had interested people, concerned people, thinking people, who looked at what Hawaii should be, and how people should be treated. They weren’t that concerned about the petty little things that today, sometimes, take up too much time.


Why do you think that is?


[SIGH] I don’t know. It’s partisanship gone to the edge, to the far end. It’s the lack of appreciation, I think, of what legislation could do, instead of holding back and trying to constrict and sort of confine people. You don’t have the big thinkers anymore. And in those days, it was fun to work with Jack Burns, Governor Burns. And we had Tadao Beppu, who was really terrific.


Youre naming Democrats here.


Yeah; they were all pals. I mean, we used to fight like heck on the floor of the House, or on the floor of the Senate, but after that, we went out and had saimin, you know, and we talked about legislation. But I will tell you, the most fun I had, really, was when we joined up with a rascal group of Democrat senators and formed a coalition. Dickie Wong, Cayetano was involved in this, and so was Abercrombie. And we took the power away with half Republicans, half Democrats, and joined the coalition for two years.


And that was called the dissident faction —

The —


— by the media.


— dissident faction by the media; right. And I was fortunate enough to head up the committee on higher education. And it was at that time that we created the Kapiolani Community College up at Fort Ruger. I worked with Joyce Tsunoda —




— who was chancellor at the time, and we not only drafted up the legislation to make this exchange, which was acceptable to people like Jack Burns, who really wanted that area for a medical school. And we plotted out the parking spots; we wanted to make sure that we had enough parking, so the neighbors would not have to put up with students parking in their streets. It was —


And it happened within a fairly —


Two years.


– compact period of time.


Oh, Fudge Matsuda was president of the University at the time. I called him up; I said, Fudge, two years, that’s all you’ve got, because that’s all I’m going to be chairman of this committee; let’s do this in two years, and get it done.


And look how long it took to get the medical school and West Oahu University.


Right; right. But we did that—oh, and the same year, we built the law school library. So in those two years, we accomplished a tremendous number of things.


Okay; and what do you attribute that to?


Again, to the coalition; we had the power, we had the votes, and we could move it through. We had Governor Ariyoshi who was open-minded about things.


So it wasn’t about, as you said, partisanship to the max; it was about bridging gaps.


Right; it was bridging gaps.


And it was people who liked stirring up a little dust too.


Yeah; that’s what it was.


[chuckle] What was it like working with the media at the State House? I mean, you saw the advent of television and now we talk about how there isn’t a lot of time given to television news in terms of digging out stories.




Have you seen a change in media news coverage?


Oh, yes; oh, yes. Because I remember Jerry Burris when he first started, and Borreca. You were there. Lynne Waters was there. I mean, there were many, many people who were part of the legislative scene. And you had a role to play, and you played it well. And we could talk to you. I don’t know what it’s like today. I thought you people did more in-depth.




And you came to seek answers.


And you took some hard questions, right?


Oh, always; always take hard questions. And tried to be very honest, and straightforward. And so I congratulate you too, for all you did.


Thank you very much. You’re from a neighbor island and —




– you made it in the big city of Honolulu. And then you distinguished yourself representing Hawaii in Washington. How do you look at where we are as a state, and how do you feel about Hawaii today?


I think there’s hope for all of us. People in Hawaii are real. They’re true, they’re honest, they’re straightforward, and they’re sympathetic. They believe in this State, they believe in each other, they believe in family. And they’re very close. And this is something that no one can take away from us. And so we will meet the challenges of the future.


You say that, but look at the big dispute we’re having over rail. You know, people saying the city can’t handle a big job like that, I mean, we have some major issues that we can’t seem to solve, or get together on.


We will. We will. It’s an issue that has come to the forefront; it’s an issue that is going to be dealt with people — honest people, thinking people. And in the final analysis, it’ll be solved.


Why do you think we’ll triumph over this? What makes you think that?


Because people are going to realize that—it might take time, though, but people will realize that we are not solving any problems by taking these partisan stances and by being so negative about things, and not having an overall view of what is in the future for us. And I have every faith that they will; no question about it.


And you’ ve always had faith, haven’t you?


Oh, yes; always. Always.


Pat Saiki is a get-it-done sort of person – a believer in cooperation across the political aisles;- and not, as she puts it, partisanship gone to the edge. She says she’s pau running for elective office. But she is working for improvements in how Hawaii faces another social issue: eldercare. More on that as our conversation continues with next week on Long Story Short. Please join me then. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. A hui hou kakou.


Were you good at everything?




What werent you good at?


My golf game has gone to pot. [chuckle] It’s not as good as I would like. There are things that I would like to do. I’ve never learned to play the piano, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. I haven’t yet done it.


Do you plan to?


Yeah, I think so. I think I’ll pursue that. So I have other goals.


Aloha no; and welcome to Long Story Short on PBS Hawaii; I’m Leslie Wilcox. Last week, Pat Saiki recalled a time in Hawaii’s history when there was bi-partisan collaboration in the State Legislature, instead of what she calls “partisanship gone to the edge.” A Republican, she served as a State lawmaker, U.S. Congresswoman and head of the nation’s Small Business Administration. More with Pat Saiki next.


Pat Saiki, wife, mother of five, and public school teacher, entered politics in order to open doors for people, especially women and minorities. And though she was another kind of minority in Hawaii, a Republican, she was able to work across the political aisle to get laws changed. When collaboration failed, the former Hilo girl could be a fierce opponent.


Did you ever look at yourself as others might be seeing you, or did you do a lot of introspection that way, or did you just say, Whatever?




This is who I am.


That’s right; exactly.


And you didn’t—did you look for mentors or people who could show you by example?


There weren’t any. [chuckle] You know. There—I hope that the women who follow after me will pursue their goals and find the successes I did. And like I say, my life with my children, though—I mean, throughout this whole thing, the five kids were raised well, I thought. And my husband was a big help; he was the kind of support that you don’t see or get very often.


Ive heard you credited for co-founding the Spouse Abuse Treatment Center.


Oh, yes.


Is that right?


Sex abuse; yes. You know, I have to give credit to my husband for this one. My husband was an obstetrician gynecologist. And he was involved as chief of staff at Kapiolani Medical Center. And he knew about these cases of violent abuse of women, for whatever reason. He wanted to give them help. If they were raped, at that time, they were sent to the morgue to be—shall we say, examined by the pathologist in the morgue.




He just didn’t think that this was right. So he came home one day and he told me, You know, we’ve gotta do something about these women who are being abused, these women who are suffering, not only at the hands of their husbands, but at the hands of those people who really care less about the value of women, respect women. And so he said, What do you think we can do? I said, Well, you’re at Kapiolani Hospital, it’s a medical hospital, it’s a women’s medical hospital; isn’t there something that you folks can do there at the hospital? I said, Why don’t you talk to Dick Davi, Richard Davi, who was then —


Who was the head of —


— CEO —


– Kapiolani, right?


Yeah; Kapiolani. So he did. He chatted with Dick Davi, and then he came home and told me, You know, Dick Davi understands the need for this; we have to provide some place where women can feel safe, where women can come in and tell us their story, that they can be examined by physicians, and be given the sympathy and the help with very sympathetic people. He says, But how are we gonna do it? We need money. I said, That’s when I come in. We’ll see what we can do to add this program to the budget, as an add-on. [chuckle]


And you were a Republican in the minority.


Oh, yes; Republican in the minority. But you see, it’s very easy to tell the story of distressed women, or it could it these legislators’ daughters, it could be their wives, it could be their aunts, it could be anybody close to them in their family. They understood. As long as you presented it to them on a personal basis, these legislators, whether they were Democrats or Republicans, understood the need.


Are you saying —


And they supported me.



Are you saying nobody did any horse trading, that they didn’t say, Well, I’ll support that if you support this? But, otherwise, you’re not gonna get my vote on that one.


Not on this one; not on this issue. You can horse trade on something else, but not on this one. This is an emotional issue. And there is no need to do any horse trading. And I made it personal to these people. They understood; so they funded it, and it became an add-on to the budget. Later, we wanted to include it as part of the Health Department’s budget. And today, there’s an organization that really promote—the Sex Abuse Center. And, they’ve done their own fundraising, and they’re making themselves more independent.


But back then is when rape victims stopped having to go to the morgue to be —


Oh —


– questioned.




And —


Can you imagine —


– counseled.


— that? I mean, thirty-five, forty years ago, that was it.


They werent being counseled, actually, now that I think about it.


Not counseled.


They were simply being—their statements were being taken.


That’s right. And they were sent down to the morgue, and they were examined there, and the police went there, and got the report, and that was it. So I think the Sex Abuse Center of today has done much to help the women who have been caught in this situation.


You know, being a Republican in Hawaii at the time—you were serving in the State House—in the minority in the State Legislature. But on the other hand, you were a Republican in a time of Nixon, followed by Reagan, followed by George H.W. Bush.




Did that help you?


Yes, I think so; because I got good ideas from the national level, as to what was available, and I could bring that home. And let’s go back. Let’s go back to Ronald Reagan—when we passed out of the Congress the Reparations Bill.


For Japanese Americans?


For Japanese Americans who were interned during the war.


Did you have a personal connection with internees?


My uncle.




My uncle and aunt; my uncle was an alien, and he worked for a cracker company in Hilo. And he ran also a taxi company. He left those businesses in the hands of my father, because he was taken away and shipped out to Topaz, Utah.




My cousins then had to go up to Topaz and be interned with their parents. So ‘til today, I have a cousin; we call him Topaz. [chuckle] But this Reparations Bill had been sitting in the Congress for years, and years, and years. And Republicans were especially hesitant about passing a Reparations Bill for a minority group; until I got elected. I got elected to Congress, went into the Republican caucus room, and I said, What the heck are you guys doing? Do you know what this means? Do you know it happened? Do you know why it happened? And I’m going to lay on the biggest guilt trip you ever had, and I want you to pay attention, because I’m going to do it now. And I laid it out to them. Newt Gringrich, all of these people were there at the time; he was —


This was when you were a —


— the leader.


You were a brand new, fledgling —




– Congresswoman.


Freshman. Who pays attention to freshmen Congresswomen? But Hawaii never had a Republican in the Congress, so my Republican colleagues paid attention. If I could make it through this State, I must have something that I could share with them; which is what I did, and laid it out on the Reparations Bill, and I got their vote. And so the bill passed the Congress, and then we had to deal with President Reagan. Is he going to sign, is he not going to sign? And the White House people called me and said, I think he’s going to need a little nudging here. So I went down the White House and talked with the president. And I’m not saying that I did it; you know, I’m not claiming that. But I’m saying that maybe I helped move it along.


Well, what did he say when—or did—was he aware of the issue when you spoke with him?



Yes, he was aware of the issue. But he had to think twice, he said, about giving reparations to one segment of the population; there are many, many others who have been discriminated against for one reason or another, and so forth. And he had his arguments, but in the final analysis, he did sign it. So I’m proud of that because I feel the Japanese Americans who were interned—it happened so –




— unfairly, and unjustifiably.


Former President George H.W. Bush said this about Pat Saiki: “She’s an effective, compassionate leader whose voice gets heard, who makes things happen.” The first President Bush appointed Pat Saiki to head the U.S. Small Business Administration. That, after she gave up her Congressional seat to make a run for U.S. Senate against Dan Akaka and lost. She served two terms in Congress.


I got to see you in Washington, DC when you were the fledgling Congresswoman. How would you describe how you carried yourself? I mean, you had a big learning curve; anybody who enters —


Oh, yes.


– Congress does. But were you feisty, were you statesman like, or how did you handle yourself?


Well, I don’t know how people looked at me, except that they knew this was a strange kid from Hawaii, the little island in Hawaii; Oriental. They called me a freshman person who needed to be trained, you know. And I bowed my head, and I said, Yes, I’m here to learn.


Because seniority is considered everything.


Seniority is considered everything. And I’m here to learn, so I need for you to teach me. And I think I could work with those people, and we got a lot of things done. It’s amazing how much was done with this kind of attitude, where you don’t strut around and say, Well, hey, I’m the new kid on the block, and you know, I’m gonna show you a thing or two. Instead, it was, I’m here to learn; teach me, and we can share things.


And did you like that job? Did you want to stay in office for quite some time, as it seems like everybody who runs for the Hill wants to stay forever. Did you want to stay in the House for longer than you did?


No. [chuckle] No.


You ran for Senate.


Yes. The House is made up of four hundred and thirty-five people. In order for you to get anything done, you have to deal with four hundred and thirty-four people. And you have to do it every two years, while running a campaign. And I had to run here every two years. And it’s a struggle. I wanted to go in the Senate, where at least you had six years.




And you had only a hundred bodies there; you had to deal with only ninety-nine. I figured the math is for the Senate. And the opportunity came, of course, unfortunately, when Senator Matsunaga died.




And so I felt—and my husband did too; he says, Look, you’re not in this game, this political game for any self- aggrandizement or motivation, you’re here to do a job, and you have to do what you think—you have to do it the way you think you can, and do it most effectively. So if you feel that you want to run for the Senate, hey, run. If you win, you win; if you lose, you lose. You haven’t lost anything.


Although you had a pretty sure thing hanging on your—you would have hung onto your Congressional



Well, so I was told by my Republican colleagues who wanted me to stay. But you know, life is too short; you have to do what you feel you have to. And so that’s another reason that I decided to go for the Senate.


So you launch yourself into a Senate race against one of the most beloved men in Hawaii, Daniel Akaka.


Yes. He was. Danny is an honorable man; no question about it. But when Matsunaga died and created that opening, I felt that I should go for it. So after discussion with my husband and my campaign people, I decided that I would make a run for it. Well, it also caught the attention of the White House. And this is now George H.W. Bush. He called me, and asked for me to come down to the White House; he had something to discuss.


Was that a kick when he called you, or was that just sort of life on —


It’s always —


– Capitol Hill?


— a kick when the President of the United States calls you. And it, you makes you—well, you gotta go.


You don’t say, Oh, I’m busy.


[chuckle] No, you can’t say, Well, make an appointment. No; so I did go down to the White House. And George Bush was very interested in my running for the United States Senate race. And I said, Well, yes, but it’s going to be a tough race, because Hawaii is a Democrat state, and Senator Akaka, who is now the incumbent, because he was appointed to that position by Cayetano —


These jobs just dont come up very often.


They don’t come up very often. And it’s gonna be a tough race, so I am thinking it over. I’m looking at possibly running. He says, Well, is there anything I can do? Well —




— yes, Mr. President, there is something you can do. What is it? I said, Well, the first thing you have to do is stop the bombing of Kahoolawe. He says, Kahoo what? He calls in John Sununu, who was Chief of Staff – he says, John, come in here; now Pat, will you spell this out? Kahoolawe; I did. I did for John Sununu. And I said, Mr. President, it’s very simple. I did my research, and the bombing was permitted by executive order of the president. Therefore, the president can rescind the executive order, and the bombing can stop; it’s part of the RIMPAC exercises.


And the military desperately wanted that island because —


Oh —


– it was a great —


— they wanted it.


– place to target —


To do —


– bomb —




– practice.


But I explained to him the dangers of the continued bombing; how our state is populated, how the tourist industry has grown, especially on Maui. And when the bombs hit Kahoolawe, the windows shake in Lahaina, and in the whole island. And one day, a bomb is going to go astray, Mr. President, and I don’t think you want to be responsible for that. I think it’s time for us to return that island, a sacred island, to the Hawaiian people. They have wanted that island back, because it is a place where they pray, and they have their history of that island. So he says, the president says, Well, I don’t see why we can’t do this. We’ll have to tell the Navy to go find someplace else to bomb. Well, it didn’t take two months. I called up Hannibal Tavares; remember Hannibal Tavares?


The mayor of Maui County.


That’s right. And he was chair of the Save Kahoolawe Project.


And there was a group; lots of folks who’d been fighting the target bombing for a couple decades at that—




– point.


Decades. And I don’t know if they ever did their research to find out that it was a presidential —




— order; because it would not have been that difficult, I think, except maybe they were all Democrats, and we had a Republican president. But Hannibal was a Republican. So I called Hannibal, and I said, Here, this is the news; we’ll see what happens. Two months later, John Sununu called me and said, The president just rescinded the order. I said, Where are you gonna bomb? He says, Well, I don’t know yet, but that’s up the Navy.






And that was—at that point, you were already in a fight for Senate with Daniel Akaka?


No, no; it was at that point that I determined that I would run.


And you had something to hang your hat on —




– as far as —


That’s what I thought.


– I got the president to do this.


I thought so.


That was a tough race.


It was a tough race because Dan is so beloved, you know, and he’s one person that you really don’t want to defeat. And although I ran as —


Well, it must have been hard —


Oh, yeah.


– attacking him, because he is so —


I couldn’t attack him.


– genuinely nice.


Yes; I couldn’t attack him.


But you did very well, when you launched. You were —





You were ahead in the polls.


It was circumstantial. It was the year when the president had said, Read my lips, no new taxes, and he went back on that word, and everything began to crumble after that.


We also saw excellent Democratic feet on the ground —


Oh absolutely.


– helping —


Oh, yeah. The marchers —


– Congressman Akaka.


— came out. Yes. The unions came out, the marchers came out; they got their act together, and, although I was doing real well in the polls and everything, I was defeated. And it was an honorable defeat; it was an honorable try. I don’t regret it at all, and I’m glad that Dan Akaka is still healthy and well, and working hard for us.


And you’ ve always been for the Akaka Bill, haven’t you?


Oh, yeah.


Are you surprised it has not gone anywhere? Not far enough, anyw ay.


Well, no, I’m not surprised, because of the way the voting is going on there. I mean, it’s so partisan, and it’s caught up in that whole mishmash of emotional bills. And this one has, of course, all kinds of nuances.


Pat Saiki has been able to make her voice heard and make things happen, especially for women and minorities. She’s a political veteran and risk taker who’s quite familiar with both victory and defeat.


Youve won some big races, you’ve lost a couple of big ones.


Big ones, yes. [chuckle]


The Senate one was a big one, and then the race —


The governor.


– for governor was a —




– big one.


That was a big one; right.


What was that like?


Well, that was tough; that was a real tough race, because it was a three-way race between Cayetano —


And Fasi jumped in.


Frank Fasi jumped in, myself; and Cayetano won.   But he did not win with a huge majority of the vote. And Fasi leaked off quite a few of my votes, and that’s the way the cookie crumbles, I guess. It was one of those things. I don’t know if the State was ready for a woman governor at that point. They are now, because they elected Linda Lingle after that, and she was reelected after that.


Do you feel it was a timing thing?


Politics is all timing. Everything about politics is timing. It’s who you run against, when you run. It’s like Kirk Caldwell situation with the Office of the Clerk, and when he resigned his House seat, and when he got his papers ready for the Senate race, and all of that. I mean, it’s all a matter of timing. If Ann Kobayashi had announced earlier, if this and that; if, it could have been different.


And so—but you say you don’t have any regrets. You—it must be hard when you don’t really have control over these elements and these factors that can completely bash your chances.


Well, it’s—but you know, I go back, and I reflect on the times when I was in charge. Like when I was the head of the SBA.


Okay; this happened after, right?


Oh, yeah.




So I lost the race for the Senate. And George Bush, the president, called me at home, and asked me to come back to Washington, and take —


How many—how many times did the president —




– call you?


Do you know, I got a call from President Reagan, who wanted me to go, and I did, to the Contras in Nicaragua. I took that flight because he asked me to. George H.W. Bush wanted to talk to me about the Senate race. And he also called me after the race was lost, and asked me to head up the SBA.


Were you the first Asian to ever head a federal agency?


Yes. And the first one from Hawaii too.


And a woman, at that.


And a woman, at that. And I loved it; it was wonderful. I mean, there you are; you know, you’re heading up this agency, you’ve got four thousand employees, you’ve got a six-billion-dollar loan capability, you have almost a four hundred-million-dollar budget, and you can direct things. You can get things moving.


Did you enjoy that more than politics? Although, I know there are politics in those high level government jobs; but did you miss the elective politics?


No; at that point, you know, I sank everything into this job. I had to fight with Dick Cheney at one point; he was Secretary of Defense. And I wanted that ten percent of all federal contracts in the Defense Department to come to Small Business. And he was a little hesitant about that, but he finally gave in. And so ten percent; ten percent of all federal contracts had to be referred to minorities. And so we had to control all that, and make sure that, truly, they were minority corporations.


Lots more accountability as the —




– head of an agency than in a place with four hundred thirty-five votes.


That’s right; that’s right. It was—that’s a different job. You know, you go out and you try to get the votes to support your stances. In this other case, you have to be responsible and prove that what you’re doing is right. Oh, remember when we had Hurricane Andrew in Florida, and Hurricane Iniki within a couple of months.




Iniki was in Hawaii, I got a call from the White House. They said, Pat, this is your state; your state is going to be in the middle of this huge hurricane. I think you’d better get over there right away. So I handled that and tried to get loans for those people on Kauai. But you’re in charge; you know, so it was a different experience. But it was enjoyable; it was fun. I’m glad I did it.


And why did you leave it?


Oh, I had to. Change in —


Oh, change in — uh-huh.


Yeah; Clinton came in.






Thats right.


George H —


So there’s no way you were gonna say —




– Excuse me, Mr. President —




– I’m a Republican, but I —

No, we all had to turn in —


– really like this job.


— our resignations at that point. So after that, I came home.


Oh. And then I’m sure a lot of folks said, Pat, I’m glad you’re back, ‘cause we want you to do this, and—




will you run for that, and what about that?


Yeah, but you know, I feel like I’ve done my job; I’ve done my duty. I enjoyed every minute of it. I hope that I contributed something that’s worthwhile. And I think I have, with help from a lot of people, Democrats and Republicans.


Is there something


And I have no —


– you would have done differently?


— nothing to regret.


No regrets?


No regrets; no regrets at all. And so today, I sit on the board of governors of the East West Center, which is an institution that I really believe in. I helped to move it along in its early stages when it was developing. And I have another cause, and that is to try to get help for the elderly, for those who are in need. I took care of my father, who died two years ago. He lived with me, I took care of him at home. That’s when I found out that we need to have home care. People want to stay home when they get old; they don’t want to be stuck in an institution at the costs that are exorbitant. And so we have to find ways to give them the kind of life that they deserve, after they’ve worked so hard.


Excuse me; but that sounds kinda like a stump speech.


Well, no, no. It isn’t.



Youve ruled out politics?


I’ve ruled out politics, but I play politics from a different position now. I’m trying to influence people to think like I do, and think ahead. Because the biggest tsunami that’s gonna hit this state yet is the elderly; the care of the elderly. People are getting older, and we’re not ready.


Pat Saiki went from Hilo to Honolulu to Washington DC, always a change agent. Now she’s set her sights on improving Hawaii elder care. From her record, we know that her voice can be calm, persuasive, collaborative; and it can be feisty, even fierce. I’ll be listening for her in the eldercare debate. Mahalo to Pat Saiki, and to you, for joining me for this Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. A hui hou kakou.


I just have one more thing to ask. You know, I got to see you in your office, in Congress, on Capitol Hill, did a couple of news reports about you then. And then many years later, after you retired, and I think you were taking care of your father at the time, you had girls’ night out, and you and some —




– women friends were at the Blaisdell watching a show. And I was sitting, I think, in the seat—oh, the row in front of you. And you guys were having a ball; you were passing around kaki mochi, and —


Yeah, yeah.


– li hing mui, and —




– you said, Hey, Leslie, you want some? You just looked like you were having a great time.


Oh, I do. I did, and I still do.




Roy Sakuma


Original air date: Tues., July 15, 2008


Hawaii’s Foremost Ukulele Teacher


When PBS Hawaii President and CEO Leslie Wilcox sat down with ukulele teacher Roy Sakuma recently, she thought she had a pretty good idea how the conversation would go. Roy would tell her about his family and his school days; and we’d find out how he became a teacher.


It’s no secret that Roy Sakuma dropped out of high school. But, during this Long Story Short, he explains why.


In the first of two parts of this very moving conversation, Roy Sakuma reveals – for the first time publicly – that he was raised in a home filled with mental illness. His late mother and brother suffered from serious mental illness. And Roy, his father and his sister suffered too, keeping the family’s secret and living with the stigma and the guilt.


Roy Sakuma Audio


Download the Transcript




Aloha no, I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. Today’s Long Story Short features Roy Sakuma – a name that belongs to an ukulele studio, an ukulele festival, summer zoo concerts, an award-winning record label, Hawaii’s foremost ukulele teacher, and a man who’s lived his entire life hiding a family secret.


When I sat down with Roy Sakuma, I thought I had a pretty good idea how the conversation would go. Roy would tell us about his family and his school days. And we’d find out how he became a teacher. It’s no secret that Roy Sakuma dropped out of high school. And, as the story goes, he went to work for the City Parks Department and came up with the idea for an ukulele festival while cleaning restrooms at the Kapi‘olani Park Bandstand. But I had no idea why Roy Sakuma dropped out of school. Or that he’d reveal, for the first time publicly, that he was raised in a home with serious, untreated mental illness.


When you were little, was it obvious to everyone around you that you would go into music, and you’d be a teacher?


Oh; absolutely not. In fact, I think it was the opposite, because I can remember as a child, all the way through my years in intermediate school, I never listened to music. Now, you know, people may think that’s weird, but I was always outdoors. And being outdoors, you’re never listening to the radio. So for me, that was the last thing that I ever thought I would get into, would be music, and to be you know, teaching the ukulele. I was always involved in sport. That was my number one thing that I enjoyed the most.


What were your growing up years like?


Uh, it was difficult. You know, I went through a lot of pain, and I didn’t realize it ‘til years later, but you know, when I was born, my mother was diagnosed as—you know, she had paranoia, schizophrenia. And she had it severe. So I didn’t have a normal childhood. And growing up, it was difficult, because I couldn’t distinguish, you know, what was right and what was wrong; and so I developed a lot of misconceptions in life. And as the years went by, it only got worse, because my brother at nine years old also had a mental breakdown. So you know, our home was filled with a lot of difficulty. And so it was a struggle for me. And I think for that reason, I was always cutting out of school. I mean, you know, who cuts out of kindergarten? But I started cutting out from kindergarten and all the way through first through sixth grade; I was always cutting out of class?


What did you do instead of going to class?


I would just go down to the river and just hang out there, or I would come home and hide in the garage so that my mother wouldn’t see me.


By yourself?


By myself; by myself. Because um, I realize now that I was going through a lot of struggles. And these struggles naturally come up later in life. But at that time, you don’t understand it; so the only thing you do is, you’re more comfortable being out of that environment of school, because you don’t know how to relate to your peers. And so it really was difficult for me, but it turned out to be a blessing later on in life.


Was your dad in the home?


My dad was home, but because my mother and brother were both mentally ill, it was hard for him. I didn’t expect him to be home, because it was hard. You know, there was never any logical communication, so my father would go out every night and, naturally he enjoyed drinking, so he’d be drinking seven nights a week. I was happy for him, knowing that he was enjoying his life. I was struggling, it was okay; but I was happy for him.


Paranoid schizophrenia today is a very treatable disease. Was there medication available for your mother?


You know, at that time, way back, from what I understand, my father told me that they didn’t have or—what’s the word I’m trying to say is that he couldn’t take my mother to get any help, because at that time it was shameful. If you had this type of mental illness, and people around you knew what it was, it didn’t look good. So my father had to just, what’s the word? He is just to live with it. He did tell me years later, though, that he tried to commit her. But what happened is that no one would help him in the family, because my mother’s mother would not allow it.


I see.


She felt that was taboo.


That means your brother was also untreated when he had his—






We—my father sent him to the Kane‘ohe mental institution, where he received treatment. And he would get these uh, medications where they would release him. But the problem is that every time they released him, he had to go back in, because he would get another breakdown. And so it was a struggle, because—I remember when he was young—when I was young, he tried to kill me one time with a knife. And so ever since then—I was only like eleven years old—every time he came home, I would be—I couldn’t sleep in bed. You know, I’d be shivering, because I’d be afraid that, you know, in my sleep, he was going to do something to me and harm me. So it was a struggle, those years; it was very painful.


When you said you didn’t know right from wrong, how did that translate?


I think because there was so much anger in me, there was so much frustration, I felt like I was the only weird kid in the neighborhood, and how come I have all these emotional problems, and everybody around me looked so normal. And so it would be all this anger in me, and I would do things that were totally unacceptable, like you know, just things—not to hurt people, but things that were not appropriate.




Like, once a neighbor was yelling at me because we were making too much noise, and I cut down part of his tree. [chuckle] You know, because I was so upset. And yet, I didn’t realize that I was doing these things that—you know, it was just the anger in me that had me doing these things. And it was a very difficult time for me, because I didn’t know how to control this. And I think more than anger, it was the hurt I was feeling, the pain.


And there was no adult you could speak with about it?


There was no adult. And that’s why I developed all these misconceptions in life, and it wasn’t until I became a young adult—I think I was like nineteen years old; I decided that I needed to do something about this. So I went to a psychologist and talked to him. And that was a turning point of my life.


I’m sure it wasn’t easy for this local boy and successful businessman to speak openly about the family secret of mental illness. It took courage. Now that it’s no longer a secret, Roy Sakuma wants to use his story to help others. He wants people to know it’s good to seek professional help. That’s what he did, to help make sense of the impact that his mother and brother’s mental illness had on him. I hope Roy Sakuma’s story – which he’s revealing here for the first time publicly – will have a positive impact on other people’s lives.


Let’s back up a little bit.




You went through school cutting out.




Getting into trouble. How did your school career end?


[chuckle] I think I was in the ninth grade, and in February, I got caught for—you know, I was tardy a lot, I was cutting out of class. And so the principal, not suspended, but ejected me from school. So I was left out of school from February. So I missed the last four months of school as a ninth grader. And when I went back the following year to repeat, he actually told me, You’re going to high school; we’re gonna promote you anyway. So despite missing four months of school in my ninth grade year, I went to high school, which was Roosevelt High School. And I’ll never forget, because while I was there, the principal told me; he says, Roy, one of us has to go, and it’s not me. And that was the end of my high school career. [chuckle] That was it.


And all of this time, your mom remained untreated and—




And getting worse?


Yes. She was, you know, she was just talking to herself, and my brother, too, was—they both were talking to themselves. So it was hard for me. If you’re at home trying to do something, and you have one person walking behind you talking, and the person sitting across from you talking, it—you know, I learned to shut my mind off. I learned to shut—you know, in other words, I went into dreamland—




–so that you know, physically I was there, but mentally you know, I was somewhere else, so I didn’t have to hear all this. And yeah, I realized it years later that, you know, these were things that I had to cope with. And going to this psychologist helped me.


Did you get yourself ready for school, and kind of self managed?


[chuckle] Well, you mean, during those—


During those long years.


Uh, yes, but you know, when you say get ready for school, I was never in school, actually. You know, I would go, but I would cut out; go, and cut out. And it was just too much of a struggle for me. And I can share this now; I mean, before, I didn’t talk too much about this, especially being this deep into the pain that I had. But it was a really big struggle, and luckily, as the years went by, through this therapy, it helped me a lot.



How did it help you?


Well, I was able to share with him the misconceptions in my life. And I’ll never forget this, Leslie, because at the end, when I had spilled my beans out to him, you know what he told me? He says, You know, Roy, of all the people that have sat down across from me, you are one of the most sanest people I’ve ever had to talk to.


That must have felt good to you.


Yeah. And I say, Well, how can you say that? And he says, You were giving me the answers to your problems. And that made me feel really good. That really helped me. I realized that you know, I had all this misconception that I was totally mentally ill or crazy, or my thoughts were not normal thoughts. And so I was able to put my life together.


Well, how were you feeling when the Roosevelt High School principal said, That’s it, buddy, you know, one of us has gotta go, and it’s you?


[chuckle] Actually, inside, I was happy. [chuckle] Only because uh, I had such a diff—and see, now I realize the reason I had such problems in school is, I didn’t how to relate to people my own age; you know, ‘cause I felt so insecure about myself. So when I left school, it forced me to look for a job. And when I had to work, I felt that I could relate to adults, and I could pour my heart into whatever I’m doing. And that was a way of dealing with my pain.


Do you worry that you might get schizophrenia, that you might become mentally ill?


At that young age, yes. And I realized years later when I was talking to my sister, she felt the same thing; that sooner or later, we were both gonna fall into this mentally ill. But you know, fortunately, we didn’t; both of us were fine. But it was that fear that actually brought a lot of more pain and this so-called misconceptions, ‘cause you’re worrying about things that you shouldn’t be thinking like that, but there’s on one to tell you, Hey, it’s okay. You know, don’t worry, you’ll be fine. And so I didn’t get that reassurance that I needed.


And how’s your brother who had mental illness too?


Uh, he committed suicide. He jumped off a building. And so again, you know, you think, Okay, I’m next. You know, you worry about that. It becomes such a big part of your daily life, thinking about it, so you’re not very functional. Though on the outside, people think you’re okay. But it’s what on the inside, is that what I had to deal with a lot of these issues.


Did you feel you were putting on an act; I’m okay, for—


Oh, yeah.





Oh, yeah; definitely, definitely. I was good at that; I was good at that.


But I just wonder if people who are listening to this program, who have issues with mental illness. I wonder what you have to say to them?


I would say that if in your darkest moments that you can see something positive, which I know is hard; but if you just look around, if you look at the whole world, the devastations that’s happening, and you look at where you are; there’s hope. And as long as you have hope, then you have the first step of helping yourself get better. And I think too many times when we’re—see, when we have a happy moment, we take it for granted. You know, we’re happy; we’re happy. But when we have something that goes against us, that makes us a little sad or hurtful, we tend to dwell on it. And that’s what I try to teach people not to do. And that’s why it’s so important to have hope. Once you have hope you have the building block to help yourself in your life.


And your brother ran out of hope.


Yes; he ran out of hope. You know, I was much younger than him, and he was so smart. But you know, he didn’t know how to deal with his life and the pain that he was going through, and so you know, he did what he felt, which, had I known that, had I been older, I would have been able to help him. But I was too young when all this happened.


It’s estimated that mental illness touches as many as one person out of every four, which means it could affect nearly every family in Hawai‘i. But, for cultural reasons, financial reasons and other sensitivities, some families choose to keep their mental illness a secret. And for all these years, Roy Sakuma did just that. But now, he’s chosen to share his very real emotions, and offer his message of hope.


What are your thoughts, looking back at the mental illness that governed your life, on the part of your mom and your brother? You know, I keep thinking how treatable schizophrenia is, if the person has access to and is willing to take medication. What are your thoughts now?


Well, I realize that it is treatable. Because what happened is, I had to make a choice in my life once, and I wanted my father’s life to be better. And so I took it upon myself to committing my mother to the Kane‘ohe Mental Hospital.



Once you became an adult?


Yes. And it was very difficult, because you know, no one wanted to get involved with this, and rightfully so, because it was a very difficult thing to do. We had to actually have them come over and strap her down. Because I knew she wouldn’t go willingly. And I’ll never forget; as they wheeled her out of the house, she told me, I hate you, I disown you, and I will never talk to you again. And then they took her away. And I was devastated. But I knew this was something that I had to do. So, what happened is, through the medication that she took, eventually it came to the point where we could have conversations between each other, and with my sister, and she really changed a lot. I mean, the change was significant, where we actually had a mom that we could talk to. She wasn’t totally there, but she came a long way, where we could actually have simple conversations. So I’m very grateful for that. I’m very grateful that despite—you know, it was painful then, but the reward was twenty times greater, ‘cause now I could talk to my mother on a—yeah.


Were you able to share with her what you’ve been able to do with your life?


Yes; and you know, to some degree, she understood some things. But I had to keep it simple. But I think for me, the greatest joy was to see how much love she had for us as her children, and how much she, you know, respected our new family life. Like my sister was married, I was married to Kathy, and how she could enjoy that. She could enjoy not just us as her children, but the people that we committed our lives to. And I think that was really wonderful for both my sister and I.


It sounds like your mom probably said some really hurtful things to you, right?


Yeah; she said hurtful things to me. And um, she babbled constantly of things that weren’t relevant to life. And it was things that, you know, a person that’s not sane would say, like you know, and I don’t know if I should even say some of these things. But you know, our icebox, for instance, was empty. So all we had was a hotdog and eggs; that’s all we had to eat, every day. And she would cook the same thing for me every night. I mean, it was so difficult. I mean, she would wake me up two o’clock every morning to have breakfast. And so at eight o’clock, I gotta go to school. But you know, by then, my stomach’s churning, so I’d be embarrassed, and I’d cut out. Because I didn’t know how—a simple thing like my stomach churning embarrassed me, because no one told me it was okay. So I’d be cutting out of school in the first grade. But you know, it’s those types of weird things, where your whole life is out of balance, because she went by according to what she felt, which was totally—she wasn’t capable.



And did you hear hurtful things about yourself from her?


I did. You know, I’m gonna share something with you that I’ve not told anybody. In fact, only my dearest family knows about this. And you know, when she was trying to—well, maybe I should share it later. [chuckle] Okay; that’s okay, that’s okay.


No, no; I—




understand. You gotta make choices as you go.




You know, all this time, you’ve been very positive, and you’ve spoken of how you’ve made something positive out of something that could have sunk other people. You’ve turned it around. Do you have any regrets?


No; I have no regrets. You know, I look back on my life many times, Leslie, and I look at all the pain I went through, I look at all the sorrow, I look at all the hurt. I look at all the, you know, just things that were so painful to me. And I wouldn’t trade it; because through all that pain, today it’s given me an insight to people and children that I can help. And I have this strong yearning to help people, to want to always help. And I hope that I never lose— that’s something that I see in my wife too, and we have that. And I hope that we will never lose that love of wanting to help others.


So when you tell people, Oh, yeah, I was a kolohe boy—




You really weren’t kolohe; you were just in terrible pain.


Yes; yes, yeah. You’re right. Uh, through that pain, sometimes I did things that were naughty. But the important thing is that I never hurt people. And I think I learned that from my father. I mean, as much as my father wasn’t around—



–he was a great man; because everybody in the neighborhood respected him. See, we had a big porch; so all the kid—neighborhood kids would be on our porch all the time. And when he came home for a little while, they would all say, Hi, Mr. Sakuma. And he was always nice to everybody. He would bring home abalone and cut pieces for everybody. And so I just knew my father as this really nice man to my friends. Little did I realize that when he passed away, is when I find out all these things, where people that came to pay their respects says, Oh, your father was you know, this great man; he always treated people with respect. You know, Never did I hear your father say a mean thing.


And he lived with a lot of sadness too.


Yeah. And he taught me something at a young life. Number one, he told me two things.


He says, Number one, you know, don’t listen to your mother, because she’s mentally ill; she doesn’t know what she’s saying. So that helped me to some degree, but still, it was still difficult. And number two, he told me, Whenever you’re in a situation where someone is to get hurt, as much as possible, you take the pain; but you never give out the pain to

someone else. And I’ve lived by that. And when he passed away, one of the elderly gentlemen who came up to me says, Do you know your father’s in the book, The Battle of Iwo Jima? And I didn’t know that. He says, Yeah. So I bought the book, and I went to his passage, and it was so inspiring to me. Because as much as the Iwo Jima was such a hurtful battle, many people died, and all these comments about the bitterness of war. I read his comment, and he says—he talked about—can you believe this, the beauty of Iwo Jima. He says, Look how beautiful this paradise, look how beautiful. He saw past all the war, now; he saw past all the pain. He was talking about this beautiful place on Earth. And I realized, you know, that even in the dark times, or even for himself, he could see things that, you know, normally, we wouldn’t even comprehend. And you know, I was just so in awe that he could see these things in the midst of war.


Roy Sakuma is still learning to cope with the mental illness that shaped his life. Through the Roy Sakuma Ukulele Studios, Roy has taught thousands of students, young and old, to share the joy of music and camaraderie. The Ukulele Festival, which he started in 1971, has grown into one of the largest events at the Kapi‘olani Park Bandstand, with hundreds of participants from Hawai‘i, the mainland and around the globe. As the story goes, Roy dreamed up the international festival while cleaning bathrooms at the Bandstand as a City groundskeeper. I asked him to tell us the story behind that story.


My first job, I was a stock boy for Wilder Food Center. And I was a hard worker, and I put the groceries up, I mopped and swept the floors; and you know, I was totally happy. I was so happy doing that type of work. I thought I could do that my whole life. You know, little did I realize that later on, I would find the ukulele. But I went from stock boy, I went to—I can remember once I went to Kaimuki Typewriter, and I wanted to be an apprentice. So the guy says, Well, you know, you know anything about typewriters? I say, No. He gives me a thick manual and he tells me, Well, take it home and study it, and then we’re gonna test you the next day. So I go home; there’s no way I can read that. So I look at my old Remington—I think it was Remington typewriter, and I took it apart, figuring out how to take it apart; and then I put it back. So the next day, I go, and he says, Well, did you read the book? I said, Yup.




He says, All right; pick one of these typewriters and let me see if you can take it apart. So I went to the Remington [chuckle]; I took it apart, put it back together. I got the job. So that’s how I became a Kaimuki Typewriter apprentice. But you know, I somehow thought of that. You know. I’m not gonna read, but I’m gonna practice taking apart a—


And as it turns out, typewriters couldn’t be a lasting career.


Yeah; that’s right. That’s right. [chuckle] You know. But you know, it’s just going through these stages, it helped me. Helped me to mature, because eventually it led me to working in the City and County of Honolulu. I was twenty-one years old, and I went to apply for the City and County. Not having an education, the only job that I could get was a parks keeper. And I applied, and fortunately I barely passed the test. I became a groundskeeper for the City and County of Honolulu, and I was so happy.


Did you work in Kapi‘olani Park, where you would later have all of these decades of ukulele festivals?


That’s how it started. As a groundskeeper, every day we would have lunch at Kapi‘olani Park Bandstand, and you know, we’d be looking at the bandstand, having lunch. And one day, out loud I say, You know, I’d like to put on an ukulele festival. And the person next to me was a white collar worker at City Hall, and he told me, Dreams come true. And that inspired me; those words inspired me to go after work, go down to City Hall and inquire, How do you put on an ukulele festival? That led me to Mr. Moroni Medeiros. And Moroni would help me for the next fourteen years. He became my mentor in my life. He was, ‘til this day, the greatest man that I’ve ever met.


Finding inspiration and a mentor are two of life’s lessons Roy Sakuma has learned. And he’s gone on to teach many life lessons as a gifted ukulele player, instructor and business owner. I’d like to thank Roy for sharing stories with us – especially the ones he hadn’t told before, about growing up surrounded by serious mental illness.


If you’d like information on mental health resources in our community, simply dial 2-11 or log on to pbs-hawaii-dot-org and download the transcript from this program. We’ll include some information there for you.


And please join me next week as we continue Roy Sakuma’s Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. A hui hou kakou.


When I go to schools nowadays and I talk to children, and I talk to intermediate school kids, I can kinda sense if some of them are having similar issues that I have, and you know, I can kinda talk to them in a way in which I can bring up some of these things so that they can relate to it, you know, bring it out where I’m not coming out too strong, and yet it gets them thinking, Hey, you know, there’s an option to how I feel. You know. And I try to do this in schools now when I talk to children.


Part 2



Aloha no, I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. “A terrible student.” That’s how ukulele master Roy Sakuma described himself on Long Story Short last week as he recalled his childhood attending public schools in Honolulu. He started cutting out of school in kindergarten. He was smoking at the age of six and drinking by the sixth grade.


He spent time in Juvenile Detention and he dropped out of high school. Today, the internationally acclaimed ukulele teacher and business owner Roy Sakuma visits schools to share his love of music and his message of hope.


For the first time, on last week’s Long Story Short, ukulele impresario Roy Sakuma revealed why he didn’t bother much with school as a kid. He explained that his late mother and brother suffered from serious, untreated mental illness. Roy, his father and sister lived with the family’s secret. Before we continue Roy Sakuma’s Long Story Short, let’s revisit his childhood in Makiki.


What were your growing up years like?


It was difficult. You know, I went through a lot of pain, and I didn’t realize it ‘til years later, but you know, when I was born, my mother was diagnosed as—you know, she had paranoia, schizophrenia. And she had it severe. So I didn’t have a normal childhood. And as the years went by, it only got worse, because my brother at nine years old also had a mental breakdown. So you know, our home was filled with a lot of difficulty.


Was your dad in the home?


My dad was home, but because my mother and brother were both mentally ill, it was hard for him. You know, there was never any logical communication, so my father would go out every night and, naturally he enjoyed drinking, so he’d be drinking seven nights a week.


Paranoid schizophrenia today is a very treatable disease. Was there medication available for your mother?


You know, at that time, way back, from what I understand, my father told me that they didn’t have or—what’s the word I’m trying to say is that he couldn’t take my mother to get any help, because at that time it was shameful. He did tell me years later, though, that he tried to commit her. But what happened is that no one would help him in the family, because my mother’s mother would not allow it.


I see.


She felt that was taboo.


That means your brother was also untreated when he had his problem?


No. My father sent him to the Kane‘ohe mental institution, where he received treatment. And he would get these medications where they would release him. But the problem is that every time they released him, he had to go back in, because he would get another breakdown. And so it was a struggle, because—I remember when he was young—when I was young, he tried to kill me one time with a knife. And so ever since then—I was only like eleven years old—every time he came home, I would be—I couldn’t sleep in bed. You know, I’d be shivering, because I’d be afraid that, you know, in my sleep, he was going to do something to me and harm me. So it was a struggle, those years; it was very painful.


And there was no adult you could speak with about it?


There was no adult. And that’s why I developed all these misconceptions in life, and it wasn’t until I became a young adult—I think I was like nineteen years old; I decided that I needed to do something about this. So I went to a psychologist and talked to him. And that was a turning point of my life. And I can share this now; I mean, before, I didn’t talk too much about this, especially being this deep into the pain that I had. But it was a really big struggle, and luckily, as the years went by, through this therapy, it helped me a lot.


And how’s your brother who had mental illness too?


Uh, he committed suicide.


You know, I keep thinking how treatable schizophrenia is, if the person has access to and is willing to take medication. What are your thoughts now?


Well, I realize that it is treatable. Because what happened is, I had to make a choice in my life once, and I wanted my father’s life to be better. And so I took it upon myself to committing my mother to the Kane‘ohe Mental Hospital.


Once you became an adult?


Yes. And it was very difficult, because you know, no one wanted to get involved with this, and rightfully so, because it was a very difficult thing to do. We had to actually have them come over and strap her down. Because I knew she wouldn’t go willingly. And I’ll never forget; as they wheeled her out of the house, she told me, I hate you, I disown you, and I will never talk to you again. And then they took her away. And I was devastated. But I knew this was something that I had to do. So, what happened is, through the medication that she took, eventually it came to the point where we could have conversations between each other, and with my sister, and she really changed a lot. I mean, the change was significant, where we actually had a mom that we could talk to. She wasn’t totally there, but she came a long way, where we could actually have simple conversations. So I’m very grateful for that. I’m very grateful that despite—you know, it was painful then, but the reward was twenty times greater, ‘cause now I could talk to my mother.


So often, people who’ve found success have had to overcome adversity and have pressed tirelessly to achieve their goals. That certainly is the case for Roy Sakuma. He worked very hard to overcome the confusion and self-doubt resulting from mental illness in his family and his disrupted and limited formal education. And when he decided to play the ukulele, he practiced and practiced until he mastered his craft.


You know, I know in the hands of a master, what an ukulele sounds like. But I have to say that I can’t play any instrument, even a kazoo.




But I can play the ukulele. It seems like it’ll adapt to whatever level you bring to it.


Yes. I agree with you; the ukulele, to me, is one of the easiest instruments to learn in the world; it’s perfect for anyone. And you know, like I’ve seen so many people that say—tell me, I cannot play, I am tone deaf.




And you know, I can prove them wrong. There is not a person in the world that I don’t think I cannot teach. And that comes from my upbringing. You know, because I struggled so much, because I had no musical sense, and I had to learn everything from phase one, all the way up. So you can come to me with ten problems, or you know. And as soon as I see you touch the ukulele, I can make the adjustments, just like; because I know already.


Because I think that was the foundation for me; being so junk on the ukulele. So when I see students that struggle, you relate to it; so you can work them through it. Had I been a gifted student, then I don’t think I would have been a really good teacher. Because I think a lot of—I wouldn’t be able to comprehend why are you having so much trouble.




So it turned out good for me that I was a lousy–[chuckle]–I think I was the worst student, ever.


[chuckle] You turned out very good.


[chuckle] Thank you. [chuckle] You know, a lot of people thought I was such an outgoing, friendly guy. But uh, they didn’t know that inside, I was really hurting. And I think this was right after when I got kicked out of school, um you know, I heard a song; I heard a song on the radio. And it was a song recorded by Ohta-san. And that song was the turning point in my life. Because what happened is that I went to see him to learn a little about the ukulele, and that took away a lot of my pain. ‘Cause now, I was focusing on something that made me happy.


Why did you go to see him based on a song? What was the song?


The song was called Sushi. I don’t know if you recall this; it was recorded in 1963. It became the number one hit in Hawaii; was for the Tom Moffat Show.


How did it go? I vaguely remember.


Oh, are you gonna ask me to sing? [chuckle] Oh, no. [chuckle] [HUMS]


That’s right.


And it was an instrumental. And I went to see him; I was sixteen years old at this time. And the wonderful thing is that—I want to share this with everyone; is you know how they say never give up your dreams? Well, at ten years old, I tried learning the ukulele, Leslie; I couldn’t. At twelve, I tried again; I couldn’t. At fourteen, my sister tried to teach me to hold G; I couldn’t hold the chord, I couldn’t strum. I had no sense of rhythm; because as I mentioned earlier to you, I never listened to the radio. So I couldn’t do it. So she told me, Give up. But when I heard that song, I was sixteen; I decided to seek out Ohta-san. I asked him to teach me; he started teaching me. And so I think I wouldn’t be teaching the ukulele today, had it not been for that song, Sushi.


Well, that took guts; a sixteen-year-old kid who’d been kicked out of school going to this ukulele virtuoso.


Uh-huh. One thing that I had, I was never afraid, though, to approach people, as much as I was insecure inside. ‘Cause that’s how I survived.




By not being afraid to talk to people, reach out and ask people questions. And yet, inside, I was just so nervous, you know. But I learned to deal with that and it’s been a blessing for me today, ‘cause I can help children.


I was gonna ask you; are you good at sensing when somebody is undergoing pain?


Yes; yes. I sense it. I sense it all the time with children, and even sometimes with adults. I don’t know why, but I feel it. And I can tell you stories where children were abused, and I would ask the children, you know, How’s your life? And they would say, It’s fine. But inside, something was telling me that they were hurting. And I would you know, kind of push the issue and talk to the school teacher or the counselor, the principal, and sooner or later, these children would come out and say, yes, you know, there were problems. And it’s just something—I think now I understand that because I went through so much pain, you can actually somehow sense pain in other people; you know, especially in children. Yeah.


When you started playing ukulele, I understand you practiced so much, you wore out the frets?


I wore out the frets. I practiced. This is like when I was sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years old; I practiced eight hours a day, sometimes ten hours a day. Now, people think, Now, how can you do that? I could do that; I would practice and practice, and practice. And my goal was to beat Ohta-san; I was gonna become the best player in the world. But the funny thing is; the better I got, the more I realized how great the master was.




And I thought, Well, you know, he really is something special. And he told me one day; he says, Roy, do you want to come to the studio and just help me? I’m gonna teach this adult class. I said, What do I have to do? He said, Oh, just tune the ukuleles. And he comes in, teaches the adults lesson number one. And then he tells me, Oh, by the way, I’m going to Japan next week; you’re teaching. And I was petrified. I said, I don’t know how to teach. He says, No, just da-da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da-da. Leslie, I went home and I applied the same technique that I used to learn the ukulele, and practiced for hours and hours every day. I would talk to the walls, I would talk to the kitchen, I would talk to the carpet, I would talk to the mirror, as if I’m talking to those adults. And you know, by the time I went in front of them, I was totally comfortable; and I taught them. And the interesting thing is when Ohta-san returned, Ohta-san asked me, Would you like to continue teaching those students? And I was so happy. And the students were happy, because they were comfortable with me too; so it was a win-win situation. That’s how I got into teaching. So my second mentor in life was Ohta-san.


And was it different teaching children, when you decided to expand and teach children as well?


It was a natural for me. Because I realized that I had such a deep love for children that once I was teaching children, there was an instant—like an automatic connection; I can’t explain it. But when I’m around children, it’s so easy to bring them up. You know, I can just walk in a room, I can walk into my room of instructors with students, or I can go to a school, and automatically I can feel the energy rise. And so I’m happy for that, that I can, you know, have this relationship with kids. But you know, adults; we have a lot of adults now. I find that there’s a great connection with adults, because they need this outlet where they have fun and just sing, and play and laugh. And so you know, it’s working both ways for us now.


Roy Sakuma and his wife Kathy have partnered in a number of successful enterprises: Roy Sakuma Ukulele Studios, Roy Sakuma Productions, the annual Ukulele Festival, summer zoo concerts, CD, DVD and book sales, and school visits. It all began when Roy was an ukulele student himself.


All this time, you were taking ukulele lessons—


I was taking—


–from Ohta-san?


I was taking ukulele lessons after school. And in fact, I started teaching by then. I was teaching two or three times a week; I had about eight or nine students. And the love for teaching was getting stronger, and stronger in me; and that’s why I wanted to put on this event called The Ukulele Festival. Because people don’t realize, back in the 1960s, you know, if you asked people about the ukulele, they would say, Oh, that’s a toy. I mean—


Yeah; it didn’t get much respect, did it?


No. Ninety percent of the people thought it was a toy. And that hurt me, because Ohta-san was such a master.




And so the only thing I could do, and I thought was the best thing to do, was to put on an ukulele festival where we showcased the instrument. Little did I realize that now, the ukulele festival today is a big event; it’s an annual event and it’s been going on for years, and years and years.


It started in ’71. And how many performers did you have then?


I had about fifty.


Mm. And how many today?


Last year we had over nine hundred performers.




And a lot of students, lot of people from all over the world that come and perform in the event. And you know the beautiful thing; it’s free. So it doesn’t cost a cent to come down to Kapi‘olani Park and see the festival. And that, again, was a dream that eventually, when my wife started helping me in 1974, the dream was to keep the festival free. And ‘til today, it is a free event; and that is something that we are both so very, very happy.


I want to ask you something about your wife.




Here you are, doing well in the work world, but you’re damaged inside, you’re hurting still. I mean, you can’t make that go away. So the essence of marriage is intimacy.




How did that work?


Wow, wow. You know, the word love is so important to me. Though I was growing up in so much pain, that word was so special to me. And I had like two or three girlfriends over a period of my young life; I never told anyone, I love you. ‘Cause I felt love was such a special word. When I met my wife, she was nineteen years old, she was going to University of Hawai‘i. And I knew this girl was special.


How? Where did you meet her?


I met her through a blind date [chuckle]. Somebody fixed us up where she came along with my wife, and then I met my future wife and my friend; and that was the first encounter.


What did they tell you about her before they set you up?


They just said that she was a nice girl. And that’s all they told me.


And you didn’t say, Oh, what does she look like?


No; I didn’t say that. I mean, you know, I wasn’t interested in that. And but she was really attractive, you know. [chuckle]


And did you, or she know anything about what was to happen when you met?


No. In fact, we just met. And then you know, she went back with her girlfriend to work, and two weeks later I called her up. And this is interesting, because the Harlem Globetrotters were town, and it was a Friday. And I called her up and I said, Oh, would you like to go out and see the Harlem Globetrotters? They’re playing Friday night. And she tells me, Oh, I’m sorry, I have a date. So I says, Well, how about Saturday night? And she hesitates—


That didn’t phase you?


No. She says, Oh, I have another date. Okay. So Globetrotters play Friday, Saturday, Sunday. So I said, Okay; how about Sunday night? And she thinks, and she tells me, Okay. I mean, you know, what—because my life was filled—and I thought about this at times—was filled with so much rejection and stuff like that, when she said she’s busy Friday and she’s busy Saturday, it still didn’t hurt me. ‘Cause that’s not pain to me; that’s just like, hey, what if she’s honest, she’s busy. So I asked for Sunday, and she said okay. And so that was our first date.


And did you ever find out what your friend and her friend had told her about you before the blind date?


No, I never asked; I never asked.


Hm. Gotta ask.


[chuckle] But I know that she was special. And the reason I know this is because I think we dated after that, eight dates. And I didn’t—yes, I didn’t even hold her hand. Because I had so much respect for her; I didn’t want to do anything that would damage this beautiful relationship that was coming together. And so what happened is that as we were getting closer, now I knew this was the girl I wanted to marry. This was the girl that I wanted to marry, and I felt, okay, but you mentioned this–what about all the issues inside of me.




So I decided to tell her everything about my past; all the misconceptions, all the insecurities that are in me. I wanted her to know this; I want her to know who she was really marrying, at the risk of losing her. So over the next two or three dates, I revealed everything to her. I revealed my heart and soul to her; from the top of my head to the bottom of my foot, I revealed every insecurity, everything in my life to her. Do you know what she told me?




When all was said and done, she says, I never saw it as your weaknesses, I see it as your strengths. And it wasn’t until last year, when I was talking to a friend and I mentioned this, what my wife said, did I realize that she probably saved me that day. ‘Cause had she said, you know, we’re not meant for one another, you have too many issues, you’ve got to get your issues straightened out; had she said that to me, you know, it could have gotten me spiraling the wrong way.


But you were doing very well on your own.


I was doing very well. But that was like the icing on the cake. I mean, when she accepted me for all the faults that was in me, I um, I was able to get through it. And do you know what is interesting now? Those inner weaknesses have become my greatest strengths.


She was right about that.


Yeah. It’s helping people, it’s doing things to help others. You cannot take away what you went through. But you can now switch it around; and rather than dwell on the hurt that you went through, use it for the good of children and other people. And it’s something I think everybody that goes through this, when they turn it around, it becomes a really inner strength to help people. My wife and I always talk about this. If we have—and you hear this all the time—if you have nothing nice to say about someone else, don’t say it. Because treat the other person how you want to be treated. And that’s, that’s our philosophy in life, you know. You know, ‘cause I want people to treat me with respect; so therefore, I should treat people with respect.


Basic Golden Rule, right?


That’s right.


So hard to do, but so simple and true.


It’s so simple and true.


You know, you’re somebody who didn’t have a solid formal education because of the problems in your life.




But you’ve been able to become a teacher, an expert on a musical instrument, a business owner, and you’re even a music producer.


M-hm; yes, yes. It just happened, one thing after another. I think my wife deserves a tremendous amount of credit, that she was the one in 1986 said, Hey, Roy, let’s record Ohta-san. So that was our first record; and it won the Hoku for instrumental of the year. And she told me, Hey, we should open a studio in Kane‘ohe, which we did; and we should open a studio in Mililani, which we did. And so she had a lot of influence on where the studio was headed, both in the recording, both in the building of the studio where we could meet—we could reach now, more children. And so it just helped. In fact, we wrote a book on the ukulele. And I actually started it, you know, on my own, thinking I can do it. And it took me five years, and I couldn’t finish it. And she says, Where’s the book? And I said, Well, I’m still working on it. She said, Okay, give it to me; let me help you.




Leslie, we finished the book in four months. You see?




And that’s—you know, my name is out there, because it’s Roy Sakuma Productions, right? But you know, I can tell every person out there, honestly, that the success or whatever we do, it’s the woman behind; Kathy. And she doesn’t want to be in the forefront; she likes to stay in the background. But she is the, like the heart and soul of our company.


Did she have an ukulele connection before you?


No; not at all. But when I was dating her—and this is how small Hawaii is—she didn’t tell me ‘til months and months later that Ohta-san and her were first cousins.




I didn’t know. You know, so it was meant to be; it was meant to be. And so it’s just so, you know, it’s interesting.


You’re embarking on something new, and it involves something old. Can you tell us about that?


In 1970, as I was mentioning earlier, when I was hurting a lot, I was struggling, and I picked up my ukulele. And I started—this song came out of me, and it was you know, I’m not a singer, but it was something like—wait, now. [SINGS] I am what I am; I’ll be what I’ll be; look, can’t you see that it’s me, all of me. And it just poured out of me. And so I didn’t have to sit there and write the notes, write the words; it just poured out of me. That was 1970. And that song became a song that every single child in the ‘70s sang as an elementary school child. So you know, that was I Am What I Am. Little did I realize, this year as I go to elementary schools and teach that song, that the song has been a powerful tool for me to help children. ‘Cause it’s been my whole life to help kids; to help kids through their struggles. But it’s more powerful this year than ever, because as I go to these schools and I ask these children, What does, I am what I am, I’ll be what I’ll be, mean to you? This is what I get from children. One child will say, It means it’s okay who I am. Another will say, I’m special. But a lot of children will tell me this; It means that it’s okay to be who I am, and I don’t have to be who I’m not. And that is so powerful. And I realized that this song was meant for all—to share with everybody. You know, it’s okay to be who you are, and you don’t have to try and be who you’re not. And I think that’s a wonderful passage for everyone to kind of gravitate to. You know, so I’m very happy that I’m able to share this song with all the children today. So we got a concert coming up this summer where we do the Wildest Show in Town; it’s every single summer. And the concept is laughter, love, and hope; and at the end of each concert we’re gonna have the children and everybody, the audience, sing I Am What I Am. So I’m really excited about that.


And obviously, you’ve accepted yourself for who you are.




As you recall, Roy Sakuma says he was a terrible student growing up. Now, after learning so many important lessons in life, he’s a teacher in more ways than one.


Roy had not spoken publicly about the mental illness that shaped his childhood until he sat down with us for Long Story Short. I’d like to applaud him for his openness and for encouraging people affected by mental illness to seek professional help.



Monty Richards



Original air date: Tues., July 6, 2010


Pioneering Rancher & Farmer and Community Volunteer


Leslie Wilcox talks story with Monty Richards, fifth-generation family member of a ranching dynasty and former President/General Manager of Kahua Ranch on Hawaii island. Known for his pioneering efforts in high intensity rapid rotational grazing techniques and diversified operations like hydroponic farming, Richards is also recognized as a lifetime community volunteer.


Monty Richards Audio


Download the Transcript




When you see other families suffering … I don’t get comfort out of that. I just try to work harder and figure there’s gotta be a better way, there’s gotta be a better way. Somebody upstairs knows better than me. Come on, give me a hint, and let’s go try.


Big Island ranching pioneer and lifetime community volunteer, Herbert Montague Richards Jr. shares his love of the land … next on LONG STORY SHORT.


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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. High in the Kohala Mountains on the northern tip of the Big Island is Kahua Ranch, Kahua meaning the beginning, the source, the foundation. Herbert Montague Richards, Jr.—better known as Monty Richards—is a third-generation member of the Kahua Ranch family business and a fifth-generation kamaaina descended from Protestant missionaries. As the former President and General Manager of Kahua Ranch, Monty Richards spent over half-century with his late wife Phyllis on the homestead while raising a family of four and their grandchildren. His dream of a career in ranching came to him while spending childhood vacations at Kahua. In 1953, with an agriculture degree in hand Monty began work for the company. His initiation was learning the ropes at the company slaughterhouse in Honolulu.


I did most of the jobs they had there, including rolling hides, which is … whew, if you’ve never rolled hides, you have no idea.


What is rolling hide?


Rolling hides is—these are hides that are taken off the animal. And they go in a salt pack. You actually salt them down. Lay ‘em out on the ground, and shovelfuls of salt put. And then when they’re cured, you have to fold them up and in those days, we used to have to tie ‘em up, and then they’re loaded on a flat trailer. And I think we were shipping some to the mainland, some to Korea in those days.


What for? What do they use the hides for?


Well, shoes, belts, handbags; all the rest of those good things. The smell was out of sight. And the hides are heavy; they’re sixty pounds and that sort. And I have Haole hands, and we use hide rope, which is a sisal type rope, which can cut. Because you’re in salt; boy, it used to burn.


So you graduated with this degree, and then came back and did this kind of a junk job.


You have to learn. You have to learn. Maybe you were told how to do the job, but until you get out and do it, you don’t realize how hard the work is. And when you are gonna give orders to get people to do it, they know that you have done it; and that makes all the difference in the world. In terms of labor, that’s probably one of the toughest jobs. You used to do that on Saturdays, which is, you don’t work five days and then you get two days off. But there are all kinds of jobs. I delivered meat. And in those days you used a pickup truck.


You didn’t have these nice, big vans with all the chill and all. You just—pickup truck, you cover ‘em with a canvas, and you drive down and Chinatown and all, you double park, and you load quarters of beef on your shoulder, and you take ‘em into the market. But those quarters weigh about a hundred and a quarter, 150 pounds, and you’re walking through a narrow aisle with people buying all around. You gotta be careful you don’t knock anybody down as you swing, because it’s sticking out about three feet in front.


Were they deliberately giving you the roughest jobs, because they needed to see whether—


I think so.


They were testing you.


I think so.




And it should be done that way.


So they didn’t give you any chance?




Any break.


No. And if you were wrong, you were politely told where you were wrong. So you just do it. Then later on, they transferred me to the Big Island.


So you were one of the hands.


That’s right. And you rode your horse, you saddled, you caught horse at six-thirty in the morning, and off you went.


Did you like it? Were you saying about then, were you saying, Why did I want to get into this business?


Depends on the weather. If the weather is fine, no. If it’s raining, yes. And the wind is howling at about twenty to thirty miles and hour, and you’re hunched over and your horse is hunched over, and you hope he doesn’t buck you off, and your slicker is hitting the horse and all, you wonder, What am I doing here? You just keep remembering that many of the people that you went to school with are junior accountants in a bank in New York City, and think of the life that those folks lead. The Wall Street folks would just wait ‘til Friday afternoon, and they’d jump in their car and they’d go to The Farm. They’d have about an hour and a half drive, and then they would spend a day and a half on The Farm. Listen, clown, you’re living it all life, you’re living it every day, so don’t grumble, you got it made.


Monty Richards is recognized for his pioneering efforts in high-intensity rapid- rotational-grazing techniques, and also for diversifying the business. This includes experiments with hydroponic farming and eco-friendly energy sources such as wind and solar power. Tourists are also invited to visit and explore Kahua’s breathtaking scenery.


I’ve been looked upon … kind of a maverick that does things differently. For instance, I started with motorcycles here. I got started on that. And people thought it was terrible, and it probably was. So to try to make it work a little better, I referred to them as Japanese quarter horses. So to have a little bit of the pizzazz still left in it. We use ATVs now, and all—most ranches do. They make the ranch must smaller, because you’re able to move around, and you’re able to get things done. So you never know; some things work well, others don’t work well.


And of course, cattle aren’t the only things you grow.


No, we grow sheep. We’re the largest sheep ranch here in the State. Which doesn’t say much; we have about eight hundred ewes.


How many cattle?


Well, mother cows, Kahua has about four thousands.


And you’re doing these hybrid.


Yeah; yeah. We’re crossing in—within the four thousand … we work with Wagyu cattle, Kobe beef. That’s what we raise. And the unfortunate thing is, so much of our cattle go to the mainland to be raised and fed. Getting the Wagyu in is working well with grass fed. We are able to kill a bunch of cattle here and we run a little store at the ranch, and we sell sheep and cattle, and Wagyu. In the case of cattle, the gestation period is nine months. So if you breed a cow, nine months later, hopefully, you get a calf. She stays with mama about eight months, so here we are; now we’re up seventeen months. Now you raise it on on grass another three months. Then you’re about four months in feeding the animal, before it is harvested. It’s a long time.


It’s expensive.


Oh, yes. But it’s experimental, and you’ve got to figure which ones are gonna do the best job for you. And when you’re experimenting, you’ve got a long wait. They’re not like chickens that turn over generations extremely quickly.


So how is your experiment working? You’ve done this for generations of—




—of cows.


Well, the Wagyu, for instance, you can’t get any matter out of Japan. In other words, they won’t ship any more semen to you for AI, or anything like that. So you’ve got to use what you have in the United States, and breed up with them, and try to get to the highest percentage that you can. We started at Kahua breeding artificially; the first calves hit the ground in 1966. And we were using Hereford and Angus at that time. And we’ve since moved on and we’re continuing to breed Angus and Hereford; but it takes a long time.


So how have your customers changed? Who do you sell to now, versus who you sold to before?


Well … there’s been quite a change from the before. We ended up shipping to the mainland in about, I don’t know, I’m guess about ten years ago, I’ve forgotten, when we closed down all the meat facilities here. I was president of Kahua Beef Sales and Kahua Meat Company here on Oahu. Parker Ranch closed the Hawaii Meat Company and all the rest. So that was quite a break. In those days prior to that, we used to sell to the Foodlands and the Times, and the Stars, and all the rest. And that’s the majority of the meat that was raised here, was sold here. Now that we’ve gone to the mainland by far, most all the meat is sold on the mainland.


Why is that?


Well, we’re not bringing it back, because it’s too hard to ship it, both ways and you have to keep the—a good point is, this the original meat that came here, and all the rest. I laughingly say that people say you are what you eat, so you all ought—always ought to eat Hawaiian beef. Reason is, because our Hawaiian beef on the mainland has had an ocean voyage. Now, how many steaks have had an ocean voyage?




And then when you come to the mainland, when you come to either Canada or California, gotta have a nice, long truck ride. So it’s had the ability to see the country.




So your cattle are well acclimated to having traveled. So if you eat that beef, you’re getting some of that in you, and that’s gotta be extremely healthy.


[CHUCKLE] Why do you ship them away? Why can’t they just live their entire lives here, and be consumed here?


We are trying to do that. We need new slaughterhouse; we need that. We do not have the facilities. We’ve got to get the infrastructure back that we lost at the time they were sold.




At the time it was closed, people in Honolulu wanted US Choice meat.




Didn’t want any of this grass fed stuff anymore. Nope; didn’t want it. Now, the whole thing has changed. Now, people, because of the health thing, want grass fed. Okay, now you got—


Because it’s leaner steak?


Leaner, tastes better, it’s better for you, et cetera, et cetera. But now, we’ve gotta build back the infrastructure that was lost, and that’s extremely expensive. And the expense is caused by, number one, that time has—that we live in, and number two, is the amount of Federal regulation—




—that is involved. So you pretty much have to start with a clean sheet of paper.


Cattle ranching in 2010 presents a challenge to ranch owners who are struggling economically. Kahua Ranch is no exception.


My feeling is that if you have a piece of land, the land must work for you. You work with it, but it must work for you. Now, you can have cattle on it, and that’s fine. But your land isn’t really working. The amount of money you can harvest from one animal, the amount—not enough. You’ve gotta make the land do something else. That’s why we have the visitor industry on it. ATV riding, taking people, letting them see things, see a ranch going; there, you begin to make the land work. You are, number one, you are educating people that come on the place as to what you’re doing, and you’re showing people why they’re coming to Hawaii, because they’ll agriculture in operation. We’ve hit this tough times now. That’s slowed way down. I think we’ll be able to pick it up, but you always have to realize that the end game in land is houses. Once you get in houses, the game’s up.




Do you really want to do that?


Have people approached you with some nice, big offers for your land?


Well, I fend them off. I don’t get down serious. We could sell it; be no problem. It’s some of the most beautiful land in the State. But there’s more to being a landowner than only looking for the so-called highest and best use. And the highest and best use of any land is subdivision. You ought to be smarter and make the land work for you, and help you, which in turn helps your fellow man.


But on the other hand, you’ve tried all kinds of things, and the economy hasn’t helped, and the weather often hasn’t helped. How are you doing at this point in 2010 with the family business?


Not very well. But you don’t give up. You don’t give up.


How much does it wear on you? I mean, you employ people, your family’s living on the property.


When you see other families suffering … I don’t get comfort out of that. I just try to work harder and figure there’s gotta be a better way, there’s gotta be a better way. Somebody upstairs knows better than me. Come on, give me a hint, and let’s go try. And that’s … I mean, you’re getting into my philosophy of life. But that’s the way I looked at it.


Never give up.




Keep trying.


That’s right.


And what about—at what point do you consider taking an extreme right or left turn, as opposed to persevering and moving in that same direction?


I haven’t gotten there yet; I don’t know.


How was it when you turned over the reins of the business to your son, Tim, a few years ago—




—after being the boss for a long time, decades?


[CHUCKLE] It’s interesting. When you decide to do that. You … that’s a switch. You’re either full-on, or you’re full-off. You better go full-on, if that’s what you want, and you turn it over. My tongue is two inches shorter.




The protein that I’ve eaten has been my tongue.




But I’ve tried to stay positive.


And support him as he—




—runs the business.


That’s correct.


But you do things …


I do—


Some things differently.


—some things differently; yup. Yup.


At what point do you step back and say, Hey, gotta listen to me on this one?


You wait for him to come and ask you. And that’s a difficult point.




And sometimes, oftentimes—don’t use the word often; oftentimes, his ideas are better than yours.


Maybe—perhaps in ranching, it’s different, but it just seems that it’s very hard to keep a family business or dynasty going.


Extremely difficult; extremely difficult. And it has to do with family dynamics. What you’re really looking at, do you want the family farm, because you’re rapidly running out of family farms from the tax standpoint. Do you want all big corporate farms? Do you want a meeting held weekly in X County … Ohio, where about ten people decide what the price of corn will be, or the price of soybeans?




A different ten people. Do you want that? Is that gonna be in the best interest of the United States? I think not. But how many people think that through? How many face that question?


How many people can withstand tough times?


That’s right. How many people have got the guts to stand up fulltime? Listen; if you want to wear a sword, you better be prepared to draw the sword and get into the fight.


I think of your living in a place where King Kamehameha the Great is said to have trained for battle. It’s just steeped in antiquity at the same time—




—it serves you today. Any thoughts about that?


The area that he was suppo—his guard were trained and all, is Kahua land. I would certainly like to be able to keep it the way it is now, or improve it from an agricultural standpoint. But not split it up to house sites. We did sell a bunch. Kohala Ranch was part of Kahua at one time. And that was it. But we stopped at a line below the cinder cones, because this other shows where Kamehameha was.


And do you foresee a time when there might be family dissention about whether to sell off land?




For housing.




For real estate purposes.


Yup. Oh, yeah; oh, yeah. Because if a person owns a ranch and you’re not making money, it’s costing you money; what are you gonna do? And we’ve gotta be smart enough to make sure that they’re profitable.


Do you know what … whatever you’re hoping for, what do you think might be the next best thing for the ranch?


Well you make the land do something. Visitors, that sort, which keep it in agriculture, but nevertheless, let more and more people enjoy it. And when—if you do a job, you can charge for it, and everybody is happy.


So it sounds like you don’t look for … easy work.


No, I just look for work. [CHUCKLE]


[CHUCKLE] And do you like it when it has a physical element to it?


Yeah. That’s fine. I mean, when you talk about physical, and I won’t ride a horse anymore, I won’t even get on a horse. If you fall down off a horse, when you get to be about my age, and something busts … it may heal, but it’ll be a long time. And it may never heal. So don’t put yourself in that position.


A neighbor islander, and especially a Hawaii Islander, has a different sensibility about life in Hawaii.


Probably do. M-hm.


And what should people in Honolulu know about Hawaii, as seen through your eyes?


Well … you mean, what do they look at the Big Island, and they don’t see?




I’ll tell you one thing; East Hawaii versus West Hawaii. To me, that is terrible. That is one island; you better damn well realize that it’s an island. Hawaii Island Economic Development Board is about twenty-some years old. I was the first president of that. I fought to make sure that people would realize that the Island of Hawaii is the Island of Hawaii; there’s not East Hawaii, and West Hawaii. And that has dogged that island for now—well, as far as I know, and including now. Because you will find that the East Hawaii seems to have better roads, they seem to—all of that stuff. Why? Because where is the head hall, so to speak, is in Hilo. What’s gonna come about is, West Hawaii, with all the housing and all that’s going on, all the millionaire homes, that’s gonna be where your tax money is gonna come from. And they’re not gonna sit still to have East Hawaii get everything, and here, here’s a little pinch for West Hawaii. You have to have the Island of Hawaii. And I said, You wait ‘til you get a mayor from West Hawaii—




—and you see what’s gonna happen. You think you guys know what’s coming? You ain’t seen nothing yet. Because they’re gonna take you apart. You’ve got to realize you’re a whole island; you’re one island, and they’ve even gone so far as to have, Well, maybe we should have two separate mayors and two separate police force. Ridiculous. Ridicuous.


With no desire to run for public office like his father before him, Monty Richards, a lifelong Republican, has instead served as a volunteer for countless civic organizations and on government boards. For 16 years he was a member of the University of Hawaii’s Board of Regents and a Board Director for Bank of Hawaii. Taking a leadership role with another organization helped him work through a lifelong problem with stuttering.


When I was in grade school, I could hardly get a word out.




It would get a little better, a little worse, little better, little worse. When I went to the ranch, I would stammer a lot more than I do now. But I became a— became the president of a rotary club.




And boy, that’s a bear. ‘Cause every week, you’ve got to run the meeting, and you better be prepared. So my first meeting, I remember, I stood up, looked at everybody; I said, Okay … I’ll be doing this every week. You boys are gonna want to sit in the front row, it’s up to you, but I suggest you bring umbrellas and raincoats, because—




—[CHUCKLE] because you might get wet before this thing’s over. Well, by my going over and doing that, I find it actually helped the stammer. Look at many of the people with real handicaps, the people with one leg, the people who have … well, I’ve got a very good friend. I call him a very good friend. Name is Senator Inouye. Look how he has done with one arm. And he’s carrying  shrapnel inside, and he’s eighty-four years old, or something like that. There’s a man that has done something. There’s a man that is really doing something. You gotta take your hat off to him. Those are the people that you got to admire … when you see what they’ve done.


How do you … how different do you feel than twenty years ago? You still feel the same inside?


About the same. Except, I huff and puff a little more. But other than that, you get up in the morning, and you listen. If you don’t hear nice music—




—you figure, hey, it’s all right. Then you get up, and you look around. If you don’t see the Grim Reaper with a scythe, you’re okay. If you do see him, run faster. That’s about the only way to do it.


With the latest smartphone in hand Monty Richards continues to utilize and promote innovative technology. In addition to his role as chair and trustee of Kahua ranch, he is spending his retirement continuing to serve and advocate for Hawaii’s agricultural community. Mahalo, Monty Richards in North Kohala, for sharing your “Long Story Short,” and thank YOU for watching and supporting 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


Do you think missionaries have gotten a bad rap in today’s history of Hawaii?


Yup. And it’s unfortunate.


How do you look back on it?


I look back on it, I think it’s bound to be. Any time you have any envy, you always try to chop down something else. And that’s part of life. But you’re—if you’re the chopper or the choppee [CHUCKLE], it makes a difference. If you’re the chopper, why, ain’t bad; if you’re the choppee, it actually hurts a little.




But you have to push on. You have to push on. And when asked, don’t be afraid to say, No, because this, that, and the other. But you don’t go looking for a fight. But if they want to fight, you give it to them.



William S. Richardson




Original air date: Tues., Jan. 6, 2009


Former Hawaii Chief Justice


William S. Richardson recalls growing up in a house his dad built along a dirt lane in Kaimuki. When the family moved there from Palama, they had so few possessions they simply took what they had on a streetcar. Those were simpler times for the man who would go on to be Lt. Governor (under John A. Burns), Chief Justice of the Hawaii State Supreme Court and Bishop Estate Trustee.


Popularly known as CJ, for Chief Justice, William Richardson is also the man for whom the law school at the University of Hawaii at Manoa is named. CJ Richardson joins Leslie Wilcox for an engaging conversation on Long Story Short.


William S. Richardson Audio


Download the Transcript




Throughout the Hawaiian islands, we can all enjoy the beautiful beaches because they belong to the State, not private landowners.   No one can “own” our shorelines. Same goes for new lands created by volcanic activity. They belong to the state, to us all, not nearby property owners. These are concepts we might take for granted today; but it wasn’t always the case. They are two of the important rulings–laws of the land–that were handed down by the Hawaii State Supreme Court … led by a public school grad from Kaimuki. A conversation with Chief Justice, Retired, William S. Richardson, next.




Aloha no, I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. Mahalo for joining me for another Long Story Short. Today we get to chat with William S. Richardson, who served as Hawaii State Supreme Court Chief Justice from 1966 to 1982. He also served as Lieutenant Governor, under John A. Burns, a trustee of the old Bishop Estate, and he was chairman of the Hawaii Democratic Party when Democrats surged to legislative power in 1954. And he’s the namesake of the state’s only law school. Popularly known as “CJ”, for Chief Justice, William Richardson was raised in a working-class family in Kaimuki.


When you say you grew up in Kaimuki, it’s not the Kaimuki that people here think of, is it?


No; it was a Kaimuki that for me, I had to walk through the lanes from Waialae Avenue, about three blocks, going toward Waikiki, through a lane to my house. My father built the house himself.


No streetlights and—


No streetlights.




Only a lane; we could only walk in a lane.


A dirt lane?


A dirt lane. We had no car yet.


And you moved to Kaimuki, which was country, after living in the city, Palama.


Yes. I don’t know whether we had very much. But we went by streetcar, and much of the time, we just caught the streetcar and carried whatever you owned on your back. And how far did the streetcar go? Well, at one time, to 6th Avenue, another time to 12th Avenue, and then next time, all the way down to Waialae Country Club, Kealaolu.


That was electric trolley, right?


Yes; yes. With the hook up above.


So it was the mass transit of yesteryear.


Well, you could call it that; yes, you could.


[chuckle] And one of your classmates was someone who also became very well known in Hawaii, an accomplished Isabella Aiona Abbott.


Oh, yes. She lived about three blocks away from me. She was one of the brains of the school.


[chuckle] She was the first native Hawaiian woman to get a PhD in science.


Yeah; and from Stanford, was it? Oh, yes; she’s a bright girl.


Well, talking about brains of the school; were you one of them?


Oh, no.


You sure?


Oh, yes, I’m sure of that. I mean, I got along; that was it.


When you finished high school, you went on to college. Was that a big thing in your family?


Yes, it was. Not many boys went on to college. And I think some people felt it was time for one to start working at sixteen or seventeen, and college was just out of the ordinary.


Why did you go? What was the impetus?


I think my father felt that I better get up there. And I think he had visions of my going to the University, but I didn’t have that vision yet. [chuckle]


Were you ambitious?


Not that I know of.


But you went ahead and went through four years at UH.


I went four years at UH, and enjoyed it all the way through.


Met a lot of people who would later be your allies in politics and—




—good friends in—


Good friends—


—a long life.


They helped me in everything I’ve done.


So you went to UH. And—




—you had more than most people of your time had; a college degree. But that wasn’t gonna be the end of your higher education.


Well, I thought it was, but I had a job with the oil company. And I thought, well, this would be great; I like this kind of work. I think I’ll do this the rest of my life. And then one of the professors up at school went to see my father, and she said, Now, this boy better go on to law school. And I said, Well, how can you do that, Dad; you can’t afford it. Well he said, You know, if you really gotta go, I’ll rent your room out, and you go on to college. Which he did. In those days, it was five days by steamship, and another four days by train to get to the East Coast.


When you were at the University of Cincinnati Law School, that was a different time racially. You’re Hawaiian, Chinese, Caucasian; what did people make of you? Where did you fit in?


Well, I suppose I fit in all right, but when the war came on, there was some stigma. Anybody different from the haole kids that were around, he was different.


Did people think you were Japanese at the—


I think many—


—at wartime?


I think many did after the war started, because they just didn’t know.


Do you remember getting exposed to overt racism?


Yes, but it was never so bad that I’d feel afraid to be around. And most of them knew that I was of draft age anyway, and that I wouldn’t be around very long, and draft would get me, and that would be the end of that.


And indeed, you went on to infantry training?


Yes; I went—those days, it was all Army, and I started with the Army air corps, and then I went to Fort Benning, Georgia in the infantry school for the Army. And from there on, I went on to the West Coast, and then to New Guinea, and then to the Philippines. I spent most of my time, Army time there in the Philippines.


Did that experience change your life in any way, being in the war?


I wouldn’t say that it did. I just took everything as it went along. I was draftable. Either go in as a foot soldier, or an officer, and that was it.


Is it true that when you went back to normal life, that you didn’t have to take the bar exam right after the war?


Well, that’s true, because they when I came back, it was an LLB, which was a little different from the JD today. And they said, Well, we’ll just send you your JD degree; and that’s it.


And so no hours and days, and weeks, and months of studying for the bar?


No; no. No; didn’t have to do that at all. I went into the Reserves, and they stuck me into the Judge Advocate General’s department, and there, I stayed until I retired from the Army. Which wasn’t very long. [chuckle]


Following the war, William Richardson began working as a lawyer and married his childhood sweetheart, Amy Ching. The two raised three children. In the mid-1950s, Richardson emerged as a leader on the islands’ political scene, working closely with those friends he got to know while attending the University of Hawaii at Manoa.


You were one of the people that was excited about statehood, that helped to make it happen, that—re-crafted government in the wake of statehood. And now, we’re coming up on the fiftieth anniversary of statehood, 2009. Many Hawaiians don’t see that as cause for celebration.


Well to me, it’s great cause for celebration. We’re part of a great country. Like every other state in the union, they had to come up and live and have their new laws gibe with the old. Even if you go back to England, where the common law came over, and if you looked at the way the law went across the country right through the Louisiana Purchase, where the French came in, and we had—the country had to adjust to that. And now we must still look at how it affects the Far East and all the other countries and states, and islands throughout the Pacific Ocean.


Part of what is now, is based on the Great Mahele, King Kamehameha III. And that was considered a distribution—it was a distribution of land. Do you think that was …



Well, I—




I think it’s pono. I think our leaders of the past were as good as any that ever existed. That our Hawaiian ways were just ways of living. And Hawaii should revive what we could of the good parts. And I have to say almost all of it were good parts.


Is there a part of you that identifies with, say, the sovereignty activists or the people who say we let people take our land, or they took it from us, we need it back, we need to—we need better restitution?


Well, we have to use the American system, and the Hawaiian system, and we must find a solution to make it so that we’re not just coming up against each other without trying to resolve them in what we would consider a modern way of doing it. I don’t mean to say that we should reject any of the old ways, nor reject the new ways; but that’s for this court now, and their wise people that are—


M-m. Is one of the solutions a separate Hawaiian nation?


Oh, I don’t think we could go back to being a separate Hawaiian nation. I want to take the good parts of it; but no, I can’t go back to the old way. We’re a different nation today, and we’re living under a flag that we all love today.


Part-Hawaiian, Chinese and Caucasian, William Richardson has been credited with looking back to old Hawaii for new wisdom. Under his leadership, the Supreme Court gave the public access to Hawaii’s shorelines, and ruled that precious water and new lands created by lava flows belong to the State—decisions reflecting Richardson’s desire to incorporate Hawaiian customs as guiding principles within our legal system.


Your court was known as an activist court. You helped expand native Hawaiian rights. What are some of the things you are most proud of?


Well, I think I had a chance to—well, let me start this way. The previous Chief Justice was the first, and he had been ill for a long time. And so some of the big decisions that did not depend on rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court were held back. So some of the cases may be ten years old, and just weren’t taken up, because of his illness, and maybe because of the newness of the State, that some of the cases that were the real important ones were being set aside. Perhaps because the U.S. Supreme Court had coming out—had been coming out with a lot of the criminal cases. So in those cases, Hawaii merely followed suit. If the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a certain way, then we had to go along, of course. But then there were other cases peculiar of Hawaii; water, beaches, plantation differences, general growth of Hawaii that might be unique of Hawaii.


You could have used the English law as a precedent, but often you would look back at—to see what ali‘i from the monarchy days did.


Well, whenever I could, whatever the history books would come up with on old Hawaii, and what few things that I had picked up over the years, I felt that I should try to apply those to the extent that we could.


For example, when the question came, who owns the new land being created by lava from the volcano, what was the answer of your court?


Well, that seemed easy enough for me, but I know the beaches were needed in Hawaii. Without our beaches, there was no Hawaii to speak of, the Hawaii that we loved.


Now, in many parts of the continent, the beaches are private property, right?


Yes. And it seemed perfectly logical to me that people should be able to use the beaches, and that the property lines could not follow all of the methods of old England, say, and that I should try to bring those cases up in line to the way the Hawaiians did it.


It’s a monumental decision that affects us every day.


It does, and I go swimming too. And I know I can go up to a certain spot, and this is public property. And my friends and I can use it.


And that wasn’t the only big one you did. There were the rights of citizens to challenge land court decisions, native Hawaiian rights, and use of private property.






Again, I wasn’t that much of an expert on Hawaiian law. But I had a good court, and they were willing and able to go and look at all of the problems, and see what was going on. And I had traveled around the islands a lot, and you’re speaking now perhaps of water rights, which was so important, because we were a plantation community. And you get to a case like when two plantations began to argue over how much water they could have—they both needed water. But when a third one began to take too much water, to the detriment of some of the others, then you had to decide whose water should it be. The Robinson case in the end was clear to me, but it seemed revolutionary, I suppose. But the people who really needed the water were those in the bottom of the streams, the taro patch and rice patch owners. They’re the ones that needed the water. And so it seemed simple to me to just say, Well, neither of you is entitled to all of that water, it’s the people down below, the taro patch owners and the rice patch owners.


It’s elegantly simple. And the dean of the law school, which is named after you. Avi Soifer said, Imagine very complicated filings going on for years, big battle; and you said, Well, let’s take a look at what’s happening at the end of the line.


M-m. Well we were a new state, not used to following, just being a follower. We needed to decide for ourselves what was best for our people. And that’s how that one came out.


You took some heat over that, but—


I did.


—it became, a symbol of enlightenment, that people said, Here’s a far-thinking guy using the past to build on the future.


Well, of course, I’m glad to hear you say that. [chuckle] And I thought it was right. There was never any question in my own mind.


William S. Richardson says that, as Lieutenant Governor, he never asked or lobbied for the Chief Justice job with his boss, Governor Burns. But his wife Amy had something to say when the Governor picked up the phone and asked her about the prospect.


When he said, What’s this I hear about your husband being the Chief Justice? And he was silent after that; she gave him the works on that. She didn’t want me in politics anymore, and I’m sure she said to him, That would be great, he’d be out of politics if he got in as Chief Justice.


Not so fast. Richardson moved directly from the Lieutenant Governor’s office into leadership of the state’s highest court. Critics would say that, as head of the Judiciary, Richardson never did shake off his political ties, remaining close to the Governor and other politicians and power brokers in town. His term as Chief Justice would end with his own court selecting him for a political plum-trustee of the powerful and wealthy old Bishop Estate.


You know, I gotta mention one decision that your Supreme Court made, that was criticized, and that you were a part of. You were this very popular Chief Justice, who was retiring, and your court appointed you a Bishop Estate trustee. In fact, you took office a couple days after you left the CJ position. And we saw what happened with the Bishop Estate; there was this very close relationship with the Judiciary, with this private nonprofit. As you look back on those days, what do you think?


You mean, of the relationship between the Bishop Estate …


And the—


—and the court?


—Supreme Court.




I mean, do you think the Supreme Court had any business, really, picking Bishop Estate trustees?


Well, I think they should, because the Supreme Court seemed to be the best arbiter.


M-hm. And they gave you a term that was longer than the previously mandated term; you got to serve past seventy, which was the retirement age then.


Well, yeah; the State retirement is seventy. But that doesn’t mean that you had to follow that. I mean, seventy is an arbitrary figure, in a way.


You got very involved in the Democratic Revolution of 1954, played a key role and became Hawaii Democratic Party Chair. But I’ve heard you refer to yourself as the token Hawaiian among that core group.




Was that a joke, or were you serious?


I don’t know whether or not—perhaps I was token Hawaiian. But that’s not altogether true. There were other Hawaiians that were in leadership roles. I can’t remember all the names now. But it was a great group that was led by Governor Burns, who was firstly, a nobody to speak of, but he had been a police captain, and wanted to organize the party. And we met every Friday for lunch. And when the boys that went off to law school after the war came back, well, Governor Burns and I went and picked them up, and got them interested in the Democratic Party. And before we knew it, we had enough to take over the Democratic Party, and in the end I suppose the governorship and …


And you became Lieutenant Governor.


Yes; and from that, I guess he catapulted me into the chief justiceship, which I thoroughly enjoyed.


I notice you’re always ending up in these leadership or achievement positions, and you always say, I don’t know how that happened, I just kinda went along.


Well, that’s what happened; I went along. [chuckle] I mean, I enjoyed the work, and I didn’t mind being in the minority party at that time. I thought I was doing some good, and I thought I was doing something that would have a lasting effect.


I thought I was doing something that might improve the well being of all of the people of my age in Hawaii. And I think it turned out that way—that I thought I could help.


You’ve told me that your favorite job in the world has been CJ. What do you see as your legacy in that position? Clearly, your court made a number of benchmark rulings, but what do you think is the most important?


Well, I think I did the best I could to get the old Hawaiian way into—merged in with the American and the common law system of the past. The beaches, of course, I’m proud of that. And handling cases that involved volcanic action, that no place else in our country we’ve had.


Now there’s a law school named for you; the only law school in Hawaii is named after you.


Well, I must say I’m proud of it, and I’m proud of it because it means that some people that wouldn’t have had a chance to go to law school now have that opportunity.


At age 89 as I speak, the CJ is a regular at the William S. Richardson School of Law where he has an office and enjoys talking with the students. He says they don’t argue with him, but he respects different ideas—and anyway, it’s their future to shape now.


Mahalo to CJ Richardson for sharing stories with us on Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. A hui hou kakou.


My wife lived on the same street, as a matter of fact. [chuckle]


I heard a story she used to tell about meeting you. I recall her saying that she met you when she was watering the yard, and you were walking by from the—


Yes; she’d either be watering the yard or playing the piano. And she told people, Go water your yard, you never know what might happen. [chuckle] She did say that, jokingly.


So childhood sweethearts.


I suppose you could put it that way. She was a neighbor, two blocks away. But she went to that other school. She went to Punahou, and I went to Roosevelt.



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