Susanna Moore


Original air date: Tues., Jan. 8, 2013


Leslie Wilcox talks with Susanna Moore, Punahou graduate and author of the novels In the Cut and The Whiteness of Bones. Susanna talks about how her mother’s mysterious death affected her as a child and into her adult years.


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I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have had problems, or I wouldn’t have been … tormented, or I wouldn’t have been driven, or … neurotic. But … I don’t think the suffering, the great suffering that I and my brothers and sisters endured made me a better writer.


Scratching the surface with author, Susanna Moore, next, on Long Story Short.


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


Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Susanna Moore is one of the most acclaimed novelists ever to come out of Hawaii. Critics call her work brilliant, sensual, and sly. For over three decades, Susanna has written novels like, My Old Sweetheart, The Whiteness of Bones, and In the Cut, which was made into a 2003 moving starring Meg Ryan. From afar, it would seem like Susanna had a comfortable childhood here. She grew up in the upscale Honolulu neighborhoods of Tantalus, Kahala, and Portlock, and graduated from Punahou School. Household servants tended to Susanna and her four younger siblings. Scratch the surface of this glossy image, though, and you’ll find that Susanna’s childhood wasn’t as easy as it may have looked.


My father was a doctor who came here after the war. He had been in Japan, sent to Japan as a captain in the Army, ‘cause he was a radiologist, and he was study the effects of radiation after the bomb was dropped. In many ways, I think he never went back, emotionally, I imagine, after his experiences in Japan. He never talked about it, and I may have romanticized that.


But he was closed off?


Well, he was like a lot of fathers in the 50s. Fathers did not change diapers, or take you to ice skating lessons or —


They just gave you —


— go to the movies.


— your allowance if you lucky enough to have that, and —


Yes. Fathers were quite distant and quite removed, and because of that, probably mysterious and probably not good for girls. Probably not good for boys either, to have a father that was so distant. ‘Cause there was not a lot of intimacy in households between fathers and children. And there were five children. My mother died when I was twelve.


I can’t imagine what that must be like for a twelve-year-old girl, or boy, to lose your mother. Was it unexpected?


It was unexpected, and she was very young. She was only thirty-five. She had been ill, and there was is some mystery about how she died. I will never know what happened. I suspect it was an accidental suicide. I suspect that maybe she took some pills and then forgot, and went back. I don’t know.


How did that change your life? And that’s a big question, but if I you could give us a sense of it.


Well, I adored her and was very close to her. I was the oldest child. Also, I was born when my father was still in Japan, so I didn’t meet my father like a lot of children until I was almost three. So, I think there was a very strong bond. I’ve always thought I must have minded it tremendously when this man turned up. It changed my life completely. It was awful for all of us. There were, as I said, five children, and the youngest was two. I had been a mother to the other children for a while, for a few years probably, because of her illness. And so that increased, of course, after she died.


Some parts of your upbringing, which you relate in a book, I have trouble identifying with, ‘cause you lived in a more privileged world, and you have parents and kids not eating together. And that was common with your friends, right? Everybody ate in different rooms.


I don’t know if it was …


And you had servants.


Yes. Yes, but I don’t know if the eating part was common. We ate different food. We ate children’s food. Creamed hamburger on toast and rice —


And what were the parents having?


I think they had something much better, but we would not have considered it interesting as children, of course. No, we did eat at different times, and then after my mother died, we would eat only with my stepmother and father, say, at Christmas or maybe Easter. And it was torture, it was agony.




Our stepmother was not very kind. It was awkward. We couldn’t wait to be finished, and it was not happy.


So you had more bonding with the servants than with, say, your stepmother?


I remember going to the old Queen Theater in Kaimuki that showed foreign movies to see something called Sundays In Seville. And I was taken by the housekeeper’s husband, and I was thrilled, of course. I still remember the movie very clearly. But yes, my relationship was with the housekeeper’s husband, not my own father.


Through her teenage years, Susanna Moore’s father and stepmother remained distant from the children. She says neighbors knew about the neglect taking place in the Moore home, but avoided confronting Susanna’s parents. However, the neighbors found ways to reach out to the Moore children. One of the adults who looked out for Susanna was Alice Chester Kaiser, wife of industrialist Henry Kaiser, who developed Hawaii Kai and the health insurance plan named after him.


Mrs. Kaiser was enormously generous, and played a very important part in my life as a young girl. And other neighbors; I would spend a lot of time at the neighbors’. I was dressed by one neighbor. I had two sets of clothes; I had the clothes that I would wear to school in the morning, which my stepmother had found for us at the Salvation Army, really awful misshapen, ill-fitting clothes, and another set that my neighbor would bring to school, supplied by her mother and by her, into which I would change in the morning for school, and then I would change back in the afternoon. So, things like that. People were very sweet. But never in any direct way. No one ever challenged, no one ever said to my parents, What are you doing to these children?


And that was true for all of the kids? There was always —


Well, my brother; my brother was a paperboy, the boy next to me, which is my next brother. And there was a woman at Portlock named Frieda Brown, who lived in a house on the seawall, lived on the sea with her aged mother, and she used to prepare food for him. So when he would deliver the paper, he would stop at her house last and rush in, ‘cause he had to get home, and eat the dinner she prepared, which always, I remember, included a can of warmed Le Sueur Peas, you know, in the silver can. He loved those little Le Sueur Peas. And then later, when he ran away from home when he was still at Punahou, he went to live with Frieda Brown, and she took him in. So, people were kind that way. And then, my sister also ran away and went to live with him at Frieda’s. Quite an eccentric arrangement, and I think rather crowded, but —


And your father said, That’s where they want to live, that’s okay with me?


I’ve asked my brother about that. Like, how did you get to school, how did you … did you have any money, what about your clothes, did our father ever call Frieda or come looking for you? He said, No, never did.


So, there was no arrangement between your father and —


Frieda; no, no. None. No discussion. No thank you, no … Send them home. Nothing.


I notice when you graduated from Punahou, you did what many Punahou grads do not do. And that is, you didn’t go to college at all.


No, it was made clear to me that I could go to UH, or I could work. I was not very much encouraged, and also, my grades at Punahou were very bad. After my mother died, I really lost interest in that, in school. I had loved school, did love school, but that disappeared, that discipline and I suppose, wish to please her. And so, the day after I graduated from Punahou, I left, was sent and I had a feeling that I wouldn’t be back for a while. It was quite heartbreaking. And especially to leave my brothers and sisters.


Did you feel sent away?


I did feel sent away. And I went to live with my grandmother, my mother’s mother, who was an old Irishwoman who lived in Philadelphia, very, very modestly. And then, for a long time, I lived with very, very little. If I wanted to eat the next day and was fortunate enough to be taken to dinner, I would have to take home the bread and whatever I could.


This was when you —


Packets of sugar.


— were living as a young adult on the mainland?


I went to New York when I was eighteen, nineteen, and again, through Mrs. Kaiser. And I was very poor, and often didn’t have food.


What did you do for a living?


Mrs. Kaiser was the largest customer of Bergdorf Goodman, and so, she called Andrew Goodman and said, I have a young friend who’s coming to New York and needs a job. And I worked as a salesgirl.


Susanna Moore always had the writing bug. As a child, she wrote plays, stories for Punahou’s student newspaper, and what she calls really bad poetry. Although she spent her childhood in Hawaii, life as an adult took her all over the place. From New York City, she moved to Los Angeles, where she worked as an assistant to Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson. It’s also where she met her future husband, Richard Sylbert, a Hollywood production designer, with whom she’d have her only child, Lulu. That marriage ended in divorce. Life then took Susanna to London, and back to New York, where she lived for over three decades. Despite her wanderlust, Hawaii was always with Susanna. Many of her books, including her memoir, I Myself Have Seen It, take place back home in the islands, and in nature.


In growing up on Tantalus, I think it’s in the foreword or the first chapter of your book, I Myself Have Seen It, you talk about being very aware of and believing in spirits about, when you go into the forest, you ask permission of the gods.


Yes, asking the moo, the lizard god who lives in waterfall pools whether it’s safe to go in, yes, and beseeching not his protection, but his indifference. Yes, one of my childhood friends was Tommy Holmes, who died in a canoe, but he grew up to write the great book about the Hawaiian canoe. He lived in Tantalus, and he and I spent our childhood exploring those woods. And the smell of Tantalus is still very vivid in my head. Its decaying leaves, mildew, eucalyptus, mud … lovely smell.




I always thought that, in a way, nature took the place of my mother. So, I was very, very grateful and conscious of it, even, I think, as an adolescent, that it was playing a part in my life that was significant. That Hawaii was meaningful to me in a way that was profound. Still is.


And yet, once you moved to New York City, that’s where you stayed.




Except for sojourns here and there.


Yes. I mean, I would come back almost every year, but no, I had been in New York, to my own astonishment, more than thirty years. I moved there because my daughter had not been school, I had been living abroad, I had been living in London. But no, I stayed away. I did stay away, it’s true.


Well, not really, because you came back every year.


Yes, but I never quite made the leap to … and friends of mine have said, Why aren’t you here? What are you doing? And my brothers; Why aren’t you here?


Why were you wandering?


Well, in some ways, I didn’t have a home. I had been really on my own since I was seventeen; much too young to be on my own. Made awful mistakes and took a long time to grow up. I was also really … avid, keen, greedy, desperate for the world, and for things that I knew that I couldn’t, wouldn’t find here. So, I had to find those things, ballet, and opera, and traveling, and different cultures, and different sorts of people. That period in which we grew up too, there was not ever any consciousness, even though it was privileged, of money. Women wore muumuu’s, women were not like I see them now in Chanel suits and high heels and stockings. You know, women were in muumuu’s, or men in aloha shirts always, not tucked in. No one had fancy cars, no one went to Paris, for Christmas. It was very modest. Houses were modest. I mean, I’m sure there was land, of course there was money in some families. But it wasn’t evident, it wasn’t talked about, it wasn’t …


Not much consciousness about wealth. What about race?


That was always interesting, too. Because when I grew up, I discovered that the places where we lived, like Kahala, had racial restrictions. I was quite shocked by that. I had no idea. And obviously, that changed.


As a matter of fact, I recall James Michener, who was married to a Japanese woman, couldn’t live in Kahala.


Yeah. I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that growing up. And that’s quite shocking, that that happened. And there was also, the races were quite separate, especially Japanese. There was not a lot of mixing. I remember Japanese girls would now and then disappear, because they had become involved with a Haole boy or another Asian boy, but not Japanese, and were whisked back to Japan to live with their grandparents. There was much more of a separation. You didn’t see Asian girls at the beach.


Were there Hapa Haoles around at Punahou?


Hapa Haoles, yes, and I was always and still interested by the fact that Hawaiians had a certain prestige, always, always. To be certainly part-Hawaiian was privileged, but there were none of the prejudices against and of course, unspoken, maybe even unconscious prejudice. There wasn’t outward discrimination against Japanese or Chinese, or Filipinos. Although later, of course, I realized it was there.


And Hawaiians would tell you they felt discrimination, they felt …


And of course, they were discriminated against; of course. And they were certainly discriminated against in that their culture had no value. If we learned a hula at Punahou, it was … Little Grass Shack, or something equally insipid.

Hapa Haole.


Yes; Lovely Hula Hands, or something.


Susanna Moore’s first novel, My Old Sweetheart, takes place on Kauai. Its main characters are based on Susanna and her mother. Female relationships, particularly mothers and daughters, are a recurring theme in Susanna’s novels.


As the subject of, I think, almost all of your books, you’ve chosen mothers and daughters in stupefying variety. I mean, you even have a mother who murders her child.


Well, that book began because I realized I had written endlessly about what it is to be a daughter. And I thought, Well, I haven’t really written about what it’s like to be a mother.


And you are a mother.


And I am a mother. And of course, my daughter teases me that the character that I chose to write about is someone who murders her children.




She thought that was a bit revelatory. But I thought, that extreme situations often serve a writer very well in that they cause a character to display qualities, or to summon aspects of their personality that might otherwise remain hidden. So, extreme situations are easy for a writer.


I’ve heard authors say before that their books are like children, they can’t choose among them. Is that true of you, as well?


No, I don’t think of them well, first of all, I think people do have favorite children, so that’s a bit disingenuous. No, I think that my books are so different, really, that I like them for different reasons. In part, I wrote In the Cut because I was so exasperated by hearing, after the three Hawaiian books, that I was a woman’s writer, which meant that I wrote poetically about children and flowers, and mothers. I remember thinking, Oh, is that all I can do? Oh, is that … is that how I’m seen? So, I very, very purposefully wrote In the Cut to dispel that notion. It was a bit …


I’ll show you. [CHUCKLE]


It was a bit adolescent in that, Oh, yeah? Well …


And then, you later said —


— look what I can do.


You later said, there was so much titillation —




— by that book, that it —


Yes, I would never, ever —


— became a distraction for you.


And I would never want to do that again. It’s been very … I’ve very deliberately not written about sex again.


So many people think that when you are a successful, critically acclaimed author, you make bunches of money, you don’t have to worry.


I know.


And of course, the book business is changing, so that’s an additional dynamic now. How hard has it been to make a living, even though you have these books that are well reviewed?


Well, it’s impossible as a writer. I did not receive a royalty until In the Cut was published. And then, I would say maybe the royalties that I’ve received over the last twenty years amount to maybe five hundred dollars. So, very, very little.
So, you do it for love.


I do it in part because there’s really nothing else I can do. I’ve thought of it. What could I do, what could I be? It’s too late.


How did you find your voice in the first place?


With the first book, I’d had a baby, a girl child, so I’m sure there was some identification there with myself and my mother, and my mother with her mother. And I was approaching the age when the same age as my mother when she died. And I felt a bit shaky, and I wanted very much to just get down in writing what had happened to me, and to my daughter’s grandmother. And that’s really how it began, just to record it.


And who were you imagining would see it?


She; I was imagining my daughter when she grew up, would find this helpful in understanding who I was, and who her grandmother had been. And then, of course, it took her years, and years, and years to read it, interestingly. She could not read it for the longest time, not until she was maybe seventeen or eighteen, because it was too painful for her. She would start it, and then she’d have to stop.


What did she say after she read it?


Thank you.


In addition to writing, Susanna Moore has taught creative writing at Yale, New York University, and Princeton. It’s the quality of her books that has led to her hiring at such prestigious schools. Other universities turned her down, because of her lack of a college degree. But she does not regret taking the path that led her where she is today.


Do you regret not going to college?


It would not be unlike the way my life would have gone if my mother had lived. I think if I had gone to college, it might have been harder for me to get started on the path that became my life. My path to becoming a writer or to becoming independent and free, the way I did become, would have been much, much harder, if not impossible, had she lived.




Well, she would have wished for me a more conventional life, I’m sure. To marry, to have children, to be near her, station wagon, house in Kahala. All of those things to which she herself aspired, and a bohemian life would have seemed to her probably frightening and impractical.


Are you saying the wandering, the bohemian lifestyle is really you, and if your mom had been alive longer you would have taken longer to find that?


If ever. Yes, I think it is really me.


It is really you.



So that raises an interesting question. Would you rather have had your mom with you longer, or …


Yes; always. Always. I would much rather have had my mother. And I am one of those people who — I don’t believe that suffering makes you an artist. I don’t believe in a way, I’m saying the reverse of what I just said, that I don’t think the things that happened to me as a child, or as an adolescent or a young woman made me a writer. I think that was there. I don’t think suffering is ever an advantage.




No, I don’t think so. I might have written different kinds of books, my interests might have been different, I might have been less interested in mothers. Clearly, I would have been less interested in mothers.


But, I mean, how interesting are happy, open you know, no problem people? If there is such a thing.


Yes. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have had problems, or I wouldn’t have been tormented, or I wouldn’t have been driven, or neurotic. But I don’t think the suffering, the great suffering that I and my brothers and sisters endured made me a better writer.


Writer Susanna Moore, who draws from her Hawaii upbringing in many of her novels, is nationally known and well regarded for her powerful treatment of mother-daughter themes. Our conversation took place in 2012, when this longtime New York City resident returned to Hawaii for a visit. Quite unexpectedly, she fell in love with a man whom she’d known back in her days as a Punahou student, and she decided to move back to Hawaii. She also published a new book, The Life of Objects, a departure for her; it’s a coming of age novel set in wartime Germany. Mahalo to Susanna Moore for sharing her story with us; and mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.


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


Worked for a while as … I was Miss Aluminum, which was not a great job.


What did you do as Miss Aluminum?


Oh; I had to wear a tin foil dress.




And go to trade shows, like for boats, and stand there with a tin foil trident. And I cried a lot. I was eighteen, standing in the New York Coliseum with eight thousand men … in a tin foil dress, holding a trident.





Nola Nahulu



Original air date: Tues., Mar. 22, 2011


Sharing a Passion for Music


It’s hard to think of a choir or chorus without thinking of Nola Nahulu – one of Hawaii’s premiere conductors and music teachers. Nola got hooked on music while taking piano and ballet growing up as a child in Makaha, and she parlayed that passion into a career that has spanned more than three decades.


Nola has taught and conducted some of the islands’ legendary and beloved choral groups – including the Kawaiaha’o Church Choir, the Hawaii Youth Opera Chorus and the Honolulu Symphony Chorus. She has also taught music and choir at churches and schools – including Kamehameha Schools and the University of Hawaii.


Nola Nahulu Audio


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I’m at a point where it doesn’t matter if you’re five years old, thirteen, or seventy-two. There’s always a teachable moment, and if you do it with compassion and caring, then it absorbs. And then, usually, your singers feel stronger about it, and they make better music.


Who you gonna call when you need a conductor? For the past thirty years, Hawaii choral groups have been calling on Nola Nahulu. This talented teacher and musician is known for making singers sound good in church, in school, and on stage. Nola Nahulu’s story is next, on Long Story Short.


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


Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Choral music plays a vital role in Hawaii’s artistic, spiritual, and cultural life. And many or our choral singers look to conductor, Nola Nahulu. Her talent, commitment, and ability to bring out the best in singers of all ages have attracted opportunities to direct Hawaii’s storied choral groups. Thousands of former students and singers can trace their vocal roots and music appreciation to their work with Nola over the past three decades. Conductors are usually seen from behind, and are rarely in the spotlight. In this edition of Long Story Short, we ask Nola Nahulu to face the camera, and take us along on her musical life’s journey.


What was your early childhood like? What’s your first memory, and where was it?


Well, it’s in Waianae. My sister and I went to Waianae Elementary School. And to date us, that’s because there was no Makaha Elementary School at the time. Our parents would wake us up in Makaha, we would drop off at our Obachan’s house, ‘cause she lived right across the street. And the routine was, go Obachan’s house, have breakfast, go school. Go back to Obachan’s house, have guava ice cake that she would have made. And then, go to Japanese school.


Where was Japanese school?


Japanese school was at the Waianae Hongwanji. And everybody went. Sometimes, we even got to ride our bikes there. And for those now, in this day and age, it’s right behind the McDonald’s in Waianae. But at that time, it was an open-air theater. Waianae town had two theaters; one regular theater house that was covered, and the other one that was open-air.


I mean, was it a drive-in theater?


No, it wasn’t a drive-in. There was just no roof. And there were seats, wooden seats, and a screen.




Yeah. And around fourth, fifth grade, we had the opportunity to take piano lessons. I keep on saying we, because my sister and I got afforded the same opportunities. So we took piano.


Did you take piano because it was a good thing to do, or because you had a yearning desire to take piano?


Our parents said, Do you want to take piano? And we said, Yes.


Really? Because I said, No. I had no desire to take piano when I was a kid.


We had nothing to gauge against. It was an opportunity that came up, and there was a piano teacher that moved into Waianae, and so they asked. And we were, Yeah, okay. And then, we actually got a piano. And we know that was a big sacrifice. But one day, a piano showed up in our house, and we know that our parents invested in that. So we got to take piano.


What was your parents’ background?


Dad’s from Nanakuli. Well, Nanakula via Lualualei, via Laie.




And my mom’s Waianae, plantation. My grandmother, my maternal grandmother is a picture bride. Yeah. So she came over early 1900s as a picture bride.


So your mom was Japanese. Was your dad full Hawaiian?


Yeah, he’s full Hawaiian. And my mom’s Hiroshima-ken.


How many Hawaiian-Japanese families were there around you?


Not many.


Not a common combination back then.


Not a common combination. It is an odd combination.


Was there any feeling between sides of the family?


Oh, I know at first, the Japanese were very concerned about my mother marrying a Hawaiian. Of course, you need to realize, the Hawaiian-Japanese combination is pretty cute when they’re babies. And we were the first two grandchildren. So it seemed to work. We never felt any kind of resistance being brought up. We were always cared for, and loved, and …


Did you grow up with a sense of, as many part-Hawaiians do now, I have to learn my Hawaiian culture, my Hawaiian values?


No. And let me say no, because we were learning them. It wasn’t like I needed to learn them. Both sides, Hawaiian and Japanese, we were learning the culture from our family and from community activities. And we were learning who we are. I didn’t have to say, I am Hawaiian, or I am Japanese.


You didn’t have to choose?


No. To this day, I’m both. I’m keiki o ka aina, I’m from Hawaii.


And I notice when you talk about values that are important to you, you use a Japanese expression.


I do. Okage sama de. Because I do believe that we are influenced, our lives are influenced by those around us. So whether it’s our immediate biological family, or it’s our community family, you know, so-and-so’s mother is your auntie, whether they’re biologically related to you or not. And then, of course, if they happen to be a Chinese family, you learn all their cultural values too. And I also think it goes into your workplace. Your colleagues, your staff. It’s very important.


It sounds like your parents were actively trying to do things for the girls, to help you get ahead, learn.


Now that we look back, they afforded us opportunities. Something as simple as having piano lessons. I know this sounds really weird, but also having ballet lessons. Think about it. Waianae, at the Hongwanji, and then they moved to Pililaau Park. That’s kind of odd. Most people go, What? You took ballet at Pililaau Park? And we’re like, Yeah. Because a teacher took time to drive to Waianae, and afford that for us, so that we could have experiences.


At what point along the way did you find out that music was very special to you? Was it the piano lessons? Was it before?


You don’t realize it, because you’re having it all the time. We had a very good general music teacher at Waianae Elementary School, Mrs. Keaka. So we got lot of basics. We assumed everybody got it, and everybody did. Not so now. And Fred Cachola, who loves singing, was a teacher there. So he decided that Waianae Elementary School should have their own song contest. So we did. And we went to Kamehameha in seventh grade … continued with our piano. We sang in the choral groups there.


You were in a big class at Kamehameha, one of the Baby Booming classes.




Were you the song leader—




—for the Song Contest?


No, no, no, no; I wasn’t. Senior year, I got to conduct the entire school, with Kamehameha Waltz. But our song directors for the girls was Teresa Makuakane–Drechsel now, and our coed was Ron Chun, and our boys’ was Aaron Mahi.


Who became the Royal Hawaiian Band Leader.


Yeah; yeah.


But, where were you?


I was the garrut [PHONETIC].




We were the gang that was doing all the sectionals, and preparing. Because in that era, the class, we had to provide our own leaders and teaching the music.


So you were very much involved, but just at a different …




Yeah, different facet of it.


Yeah; we were pounding notes.




Still pounding notes. Yeah.


Still pounding notes?


Yeah; yeah.


Nola Nahulu majored in psychology at Whitman College in Washington State. She continued to pursue her music studies, and eventually earned a Master’s Degree in Music Education from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.


Where did you learn about conducting?


It didn’t really start fine tuning until graduate work. Because then, my focus was on conducting, specifically. And I did some post-graduate work at University of Washington. And there, I met Rodney Eichenberger, who is still a mentor to this day. I’d get to a point where I would listen to a choir and go, Why do they sound that way? Whether they were good or bad. And then, I looked at the conductor, and I realized, ooh, it’s a lot of responsibility. ‘Cause I remember thinking in high school, Oh, I can do this. Who cannot do this? But when you’re a kid, you don’t realize, oh, you actually have to be able to hear what’s happening, and how do you create the sound.


I don’t know what it’s like to be on that side. How do you conduct?


It is much more than beating pattern. I’ve decided that we can actually shape sound, just by what we do with our face, our body, and our arms. And we can shape all the way through performances, instead of getting it so robotic, especially for choral music. Then the lyrics make more sense with the music. And we continue to learn. Because each group that we get is always gonna be different.


And are there groups that you just can’t make headway with?


No, ‘cause I’m an educator. That’s what I’ve decided. [CHUCKLE]


But sometimes, it’s not a musical problem. It may be a personality problem.


Personality, or a discipline problem, a self-discipline problem. So then, you teach them discipline, how to control yourself, your mind. My thought is, as a conductor, if they sound great, that’s because of you. If they sound terrible, that’s because of you.


[CHUCKLE] Oh, you do blame yourself.




I thought you were gonna say—




—it’s because of them.


No, no, no. It is, it is. And I think as an educator too, we can’t always say, Well, you know, that kid’s autistic, he’s never gonna learn, or, nobody reinforces at home. It’s still your kuleana. So if they do well, it’s you, and if they don’t … it’s you too.


And do you know what everybody’s doing, even though you’ve got a bunch of people there?


Yeah. Well, I do now. I didn’t, when I was younger. And that’s part of the learning process. Can you hear four parts, can you hear eight parts?


And all at the same time?


Yeah; yeah.


You can do that?


That’s why—yeah, I can now. Like I said, it’s something that you need to develop. Can you play the piano and sing at the same time? Can you play one part, and sing another part?


How did your musical career develop? I mean, even in college, you were planning to be a psychologist? You majored in psychology.


I did; I did. And at one point, I was actually gonna do my master’s in psychology. But as my master’s graduate advisor said, Well, you’re gonna use a lot of psychology in music, especially music education. I am a believer in fate. When I came home, and I went to UH Manoa, Dorothy Gillette was still there, teaching. And she said, This civic club needs a new choir director, ‘cause their choir director is going to law school. I said, Okay. I don’t know if I have the ability yet, but I said, Okay, I’ll go check it out. And that was back in, I think, ’77. So I’m still their choral director; Pearl Harbor Hawaiian Civic Club. I learned a lot from that.


Just as soon as Nola Nahulu picked up a baton, she was picking up her phone as well, because offers started rolling in. Nola accepted invitations to teach and conduct at the University of Hawaii, University High School, the Molokai Children’s Chorus, Hawaii Children’s Chorus, and the Hawaii Youth Opera Chorus, just to name a few.


[SINGING] That’s it, that’s it. Could you crescendo? Sopranos, crescendo your long notes, your half notes and your dotted half. [SINGING]


Presently, I’m the executive and artistic director of the Hawaii Youth Opera Chorus. This is my twenty-fifth year, and it’s their fiftieth year. Aileen started them, Aileen Lum, in 1961. And she gave me a call, and asked if I would take over. So that step in fate also?


You’ve never applied for anything to date in your story. You don’t—you haven’t—


Not yet. [CHUCKLE] Not yet.


You just keep—




—picking up the phone. [CHUCKLE]


That’s right; that’s right. Mm, I never thought about it that way. I have applied for a few things, but seven years before that, I had just graduated, got my master’s, I was teaching at Kamehameha. My classmate, Kalena Silva, calls. He happens to be Aileen Lum’s cousin. Nephew; sorry, nephew. Hey, Nola—‘cause we were both in master’s work together. My auntie, she started a children’s chorus on Molokai, but she has to come back to Oahu. I said, Oh? And? Well, would you consider doing that? And I said, I really don’t know how to do anything with children’s choruses, but I’ll try. So I learned about children’s voices. I also learned that it doesn’t matter what language you teach them, because as far as they’re concerned the sky’s the limit. So we always sang Molokai songs, we sang in German, Italian, Latin. They were charming, they’re great, they love to sing. Every Wednesday after school, we rehearse for three hours. Can you imagine? So, seven years later, when Aileen again said, I’m ready to retire, will you take over?, I at least had experience, and I could do something with the voice and the repertoire for the kids. So that’s the Hawaii Youth Opera Chorus. And since then, we’ve grown tenfold, numbers wise. And staff wise, we’re very music education based. And we’re K through twelve.


You also have been at the lead in one of the most respected and revered historic churches in the islands, Kawaiahao.


Yes. It’s been twenty-one years, actually.


You don’t do anything for a short amount of time, do you?


I make a commitment, usually. Yeah; I think the shortest was seven years.


That’s such a historic church. I’m trying to think. Who are some of the other people who’ve been influential in the choir there?


Well my predecessor as choir director? Senator Akaka, who by the way, when he comes home, comes up and sings.




And David Kalama, at least for thirty-plus years. And of course, Liliuokalani.




I know. It’s kinda spooky.


And Bernice Pauahi Bishop.


Bernice Pauahi Bishop.


The first time Nola Nahulu received a call from Kawaiahao Church, she did not feel ready as a conductor to join that historic lineup of luminaries. But a few years later, she was invited to take the choir on a European tour, and that became a tryout for a permanent position.


David Kalama transcribed the major choral works of like the Messiah, or Mendelssohn’s Elijah, into Hawaiian. They never sang it in English, only in Hawaiian. In addition, he was a prolific composer, so there are tons of anthems. And it’s all hand manuscript. So I’d be conducting at rehearsal. I’m going, This is not what’s on the paper. They go, Oh, no, Uncle David changed it. Oh, but you didn’t—no, no, we never change ‘em on the paper, but this is—I said, Okay, all right.


So you were onto this. You stuck with this gig.


[CHUCKLE] Well I committed, and they only committed to the tour. But after the tour, they invited me to join them, in September. So that’s what I did.


In addition to taking the helm of existing choral groups, Nola Nahulu started a new one, Ka Waiola o Na Pukanileo, an adult a capella ensemble dedicated to perpetuating Hawaiian choral music. Her many musical endeavors have taken Nola around the world, and also allowed her to share Hawaiian culture with musicians on the US continent, and abroad.


What we all have in common is, we all know the Western European repertoire, and the musical basis that it comes from. But if they’re from—for example, we get to go to Austria in June; it’s our fiftieth anniversary. We’re learning Mozart’s Coronation Mass. We’re going to work a German conductor. When people come here, or they see us, they want to learn Pacific Rim stuff. They want to learn Hawaiian things. And so we can share the culture that way.


Nola Nahulu is also helping to perpetuate local fashion in her side job, as co-owner of a muumuu design and manufacturing company. Though they took radically different career paths in music and medicine, Nola and her sister, Linda, came together to follow their mother’s footsteps into the dressmaking business. They purchased Bette Muu in 1994 from then owner, Rene Kubo.


We went into their production room, and it was like being in our Obachan’s kitchen. Because a Japanese radio was going on, most of the seamstresses were Japanese, some Chinese. The cutters, Japanese, because they’re—not because, but they happened to be Mrs. Kubo’s nieces. We felt very comfortable. We talked story with her. She’s from Lahaina. Talked story. Literally three days later, she said, You folks can have the company.


So she was selecting a buyer.


Yes. ‘Cause she had already gone through several.


What did she want? What was she looking for?


Number one, I think she needed to feel comfortable, and that she would have confidence that they would continue the line in its purity. So keeping the tradition going. I mean, literally three days, she goes, Okay, you folks can have it. And she also told us later that Bette Manchester always wanted it to be Hawaiian owned. So it kind of fit.   We went in with it knowing that we wanted to keep the tradition alive, and to keep it going, and knew that we would have a really high learning curve. Very steep.


So how has to gone with Bette Muu?


We have learned a lot. It’s still tough. It’s pretty tough. Not many people wear muu’s anymore, and there’s still the misconception that it has to be huge and big. But it’s been a totally different door opening in our lives. So we’re hanging in there. We’re still producing.


When did Bette Muu become Bette Pantsuit? ‘Cause that’s what you’re wearing.


I know. They make these long pants for me. And so, I know, I need to tell my cutters that we need to get it out. On my artistic side, what you have on makes a big difference too, on how you do act, whether you’re in a meeting, or like … like she said, you’re not gonna go out on a baseball field in a Bette Muu. Because that’s not the appropriate place to wear it.


So do you wear them when you conduct?


I do.


Because it makes you feel more appropriate and poised, and calm?


Absolutely. And, it’s kinda cute, actually. My cutters and my staff make sure that the back of it looks the best.




Because as a conductor, that’s what people look at, is my back.


Have you seen a decline in choral groups?


There has been. There has been, and it’s kind of a Catch 22. I know through the 60s, strong all the way through. Roosevelt, strong. I also think that’s part of the era of strong general music coming up through strong music programs. Not only choral, orchestral as well as band. But there was a decline, and I’m sure it’s budgetary, where positions were cut.


You don’t think it’s lack of interest?


Oh, no, I don’t think so. Students were choosing not to major in it, because there were no jobs to be had. So therefore, then we lost competent people. And then when positions come up again, we don’t have the staffing. I will say, though, we have some young directors out there that are doing some great jobs. They’re building their programs, and there’s a commitment. And so, I see there’s a little light at the end of the tunnel.


In this period, we’ve seen the demise of the Honolulu Symphony as it existed. And we’ve seen a reduction in music and arts education.




How do you feel about music getting cut, as if it’s not a priority subject?


Yeah. Don’t get me started. [CHUCKLE]   It is a priority, and it’s not just the learning of the notes, or the learning of rhythm and those concepts. That’s part of it, that’s an important part. But I think more on the self esteem of a child, self exhortation of a child, and what effect it has growing up into adulthood. I know my parents’ generation, you got a good job, you stayed in it thirty, forty years, you retired; pau. My dad went back to farming, which is what his family does. But I think for my generation, we have so many interests, and so we get to do different things, and it’s not unusual to do something for fifteen years and, Oh, but I like doing that, so I’m gonna learn how to do that. And do that for another fifteen years. Some of us do it simultaneously; that’s a little nuts, but I think I’ve been very—and my sister too, I think we’ve been very fortunate in that we were afforded the experiences, so that we wouldn’t feel locked in. Yeah.


And you’ve used the opportunities you’ve been given.


I have, and I really feel that I’ve been fortunate.


Any regrets?


Frankly, no; I don’t think so. Not yet.


That’s a great thing to be able to say.


Yeah. I mean, at times, you’re kind of like, Oh, my gosh, what am I gonna do? But like they say, when one door closes, another one opens. And if you’re given enough support and guidance, you take that new avenue.


At this time in 2011, Nola Nahulu continues to lead and conduct, and teach. But she’s also starting to think about passing the baton. Her plan going forward is to devote more time to mentoring. Like the talented conductors and teachers who gave her so many opportunities to work and learn, Nola is on the look out for promising conductors who will keep Hawaii’s choral tradition alive for future generations. 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


As a third grader, I know this seems really weird, but I actually choreographed Waltz of the Flowers from the Nutcracker.


And you didn’t think you had special musical talent?


Well it probably wasn’t that great, but I do know I did it. My mother sewed the costumes, and this is on the little stage which is still at Waianae Elementary School. [CHUCKLE] I did choreography for synchronized swimming when I was in high school, because I learned—well, it was interesting to me. My artistic side of swimming.


But your life was full of music, so it was just a way of life.









Anne Namba



Original air date: Tues., Feb. 2, 2008


Fashion Designer of “Kimono Couture”


Anne Namba is the creator of a fashion line blending vintage Japanese fabrics and contemporary fashion, “kimono couture.” Her brand, Anne Namba Designs, is being picked up nationally by Nordstrom’s and is featured in other select Mainland stores. Anne graduated from Kalani High School and went on to the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. After stints in the garment industry in New York and L.A., Anne started her own business.


Anne Namba Audio


Download the Transcript




Aloha no, I’m Leslie Wilcox welcoming you to another episode of Long Story Short. This one is a little different. Usually I’m getting to know the guest at the same time you are. But this time, our guest is someone I happen to have grown up with. Used to hang out at her home with her family, saw her go through school, boyfriends, marriage, major career moves. So I already know her— and I also know she’s full of surprises. Anne Namba is the creator of a fashion line blending vintage Japanese fabrics and contemporary fashion, “kimono couture.” Her brand, Anne Namba Designs, is being picked up nationally by Nordstrom’s and is featured in other select Mainland stores. Anne graduated from Kalani High School and went on to the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. After stints in the garment industry in New York and L.A., Anne started her own business.


When I met you, you were in third grade; I was in fifth. And you showed up at Aina Haina Elementary School with your sister—wearing an—you were so exotic, because you were carrying your books in a bag and the strap was on your forehead. It was a woven tribal bag. And everyone took about five second looks, if you can do such a thing.


Yeah. Okay; exotic would not be the correct term. I was like nerd. I was like weirdo. That’s ‘cause we had just come back from living in Thailand. And those were like our little book bags. And they were actually these ethnic bags from Thailand. And my mother was like, These are perfect to carry your books in. So that’s how you carried ‘em, was on your head, so you didn’t get shoulder, you know, aches or anything. So we did that. Oh, my god.


I can’t remember the year, but we were young, and you and I took sewing classes together. Your first formal sewing class.


That’s right. Yeah; that was—I think it was yeah, it was soon after. I know I wanted to learn how to sew, and so Nodie came too.


Your sister.


My sister, Nodie, and you were there and Tammy Higa was there. And yeah, you guys were terrible; I remember that.


I don’t remember that part; not at all.


Oh, you were terrible.


Well, you were about twelve. And is that—did you discover that you were so much better than the rest of us?


Well, I just loved it. I loved it, and it came natural—you know, very natural—


Did you know before that, that you’d be good at it?


Well, I think my mom will be horrified by this story. But it’s true. Because I was the second daughter, I got all of my older sister’s hand-me-downs. And I never had my own clothes. So the only way to get my own clothes was to actually make them, which is why I wanted to learn how to sew. And so I remember my grandmother died, my Japanese grandmother died, and she had one of those really old fashioned sewing machines that you pumped the pedal and it would go. And so I just started fooling around. I found some fabric, and I made this little outfit, not knowing what I was doing. And my mother saw that, and she was like, Oh, maybe you need to take sewing lessons. I’m like, Oh, yeah, I’d love it. So that’s when I started doing it. And Nodie started wearing all of my clothes, so everyone thought that they were her clothes, and I was still wearing her hand-me-downs. So then I started renting them to her, which was my whole entrepreneurial start, so—


How much did you charge her?


I can’t remember, but it was in high school. ‘Cause I’m going, That’s not fair. I buy the fabric, I make the outfit, and then you wear it like it’s your clothes, and everyone just assumes that I’m wearing your old clothes.


Well, I remember at a certain point in that class, I was trying to follow the lines of my Simplicity pattern. And I looked over at you and you weren’t even using a pattern. You were just free-forming it.


Yeah; I remember you would pin everything, like every inch apart. I was like, Oh, my god.


And you would just be done. Like, what’s she still working on? And you would design your own clothes at that point.


Yeah; I started off by just like altering a pattern, or you know. And then I used to go to India Imports and buy the bedspreads there, and—you know, ‘cause that was the hippie days, and make, you know, our long sort of muumuu things. And then people started asking me to sew it for them, so that’s when I started doing that and charging money. So I started way back when.


Was that natural for you, the idea of the—you know, the creative part and the commerce part?


Oh, absolutely. I was like, I’m not doing this for free.


But tough, right? Because so many people asked you to do favors, and Anne could you help me with this.


Yeah. I still to this day have a hard time saying no.


Your family was very supportive of you in this business.


Yeah; yeah. They always—you know, when I announced that I wanted to be a fashion designer, it was like, oh. But they supported me all the way, and you know when I think back now, my parents, you know, they had to scrape together money to send me away to New York to go to school. And you know, back then, you just think, Well, that’s what I want to do, of course they’re gonna pay for it.


Because your father was a professor, he believed in higher ed.




Would he have liked you to have been a scientist like he is?


Oh, they knew that that was never a possibility. In fact, they saved some of my old reports cards. And my kids were shocked. They’re all like, Mom, you got Ds? It’s like, but look at Art; it’s A’s.


Picked the right job.


Yeah, right.


So you went away to New York, and was that like for you?


I remember um, when I first landed in New York—and nowadays, you know, parents take kids on college tours, and they set them up. I just got there, and got out of the train station with all my suitcases, and some man comes up and said, Do you need a cab? And I’m like, Yeah. And he picked up my bags and just took off through Madison Square Gardens. And I’m following him; he takes me to the curb, and he hails a cab for me. And I was like, Oh, I thought he was a cab driver. And then he asked me for a tip. And I was just like, Oh; what? And then the cab driver starts yelling at him for doing that, ‘cause he was scamming me. So the cab driver and this guy then start fist fighting on the street. And then I’m just watching in horror. And then he yells at me; he says, Get in the cab. So I get in the cab, and I’m just like going, I just want to go to FIT, you know, just to the school. I was in shock. I was like, Oh, my god, this is New York. And then I got there and decided I was gonna go—there was a bagel shop, and I wanted to get a sandwich. And everyone’s in there, shouting out their orders, and I’m politely standing, waiting and waiting. And finally, the bagel guy looks at me and he goes, You gonna order, or what? And I was like, Oh, I’m sorry. So that was my very first hour in New York City.


You realized, I’d better ratchet up my—


I was like, Oh, wow.


–confidence level here.


Yeah, right.


Well, by the time I visited you—and this was in the 80’s—you were working in the fashion industry, Radio City Music Hall. Right?


Yeah; yeah.


You were costuming the dancers


That’s right; that’s right.


I remember thinking, What’s happened to Anne? Because you walked—


Oh, I know.


–about five times faster than you ever had, and we were just walking. We weren’t going to any particular place.


I thought, Where are they?


You talked faster, and you were very proactive in dealing with people. You know, just combative, as a matter of fact, as I recall.


Yeah; back—oh, back then—well, especially in fashion, and in school too, it’s really a super competitive field. So you have to— you can be intimidated; you gotta just get out there and—


Did that come naturally for you?


No. I was shy. Remember? I was really shy as a kid. So yeah, I don’t know what happened along the way.


But was it hard, or do you just remember thinking, This is what I have to do, therefore it’s what I’ll do?


No; it was hard. I remember feeling like a country bumpkin when I first got up there, and not being sophisticated, not knowing anything, not being fashionable, not being able to buy the latest you know, fashion.


Did you think you were gonna cut it? Did you think you might not make it?


I never thought that I wasn’t gonna be a fashion designer; I always thought that’s—you know, I’m gonna work in fashion. But I never thought I would be where I am today. I didn’t have that in my fantasies.


What did you think you would do with your degree once you got out of this prestigious fashion school?


I thought I would just be probably designing for you know, companies in New York City. And that someday I might be able to, you know, design for, you know, one of the big—you know, Calvin Klein or something like that. And to me, that would have been like, wow. But then, you know, of course, I burnt out of the city and and left, so—


What did you think when you were leaving the city? Did you think—




Oh, you were glad to go?


I was like, Oh—


And what next?


Well, I moved to L.A. because I thought there’s a good fashion center there, so I moved to LA. And then at that point, I still did not want my own company. So I moved there, and I wanted to get into costuming again. But it’s so tough; that industry is really, really a hard industry to get into. And I fell back into the garment district, into the—actually producing overseas. So that started a whole ‘nother interest in overseas and producing over there. And then naively thought, you know, Oh, my bosses are a bunch of jokers, they don’t know what they’re doing. You know. I just thought, pff, I’m doing all the work here, I might as well open my own business and—you know, very naively. Because running a business and designing stuff is completely—it’s a lot more than just designing pretty clothes. And so I moved back to Honolulu, because I thought, Well, at least if it doesn’t work out, I have a roof over my head, and I know that my family will feed me. So I moved back to Hawaii, and worked here for about a year, just to sort of get the climate, figure out resources, and how it all works here, which is a lot slower.


Yeah; I noticed you started walking more slowly again. And talking more slowly.


And then I started my business. And it’s been great.


And you did literally start your business under your parents’ roof.


Yup. I got the old bedroom, and I updated the—my grandmother’s sewing machine, though. And just—I was a one-man show. I did everything myself.


Anne launched a boutique in 1989 and Anne Namba Designs was born. Despite being what she terms a “one man show” during those early days of the business, Anne credits family members for their unwavering support. More on that as our conversation continues.


Must be a thrill to hear when somebody is wearing an Anne Namba.


The first time I heard my name used in that way, like, Oh, I wore my Anne Namba, and I’m like, Wait, that’s me. What do you mean you wore my Anne Namba? You know. And now, you know, I’ll just say, Oh, I’m gonna wear an Anne Namba. And so I’m very used to it now.


I remember your dad liked to help you pick the models.


That is my dad’s main objective with all my shows.


And your mom is very long-suffering. Kind of rolls her eyes, and smiles.


No; all the models know that if my dad doesn’t like them they don’t get hired again. So they all make sure to say, Hello, Dr. Namba, whenever he comes to my shows.


You had to find a niche for yourself when you got back home.




How did how did Eurasian clothes get to you? How did that idea get planted?


Well I think a lot of it had to do with the influence of always traveling, seeing different cultures, seeing different fabrics which—I love Japanese fabric; love the kimono, the culture, the food, everything. And so I was very taken with the fabric and the kimono, but you can’t really wear a kimono, ‘cause either you look like you’re wearing a costume or a bathrobe. And so I decided, since I had the background of fashion and how do to, you know, Western contemporary style clothing and flattering lines, that I would incorporate the two. And it’s nothing new; people had been doing it before. But you know, I have a different sort of take on it than—you know, everyone has their own sort of individual take. You know, and then slowly got into doing my own prints, because I’m running out of kimonos.


I was gonna ask you; where did you get all the kimono that you used, and how was that taken in Japan? Are they wild about you cutting up kimonos?


Actually, they’re starting to do it now.




You see a lot more of it happening.


Were they doing that at the time you started?


No; no, not at all. In fact, they would be just like, Why are you using that old stuff? And they would not themselves buy it, because it’s almost looked upon, back then, as you couldn’t afford new clothes so you had to remake one of your old kimonos. Nowadays, though, again, you see a lot of the younger generation. I was shopping some of the stores the last time I was there, and you’re seeing Japanese labels, jeans with kimono pockets and patches on it. So things are changing. I have a lot of Chinese influence too, and some of my prints are Chinese inspired, as well as styles. I did one whole collection once for a showing that I did that was all based on Chinese different dynasties. And I researched it and did that whole thing.


That must be fun, the research. Historical research.


Oh, yeah. Yeah; yeah. It’s a lot of fun.


Now, you said you’re getting into prints too.


I’ve been doing prints for a long time, actually. If you have your own fabric, then you can mass produce the styles. So I started doing that, oh, gosh, quite a while ago. And right now, that’s my main wholesale collection.


Who designs your fabrics?


My nephew. He started—that’s Nodie’s son. And he started when he was like fifteen; he’s really talented artist, and so I started having him do some artwork for me. And nowadays, it’s all done on the computer. So you know, we’ll discuss ideas, and I’ll look at things, and you know, if I don’t like a color, you know, he presses a button, it’s, How’s that? It’s much different today.


And he designed the fabric you’re wearing now?


Yes; m-hm.






What are women most concerned about when they dress, in general?


Well, my mission statement is to make every women look taller, thinner, and I just added younger, now that I can relate.


How do you do that, though? Just the cut of the—


The cut, yeah. You know, you don’t want dowdy cuts. You know, you try to keep it modern, but wearable for people that don’t have the most—you know, the perfect body. And it’s funny that, you know, if you have a certain flattering style on people, and you know how to achieve it, then when they put on the garment, they’re like, I love it. And they don’t know particularly why, but they love the cut.


It must be frustrating, ‘cause sometimes you probably want to design for fashion model types who can wear anything. And you have to be realistic and design for people who are regular folks.


Actually, for me, I—mostly because I’m not built like a model, I always design with myself in mind. Like, what would I want to wear. And naturally, you know, I want to look taller, slimmer, younger, so I’ll do that. And when the models put it on, I just see that as like, you know, icing on the cake. It’s just like, oh, well, they’re just so tall and thin. So I don’t design for model figures at all, and I never have. And it’s just when they throw it on and it’s that much better, then you know, that’s great. But you know, I’ll have women that say, Well, of course it looks good on her, she’s six feet tall and size, you know, zero. But I’m like, No, it’s not true. If you put it on—it’s actually too big on her, but you know, that’s her job to make it look better. And put it on, ‘cause it’ll look good on you too. And I was just approached by another store for—to do plus sizes. So now I might expand into that.




Not personally.


Yeah. So is there a new area of the business you’re going to be moving into, or are you gonna be at this level for a while? How’s it working?


Well, at this point, for me to expand in my wholesale division, that’s the easiest, ‘cause I contract everything out. So the hard part is designing the fabric, designing the collection, and then getting it produced. Once I do that, I can up my numbers. And so I could say, Cut 50 of these, or cut 500. It’s just adding more numbers.


That could be an exponential move then.


Yeah; yeah. And it wouldn’t be that much more for us to do; it’s just upping the numbers when we order things. So we’re looking at that. Aother division of mine that is just going gangbusters is my bridal division. And that started out as you know, client coming in; Oh, my daughter’s getting married, why don’t you make a dress. And well, 500 people came to her wedding, and they all—you know, it was great advertising. So now we’re going gangbusters with our bridal.


What do women look for in bridal dresses when they come to you? What do they want?


They want the Asian, you know, influence look. A lot of the girls want to have that. Different fabric, something you know, some of ‘em, you know, it reflects their heritage. Just something—you know, a lot of times, they want something simple, but really different. And so when they come to us, then you know, that’s what they get. We custom make all of our gowns for our brides.


So I understand you’re gonna be appearing across the nation in a particular store. Something new is happening?


Yes; yes. I am, well, I’m participating in the new Nordstrom store, so we’re just going gangbusters getting all the collections ready for them. And of course that goes nationwide. So that’s big.


That’s huge. How much do you think that’ll add to your business in percentage?


Gosh; you know, like I said, I got a D in math, so I don’t know; that’s why I have my husband. Marriage is a business.


Another family member helping—


Yes; yes, yes.


–in the business and being a resource.


Yes; so we do and I’m using my daughter as a model now. So yeah. So we have lots of nepotism.


And it works for you.




What do your kids take away from your running a business and being a fashion designer, do you think?


Well, I hope that they don’t think that life is all about stress. That’s really what I hope they—you know, they don’t do. ‘Cause you know, I worry that—a lot of times, I’m like, Mom’s had a bad day, I’m really stressed. And I don’t want them to think that’s what running a business is about. So I try to watch that, but a lot of times, I know I’m, How was your day, Mom. It’s like, [GROWL]. I think I—well, I constantly remind them that it is a business, so it can go up and down. And in fact, I’ve tried to get—my daughter has done a little bit of her own business. And this is just—you know, I’m trying to get her to have an entrepreneurial spirit, and to realize that if you work hard, and you know, you try to use your head about things and you know, if you have a little bit of talent and you just figure out how to take advantage of it, you know, that you can make money. And so she’s been making money off of little things too. And so I think she’s gonna be able to—and she wants to go into fashion and into business, so I think she’s gotten that from the business, and she really enjoys that part of it. She’s a great salesperson too, so—


Were there times where you wanted to rethink the whole business, or when it was really difficult to decide where to go next with it?


No. Actually, once I started, I never thought—I mean, before I started, I thought, well, you know, no guts, no glory, right, and I can always get a job. So—why not? And started doing it, and I never once said, I want to give up, or this isn’t working, or I rather work for somebody. Never, ever. But then I’ve just been really lucky, and things have been going really well for me. So—


And you’ve seen other fashion businesses lose their way.


Yeah. Yeah; come and go. But you know, I’ve been able to sort of market my look, the image, and you know, create a good image. And just keep on top of things. Although my body’s starting to revolt.


Speaking of that, you’ve done triathlons.


I know; that was like, my daughter calls it my midlife crisis. So she just said, All of a sudden, Mom decided to do triathlons, so—


Well, was it all of a sudden? I mean, were you ready?


Yeah. Yeah; no, I just thought, Oh, I can do that, that sounds like fun. And so I did it. And of course, now I have arthritis in my knees and tendonitis in my arms and—


And now you don’t do those three events anymore?


No; I—yeah, I had to give up running. So then I started swimming and biking, and then now I can’t swim anymore, so today I’m gonna try and do a spinning class. And I walk in the mornings, and I used to make fun of people that walked for the exercise, and now that’s what I’m doing.


Several times now, I think you’ve paddled to Kalalau along the Na Pali Coastline of Kauai, which is rough, there are no lifeguards around to save you if you get into trouble. It’s about a 27-mile paddle from the beginning to the end.


Well, we’ve done that now every year for, oh my goodness, maybe five, six years. And it’s my spiritual renewal. And it’s where we go and we sleep on the beach, and we have to pump our own water, and we look and you know, bathe in the waterfall. But we hike every day, and for me, that is just getting back to nature and realizing that in this world, you are very small. And then all of a sudden, it just doesn’t really matter that the color was slightly, you know, too yellow—or you know.


And the main fashion garment is the pareau, right? Because you can wear it, you can towel off on it.


Yes. You sleep on it. You can—yeah. You can do everything with it.


The wilderness trips, the camping; that doesn’t jive with your image as this fashion designer who’s just perfect at your shows.


I know. I remember when one year we came back from Kalalau; and this was after being a week on the beach, right? And we came direct from the beach to the airport. And as I was checking in, the guy looks at my ID and he starts to laugh, and he goes, Hey, you have the same name as the fashion designer. I went like, Oh, yeah. And another time, I was up at a waterfall, and I don’t know how it got out, but this guy there that works for advertising found out that I was there. And he goes, Oh, Anne, I always to meet you, and so I was a little embarrassed of the way I looked. So I thought, I’m just gonna be cool, like I’m cool, you know, I’m in nature, and so what if I look like this. So I was like, Oh, yeah, and I was doing my whole, you know, I’m nature too, and all that. And then all of a sudden, I’m talking to him, and one of the lenses from my sunglasses popped out and fell on the ground. And then I completely lost it. And I was like, Don’t tell anyone you saw me here.


Do you think your position number two in a family of four kids—you know, they always talk about birth number being important somehow.


Yes. I think I was ignored as the middle child. Because—


Well, we know about the hand-me-downs.


Yes, Leslie. And you know, my older sister, she got all the new stuff, and she got to do things first. And then my younger brother was the baby, so he got babied. And the middle child always gets ignored.


But it seems to have worked out for you.


Yeah. I just like to use it.


The middle child has done very well for herself. I’ve overheard women saying with pride ‘I’m wearing an Anne Namba.’ Anne’s clientele has grown to include Elizabeth Taylor, Aretha Franklin, Hillary Clinton, Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi and many women throughout Hawaii. It was fun sharing stories with this successful Hawaii entrepreneur, creative force, and good friend – Anne Namba. But, as always, we have to keep this long story short.   Mahalo for joining me. I’m Leslie Wilcox with PBS Hawaii. A hui hou kakou!


We lived in Thailand and Iran, and then just—


You lived in Iran when you were a kid.


Yes. That’s right.


What was it like?


You know, it was really fun back then ‘cause it was the Shah, and you know, we rode horses, and we went to a private little school and it was great fun; international school. And it was great back then.


Your dad was a professor from the University on sabbatical.


Right; and you know, he was basically, you know, looking for different experiences to do, and we went as a family. And so we all sort of got the travel bug and just curiosity in other cultures. I think it was just sort of you know, you grow up around it.


Nanette Napoleon



Original air date: Tues., Mar. 31, 2009


Hawaii’s History Detective


Nanette Napoleon is considered Hawaii’s leading expert on graveyards. A trustee of O’ahu Cemetery in Nu’uanu, she’s the author and photographer of a book on Hawaii’s oldest public graveyard. She gives walking tours of the site and she supervised documentation of more than 300 graveyards and 30,000 tombstone inscriptions throughout the state.


Nanette Napoleon Audio


Download the Transcript




…it used to be more popular in my parents’ generation, where the whole family would, you know, pack up for the day, and go to one cemetery and spend the whole day, or go to several during the day. And there used to be a lot more families that you’d see in the graveyards. Um, but unfortunately, generations later, um, we don’t have as much connection to … the graves. And so we don’t see that as much.


“She has dedicated her life’s work to something mostly associated with death. But she doesn’t see it that way, because to her graveyards give us fascinated view into people’s lives. That’s Nanette Napoleon on Long Story Short.


Aloha mai kakou, I’m Leslie Wilcox. In this edition of “Long Story Short,” You’ll meet a vivacious, athletic, upbeat person who—from the job she created for herself—may see obsessed with death. Nanette Napoleon is considered Hawaii’s leading expert on graveyards. A trustee of O‘ahu Cemetery in Nu‘uanu, she’s the author and photographer of a book on Hawaii’s oldest public graveyard. She gives walking tours of the site and she supervised documentation of more than 300 graveyards and 30,000 tombstone inscriptions throughout the state.


Because of her pre-occupation and profession, one might suspect that this Kailua High School graduate had grown up a gloomy isolated child. Absolutely not true-not true at all!


…you have a big family. How many relatives do you have?


Oh, my gosh. Yeah; I come from a big Hawaiian family. Both my mother and my father are part-Hawaiian, and they both come from big families. My father was one of eight, and my mother was one of fourteen. And I still have probably um … seventeen living aunts and uncles, and about sixty-something first cousins.


Your dad was Nappy Napoleon; but not the Nappy Napoleon people associate with canoe racing.


Right. Uh, but that’s the Nappy Napoleon who’s a paddler. But my father was also well known, and his name was Nappy. His real name was Nathan Nihi Napoleon, Sr.; but all his life, he went um, as Nappy, as did his father and uh, another one of his brothers.


It’s a—so—natural. Yeah; it’s a natural name for Napoleon. So um, people always ask that. But I always correct them and say, No, not the paddling Nappy, but the beach boy Nappy, um, who was a beach boy at the Halekulani Hotel for uh, over twenty years.


What was your childhood like? Where did you grow up, or—or did you actually grow up pretty much on the beach at the Halekulani?


Uh, in my uh, mid-years, I—we did. But my family um … I was born in Kailua. And then when I was two, my family moved to Al—Alameda, California. My father went to work for Matson. And we stayed there for eight years, and then came back to Kailua. And then my father and his uh, two brothers opened a beach boy stand in uh, Waikiki, next to the Moana Hotel. And then a few years after that, my dad started his own concession at the Halekulani Hotel.


And did—was that a family affair?


Uh, it really was. Um, my … all of us six kids, as we were growing up, as we got older, um, we all worked for my dad on the weekends; extra money. And when we weren’t working, we were there anyway, because we just wanted to go to the beach and surf, and sail, and play in—play around, and have a good time. When you uh, finished high school, you did give it a shot, working fulltime with your dad on the beach.


I did. I thought I wanted to um, be a beach girl for the rest of my life. ‘Cause I really loved the beach and surfing, and all that. Uh, and so right out of high school, I had no plans to go to college, and I went uh, to work for my dad fulltime. But after about six months, it started getting a little old for me. [chuckle] I wasn’t active enough. I—I was used to doing it on weekends and holiday, summers, like that, and it was always very much fun. But I found out that doing it every day was a little bit different. And so I wanted to do a little bit more than that. And so the—I decided—after a year I spent on the beach, I decided to go to college. And I was the first one in … in my whole Napoleon line, I think … uh … to go to college, and graduate from college.


And it wasn’t like a bolt of lightning that hit me, and so all of a sudden I’m gonna be this cemetery researcher person. Um … but it was in—started in my consciousness, and as I went around, I no—I started just noticing graveyards here, and graveyards there. And then the next thing I knew, I was … walking into them, and seeing what I could see. And the first thing that I—I realized after visiting several, was that they’re aesthetically very um, interesting places to look at. Because I’ve als—always been, since uh, high school, interested in photography. So um, I started going back to take pictures of the graveyards. And after a while, um, I started actually looking, and reading the tombstones, and I—I realized that, Wow, this is some interesting information here. And I saw some well known names that uh—from history, Hawaiian history. And I thought, Wow, these places are, you know, pretty interesting, and they’re kind of historical. So that piqued my interest, and then you know, I graduated from—went on, graduated from college. And I—but I always had that interest, and I would always visit graveyards wherever I was, whatever island if I traveled.


For years Nanette Napoleon kept her passion for cemeteries to herself. Then at a change meeting at a cocktail party, she discovered she was not alone in her interest.


And then I found that uh, one of the men in the group um, had lived on the East Coast, and that he had been interested in graveyard for many, many years. And so he and I kinda went off, and we sat on a couch and got into this long conversation about graveyards. And I thought, Wow, this is great.




The first time I ever met somebody like me, who is interested in graveyards, right?


Because—Because—Because your friends and family had—




–said, what?


They said—everybody said, Oh, that’s weird, or Isn’t that kinda morbid that you have this interest, right?


And you didn’t consider it morbid?


Not at all; not at all. Um, so one—kind of not tell people sometimes, because I didn’t like the reaction that I got, right? But here was a guy who was just as much into it as I was. And then he turned me onto the fact that um—or told me about a group on the East Coast called the Association for Gravestone Studies, which is an international uh, group of cemetery researchers. Um, some academics and non-academics. And then uh, I immediately wrote them, and found out, wow, there’s a whole group of us out there. [chuckle] And so I joined up, and—and for twenty years now, I’ve been going to uh, annual conferences uh, throughout the United States. We have a journal, and we have a quarterly newsletter. So that’s—um, I’ve learned so much from that organization.


Nanette Napoleon had connected. She found her place in the world…and soon delved into one particular cemetery in Nu‘uanu as the centerpiece of her research.


…and you did a book about Oahu Ceme—tery.




Would that be your favorite cemetery?


It is. Because um, it’s visually the most stunning, and there’s so many different kinds of markers to look at, and to talk about. And plus, there are so many uh, famous people from Hawaiian history there; hundreds, hundreds of famous people.


For example?


James Campbell, who uh, came from Europe and he—as a carpenter. And he settled here and became fabulously rich as a sugar planter.


After buying land that everybody else thought was worthless.


That’s right.


But he found out you can get water to it.


That’s right; in the Ewa plain.




And he brought in a special drill team, because nobody had—had drill bits to drill through the hard coral uh, rock after the soil. And nobody could irrigate out there. Uh, but he had the—brought in some technology, new technology that could drill, and then hit water, and … the land that he had bought for pennies was all—all of a sudden worth, you know, many hundreds of dollars. So that’s how he made most of his money.


And the man they call the father of baseball is buried there.


The father of American baseball is right here in Hawaii. And don’t let anybody tell you it’s Abner Doubleday. It’s—Because—


–Alexander Cartwright.


It’s Alexander J. Cartwright. And he came out here from New York. Um, he had an interesting story. Um, he and his brother, in 1849, went west as—to go to California, as … in 1849.


Gold rush?


Gold rush. They rushed to California. They went broke, like all of their friends. And then um, the brother went back across country, but Alexander decided to take the sea route. And so he got on a ship that was going to eventually get back to Boston. But that particular ship uh, like many did in those days, came out to Hawaii first, and then went around the Horn. They picked up goods, dropped off goods. So his ship came to Hawaii. When he got here, he—he was feeling pretty sick, so he said, Okay, I’m gonna stay in the islands ‘til get we—better, and then get on another ship and go home. Uh, and he did. But he liked it here so much, that when he got back to his home, he picked up his whole family, and they uh, emigrated to the islands.


Wow. Who else?


Uh … oh, Sterling Mossman, musicians, uh … recently, one is uh, um … gla—uh, Gladys Brandt, from the University of—



–Hawaii, and other things.


And Kamehameha Schools.


Kamehameha Schools.


There’s one uh, statue; uh, it’s a tombstone at uh, Oahu Cemetery, where it’s so different from all the rest. But on the other hand, it feels like it’s in keeping. I—I believe it’s a life-sized statue of Duke Kahanamoku’s sister.


Right; right. Um, and I have that—a picture of it in my book. Um … her name was Maria, spelled like Maria, but pronounced Mariah. And she was uh, baby of the family. There were seven brothers, and then her, the baby. And unfortunately, she got a—uh, was ill, sickly as a young adult, and she died when she was only in her mid-twenties. But at the time of her death, she was uh, um … betrothed to an Italian baron. And the baron was heartbroken and he went back to Italy, he ordered—took a picture of her, and ordered uh, a life-sized statue of uh, to be carved in marble. And it was, and it was brought back and installed in the graveyard. That’s the only life-sized uh, full-body image of a person I’ve seen in all—in Hawaii. But when I tour uh, graveyards all around America, I see many, many more um, full-sized bodies.


It seems as though um … cemeteries are the place where you find out people’s histories. And in fact, uh, aren’t there some wonderful stories of how people died?




You know, I mean, uh, the tombstone actually explain; uh, sailors who went to the aid of their fallen friend—


That’s right.


–and died themselves, trying to rescue him.


That’s right. Um, some of them say, like, um … fallen from the mast, you know, and—they don’t say drowned, they say um … or they, drown—drowned whilst bathing. [chuckle] You know; taking a bath in the ocean water. And they—they—most of the sailors, people don’t realize, in that era, couldn’t swim. So they had to have a rope tied around them, and they would jump in the water. But sometimes they drowned doing that, or they—they fell of the mast, or—it was such a dangerous profession. Uh, in the storms, the big blocks, tackles and ropes and things, um, you know, would swing around and they’d hit somebody in the head, kill them. Um … so it was a very dangerous profession. And—and so many of the uh … well, in those days, in the 1800s, uh, you couldn’t … keep a body on a ship, because there was no refrigeration, and bring them home. So they all had to be buried at sea. But then the next port the ship landed at, the—the fellow sailors would go out and buy a tombstone for their falling sailor, shipmate, and erect it in the local cemetery, and say this—on such-and-such date, to commemorate their passing.


There—there’s one here that’s—I mean, there—there are a number that are so sad, in that a guy who was twenty-eight years old was in Hawaii only fifteen days, and apparently was sick the entire time, and then is laid to rest—




–in this place where he knew so few people, and had lived—




–so little.


Right. And um, you know, the parents, would never … have the opportunity to come and see the marker or anything, but they felt very strongly that they should be commemorated in a physical way, you know, even though the body wasn’t there.


Um …


There—there are a lot of different areas of Oahu Cemetery.




Some are ethnic.




And uh … aren’t there—




Aren’t—aren’t there some Civil War differentiations, too?


The … Oahu Cemetery is the only cemetery that has a Civil War plot. It’s called the … uh, listed as the Grand Army of the Republic Plot, or the GAR. And these were veterans of the Northern Army, Marines, and uh, uh, Navy veterans who survived the Civil War, and went about their lives, and ended up in Hawaii and settling in Hawaii, and—and died in Hawaii. And after the war, the veterans formed a uh, veterans’ organization called the GAR, which actually became a very uh, prominent political group in America, in general. Uh, so they started a branch of the GAR in Hawaii, and those guys that were veterans joined, and they had a thing going, and they—part of their dues went to buying a plot in Oahu Cemetery, so that when they died, they could be buried together.


What about Confederates?


No Confederates. Uh, it was only for um, the uh, Northern forces. The GA—this particular plot. But there are other um … um … Civil War Confederates buried in the cemetery; a few.


Among the many aesthetic riches found in cemeteries is a very specialized photographic process. As Nanette Napoleon points out in her book on O‘ahu Cemetery, “Tombstone photos bring the dead to life for the casual viewer.”


If I do another book, it’ll be about those porcelain portraits, ‘cause I love them. Um, and they’re very important, actually, for families. Because in those days, people—the regular person didn’t have cameras. Cameras weren’t even invented ‘til 1860s. Um, so the average person didn’t have them. So if you wanted a photo, you had to go to a studio and pay for a photograph. So families did that. And then when somebody died, and they went to the funeral parlor, and they wanted one of those, they had to bring a family photo in, give it to the mortician. They would send it off to um, the mainland. There was only a few places on the mainland who did it. They would take a picture of the picture, and with that negative, then expose that negative onto that uh, piece of porcelain which is chemically coated with photographic chemicals. So you expose it onto that, and it … goes on there as a picture. And because it’s on porcelain, uh, and you put it up there, it lasts ten—it lasts … sometimes I’ve seen them as old as a hundred years old.


We have Oahu Cemetery, which is—I mean, I—I love the—the wrought iron and the—and the … shape of the tombstones. But there are others that are tucked away in places where—




–today you wonder, Why would they put a cemetery—




–there? But of course, Hawaii has changed, and you wouldn’t put a cemetery next to an onramp of a freeway, but that’s—




–what we have. Right?


Onramps of freeways, um … in the middle of a parking lot at Windward Mall, in the back side. There used to be St. Ann’s Church located in that spot. Uh, the church moved across the street, and that lot was abandoned for many, many years, and the—the church eventually was torn down, but the graveyard um, that—that … associated with the church remained at that location. Even though it was all grown over, and everything. But then in the 70s, was it, they were gonna build Windward Mall. And uh, they were going to first bulldoze it over, but um, some people in the community, including myself, um, petitioned that and said, No, save the cemetery. So they did. And they cleaned it up, and put a fence, white picket fence around it.


It’s the back lot of the—




The—the shopping center parking lot.


Yeah, and you park right next to it, and everything.


Isn’t that where um … Kau’i Zuttermeister is buried?


Yeah; Kau’i Zuttermeister is over there. Who else, uh … oh. One of the more interesting ones from that graveyard is uh, a couple of men who, on December 7, 1941,uh, were one of sixty-five civilians who died, uh, as the result of the attack on Oahu. A—a lot of people don’t realize that that attack not only happened at Pearl Harbor and Hickam, but um, throughout the i—our island, Oahu Island. And that there were actually civilians who had no connection with Pearl Harbor or any of the military bases, that were killed. And uh, there are two buried in that cemetery who were relatives, who worked at Pearl Harbor, both of them. And [CLEARS THROAT] when they heard on the radio uh, pearl—this is not a drill, and they called all the people who worked at Pearl Harbor to report to your stations. So it was four men who got in a car, and they were all related, and all from the windward side; they got into this black sedan. As they went—that’s how they went to work every day. They went over the Pali, came down the Pali, and then they were going over a—the hill in uh, Alewa Heights.




And right in the middle of the intersection, um, an American anti-aircraft shell came, and fell, and hit them directly on the top of the car. And you’ve probably seen the uh, photo from—it’s always uh, in … when they’re talking about Pearl Harbor things. Uh, so it hit the car, and all four men were killed.


Knowledge of the incident led Nanette Napoleon to uncover more stories of civilian deaths in the December 7th attack.


And there were two markers of two little girls, young girls. And … uh, with the same last name, and the same death date; December 7, 1941. And I said, Okay, wait a minute. I don’t think—unless they were killed on the same day in a car crash, or something, something’s going on here. So I called up um … the historian at uh, Pearl Harbor, and I asked him, You know where—anything about civilians who died on December 7th? He said, Yeah. You know, we have some information, and it’s—they’re in these boxes over here. Uh—


It wasn’t a readymade report.




Not at all.


No; no. So uh, I said, Oh, can I come and look at that? So he allowed me to do that. And I—I instantly got interested in the story. And … and uh, for a number of years, I’ve been collecting uh, data about them; who they were, exactly who they were, how old they were, where they were, how they died.


And nobody had done that before?


Nobody; no, nobody had done that. Ev—not even the Pearl Harbor guys. They had all this data, they—but they hadn’t put it together. So I was the first one to kinda do that, and um … and then …uh, comes the year of the fiftieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor. And … um … I wanted to do something to commemorate those civilians. ‘Cause every Pearl Harbor day comes along, and they always talk about the military casualties, right? And we have Arizona Memorial, and all kinds of things. But nothing for the civilians. So … I just happened to be going to Washington, DC to study—uh, do some cemetery research in the archives over there. And I—I made a trip to uh, Senator Akaka’s office. I wrote him ahead of time, and I said, You know, is there anything we can do about these civilians? And so um … as a result of that, um, he generated uh, a resolution to acknowledge uh, those civilians.


You know, you are known for having picnics at Oahu Cemetery—


Oh. [chuckle]


–just to enjoy the … the … the rural charm in—in the—the—


M-hm, m-hm.


–park-like setting.



And to—to honor folks, you know, to feel at—at home there. Um, and I thought of you when one Memorial Day, I went to Valley of the Temples, uh, where my grandmother is buried. And there was a … several large families with picnic uh, chairs—


Yeah, yeah.


–and they had hibachis,






–they had …


I love it.


–Subway sandwiches, and they were playing music.


Yeah; yeah.


And it was the most natural, warm, wonderful thing—


That’s right.


–I—I’d seen at a cemetery. It was just um … people were at home with their loved one, and—




–they were actually telling stories, and—




It was as if the person buried there, or … aro—whose spirit was still around, could hear.


Yeah. And I love that about Hawaii. It’s probably the only place in the United States where people do that. Because there’s a long history in doing that. Um, and it comes from the Hawaiian culture, where Hawaiians um, remember family gravesites, and they put uh, makana, um, gifts at the gravesites. And that has sort of been um, a—adopted by other cultures. An—and um, it used to be more popular in my parents’ generation, where the whole family would, you know, pack up for the day, and go to one cemetery and spend the whole day, or go to several during the day. And there used to be a lot more families that you’d see in the graveyards. Um, but unfortunately, generations later, um, we don’t have as much connection to … the graves. And so we don’t see that as much. But um … as part of my mission in … when uh … is the reason why I’ve developed walking tours and lectures. I—I want to see people get more connected back, the way they used to be connected to the graveyards and—and do those kind of family things. So that—so that our generations below us will remember and pay tribute to their ancestors.


You see the most interesting things left on gravestones. For example, can you give me some of the—the—the more unusual ones you’ve seen, besides the orange that—




–Asian families often leave.


Uh, well, the orange is actually … uh, for specific ethnic groups; that’s for either Chinese or Japanese. Not—Not everybody—


Not Koreans?


Uh … not so much Koreans. Japanese—yeah—or Chinese. More Chinese and Japanese. Okinawan. And—and that has to do with bon season and Buddhist ritual of uh, they call it feeding the ha—hungry ghosts. So you go to the family gravesite to pay homage to ancestor, you leave foods to feed the hungry ghost. Because if you don’t, then the ghost can turn to an angry ghost, and can do bad things to the living. So that’s why you must do that. And then uh, foodstuff uh, incense, you burn incense to awaken the spirits. And—and that’s sort of like a calling card saying, Okay, we’re here.


And they—they smell the incense, they know you’re there. And then you do your ceremonies, and then at the end, you burn firecrackers to chase away any angry spirits around the area, and keep the place uh, sacred.


You get a sense of what a person was like, sometimes. I—I—I know this one place where I always see a uh, a can of a certain kind of beer.


M-hm, m-hm.


And there’s cigarettes.


Cigarettes, uh … candy. If it’s a child, uh, toys, little toys if it’s children.


Or a pinwheel, sometimes.


A pinwheel; lots of pinwheels.


I—I read a book recently where um, uh, one of the smallest self-governing states in the world in the Pacific, uh, Niue—




–um … they have these family graveyards, and you always put something that reminded you of the person there, or their favorite possession. And so there—um, a number of the women have sewing machines—




–on their graves.


Toy sewing machines? Or little—


No, real—


Real—sewing machines. Real sewing machines? I’ve not heard about that one. Oh, that’s cool.


…what are the rules? I mean, there are people who say, Oh, that’s … you know, you—don’t be stepping near—




–the gravestone—




–and what—what are you doing, being so curious.




I mean, i—is there—are you not supposed to step on the gravestone, are you—what—what—what’s … what’s not proper?


That’s a good question. And what I tell people when I go on tours, ‘cause they always ask me that, is that it’s dependent upon your culture. That every culture, be it Chinese, Japanese, um … Filipino … all have different beliefs on the afterlife, about death and dying rituals. So what I tell people is that whatever you come from, whatever tradition you come from, that’s what’s … right for you. If somebody else has something different, like y—your family may say, Oh, we don’t—don’t step on graveyards, ‘cause you’re interfering with the spirits, or something.


Or don’t eat lunch over there.


Yeah; don’t eat lunch, don’t wear something.


Don’t play your happy music.


Yeah; yeah. Um … so it just depends on what you learned from your culture. An—and nothing is uh … more right or wrong than anything else; everybody … is—to me, has um, is valid…


When I hear you talking about cemeteries, I hear you talking about the history of Hawaii, and what—




–what a cemetery can tell you about what people did in life.




And that’s the attraction for you?


That’s the attraction for me, and—and I like to pass that on. Because … a lot of people just think of cemeteries as just simple … repositories for their dead; okay, someplace to bury their dead. But they uh … but are they—who are they for more? Are they more for the dead, or are they more for the living? In my mind, they’re—they’re more for the living. Um, they’re—they’re a place that we can physically go to, to connect us with our ancestors. Um, some people don’t need that connection, that physical connection. But um, most people in our cu—Western culture need that, and—and most cultures around the world. That’s why almost every single culture has some kind of burial ground of some kind. Not all, but most.


If you had to describe to people, and make them really understand what your—what your um, joy in this is, what is it?


I get a lot of joy from um … the physical way that cemeteries look, and how they feel. They’re very peaceful, park-like settings. And some people have a hard time—they say, Oh, I’d never live next to a graveyard, or they don’t like just wandering around a graveyard. They’ll go there for a funeral or something, then they kinda dig out of there. But um … for me, it’s really relaxing and it takes me—transports me back in time. And when I’m in, particularly like Oahu Cemetery, I just go blank, and I’m like in this other world in—in the 1800s all the time. [chuckle] And it’s fascinating for me, you know.


So the next time you’re in a cemetery, pay attention to the little details—the doors into the past left slightly ajar, beckoning you to enter a different world. They’re not necessarily spooky of morbid places. It all depends on your perspective. I hope you’ve enjoyed this half hour of Nanette Napoleon’s refreshing perspective. For Long Story Short and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.


What else have you seen on uh, gravesites?


Um, you know, we talked about Alexander J. Cartwright, the baseball guy.




Um, for many years now, people uh, who know baseball um, they make special pil—pilgrimages to his grave, and they will put baseballs with—signed by them. Or uh, Little League teams will go, and it’ll say From the … Pearl City Little League Team, and dated and everything. And—and I fi—and all the balls are still there. And um, sometimes bats uh, baseball cards, baseball caps. Uh, I remember touring some graveyards uh … during a cemetery conference, and we went to the gravesite of Joe DiMaggio. And he had choke, all kind—




–baseball …




–you know, memorabilia stuff.




Puakea Nogelmeier



Original air date: Tues., Nov. 3, 2009


Advocating and Promoting the Hawaiian Language


A year out of high school, Marvin Nogelmeier arrived in Hawaii on his way to Japan and stayed on a whim. Whether by happenstance or destiny, over thirty years later he has become Puakea Nogelmeier, Hoku-award winning songwriter, Kumu Hula, and Associate Professor of Hawaiian Language at the University of Hawaii. He tells Leslie about some of the choices he made, how they led to a career advocating and promoting the Hawaiian language, and how he got his name.


Puakea Nogelmeier, Advocating and Promoting the Hawaiian Language Audio


Download: Puakea Nogelmeier, Advocating and Promoting the Hawaiian Language Transcript



Original air date: Tues., Mar. 16, 2010


Puakea Nogelmeier on the Hawaiian Language:


In part two of her interview with the Hawaiian language scholar, Leslie Wilcox talks with Puakea Nogelmeier about this thirty years of work perpetuating an appreciation of the richness and intricacies of the Hawaiian language and culture. They also discuss the herculean task of translating into English the 500 page “Epic Tale of Hi’iakaopoliopele,” and Puakea’s collaboration with others to translate into English many 19th and 20th century Hawaiian newspaper articles and put them online. Puakea also explains the true meaning of the word kaona (it’s not what most people think), and what it’s like to be the voice of The Bus.


Puakea Nogelmeier on the Hawaiian Language: Audio


Download: Puakea Nogelmeier on the Hawaiian Language: Transcript




I say to people that Hawaiian is an easy language to learn. But it’s a really difficult language to learn well.


How did a restless young man from Minnesota become one of Hawaii’s leading Hawaiian language scholars? Next on LONG STORY SHORT, the remarkable journey of former post office worker Marvin Nogelmeier, now Dr. Puakea Nogelmeier.


Aloha Mai Kakou, I’m Leslie Wilcox.


In this edition of LONG STORY SHORT…Puakea Nogelmeier, Hawaiian language advocate and teacher at the Manoa campus of the University of Hawaii for more than a quarter of a century. He was Marvin Nogelmeier when he landed in the islands on an adventure. He didn’t mean to stick around; Hawaii was supposed to be just a stop-over on the way to Japan.


But this is where he stayed.And it’s where the young man in his early twenties was singled out by one of Hawaii’s most respected Hula Masters ….


Well, the name was given to me by Maiki Aiu Lake, and it was her name. And it blindsided me [chuckle], and I didn’t understand it. I was in hula with one of her students from the first graduating class, Mili Allen, out in Waianae. Maiki used to borrow us; but we didn’t really know her. I mean, she was the mother.




She was the head of it all. And so she’d borrow the men dancers especially. So we had performed for her, there was thank you luau afterwards. And she’s the one talking, so we have to wait until Maiki finishes. And she’s thanking, seemingly, everyone in the Honolulu phone book. And then she launched in talking about the man with the spear, and I want you meet the man with the spear. Well, we had done hula it was done with a spear in hand. And so she starts going, So I want you to all meet Puakea. Puakea, stand up and show them who you are. Now, I’m three or four rows back. And she keeps pointing right to me, and going, Stand up—this is Puakea. And I’m still not standing up. And my hula brothers and sisters are going, Marvin, I think she’s talking to you. [chuckle] So I stand up with one of these, you know, you’re the wrong guy—




Or, it occurred to me, maybe she just got me confused with someone else.




So I’m blushing to the roots of my hair. And she goes on real naturally; This is Puakea, and he’s out in Waianae, and he’s dancing with Mili, and so I sit down, totally befuddled. And we go to leave and we’re gonna ask about, by the way, I’m [WHISPERS] Marvin.




And from across the way, she goes, That was my name when I entered the hula, and now it’s your name.


What an honor.


It’s an honor, and it’s part of her method. ‘Cause then we all get in the car, and my kumu now is left to explain all that. So I’m thinking, It can’t be my name, I was born Marvin.




And so Mili explained that that’s a really heavy thing, to gift a name, and to gift her own name. And so from now on, that’s it. So in halau is where it started. I was always referred to Puakea. But it signifies, fair child, in effect. So I was the pale one in our line. That works. She never really explained why that name, or why she gave me her name. She just said, I expect you to do good things.


The fair child born as Marvin Nogelmeier spent his early years moving with his family throughout California and Nebraska, finally settling in Minnesota when he was seven. One year after high school and during a particularly vicious winter, he was persuaded by friends to quit his job at the post office and head off on an adventure to Japan with a brief stop in Honolulu.


Lost my wallet in the San Diego airport. So we had driven cross country, gone to San Diego. We had an airline ticket to as far as Honolulu. I would pick up passport here. I didn’t even have a license, I didn’t have my birth certificate, no money, really. I had my plane ticket.   So I came to Honolulu. Had to call and say, okay big adventurer, already blew it, lost my wallet.






Send money.


Yeah. Mom, get me a birth certificate. My money came first, birth certificate took probably a month. By the time the birth certificate came, it just seemed there was no rush to get to Japan. So put that off, and put that off.


Why did you decide to stay? What happened in that month?


Oh; from the airport, we ended up going out. We stayed at Makua Beach.


How did you—


It’s 1970—


—find you way to Makua Beach from the airport?


The two kids I’m traveling with actually knew people here. There was a Minnesota house at Makua Beach.




Mostly, this is a leftover—a lot of that was Vietnam War folks; guys who had come back.   They weren’t ready to go back to the states. And a whole bunch of folks ended up out there. So we end up in this handmade little, nadas in Makua Beach. I lived there for three months. Maybe the nicest three months of my life. Really. Just blissful ignorance. I didn’t read a newspaper, I didn’t think about anything. Just wandered along, enjoyed water, enjoyed sand. And I guess they would have thought of this as homeless, although it’s really the most organized homeless that I’d ever seen. There were full houses, fully equipped.


And this is right on the edge of the beach?


Right on the edge of the sand.




Up against the keawe trees and the haole koa.




And I mean, it was really a remarkable place. There were probably fifty people.


The Minnesota Hooch had two bedrooms. Two like formal [INDISTINCT] and a bunk bed.




I mean, made out of plywood, made out of leftovers that were found all over the place. Kept very tidy, actually. Full kitchen setup, dishes, everything. It’s not exactly the way the homeless are running today.




It did fall into decline, and by the late 70s, they were doing cleanups. It had gotten pretty … just a lot of rubbish, but it was actually tidy, nice place to be. The beach was pristine. Chilled there for three months. I actually got an infection on my foot, and had to go to the hospital. They would not let me out of the hospital if I didn’t have a residence. So I ended up moving in to Makaha; moved in with friends in Makaha.


Puakea Nogelmeier confesses that his first means of support in Hawaii was living off his unemployment checks. Then he linked up with a community of artists in Waianae and became a goldsmith.  


Oh; that was my career. That was something I could do for the rest of my life. And I’ve not done it now for thirty years. But who would have thought. And one of my co-crafts persons was Mililani Allen, who became my kumu hula. She did beautiful silk batik, with Hawaiian motifs and just beautiful things. But one day, she was talking about, Well, I’m teaching hula. We didn’t know she taught hula. And I want to open a men’s class, but guys are so gun shy, they won’t take it. And so we pretty much said, Well, you should open your class. We’ll take your class. And she said, Would you? Okay. So now we’re all committed, so her class of men started up with all these a motley crew of crafts people. They were not dancers.


What was the name of the halau?


Halau Hula O Mililani. [chuckle] Which—




—that was her name. She had been teaching maybe two years. She had graduated from Maiki Aiu Lake. She’d been teaching women, this very formal halau structure. Classes run for an hour once a week, et cetera, et cetera. So she opens the men’s class. Now, I gotta say, we were all dummies.




We didn’t know anything. I didn’t know any Hawaiian history. I didn’t know Hawaii had a kingdom, or kings. I didn’t even know they had a language. I came as an empty calabash. I’d been here for a while, but I learned Waianae stuff, not necessarily Hawaii stuff. So we step into class and it’s just a doorway to a whole new world I didn’t know was there. So while all the girls’ classes were an hour a week, the guys’ classes we’d start at six, we’d go ‘til midnight. ‘Cause we were so intrigued, and we were so empty. [chuckle] And so engaged. The halau became a social center—




—for us.


You were doing more than—dance, you were doing language?


Well, we were doing dance. And with dance, in the Maiki school of dance, you have to do research, and you have to—


I see.


—attempt translation, and you have to write notes for all your dances. You have to keep notebooks, there’s quizzes. It’s like an academy of dance, right? So we did that. So I started to learn language just sort of randomly. Then we started to learn chant. There was project in 1 75, 76 maybe, called The Mele Project. Keahi Allen, it was the board she was on. They felt that chanting was gonna go away, ‘cause the only ones who knew it were elders, and nobody was teaching it and it wasn’t seen. So they set up to have Edith Kanakaole and Edith McKinzie teach chanting to young people. To people that are involved in halau. I end up in a class. That’s fascinating stuff, the chants. They come from everywhere. Some of them are really ancient, some of them are more recent. That’s what led me into language. And there’s actually an epiphany that happens, ‘cause I have a good short-term memory, so I could look at a chant and memorize it. And under pressure, I could keep that for a while. So we could memorize these things. And I’d have to memorize the Hawaiian, and then memorize the English to make sense out of it. And the payback for these classes was, we had to do presentations. You had to go out to schools and what not, make it living practice kinda thing. So we did a presentation, and it might have been at McKinley, I don’t remember. This old gentleman walks up to me and talks to me in Hawaiian. And I was stunned.   I said, Oh, sorry, Uncle, I don’t speak Hawaiian. And he looked a little crestfallen, and he said, Well, but how can you understand what you’re chanting? I said, Well, I memorized the English. And it sounded dumb. It still sounds a little dumb.




But he says, But how can you tell how well you did?


How can you tell how well you did.




Who was this man?


Well I didn’t know who he was. He walks away. And I thought, You’re right. And then I thought—right there, I just thought, You’re right. Why would I engage if I’m not trying to learn what this is about. So then I started to try and learn Hawaiian language. Now, it’s probably ten years later that I realize who that old man is. He’s Auntie Edith’s husband, Luka. Yeah, tall, handsome man. And you know, I was so blown and intimidated, I never even asked, Who you?




So we started, we went back to Auntie Edith McKinzie, who was running our class with Auntie Edith Kanakaole would come teach us, but Auntie Edith was the main one. We want to learn some language. Well, she was a student herself, really. She wasn’t a native speaker. Her mother spoke it, and her grandmother, so she had a good handle, but she’d gone to classes. And she says, Well, I’ll teach you what I know. So we started with a class on her back porch.


That back-porch class would lead him to another home-style learning experience, with an elderly man, born in 1891, a cultural expert and noted photographer who’d taken pictures at the funeral of Queen Liliuokalani. His name was Theodore Kelsey. Young Puakea was introduced by Mr. Kelsey’s caretaker, the writer/historian June Gutmanis.


She researched Hawaiian stuff, and she had written a number of books. Na Pule Kahiko, Kahuna Laau Lapaau; she would assemble Hawaiian language material. And she could do that ‘cause she had this old gentleman living with her; he was eighty-eight, I think, when I met him. And he was fluent in Hawaiian. And he would help translate. He would translate all her things, and then she would make sense out of it. So when I met him, and I asked him, Would you be able to teach Hawaiian? He said, No. [chuckle] He said, I’m not a teacher. He says, There’s some books on that.




But with what Auntie Edith was doing. See, I’m a highly motivated [chuckle] character. If I want something, I’ll usually figure out a way to—




—try and make that happen. So I would take what Auntie Edith was teaching us, which was pretty simple Hawaiian, and I would talk to him when I went up to visit, and he’d talk back in Hawaiian. He wouldn’t teach me Hawaiian, but he’d engage. So my Hawaiian was atrocious.


So you must have gotten to some dead ends in the conversation.


Oh, dead ends; lot of dead ends, or misunderstandings. ‘Cause I would say, of course, what I thought … meant A, and he would understand it very clearly for what I’d really said, which was B. So he’d respond to B, and I’m still in A—


Was he able to correct you? Did he do that?


It started off so slow, I took to going up three days a week. I would be there and he welcomed that, and June welcomed that. It was sort of an interesting triangle there. June would give him things to translate. He was a gentleman; he was born in 1891, so he had a whole different set of ethics. He would not translate anything for her that was sexual or inappropriate for a lady.




She’d always tell him, I’m no lady.




But he’d just say, Oh, I can’t understand this. So she would give me things that he had sent back to her saying, I can’t interpret this, and he’d interpret it for me.


Oh, I see. Oh, you—


So this became—


You were the guy.


Yeah, so this became an interesting little triangle. So in the course of this, he would correct me the next visit. Way too gentle. So let’s say that instead of saying wai-a-nae, I say wai-nae. So the next visit we’ll be in the middle of something, and he would go, Oh, and I ku manao, o Waianae ka pololei. Oh, by the way, I think that Waianae is probably correct. Correct for what? And it took a while for me to recognize that he’s actually dealing with something that I misunderstood, mis-said, mis-translated and something-something from the last—


And that’s his way—




—of being gentle and polite, and old school.


In the course of a few years, and it took a few years, he would correct me as I said it.


Oh, okay.


Whew. [chuckle] Big, what do you call, progress. So then it became more workable. The other thing is, he was going deaf rapidly in English, and not in Hawaiian.


How does that happen?


June was insistent. It’s just ‘cause he likes Hawaiian. It has nothing do with it. Actually, we run into a lot of elders who can hear in Hawaiian, and cannot hear in English. The structure of the language is different enough. Hawaiian is very projectile in its way. Every word ends in a vowel. So every word exits.




And a lot of English words don’t.


You swallow the syllable.


And the end word is a consonant. Like a word like consonant. [CHOKING SOUND] You know, it all goes in. So just too much of it is unheard. In Hawaiian, every single word ends in a vowel. Every syllable ends in a vowel. So it’s actually a lot more hearable. Also, this, the low resonant voice goes in, in a way that upper range wouldn’t go.   And even in Hawaiian, he could only hear a male voice. And June would get real frustrated, ‘cause he just was so deaf to her tone. So she’d come to the table and say, Do you want more eggs? At first, he wouldn’t hear anything. And then finally, she’d tap and he’d have to look and she’d end up shouting. YOU WANT EGGS? YOU WANT EGGS? And he says, My leg? What?




What? What you want? And then if I just turned and said, I hua moa ho nau? Oh, no, no, no, I’m fine, he’d answer.




And it’d be so frustrating for her. But that’s the level and the language.


Sounds like you’re making progress, then. You’re learning Hawaiian.


Oh, by then, we were rolling. We were rolling. Once it started, I mean, I was so fascinated.


And were you learning more than basic words? Did he actually explain nuances, or were you able to tell nuances from how he spoke to you?


It’s so funny, he’s born … I don’t know, what, seventy years before? He was born in 1891. So we weren’t gonna exist in the same worlds. He’s the oldest living human I’d ever met. [chuckle] So what do you talk about? Actually, we kind of just jumped off the cliff and went into deep water. Later on, I had to learn stuff that made sense. We would go mostly into things that June was trying to get translated, were either chants or articles that were really kinda dense articles about opinion pieces in the newspapers. So we’re working on language that’s way over my head. And he’d walk through and go, Well, this is this, and this is why, and this is …, but doing grammar, doing phrasing, and why this would be said here, and what this place name really means, so if it shows up in this chant it’s … Well, this is stuff my little fragile head really wasn’t ready to get a hold of yet. So we’re playing there. That’s where I went to university. So I’d go in to UH. I’m gonna be an academic, and I launched in taking Hawaiian language as fast as I could. Thank goodness, Noe Losch, who you might know—




—was my teacher. And she knew what I was doing already, so she let me take 101 and 201 at the same time. And I may miss two days a week, because I went to see Mr. Kelsey on Tuesdays and Thursdays. So she let that go. And so I showed up three days a week, and did class. And that made sense out of the pieces. ‘Cause I could always bring something—




—interesting back, and on Monday, she’d go, Well, if you see Mr. Kelsey tomorrow, ask him about this.




You know.


—experiential learning, so that—




—that fits.


It made it so usable. ‘Cause I wasn’t in school. I didn’t even necessarily want a degree. I was in school ‘cause they had the toys. And I wanted that.


You were continuing to do your …




Your metal work, your craft work?


Yeah, yeah.




Actually, I start to step away from that about the time I launch into school. I’m doing it part-time now, I’m doing it special, for a special event or something. And then we step away from it. That’s about the time I step away.


That’s when you decided, this is where I’m turning my body?


Well, and I make money different there; I’m a student aide at school, or I got paid for where I lived. I was a caretaker for a house.




On the beach in Waianae. So they paid me to live in this house. To go to the beach. [chuckle] It was a nice life. So that pretty much covered expenses, and then school paid for itself. I got scholarships for school, just enough to cover tuition. Tuition at Leeward Community College wasn’t real intimidating yet; it was forty dollars a—






Is that right? Forty dollars?


I think that was it, for fulltime.


Had you learned any languages before this?


I learned Spanish badly when I was in high school.


And did you have an ear for language? You must have.


People say that I do, and I think, Then why did I have to work so hard at it?


At what? At Hawaiian as well?


At learning, at any language. Yeah, I’d have to like go over vocab lists and talk to myself, and if I really had an ear for it, I would think you’d just kinda fall in. But I think maybe I have a little ear, but not a whole lot of ear.


And you’re willing to work at it.


That’s a big piece. I’m willing to work. And I will. Because I used to ride the bus back and forth to Waianae, and I’d be mumble—muttering to myself the whole way, ‘cause I’m using a new pattern that we just covered in class, or just, you know, oh, that lady is doing this, that guy is doing this, or they are doing this. God, just run the pattern through in my head to kinda familiarize it, normalize it. So I think if I was wiz, it would have happened, like you wake up and you’re just good at it.




[chuckle] I don’t know.


Do you think Hawaiian is different from other languages to learn? Some people say, Oh, it’s a simple language, it only has, what, is it twelve letters or thirteen?


Thirteen, with the okina.


But of course, it’s a very dense and rich language. But I’m not sure, since I don’t speak it fluently, how and why. If it …


I think it’s—


There’s a lot of—


—it’s different.


There’s a lot of layers of meaning, and how does that work?


Yeah, I say to people that Hawaiian is an easy language to learn. But it’s a really difficult language to learn well.




But there’s an entry level to language, but I think it’s easier.


Because it’s a logical language, right? Unlike English, which is not terribly logical.


It follows its rules much better [chuckle] than English does. And it doesn’t conjugate verbs, and it uh—I mean, so there’s a lot of … just the structural part of the language makes it easier to access.




But then you get into multiple meanings, and you get into, you know, just juxtaposition that allows things to happen in language that I don’t think is nearly as common in English, it certainly wasn’t in Spanish. Um, Spanish to me was more mechanical.


How do you understand the multiple meanings if you’re away from the context in which the language was formed?


Some of them, I think, are probably beyond full grasp, without some of those original contexts. So you can read texts that were written in a time and with reference to things that are just impossible to get your head around today. So you might be able to get some inkling, but you’re not gonna get the details of it. When we translated the Hiiaka from Hawaiian into English.   Now, that’s five hundred pages of text, and it goes everywhere. The narrator and the author are both having fun. Basically the same guy, but it’s officially, the narrator is having fun in the telling of the story, ‘cause he injects himself all the time. But the author, then, all the way through the story, is doing little plays [INDISTINCT] words and just—you know, this. Sahoa Fukushima, who was the collaborator on this, he and Kamaoli Kuwada, he turned at one point when we were done, I think. And he says, How much of this do you think we really got? Now, we had translated it, we had edited that translation, we’d been on it for a year and a half on this one text.


And you’ve pointed out different things in your text about how, you know, this is what some people say, but this is what you think, and you really did a lot of interpretive work on that. And you explain to the reader.


Well, we really tried to minimize that in the book itself. But a whole lot of that happened in the processing.




While we were doing this, there was so much dialog. Now, look at this, look at how this is working. And so he says, How much of this do you really think we got? And we sat there, and we were trying to imagine. I said, If we’re really lucky, sixty percent maybe.




What do you think?




That there might be that much more of the humor and the sarcasm, and maybe cynicism in other pieces that they’re there, and we might have caught some flavor. We know some things there.


Yeah. And it had so many human emotions and values in there.


Oh, yeah, yeah.




Yeah. And a great challenge. But you’re right; there’s some of it that I think is simply sort of beyond grasp in some ways. You keep trying, keep reaching. I’m a better student today than I was.




I’m older and I’m more entertained. [chuckle] I think I get more out of the interaction. How’s that?


If Puakea Nogelmeier’s voice sounds familiar to you, perhaps you’ve heard it, taking The Bus on Oahu. It’s his voice announcing the street names at all of the stops. In 2009, Puakea is busy working with collaborators on a groundbreaking online Hawaiian-language project to make accessible 19th and 20th century newspaper articles. These represent an archive of largely untapped resources rich in cultural knowledge and history. The online project is called Ho’olaupa’i, which means to generate abundance and can be found at Among other projects he’s worked on, a 500-page text that represents the first English translation of the epic tale of Hi’iakaikapoliopele. And Puakea Nogelmeier continues to share the Hawaiian language, teaching others as he was taught long ago as a young malihini. Until next time…for Long Story Short on PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A Hui Hou Kakou.


Mr. Kelsey had become kind of a pivotal part of my life. He was like a window on another world. He was an adult photographer at the funeral of Lili‘uokalani.


It was actually the funeral of Liliu that made him think, The things I love most are going away. He made a promise to spend the rest of his life documenting.




Well, he didn’t know he’d do it for the next seventy years. He lived to be ninety-six.


Did you see his documentations, his journals?


His material at the archives is like seven, eight feet of paper. So he really did spend the rest of his life writing things down.


So he became widely recognized for his—


He didn’t publish hardly anything. He was actually part of a group that was outside of the Bishop Museum, but documenting Hawaiian culture.



Norbert Palea



Original air date: Tues., Oct. 13, 2009


On Location at Kalaupapa


Hansen’s disease patient Norbert Palea of Kalaupapa was only five years old when he was sent there, without even being officially diagnosed with the disease. In spite of that sentence and its hardships, he endured, with no regret. He tells Leslie, “Even if they sent us here… look around. They gave us the most beautiful home in the world.” This is the first in a series of Long Story Short shows shot on location at Kalaupapa on Moloka’i.


Norbert Palea Audio


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My mother painted a beautiful picture. She said, Oh no, you’re going up there, and you going see your father and the people, and be taken care. She painted this beautiful picture. So it made it kinda easy for me. But I remember that day when we were going all the children were crying.


Aloha mai kakou, I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. Welcome to Long Story Short, on location in Kalaupapa, Moloka‘i. This is the lush yard and the home of Norbert Kaiama Palea, who was banished to the Hansen’s Disease settlement here at the age of five, in the year 1947, without, he says, even a diagnosis of leprosy. Just a small mosquito bite that alarmed authorities because of the times of fear and dread in Honolulu. On this lovely day in 2009, Norbert Kaiama Palea is the youngest patient at Kalaupapa, 68 years old. It’s one of the nicest homes in Kalaupapa, a tribute to the nurturing of its owner, Norbert Kaiama Palea. I t’s a far cry from his first remembrance of life inside the system, a bad memory of his introduction to life as a Hansen’s Disease patient.


What’s your first memory?


My first memory was the old Kalihi Hospital. Think of an old concentration camp, like they had in Stalag 17; that’s what it reminded me of. It was like ten feet high, and it had barbed wires all around the fence. And we were staying there, and because we moved later to Hale Mohalu in Pearl City in 1949 because of the soap factory that was there. So Kalihi was the receiving station for all the people that lived within the islands.


First, back up. How did you get to the receiving center in Kalihi?


All I know is I was in school one day. And I remember my auntie coming and talking to my mom in Hawaiian and said, Oh, Kaiama has to go to the mai pake place in Kalihi. Mai pake means Hansen’s Disease. I remember that. And next minute I know, I’m already in this hospital. I’m in Kalihi.


Was your family scared when they heard you had to go the hospital?


No, no. They used to come and visit me, before I came here. I stayed there about three months.


And how old are you at this time?


I’m five years old. This is February the 10th, 1947.


And why did you get sent?


Well, because I had a little mosquito bite on my ear, and because I had my father who was here in Kalaupapa, who I never saw in my life, they thought, Oh, it’s leprosy already. So there were about twenty-six of us. We were all sent to Kalihi.


And you were there to be diagnosed? Or—


No, we were not there to be diagnosed, because there’s hundreds of people. There’s so many patients coming in all the time, constantly.


So basically, when you had a mosquito bite, before you had a diagnosis of —




—Hansen’s Disease—


I wasn’t diagnosed.


—you were in a place full of people who—


Full of people with Hansen’s Disease. And not only Hansen’s Disease because in the early—late 30s the prevalent disease in Hawaii was tuberculosis. This is why we have the hospital in Leahi.




So lot of the patients that came here had tuberculoi—tuber—[INDISTINCT], and leprosy, they called that. It’s two, because it’s combined with tuberculosis and leprosy.


So do you think you had Hansen’s Disease? Was that what—




—that was?


I don’t think it was a mosquito bite, my mom said. I believe that. I don’t believe I had the sickness, because from there, there was a shipman—what I remember about Kalihi was the monkey shows, we called that. And lot of people ‘til this day, the doctors in Hawaii, they don’t like us to remember that.


Monkey shows? What’s that?


The monkey show is like, they strip you and I have the pictures of it. All you have is a little napkin in the front of you. Women too, they only have just little napkins here. And you would walk this plank. And the doctors would come around and—not doctors—just people who would look around—


Look all over you?


—and probe all over you. And that was really demeaning. They rob you of all your dignity. So lot of people couldn’t, they would just throw a fit.


You remember doing that at age five?


I remember doing that. To me, I was nonchalant about it. I just you just go through the motions and get it over with. Because they said, the sooner you get over with it, but you see everybody crying, and oh, I don’t want to go do that.


Because they were finding things on their bodies?


No; because these were perfect strangers.




And the women, especially. So I said, Ah, just go through it and get it over with, because I still remember the older people used to tell me. I guess because I was young and absorb everything real fast. You have to grow up quick.


When you were five years old, do you remember thinking—


I remember—


—I’m not gonna be with my family again? Did you know that?


[SIGH] Not at that time.


You thought you were going home afterwards?


No. Later on when my mom came and visit me, she said, Oh, Kaiama, you’re gonna go to Kalaupapa. [INDISTINCT] Then I said, You mean, where all the leprosy patients are? Now, already, I knew of the place, because in school, they talk about it, when I was a youngster. And then …


And they didn’t talk about it like it was a disease. They talked about it like it was a death sentence, and something—




—very dirty, right?


Something very dirty, unclean. So at that moment, I didn’t really, [INDISTINCT]. Only thing, my mother painted a beautiful picture. She said, Oh, no, you’re going up there, and you going see your father and the people, and be taken care. She painted this beautiful picture. So it made it kinda easy for me. But I remember that day when we were going all the children were crying.


You weren’t crying?


No. They were screaming. Oh, I don’t want to go there. Because they know they’re gonna die already. They know, and I knew I was gonna go there. But before that happened when my mother used to visit every weekend, she would come here and she would explain things to me.


And she already had a husband here, so—




—she knew.


She knew what that meant. So my mother used to say, Kaiama, the day when you go, when you get on the plane, whatever you do, don’t you turn around, now. And you sing, because you have a beautiful voice. Sing to all these kids. So I used to just be singing to them; I never think anything. And then when I used to go [INDISTINCT] to do all the songs. They tell me [INDISTINCT] sing any song, I would just get all the words and sing to them. So now, the day we were gonna depart I remember, my mother was way over there. They cannot stay close to us, like at least fifty feet away. Even at the visitors place. I’m sitting here, there’s the hedges, another hedges, and then they’re way over there. And you scream across. And there’s a little small chicken wire fence above, but you had to yell across. Because they’re afraid that maybe your saliva might [INDISTINCT].


And you—


That’s how ignorant people. [chuckle]


And you were just a little boy.


Yeah; so I kinda was prepared for it. So when I go to the airport, I mean, some


of them are still living. Some of them are living outside now. And they say, Norbert [INDISTINCT]. Norbert, you remember that day we was all crying, and you was singing to us, and said, Don’t worry about it. [chuckle] I say, Yeah, maybe I was little too naïve. But no, I didn’t have that. As I said, my name Kaiama. When I was a child, only about a year old my grandfolks told my mom I’m gonna be taken away from her. Just like that. So they said they going give me the name Kaiama, means strong. Like the ama in the ocean—the balance.


—on the canoe.


Keep things balanced, even though—even you’re not going [INDISTINCT] and all that. And I believe that, of the name.


And you had some proud lineage.


Yes, because my family and as a youngster, I remember my sister, she says, You know, Norbert, just remember who you are and where you came from. Don’t be high maka maka, you know, [INDISTINCT] you come from alii family. [INDISTINCT] To be alii, you must be humble.


What’s the alii connection?


My great-grandfather and Queen Lili’uokalani’s mother are brother and sister. That’s our connection.


So when you received the name Kaiama, and they knew you had to be strong, and they said you’d be taken away, what was that all about?


My name is Norbert, but all my brothers and sisters, my family, they don’t call me Norbert. Only the family call me that name, so all my brothers and sisters begin to call me that every time they come. So I become it you know, but they start calling me that name.


Do you think it was destiny that you came here, fate, or was that—


It was—


—just a lucky guess that somebody thought you were gonna—


It was—


—be taken away?


It was destiny. And I have no regrets about it; none whatsoever. I feel this way; that the more something sad happens to you, you grow from that. Sadness is a good thing. Lot of people say, Oh? Sadness changes your whole outlook in life. So my mother said don’t turn around. So when we got on the plane, I remember that, just before coming everybody was crying. And I was singing. And just like they wail. Their crying was above my voice. So I remember I just looked back. And then I still remember their faces. My mother, they were crying. In fact, before, they was crying. My mother said, Remember now, Kaiama, don’t cry, now. And I said, Ma, how come they crying? But nobody’s crying. I don’t see no tears. But I can feel it . And she said, Oh, because they love you. My mother had all the answers for everything. She was a wizard.


Was she putting up a good front for you?


My mother was a very strong lady. My mother—she could see anything coming, before it even happens, she can tell you what’s gonna happen tomorrow.


Here’s a mom who lost her husband and the eleventh—






So then my mother was a very strong lady. She believed in God and everything. So she instilled in me something that no professors of mine that I had over the years can ever give you that kind of value.


With medication that arrested Hansen’s Disease, Norbert Kaiama Palea went to college, became a fashion designer, made money, travelled widely—he owns a condo in Honolulu. But, for him, this, is home. And, it’s a form of heaven.


I went to school, and I got my masters in design. And then that’s when I went out, go all over in Louisiana and then opened up a shop. But then, I had a boutique shop [INDISTINCT] at Kahala. Had [INDISTINCT] the Ilikai. Was the first time I opened up there. So I was doing business [INDISTINCT] and then helping my family, supported them. [INDISTINCT] But the only thing was, when my mother got older, she said, Oh I used to run away to go and visit her. And I always was watching the time, ‘cause when the next shift, they’re gonna make bed check. [chuckle] We used to live in this individual ones. They would shine with the light and shine on your bed to see if you’re in. But we escaped already. And then you get caught, so I faced the judge about three times [INDISTINCT]. It’s you again, Mr. [INDISTINCT]. [chuckle] He said, what is it this time? I said, I ran away, [INDISTINCT] nowhere to be found. I said, No, I heard them. They have the intercom. How come they [INDISTINCT]? How come, where were you? [chuckle] They were looking for you. [INDISTINCT] But I’m a real good actor. I said, Well, I went onto the top of the building. You’ve seen Hale Mohalu?




That old—


The old building.






So I said, I climbed to the top of the building, so I couldn’t hear the [INDISTINCT] on top of the building, right? What were you doing up there? [INDISTINCT] I missed my family.




I said, You do anything you want with me. I used that term. Do anything you want with me, it doesn’t matter, ‘cause I’m wanted to commit suicide. I wasn’t going commit suicide. I’m too ornery to do that. [chuckle] I said, I wanted to commit suicide. So you know what the judge did? He says, I’ll pardon you. And Mr. [INDISTINCT] was so angry because he knew; he’s lying, he’s lying. I says, Well, I have no excuse for myself. [INDISTINCT] You do anything you want. And he pardoned me.


That worked more than once?






About three—


Bad boy.


—four times. [chuckle] But yet, I’m the ringleader for all this.


Your mom, you say, was very strong, and of course, she had other children; you were the eleventh. But I can’t believe she would have been that strong for—




—so long, not being with her little boy.


Every time when I used to go home for funerals—and I just went to two recently. Every year, I’m going down for funerals, there’s so many of us. There’s hundreds of us. So I go to the funeral, and then my grandnieces, my great-grandnieces, they say to me, Uncle, every time Grandma used to say, she cry every single day, even ‘til now. And she—my mother [INDISTINCT], They cheat me of you. They robbed me.



The relationship [INDISTINCT]. But my brothers and sisters too. And I said, When I talk about this place and I want to come back, my brothers and sisters, they going cry. My mother said, You didn’t have the sick, now, remember that. You did not have the sick. You didn’t do anything wrong.


Can you compare the stigma to something else? ‘Cause, those of us around today don’t know what it was like then, the fear of leprosy at this time.


I cannot compare anything like that. The thing is this. The worst thing was when my father was [INDISTINCT]. Norbert, do you know [INDISTINCT]. And he’s talking to me [INDISTINCT]. Talking story, we’re drinking and we’re drinking [INDISTINCT]. He said, Norbert, the worst pain I ever had in my life? I said, What? He said, I remember being on a sampan with the cattle.




And the cattle would mess up, we [INDISTINCT] on them, and they’re on this boat to come to Kalaupapa. He said, When I look back, my mother was pregnant to my younger brother, I was holding her hand. She says all my brothers and sisters were there, and my sisters … they were just waiting for my father. And that was at that time, you were exiled, you’re here to die, never to see them again. So when you have a funeral and you pass away, at least you have closure. But this, to be living here knowing that you have children and family out, and there’s no phones before. Used to have the crank phones. We had no phones to call to Honolulu. And we couldn’t write letters. They stopped us. You know that?


They stopped you from writing letters?


Well, they used to fumigate everything. [INDISTINCT] they used to cut the corners and they used to fumigate it overnight in the fumigation room. And my father said all the times that they would sterilize them, so they don’t get children again.


Wow. So how did he do here? He was older and less resilient.


No, no, my father was—


He had more invested in—


My father was highly respected. [INDISTINCT] I’m blessed. The best parents in the world. My father was a very intelligent man. And he was a musician, and he could play any instrument. And then everybody looked up to him. He was a very humble, soft spoken man. Not like me, I’m kind of talkative. But he was very soft spoken, and a very humble man.


It sounds like you’ve made the very best of this, and you have appreciation of abundance, not scarcity. But what about some of the folks who were here at the same time, who—




How … I mean—




—it can’t be that common a reaction, just acceptance. You must have seen a lot of defiance—


Oh, I’ve seen—




—a lot of cry—oh it’s heartbreaking. I’ve seen it. But then, as the years go by, because we have all these great neighbors here, one word from them, and they can calm everybody down. Aole, they would say. Don’t think, and don’t feel that way. This is just a new beginning. Death is a beginning. And while we’re here, we are not to question why you’re here. It’s not for you or me to say, Oh, why did you give me this sick? You know what I mean? The thing is, you accept it and make the best out of it. And then appreciate everything that’s around you and then one day, you’re gonna see the beauty. Even if they sent us here look around. He gave us the most beautiful home in the world. That’s the icing on the cake. I would never [INDISTINCT] change your life. I say, No, I would never. I’ve learned how to be more loving towards others, be more compassionate, more wisdom and knowledge. And try to be an inspiration to others. Not because [INDISTINCT] and then this way I can see somebody walking by, and I know if something’s wrong with them. I can feel it. I’ve met thousands of people in my life. [INDISTINCT] Why are you worrying so much? [INDISTINCT] And they would start talking to me [INDISTINCT] get a divorce. You can see it on their face.


Kalaupapa patient Norbert Kaiama Palea has attended the funerals of hundreds of fellow Kalauapapa patients who passed on. He says death is a new beginning, and funerals are not to be missed.


Can you still feel strong when you go to the funerals? And I know you go to many, of people you’ve met in the settlement.


Thousands. I go to my—well, let me see. I have seventy-six nieces and nephews, and one hundred and twenty-six great-grandnieces and nephews, and another hundred—there’s three hundred and forty-eight nieces and nephews from my brothers and sisters. My mother has thirty grandchildren from my three older sisters; one has ten, one has nine, one has eleven. And great- grands, there’s so many. And I have many, many uncle and aunties, because my father comes from a family of eighteen.


So you’re saying—




—people die of whatever cause, and it’s not just




—going to funerals of those who had the disease.


When you die, you’re just escalating to another higher level.


You don’t fear death?


You should accept it. Whether you like it or not—you don’t have to accept it, but whether you like it or not, you don’t know when you’re gonna die, but we’re all gonna go. But the thing is, why people fear death is they don’t have that love of caring and sharing to other people. When you’re there, you don’t even think about it. If I should die tomorrow, so what, as long I know I’ve been good to every, single human being that you meet, complete strangers. And that’s the key to me [INDISTINCT] fear. I don’t fear death. It’s inevitable. I mean, knowing that, if people can accept that thought, it’s inevitable, whether you like it or not. I don’t care if you’re a king, queen, or whatever; you’re gonna go. When He calls you, you’re gonna have to go.


Okay; so I’m having trouble grasping that.




You don’t feel bitterness that you got banished to Kalaupapa, even though—


I don’t—I don’t—


—you weren’t a diagnosed patient at the time. Right? I mean, you don’t feel—


My mother; my mother is the one that wrote letters, she was so mad. She said, I feel like come over there and bomb that place, I want to bomb that hospital and kill all those people there. My mother. And the more she would say, I said, Mom, no, don’t feel like that. Because I was taught … I guess [INDISTINCT] from my grandfolks, Sister Mary [INDISTINCT] because she’s from … [INDISTINCT]. They say this, The worst thing anybody can do, why you feel all this kind of pain, anxiety, and all that, is number one there’s three days of fast. The first day, you forgive yourself for all the people that you hurt. Even those that you cannot remember, because we say things sometimes we don’t know that we hurt people’s feelings. And if you take all that back, and then the next day we fast, and we [INDISTINCT]. I mean, it’s something. My mom is in Honolulu, she’s [INDISTINCT]. Because simultaneously, we before they even read, we communicate. So it’s, ESP, whatever you want to call it. But because we’re living here, my senses are so keen, I can tell if somebody’s sick out there.


You said three things. What’s the third thing? The fast, the dream.


And [INDISTINCT] for everything that you do. And He gives you everything. [INDISTINCT] how I’m gonna pay my bill? [INDISTINCT] I don’t do that. I don’t even worry about that kinda stuff. I used to. But through my years of growing up, from people that I’ve met through my life I guess [INDISTINCT] they tell me these things, so I take it to heart. And I never forget what people tell me.


It’s so interesting that there’s such loneliness here, and yet, such a sense of community too.


You know something?


You never felt lonely?


Never; ever. It’s like this. I’m home here now. Now, I know lot of the people that’s here. I’m younger than them, right? So I look up to them, I respect them. Not because I have a better education that I’m better than them; no, I’m not. I’m their [INDISTINCT], I’m below them. So if I know they’re sick or something, I go and take something to them. Or give up some of my time and go there. You don’t have time to grow up by getting sad. To me, when you help other people, you’re actually helping yourself.


M-m; that makes a lot of sense.


When you do other things for others—like now, I said, Oh, I’m gonna eat lunch, I don’t want Leslie to [INDISTINCT].


Norbbert Kaiama Palea, taken from his family at the age of five, and banished to the Hansen’s Disease settlement in Kalaupapa, Moloka’i. He grew into a man who sees abundance, not loss, and for every ending, a new begining. I’d like to thank Norbert for sharing his life and his life lessons on Long Story Short. I ’m Leslie Wilcox from PBS Hawaii. A hui hou kakou!


You get so caught up into yourself that … look around you. [INDISTINCT] You forget what’s around—what’s around you that’s more important.


Don’t worry about the semantics?




The words.


Look around you look what God gave. Look around. Appreciate [INDISTINCT]. I still have a good mind. Thank God for that. You know what I mean? It’s the way you think, the way you perceive things.



Richard Parsons



Original air date: Tues., Jun. 23, 2009


Current Chairman of CitiGroup and UH Manoa Alumnus


Join Leslie Wilcox for a conversation with UH Manoa alumnus, former CEO of Time Warner and current Chairman of CitiGroup Richard Parsons. In the first of two parts, Parsons reveals the secrets behind his unique ability to lead companies and their employees through crisis. He also talks about being a brash, young African American from New York adjusting to college life in 1960s Honolulu.


Richard Parsons Audio


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It took me about a year to make the adjustment to Hawaii from New York. But once I did, um, probably the last three years of college were among the best years of my life. I really enjoyed Hawaii, I enjoyed the culture, and even though I did not knock the ball out of the park in school here, uh, I got through school, and I got through life, and I supported myself, and I … I made it.


Join us next for part one of a interview with University of Hawaii Manoa alumnus Richard Parsons, chairman of CITIGROUP.


New York native Richard Parsons came to Hawaii at age 16 to receive a college education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He would become became one of the most prominent figures in the business world and an advisor to five American Presidents, Republican and Democrat. At the time of this taping, in April of 2009, Richard Parsons was just a couple of months into a new job as chairman of the troubled financial services giant CITIGROUP. As busy as he was during the economic turmoil of the time, Richard Parsons returned to the UH Manoa for a week as promised…as the awardee of the 2009 Dan and Maggie Inouye Chair in Democratic Ideals. In this first part of a two-part conversation, we’ll start with Parsons’ upbringing. His middle-class African-American parents moved the family from Brooklyn to Queens and made it clear that a good education and good grades were building blocks of the American dream.


Uh, I didn’t consider rebelling, because, you know, parents and people have a way of um … of letting you know what’s non-negotiable, right? If you—if—if a kid senses a crack or senses a weakness or a pause and says, Can I do this?, and you go, Well, I don’t think it’s right, or something, then they’re all over you. If it’s non-negotiable, you might as well move on, because you’re not gonna move ‘em. So this was a non-negotiable subject.


You were expected to go on to college. Had your mother or your father at that time been to college?






Both. My mother hadn’t graduated; my father had. But both had been to college, and he—he really—and both of them sort of appreciated the importance of education.


And how far were you expected to go with your life?


Well, that’s a good question. I’m not—I’m not sure I can really answer. I think that what they would say, were they still here, well … they would hope that you would go as far as your potential would take you.


And did you have an early sign of your potential, where you would go, or how you would get there?


Um, that’s a debatable subject, you know. I—I uh, I came back uh, on this trip and I had a birthday; I had a birthday couple days ago. And uh, I saw my old fraternity brothers … got together to do this birthday party for me. And several of them, I hadn’t seen for forty yeas, right? And one of them said to me, Jeez, I had no idea that uh, that—that you were smart, and that you would go this far. And the other one—another one of my fraternity brothers, without missing a beat, said, Oh, Rich isn’t smart, he’s just uh, you know, he just doesn’t … piss people off.


Ah, but I’ve heard—um, I think it was a former next door neighbor of yours uh, who came along later in your life, and he said, People—uh, he said you uh, actually liked people to underestimate you, and you—you work at it.


Uh, I don’t have to work at it; they just seem to. So if that was a sign of potential, maybe yes. Um, I did okay in school. I did okay in school, but—


I mean, you—you’re smart.


I was clever enough. But I was not—for example, I was not the smartest kid on my—on my block. And I certainly wasn’t the smartest kid in our school.


And yet, later, you would be, I think, one of thirty-six hundred law school grads applying for the New York State Bar, and you would score the highest number?


Well, that was a—that was a fallow year.


See, you underestimate yourself. Or you want me to underestimate you, right? [chuckle] Okay; so you’re—you’re growing up um, with parents who—who expect you to do well and get—




–get educated.




Um, so um, actually, you went through school quickly, didn’t you?




Well, by the—were you living in a rough area, or was it the suburbs?


Well, I was born in um, in Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. And that was pretty rough—I think that’s one of the reasons my father moved the family. It just was getting not better, it was getting worse in the 50s. Uh, and then we moved to an area, uh, which at the time, as I said, was almost bucolic in terms of its rural splendors, but over time, um… became in a sense, um, uh, a somewhat rougher area, so that for example, the junior high school I went to was considered one of the worst in the city by the time I got to junior high school, because it had gotten violent. So it was—it was uh, it was the city, you know, it was urban America.


How did you navigate that? Did you get into fights?


I did, until I realized I wasn’t very good at it. I must have lost fifty fights by the time I was in the sixth grade, so I thought—


These are fistfights?


Yeah; so I thought, there has to be a better way, right?


What’s that?


Well, you learn to um… y—you learn to deal with people in—in an non-confrontational fashion or format. I mean, there’s always—there—there is—at least it’s been my experience, almost always an alternative to fighting.


So if a guy wants to hijack your lunch money, or just wants to fight you just because you—


You know, you were there, weren’t you?




They used to do that. You know, you’d come out of the lunchroom, and you’d have the change on you; they’d take your lunch and your—there are some times when—when—when, you know, you have stand up to a bully. But frequently, um, you can use other techniques to get where you need to go.


For example, how do you diffuse a bully’s—uh, or uh, a—a fight—


Humor is—




Humor is one way.


Well, you can’t make fun of the guy who’s—


No, no, you—


–challenging you.


You can’t make fun of him, but you can make fun of other things, where you can get people—you can get people to change their um, attitude, to change their approach, to change their sense of wellbeing.


How did you do it? Give me an example.


I’ll give you two; ‘cause there are two different techniques. One was … to self-effacing humor, or a self-depreciating humor, can frequently um, disarm somebody. Fre—a lot of times—I mean, there are bullies in the world, but most people um, fight for defensive reasons, not for offensive reasons. They—they feel cornered, or they feel uh, insulted, or they feel sort of that they’ve been confronted and have to defend themselves. Um, another thing that—that turned out to be um, very beneficial, when I was in high school I learned, that … you know, I went to school in a place where—where smart kids were frequently picked on. I mean, it was not… it—it wasn’t a cool thing to do well in school. Uh, but if you were an athlete, right?




If you played on any of the sports teams, and particularly if you played on the basketball team—‘cause we had a good basketball team, then the—the real toughs in the school would protect you, because you were part of the team, right? We gotta—




–stand up for the team. So I played basketball, and that—that was sort of a pass through high school, because nobody could pick on the basketball guys, or some really bad operators would come and upset your day.


Well, y—were you six-feet-four in high school?


Yeah, I was.


And were you a naturally talented athlete, or did you have to work at it?


Had to work at it. I had to work at it. Um, it turned out I, uh, I actually wasn’t all that talented uh, in the [INDISTINCT] time, I learned. I thought I was when I was in high school, but—but I had to work at it. But I did; I played a lot of ball.


Richard Parsons graduated from high school at the age of 16. He had dreamed of attending Princeton University since the 7th grade but the combination of financial constraints and wanting to break free of home led to his enrollment at the University of Hawaii in 1964.


And as a lark, I applied to University of Hawaii, because um, I sat next to a gal from Hawaii in my junior year in physics course, and she was the cutest thing I’d ever seen in my life. And I thought, There must be a University of Hawaii. To be honest with you, I didn’t even really know there—wa—was certain if there was one. But I said, There must be. So I put it down on the SATs as my third choice. Uh, long story short; I got wait-listed in Princeton, uh, which meant I wasn’t gonna get in any financial assistance even if I got in. I got into CCNY, but it was really time to leave home, it was time to go away.




And I got into Hawaii, and so I came out here.


And how did you pay for college?


Uh, I worked. My first year, I worked at the Pacific Biomedical Research Center. I don’t even know if it’s still out here. Basically, after school, washing test tubes and stuff; and then I had a night job at the Primo Brewery. You know, watching—in those days, they recycled the bottles, and you had to watch ‘em on the assembly line to make sure that there was nothing in them as they sort of came through. Pull them off if there was. And then um, my sophomore and junior year, I worked at Mark—a place called Mark’s Center Garage, downtown.




I was uh … first, I parked cars, and then I was the night manager. And then my senior year, I worked for Honolulu Gas Company, putting in gas pipes out in Hawaii Kai.


But you were also on the basketball team.




How’d you do all that?


Well, something had to come up short, right?



Turned out—




Turned out to be school. So I was not—I was—I was not … I didn’t make my mother proud, I’ll put it that way, in terms of the grades I got while I was out here.


And you were a history major?


Yeah; I started out as a physics major. But um … but that required more time and attention than … all these other activities afforded me.




So I became a history major.


Did you take anything from here that has um, stood the test of time in terms of values, people?


All of these… um, experiences are—are—are platforms for whatever you go on to next, right? And I think that uh, you find… most successful people um, they didn’t just go from nowhere to being hugely successful. It’s a step process, and they have—they have prior su—success platforms. And for me, Hawaii became one. Uh, not only ‘cause I got an education here, but because um, as you indicated, I was pretty young when I got out here, and I was very much on my own. And um, I survived. You know, I made it.


And very different culture.




Expensive place to live.


It was different. It took me about a year to make the adjustment to Hawaii from New York. But once I did, um, probably the last three years of college were among the best years of my life. I really enjoyed Hawaii, I enjoyed the culture, and even though I did not knock the ball out of the park in school here, uh, I got through school, and I got through life, and I supported myself, and I … I made it. And … that was—that was um, confidence instilling, that was something that for the rest of my life, um … I never had to really stop and think about, well, can I do this, or—or—or what could happen to me if I fail, because I believed in myself.


What was the hardest thing about that first year?






Loneliness. Um, it was my first time, really, away from home. Not—you know, I’d gone to camp for two weeks, or I’d go see—visit my grandmother in Virginia, but usually that was with family. Uh, this was the first time that I was out from under family, and friends, and relatives, and everything that was familiar to me back in New York. And uh … I did okay in the fall semester, ‘cause there was basketball, right? So the basketball team became my extended family and my friends.




But after basketball season, uh, I got lonely. And so that was—that was an adjustment.


Did you find this an open society? Did people let you in?


That’s a good question. Um … it’s a friendly society, but it—it isn’t—it isn’t necessarily as welcoming um … as the tourist brochures suggest. It’s different. And—and—and once you accommodate those differences, or at least are aware of those differences, then people let you in. But … but it isn’t as though they come up to you on the street and drag you and say, Come with me, let me show you how to be a part of Hawaii. You have to find your way in.


How did you find that way?


Uh, ultimately, I sort of stopped resisting; that’s always the first step, right? You stop trying to pretend that this is still New York, or … and you—you acknowledge that there are some difference, and then you kind of give in to the … aloha spirit. And for me, I ended up uh, joining a local fraternity, um … making a lot of local friends. Most of the guys on the basketball team were not from Hawaii.




Uh, they were from other parts on the mainland. And so it was—it was a kind of a cloistered community.




And so I sort of had to give that up, and go local. And when I did, everything clicked.


Were you um—okay, we have a stereotypic New York, right? Loud and aggressive—




Were you that way?






Whoa. I—


You can say stereotypes about—


I regard myself—


–Hawaii, and I can deny them.


–as the stereotypical New Yorker. Relatively sophisticated, urbane, witty, and … charming.


And that’s how you always were, even in beginning of college? [chuckle]


Yeah, actually, true. I’m—you know, the one thing most of the people who’ve known me for many, many years, going back to high school, but certainly in college would say, Jeez, you haven’t changed; you’ve gotten older, a little balder and fatter, but basically—




–you’re still you.


Y—your friends seem to speak really frankly with you.


Yeah, well, they do, they do, they do.


You know, um, one of your friends has said that you’re very smooth, and you’re—you’re a diplomat, you’re a charmer, but you’ve got a killer instinct. Now, I bet you had it in basketball, and I’ll be you have it in business.


What I would say is that I’m competitive, as opposed to killer instinct. That sounds too much like uh, the kid who lost too many fights when he was—




–in grade school. I’m competitive; I don’t like to lose. Now, what’s interesting is—‘cause I’ve—I’ve thought about this a lot. I don’t mind um, if everybody wins, right, if we all get to the finish line simultaneously and we’re all winners. But I just don’t like to lose.


At the UH Manoa, Richard Parsons met his future wife, Laura, and Rainbow Warrior basketball coach Red Rocha.


I think I was frustrating to him. ‘Cause I had talent, um … but I was young. And I hadn’t—I hadn’t fully grown into my own body, and I hadn’t developed the—the sort of discipline and—and … focus and sense of real purpose that uh, a coach like Red requires, you know. I was still goofing off, right? You know.




And so whenever I’d get into goofing off, boy, he’d get on me. But he was—he was a good man. He was—he was sort of like almost … the father figure. I didn’t realize this until many yeas later, but—but when you’re young and you sort of pull yourself away from the family and throw yourself out into the world, the team became like my family, and—




–and Red became the father figure. So he certainly took to the role, yelling and screaming—




–and carrying on.


[chuckle] Um, well, you also had another kind of figure; you—you met your—the woman who would become your wife here.


M-hm, m-hm. That was another part of the transition to uh, um … this becoming a place that—for which I have the fondest memories. I met my wife in my—my sophomore year. We were in an English class together, and you know, we dated … um, pretty steadily for our sophomore year. We then kinda broke up … ‘cause she went back home, um, and I didn’t that summer. And when she came back in our junior year, we sort of dated off and on, but we didn’t really um, get back together seriously ‘til my senior year. And then at the end of my senior year, we got married.


Young again; still young.




How old were you?




Twenty years old. And she’s from Oklahoma, you’re from New York, and you meet and marry in Hawaii?




Where’d you get married?


We got married right down the block at uh, the … church. Um—


Church of the Crossroads, in Manoa?


Yeah. Right down the block.


My parents did too. So—so now you’ve graduated, and uh … actually, you  didn’t graduate—




–did you, from the UH?


No, I was six credits shy at the end of my … four years. And I was supposed to go to summer school to get those six credits, but I just um—other things came up, and I never got around to it. I’d applied to and gotten admitted to law school in—back in New York. And [CLEARS THROAT] I found out … on the way to signing up for those two classes that summer, to finish up, that I didn’t really need to; that—that I … got what was called the law school qualifying certificate, ‘cause I had enough college credits and I’d done well enough on the LSATs and all that sort of thing, that I could just go off and go to law school. So instead of um, instead of going to summer school, I worked. Law school was—was relatively easy for me. Because the law um … the laws are purely—particularly in those days, almost a purely logical exercise. It’s built on, you know, eight or nine hundred years of sort of human experience built around a few simple rules. And it turned out that—that apparently, my brain works the same way that um … that human experience over time works.




And so I didn’t have to—I—I just knew the answers. And so I did very well in law school, without having to work too, too hard.


And you worked hard on the side; you were a janitor part of the time, right, to pay—


Yeah, that was my—


–your way through.


That was my first job in the law. I was a—I used to clean up the law school after everybody went home.


Wow. Humbling experience?


Well, you know, humbling—uh, you know, it was a job. My mother always told me, All work has dignity. So I didn’t—in fact, my to this day best friend—that’s where I met him. He and I were—we worked in the bookstore uh, initially, and then we—we talked the sup—the superintendent of the building—




–the law school building into letting us work part-time as janitors at night, ‘cause we needed the money.


Immediately following law school, in 1971, Richard Parsons was offered the job of assistant counsel to then-New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. He continued as a much-trusted advisor when Rockefeller was appointed Vice-President to President Gerald Ford.


I didn’t know Nelson Rockefeller as a—as a … political figure. Um … and I liked him; I liked him. But no, I didn’t consider myself a Democrat or a Republican. I was—you know, I was a guy who needed a job. Uh, over time, um … I found out that I—I—I agreed with a lot of his political philosophy and leanings, and I would still call myself a Rockefeller Republican. There aren’t many of us left.


What is a Rockefeller Republican?


Well, I think a Rockefeller Republican is somebody that’s—uh, who is more conservative on fiscal matters, um , but understands that government has a role in terms of making lives better for people. So many people call that social liberalism and fiscal conservatism.


Now, in—in all this time we’ve been talking about your um, early experiences, you haven’t once mentioned racism.




Did—have you experienced it?


Yeah. But uh, but … certainly not in um … in its most virulent form. You know, I was born in the North, not in the South, uh, back in the 40s and 50s, and early 60s when—when uh … and I know this because my grandmother lived in the South, and we’d go visit with her in the summertime, when life as very different in the South for Blacks. Uh, in the North, it was … not easy, but it was not so stark, right? And then secondly, um … you know, I went to school in Hawaii, right, undergraduate school, and that was—uh, this was, at least in those respects, a more tolerant, open, embracing, and—and—and—and less stratified society. Still is. Uh, and then I got married, and my wife is White; and so we wondered a little bit when we went back to New York in 1968, right, uh, as an interracial couple. But I think in part because of our respective personalities, it just never bit. Um, you know, all those skills that one developed as a kid trying to avoid fights paid off, in a way that I wouldn’t have not—would not have inte—in—in … te—uh, expected.


Same principles apply?


Yeah. I mean, you know, it’s—it’s how you approach people. If you can—if you can disarm them, right, if you can cause them not to feel threatened, not to feel defensive, not to feel challenged, um—


Sounds like you don’t take offense easily.


I don’t. I don’t. Because—


You just let it pass?


Because y—you know, what happens is, first of all, most things aren’t intended.




–um … at a personal level. Mostly—and uh, I didn’t, by the way, realize much of this until I had my own children, and I saw in my son—my son is—is probably the world’s most secure, at least he was—you get older, some of it gets chipped off—but the most secure kid. He just assumed that uh, he was going to be accepted.




Even as like a one-year-old, one-and-a-half-year-old, we’d let him out in the yard, and other kids would be out there, and he’d just wade in as if, you know, I’m here, right? You know, who isn’t gonna accept me? And—and so he had no kind of defensive chip on his shoulder that he had to defend. And then secondly, he—he was secure enough to almost mold himself to whatever circumstance that he had to, to accommodate somebody else’s peculiarities or—or—or—or—or vulnerabilities, so that he made other people feel like they didn’t have to be defensive either. And I watched him, and I realized that I have some of those skills.


Of course, when the racism is deliberate, I mean, it is racism.




It’s not uh … ignorance or misinformation about what’s going on, it’s you know, I’m focusing my racism upon you. That—y—you can’t slip away from that very—






–you can’t. You can’t. That doesn’t happen nearly as much as people think it happens. Um, there is such a thing in America that I call structural racism. Um, it’s just—it—it—it sits behind the consciousness. People have—they’ve been—they’ve been raised with, and they’ve been reinforced by their experiences in life. They have … understandings um, and perceptions about people who are different than them. And that’s just a reality of life. That—again, that too isn’t intended as personal. I actually—I had an experience once uh, when I was … this was years after I left Hawaii, when I was in a law firm, I was a hiring partner, and I was talking to one of my pals who was on the hiring committee, and who was complaining about the fact that … that—that, you know, we weren’t hiring um, a certain kind of person. Because we—I’d made a big deal about being diverse, and we started recruiting at—at—at you know, uh, historically Black colleges and universities for lawyers, we started hiring a lot of women, and he … said to me once, um, he said, You know, well, but—but like I introduced so-and-so, and he’s uh, he’s the kind of person—you know, he’s the kind of person we need to hire, ‘cause that’s what our client is looking for; you know, he’s six-foot-two and he’s blond-haired and blue-eyed. And he looked right at me, he said, A real White man. And then he caught himself, and he went—he said—he said—[GASP], he said, I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. ‘Cause you know, this was a pal. But what he was reflecting was a deep seated perception of the—the way the world is supposed to work. And that—that exists—probably always will, but you can’t let that—it’s—that’s not the sort of overt racism that you were talking about, but it’s—it’s every bit as pernicious. But you can’t let that uh, embitter you or cause you to um … take on more of a burden than you need to, to get to where you want to go. Right? You just gotta … it—it’s like a boulder in the middle of the path; you just gotta figure out how you’re gonna get around that.


And at that time, you were the hiring partner, so you were in the catbird seat anyway.


Yeah; right. I mean, most of these things, uh, uh, I—I—I think, to the extent of about eighty percent … people bring a lot of this on themselves, things that they could negotiate around, if they were—if they put themselves in the right mindset to do it.




Now, every once in a while, you do have to do stand and fight. And when you do … I don’t like to lose that either.


Have you done that? Have you stood up to racism?


Yeah. You know. But you know, I haven’t—I haven’t punched anybody. But I haven’t had to punch anybody. But you—sometimes you just have to … do what you gotta do, as they say.


Join us next time on Long Story Short for more conversation with Richard Parsons who reached the highest ranks of corporate power.  I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. A hui hou kakou.



Catherine Payne



Original air date: Tues., May 17, 2011


Creating Stability for Hawaii’s Teenagers


In this edition of Long Story Short, Leslie Wilcox introduces us to Catherine Payne, who recenly retired after a long careeer as one of Hawaii’s most respected educators. After spending her childhood moving from place to place with her Navy pilot father, Payne spent her adult life working to create stability for Hawaii teenagers – including many who lacked adults they could depend on. During a career that spanned more than 35 years, she worked as a teacher, vice principal and principal, never taking on the easy jobs. Instead, she led some of the toughest schools on Oahu and nurtured students with not only academic, but languages, socio-economic and behavioral challenges.


Catherine Payne Audio


Download the Transcript




Farrington has to be a school, and the others schools that I worked in also, that does more than just provide education. We have to take care of many other aspects of the students’ lives. I just saw people that were really willing to do that.


Coming up next on Long Story Short, a woman who grew up in a close, stable family, and who devoted her career to young people in need of stability and support. Just ahead, this story of award-winning principal, Catherine Payne.


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


Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. In this edition of Long Story Short, we’ll get to know retired public school principal, Catherine Payne. She always wanted to teach, and she wasn’t satisfied with educating Hawaii’s middleclass students. She wanted to work with the young people who needed her attention the most. Starting with her first official teaching job in the 1970s, Payne took on some of the toughest assignments Hawaii’s public school system had to offer. As a principal, she steered thousands of students and teachers through tumultuous middle and high school years. In her thirty-five-plus-year career with the DOE, Catherine Payne was recognized by her peers and by national education groups as one of the stars of Hawaii’s public schools. This educator spent her own childhood on the move as part of a military family.


What was it like, moving again, and again, and again, as a youngster?


Well, I think what was stable about my life was my family. And so, as we moved, and we always drove, my mother always had lots of books for me to read. It was just a time when our family was always together. We would move in the summers most of the time, and get up at—this was before air conditioning in cars, so we’d get up at two or three in the morning and drive until noon, and we’d stop at a motel with a swimming pool. My father did mental arithmetic as we were driving along, so it was just really delightful. And that was the time when I was an only child, before my sister came along.


But you must have made some good friends, and then having to pull yourself away.


I think it wasn’t hard for me until I was a teenager. And it just was our way of life, and we moved, and we sometimes moved—I went to three different first grades. We moved a lot. I think I learned to get along with all kinds of people. And it really helped me as a teacher, because I was used to being flexible, and just adjusting to whatever circumstances we had. My parents modeled that, because they also had to leave their friends and move, and make new relationships. And yet, they stayed in touch with people. And so whenever we moved, we were always seeing old friends, and family that were all over the country. So it I had a whole world that was my neighborhood.


I’m surprised that there was never, until high school … rebellion or resistance, or unhappiness, or disappointment.


I’m sure there probably was some of that. [CHUCKLE]   My parents were fairly strict in what they expected of me. And yet, it was also a very loving and interesting life, too. My mother was alone most of the time, because my dad … because of his career, he was gone about half the time. It was just a very calm upbringing. I didn’t have siblings to fight with until I was thirteen when my sister came along, and we didn’t fight too much ‘cause she was just a baby.


What did your father do? Where was he off to?


Well, he was a career Navy man, and he was on ships a lot, because he was a pilot. And so, he was flying with squadrons. And I remember so many memories in my life were just getting ready to meet the ship, or say goodbye to the ship, and sending tapes. But he was always sort of far away. He was in Vietnam, and then when he came to Hawaii, he was home. By then, he was living at home with the family, and that was I think, at a time when we really got to know my father as a teenager.


Because he was gone that much.


He was gone quite a lot. And then, I was in boarding school my last two years also, because during those two years, they moved three times, and the last time was to Hawaii.


How did you get to Hawaii? Was it through one of your father’s assignments?


Yes. Hawaii was his last tour of duty with the Navy, and they moved over. We thought it would just be one year, and then he extended into a different job. And I had started college at the University of California up at Davis, and I thought, I should just spend a year in Hawaii, because it’s an opportunity I won’t ever have again. So I came here during my sophomore year, and never looked back. They actually stayed and retired here, and then in the late 80s, retired again to Texas. But I was firmly planted here.


What made you stay? What was it?


I just loved the cultural diversity. I made very good friends right away, and I just felt like this was a good place to be. But I knew that if I couldn’t find a teaching job in Hawaii—and when I graduated in the mid-70s, it was very difficult—my plan was to leave, because I knew I had to go somewhere and be a teacher.


Why did you know you had to be a teacher?


[CHUCKLE] I always knew I was gonna be a teacher, from the time I was a very little girl.


Do you remember anything that prompted that?


I think I was surrounded by teachers in my family. My grandmother had been a teacher, I had aunts and uncles who had been teachers. And as a reader, I loved so many stories about teachers. I read about teachers in the 18th century, and the 19th century, and teachers that did heroic things in the ghetto, and I just thought, that’s for me. I felt like the right place for me would be to teach in an area where kids were struggling. I did my student teaching at Kalani, and I loved it. I had a wonderful experience. But I felt my calling was either on the neighbor islands or in the country. And I was so fortunate to be hired in Nanakuli, and that’s where I stayed for nine years as a teacher.


Why the more marginalized kids?


I’m not exactly sure, because it certainly wasn’t my life growing up. But it was my life through what I read, and the kinds of people I admired were doing things like that. I thought about joining the Peace Corps, I thought about joining Vista. I came of age in the 60s, when that was a consciousness, and I just felt like I had something to give, to help. And the right things just happened along my path to make that happen.


Even for all your travels, you led a fairly sheltered existence in a stable family environment. What was it like getting to know some very tough situations in family in Nanakuli?


The main experience of Nanakuli for me was the welcoming aloha from the Hawaiian community. They taught me so much. The children there, from the little ones to the high school students, were just so delightful, and so eager to participate in life, and to learn. And the struggles that the families had were part of it, but it wasn’t the main focus of their existence. There was so much good that they had to share. It was kind of interesting, because I became the advisor for the Hawaiian Club in my second year. And the students and I thought that was pretty funny. We traveled to the neighbor islands, we did dances and performances, and they would introduce me to their kupuna. And I just fell in love. That was what gave me the foundation for the rest of my career.


And yet, the struggles were very much a part of who your students were.


They were. And I really saw my place. Part of it was to help them to see that they could lift themselves above that, and that education was the way for that to happen. Many, many of my students, who I am still in touch with, have gone on to do great things. They’ve become teachers, they’ve become doctors, they’ve become lawyers, or they’ve become wonderful family members that have stayed in the community and are still helping. Some are teachers at Nanakuli High School.


With a calling for teaching, you later went into administration. What was that like? ‘Cause it really does seem like two very different job requirements.


Yes. And it wasn’t ever my career goal to be an administrator. But what happened through my time at Nanakuli and through the principals that I had there, were opportunities to be a teacher leader. They saw something in me, before I saw it in myself. And that taught me that in the role of a leader, that’s part of your job, is to see things in your teachers and in the people who work for you, that they may not have discovered yet, and give them opportunities develop that side of themselves. So I kind of just was eased into administration. And my principal asked me to consider going through the training program, and I did. And then Waianae High School opened up as an opportunity for me to be a vice principal, and that just seemed like another good place for me to go.


Isn’t the vice principal usually the one who dispenses discipline?


Discipline is part of the role, but it’s really relationships and helping the students to know that you’re there for them, and you have expectations, and you really just want to help make their school experience positive.


So somehow, they knew that even though you were disciplining them, that you cared about them?


I believe they did. It’s not just the kids that you’re responsible for when you’re an administrator. You have to take care of the adults. Teachers need to feel supported, and they need to feel energized by the administrators. The Waianae teachers were just … they also taught me so much about relationships and caring, and how to take care of kids.


And yet, from the outer world, I mean, outside Waianae, Nanakuli, there are a lot of perceptions of the place as being scary and bad, and very, very troubled.


Yeah. In every school that I’ve worked in, that’s been a perception that people have had. Because when I taught in Nanakuli, and Waianae, and then Olomana and Farrington, people would always say, Oh, my goodness, it must be so hard there, you have all these difficulties. When you’re in that school, that’s not what you feel the most. It’s supporting these people, the teachers and the students, and helping them to see a vision that is higher than maybe what they had imagined for themselves.


Catherine Payne served at Waianae High School just two and a half years, until a new daunting assignment came her way, the job of principal of Olomana School in Kailua. Olomana is actually several schools for young people who aren’t making it in regular school. They have academic, social, or mental health challenges. Some have landed in juvenile detention or corrections. It’s a school for at risk and delinquent youngsters, young people essentially, a school of last resort.


It just fit again with my real conviction that we have to take care of these students while they’re still in school, and help them to find a different path. Because if we don’t do that, the cost to society, and to them as individuals, is gonna be really, really great. The teachers that were at Olomana inspired me so much, because they were teachers that would see a little bit of goodness in every child, and try to make that little bit grow, and grow. Kids need to have some adult in their life that they know cares about them. So it really requires a special person to be a counselor or a teacher, or an aide in a school like Olomana, or Nanakuli, or Waianae, or Farrington. Because you’re working with kids who may not have that in their personal life, in their family life. So we have to be willing to go that extra step.


Now, some would say, Oh, if only we’d caught them earlier. What can you do with seventh through twelve grades? What works?


What works is giving them hope. And I think for many children, even at the age of twelve and thirteen, they’ve started to lose hope. They see their parents in trouble, they see their siblings and their cousins. So it’s finding that little crack that you can get into, and give them hope. And we created different programs for the kids that stayed with us, where graduation could be a hope. And for so many kids who are in the dropout mentality, just thinking of graduation as a possibility changed their whole being. And we began to recognize these students, we had graduation ceremonies when they completed their requirements. These were kids that never, ever dreamed of graduation. And that’s so important for these kids.


Did you ever get physically threatened?


At Waianae, I did have an incident where perhaps I was a little too green, but there was a student who was intoxicated. And I was out patrolling the campus, and she went into the boys’ bathroom, so I just sort of followed her in to get her to come back out. And she did assault me, and tore my sweater, I remember. And she was arrested, and we did go to court. I wasn’t really hurt.


Did it make you gun shy, though?


No, it didn’t. ‘Cause I knew I wasn’t gonna be hurt seriously by her, and security came pretty quickly, so I just sort of stood my ground. The funny thing that happened shortly after that, I went to Olomana, where she then was. [CHUCKLE] And so, we met up again and made friends. But that was the only time.


When you’re dealing with such a troubled population, do you feel like your work will never be done, or you can never do enough?


Absolutely. You can’t ever do enough. You just do what you can do. We talk about planting seeds all the time. You’re planting seeds that may not germinate for quite a while, but you still keep doing it, never giving up.


In 1995, after ten years at Olomana, Catherine Payne accepted the job that would come to define her career, principal of Governor Wallace Rider Farrington High School. At the time, it was the largest high school in the State, with about twenty-five hundred students, including many immigrants just learning English.


As principal, you may be the top person at the school, but it doesn’t mean you’re in control, because there are so many factors and constituencies. What’s that like, when you have to maintain order, but you really don’t have all of the authority to do so?


I think one of the things that all principals realize is that you never know how your day is going to be. People that try to help us with organizing our time, and they talk about scheduling all these things, they really have no idea what a principal does. Because you don’t know, when you walk into the office, who’s gonna be standing there that needs to have some support. A principal of a large school, as Farrington was, cannot do it by himself for herself.


Twenty-five hundred students, staff of three hundred. Where do you find all the time to take care of all of these things, accreditation, and all of the things that are part of the job?


If you really sit down and list all the things, which I didn’t do until I was ready to retire, ‘cause I was doing it for the next principal, it’s just overwhelming. You can’t imagine doing all of that. And yet, when you’re in that day-to-day living of it, you just do it. You don’t do much else in your life, but you do that.


At times in the campus life of Farrington, gangs have been worse or better. I don’t know what it was like when you first arrived there.


Well, when I first got there, we were actually coming out of a really tough period with gangs. There had been an incident where a student was quite severely beaten the previous year.


I remember stabbings in the parking lot at the time.


Yeah. There had been a shooting. The late 80s and the early 90s were really, really rough times. Adult Friends for Youth helped us, the YMCA on campus helped us. We have so many partners in the community that, while we did have incidents where gangs kind of would burst forth at different times, it never felt out of control. We have social workers on campus that actually have a peace council made up of different gang members that would talk about their problems before it escalated into conflict. So just different ways of working with the students, not to eliminate that social phenomena that is pretty much ingrained in the community.


There was that notable period where Hawaii’s governor, chief of police, and city prosecutor were all Farrington grads. Keith Kaneshiro in his previous incarnation as prosecutor, Mike Nakamura, police chief, and Ben Cayetano as governor.


And they’ve all given back to Farrington. Ben Cayetano came and taught a class.


What was the class about?


He taught a class, and it was a political science type of group, similar to what he was teaching at the University. He wanted to give back and experience our students, and so he came and kind of co-taught the class with a teacher. Just an incredible opportunity for our students to experience him, and his wealth knowledge. I think it also opened his eyes a little bit to how challenging it is to be a teacher.   [CHUCKLE] This school is not just Farrington, or just for the immediate group of students. This belongs to the community, it belongs to alumni, and they need to continue to support it. And they have.


Do you think principals need to be educators? Can you just have a master of business degree?


I think a principal needs to be an educator. I think it would be great if you had a partner in the school that was a business manager, so that they could take care of whether the bills were being paid on time, and the budget. You have a fifteen-million-dollar budget that you’re dealing with, and I often wished I had some business background for that. But great educators have a passion for what they do, which is education. And if you are missing that reason for being in a school, that passion for helping children grow, then I think you’re missing a piece of what is essential as a leader of education.


Along the way, did you see some really special interactions between people that perhaps changed others’ lives?


It changed my life, watching teachers that so inspire me. What really would inspire me was when you would see something that was a problem or a tragedy, or some kind of situation with our students, and then to see how the staff would just coalesce to make that situation better. We had some suicides at Farrington, we had some other deaths of students, or deaths of students’ family members, and how does the school come together to support those that are left. We had a student once who was the oldest in his family, he was a junior at the time. And he had siblings at the middle school and the elementary school, and his mother had just given birth and had cancer, and died within days after giving birth. His father had to keep his job, and there wasn’t anyone in the family who could take care of this infant. And so, our eleventh grade student was going to have to drop out of school to take care of the infant. And his counselor found out about it, and the first thing that happened—‘cause it was at Christmas too, is they did a huge drive to support the family, and gathering supplies for the baby, and Christmas gifts for the younger siblings. And then, over the Christmas holidays, trying to figure out how we could have this child still come to school, and take care of the baby at the same time. And at that time, we had a childcare program for infants for our pregnant girls, and for the girls that had given birth. It was a contracted program, but we were able to get them to agree that even though it wasn’t his baby, he could bring his younger brother at six weeks, and come to school with his baby brother. And he was able to go ahead and graduate, because of that. It’s one of the things that makes Farrington so special, is that we don’t want anybody to fall through the cracks.


I can tell you are a believer, you’re an idealist, and yet, you have to be pragmatic to do your job and to be an educator. How do you reconcile the two?


Well, you never lose your idealism, because that’s what gave me the hope to keep going. But, there is the reality of the day-to-day operations, and how you keep the school running, and all the different people that depend on the leaders to take care of things. And that’s just a balancing act that I think any leader of an organization has to manage. I believe that a good leader doesn’t feel like they have to have all the power. They really have to give it away and empower others. And that’s how a system continues when you’re not there. And that was my goal. I used to tell them even years before I retired that if the school didn’t continue on and grow, and get better after I left, it meant that I wasn’t a very good leader.


Why did you retire?


I was actually out of school for about three months, because I was ill. And during that time, I think it gave me moments of reflection where I began to think about what other things that I wanted to do, and also know that maybe I didn’t have quite the energy to keep up that pace that’s required at Farrington. And Farrington deserves somebody that had that. I was there fifteen years, so who’s gonna do the next fifteen? And it just felt like it was the time to step back. It was hard. [CHUCKLE] I knew it was the right thing to do, but I’m still feeling connected to Farrington, and I think I probably always will. That’s the school where I’ve spent the most time of my life.


Are you good at doing less?


Not really. [CHUCKLE] I definitely want to keep my mind busy, and I want to keep involved in education. I think up until my last day on Earth, that’ll be what I’m most concerned and involved with. I have tried to step back, and see things in a different perspective. And I think that’s how I’m looking at the whole educational system now, is more from the balcony, instead of right in the middle of the fray. I know times are very hard right now, and I hope people will be patient with public education and public educators, because it’s just a really tough time. And the people who are working in those schools, in all our schools, are trying really hard to do a good job. It’s tough.


In retirement, do you have a different view of the job of principal? Have you shifted in your outlook at all?


I think, as I look at it now, it’s even harder than a year ago when I was there. It’s a very, very difficult and challenging time for public educators. And my heart goes out to all of them.


Have you talked with some of your former students to find out what it was, if they knew of any particular thing that was done that kind of turned things over for them?


The students that I still hear from, they just remember the teachers that were kind to them, and teachers that continued to believe in them and tell them, you know, you can do this, you’re gonna be okay. Maybe that’s what inspired them, when they were twenty-five or thirty, to go back to school. You just never know how you influence a child. I had a student come up to me recently in the shopping center out at Kahala Mall, who came running up, and he was an adult now, and he had been at Olomana. He recognized me, and he just wanted me to know that he was doing well. And he was in his mid-thirties, he introduced me to his wife, he has a family, he has a good job. And he just said, I remember you, and you helped us, and I just want you to know I’m okay now. And that’s what we live for. [CHUCKLE]


Catherine Payne retired in 2010, after fifteen years at Farrington and more than thirty-five in Hawaii’s public schools. She intends to stay active in education and community service. Whatever she does next, Catherine Payne remains a role model for Hawaii educators. Her work will live on in the teachers she has mentored and inspired, and in former students who are succeeding beyond expectations because they had a teacher or principal who believed they could. 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


When they become difficult, it’s still being that same—coming back and saying, I’m still here for you. You can be obnoxious and you can swear at me, and I’m not gonna write you off. I’m still gonna be here for you. And that takes a special kind of adult that can do that.


Dr. Ginny Pressler


Original air date: Tues., Oct. 8, 2013


Dr. Ginny Pressler


After 10 years of practicing surgery, Dr. Ginny Pressler took on leadership roles that would push for transformation in Hawaii’s health care system. Long before the start of her career, Dr. Pressler was simply Ginny, a girl from Hana who walked barefoot to school. In this conversation with Leslie Wilcox, Dr. Pressler recalls her childhood on Maui, points out the moment she decided to work in health care and reveals how artist Georgia O’Keefe changed her mother’s life.


Download the Transcript




What rattles me … I get really irate with injustice and unfairness.


Well, the healthcare industry is full of inequities, and so there’s a lot of fairness to fight for there.


That’s absolutely right. That may be why I was so passionate about, even though I love doing surgery, actually leaving the practice that I loved so much in order to try to fix healthcare.


Hawaii healthcare leader, Dr. Ginny Pressler, 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. Dr. Virginia Pressler is Executive Vice President and Chief Strategic Officer at Hawaii Pacific Health. At this time, it’s Hawaii’s largest nonprofit healthcare network, with four major hospitals and more than fifty outpatient clinics throughout the islands. Dr. Pressler, a one time banker turned surgeon, turned health industry executive, goes by Ginny. She’s a leader in the effort to transform healthcare in Hawaii. Throughout her career, she’s pushed for initiatives that encourage healthful habits, and improved the wellbeing of Hawaii’s people. Ginny Pressler’s story goes back to the small plantation town of Hana on Maui. There, a famous artist would inspire her mother, at age twelve, to change the course of her life.


My grandfather was the manager of the Hana Plantation. So, she lived in Hana; she grew up on the plantation there. And there was no place to stay in Hana, but lots of artists and other special people would come and stay at the plantation, and my mother was exposed to all these wonderful people. Now, Georgia O’Keefe came to Hawaii when my mother was about twelve, and she remembered my mom and my grandfather and grandmother talking about Georgia O’Keefe coming. And my mom was a voracious reader; she was homeschooled and read all the time. And so, she knew all about Georgia O’Keefe, and she was all excited about Georgia coming to visit. And then her mother, my grandmother got called away to California, where her mother was ill, and so my mother at age twelve ended up being the hostess with my grandfather to Georgia O’Keefe when she came to stay in Hana. And so, my mother showed her around for about ten days, and the Georgia O’Keefe in Hawaii, which is a book that’s out that has a picture of one Georgia’s paintings on the front was written by my mother.


Was she showing her the landscape for pictures, and did she hang out while there was painting taking place?


She took her all around. She drove her around and took her to places.


Drove her?




At age twelve?


I think maybe Georgia drove and she was showing her where to go. I’m not sure. I guess that probably was how it worked.


[CHUCKLE] Although, you never know.




In the country, all things happen.


She got her license when she was fourteen, but I don’t know if before that, that she drove or not. But she showed her around, took her to the places to see her favorite flowers, and things like that. And Georgia O’Keefe developed a real love of the floral beauty of Hawaii.


Does your mom tell any stories about a particular place, or comment?


Well, Georgia O’Keefe sort of changed my mom’s life. I mean, she was living very isolated, really, in Hana, homeschooled, as I said, doing a lot of reading. And when she met Georgia, it sort of opened up her eyes to a whole new world. And it was after Georgia left that she told my grandfather; she said, You know, I know I’m gonna go to Punahou in a few years, but I want to go now. And so, she went in eighth grade, I think, to board at Punahou, which was quite a move for her from rural Hana to Punahou.


And she met her husband while a teenager at Punahou.


Yeah; when she was fifteen and was at a family mutual friend’s place. Alexis [INDISTINCT] in Kula would entertain the servicemen that were stationed on Maui, and that’s where she met my father. And my father was out here in World War II as a fighter pilot on an aircraft carrier, and he was from St. Louis. So, after the war, my mom and dad got married in St. Louis.


So many local girls married servicemen at that time.




Didn’t they?


That’s right. And in fact, when my dad met my mother, he was eight years older than she was. And he had told my grandfather that, When she grows up, I’m going to marry her.


Ginny Pressler and her four siblings were born in St. Louis. Like her mother, Ginny Pressler’s life would change at age twelve, when her father moved the family back to Maui. She says it was a welcome escape from the frills of St. Louis’ teenage debutante balls to a laid back lifestyle.


And you lived where, on Maui?


We lived in Spreckelsville, in a old plantation house. We were just renting it.


So, the nearest public school was Kaunoa.


Kaunoa School; right. So, I walked to school with my neighbors, barefoot to Kaunoa. And after school, we’d just hang out under the monkey pod trees, or we’d go and play beach volleyball, or go to the beach or … just hang out together.


You know, you and I are of that generation where there was no such thing as play dates or structured play.




What was childhood like as far as, how’d you spend your free time?


I was more the adventuresome type; I liked to go out and explore and find things. So, I liked to go out in the woods and in the streams, or the ocean, or the beach, and just explore and find things, build forts.


Build forts.


You know, climb trees. We used to do lots of fun things on Maui. Lot of fluming, hiking.


Fluming is something kids don’t get to do nowadays. It’s too dangerous, or the flumes have broken down, those water – carrying structures.


They were such fun. And of course, now you could never do that. Because we were on all the plantation property that at that time, you could get away with it.


And did you ever complain, I don’t have anything to do?






No. If I ever complained to my parents I had nothing to do, they’d find something for me to do, I’m sure.


So, you can definitely occupy yourself.


Right. We were expected to be self – reliant. And you know, I was one of five children, so we all kind of took care of each other. And I remember doing a lot of babysitting and fixing dinner for my younger brothers.


What were your parents like in raising you? Achievement, apparently, was important by virtue of the schools, I can tell.


M – hm.


What were they like?


Well, I remember my dad always saying, I don’t care what you do, as long as you do it well. And so, that was the mantra, was you always do your best, and there’s no excuse for not doing the best you ever can. At the same time, my dad was very loving and full of fun and adventure. We did a lot of fun things together, and he loved family. But hardworking; very hardworking, I remember.


What about your mom?


And my mom was a stay – at – home mom. She was very involved with others in the community, did volunteer work, did a lot of needlework. And so, when we moved back to Maui, she was volunteering. And then when I went off to college, my family moved to the Big Island, and she opened up Waimea Wool Craft, where she was teaching people in the community how to do needlepoint and knitting. And then, that expanded into the Waimea General Store, which she still has today, and my brother takes care of that.


Is that right? So, that’s a hub. So many people have shopped there for many years. What prepared her, you think, to run the store? She must have liked people.


She loves people. I think my whole family are entrepreneurs. I’m the only one who’s working for a company. Everyone else, all of my siblings, my father, my grandparents on both sides were all entrepreneurs.


So, you lived in St. Louis until you were about twelve, and then the rest of your childhood was spent on Maui. Has that neighbor island background informed the way you live your life today?


Very much so, I think. And it’s been very helpful. My memories really are that time on Maui as a child. And it really has shaped my attitudes towards healthcare in the State, as well as just the needs on the neighbor islands, and recognizing how different it is in the rural areas. That’s a very important thing in all the areas I’ve been in, especially in the last ten or fifteen years, where I’ve been on either the public health or administrative side of healthcare that we’re trying to provide throughout the State. Recognizing the different needs on the neighbor islands. And they’re very different from Honolulu.


That’s true; you can’t say neighbor island as a general thing when you’re talking about healthcare or growing up. Because every island is so different in its culture.




On Maui, Dr. Ginny Pressler attended H.P. Baldwin Public High School, then transferred to Seabury Hall, a private school in Makawao that her father helped establish. In fact, she was in Seabury Hall’s first graduating class of fourteen students back then. Her family then moved to Waimea on Hawaii Island, while Ginny Pressler left Hawaii altogether to attend Cornell University.


Well, I started as a math major, and then I got into social psychology. And I really enjoyed learning about how people form attitudes and their behavior, and how difficult it is to change behavior. Which to this day, I look back at things I learned so many years ago, and it’s so true still, although the science has changed quite a bit about attitudes and behavior change.


People haven’t changed. [CHUCKLE]


Yeah. And the group dynamics, and how group decisions are made. So, it was fascinating for me to learn how people think and work together, and I use a lot of that today in the work I do.


And in healthcare, you are trying to change how people behave, so you do draw upon that.


That is one of the most difficult things, when people know that something’s not good for them, but to get them to change behaviors is very, very difficult.


So before you got into healthcare, you’re graduating in social psychology. And what was the plan?


At the time, I was gonna go on to graduate school in educational psychology. And I came back; couldn’t wait to get back to Hawaii. But I wasn’t quite sure what I was gonna do with it. If I got a PhD, what would I do with that? And decided that I should probably just get a job. So, I started working at Bank of Hawaii as a management trainee. Was very fortunate to get into the management training program, learned a lot. I mean, it was a totally foreign field to me, banking. I was there for five years, and did the whole gamut of banking, but it never quite fulfilled my sense of — I remember one day saying, So, where do I want to be thirty years from now? I’m gonna stay at the bank, obviously, I’d want to be the president of the bank. Is that what I want to be? And I said, No. So, then the question was, Well, then why am I there? So, that’s when I started doing some soul searching about what I really wanted to do with my career. And medicine just kinda came up.


How did it come up?


Well, a relative who was in med school at the time, for some reason, I was visiting and went to see his med school and all. And he said, You know, I think you’d make a really good doctor. And maybe he knew I was soul searching, trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I don’t know why he said that. But it just … a light bulb went off in my head and I went, Yeah. There was the combination of the math and science that I loved. I always wanted to be a scientist when I was a kid. And I wanted to do something meaningful to help people, and I like to work with people. And it just all came together, and I realized, yeah, that’s what I should do. I was twenty-seven at the time. And the things I was reading said if you’re over age twenty-six, you’re too old to go to med school. [CHUCKLE] But that didn’t stop me.


Dr. Ginny Pressler went back to school and enrolled in pre-med classes at the University of Hawaii’s John A. Burns School of Medicine. She also gained hands -on surgical experience at a cardiovascular research lab. She was still a pre -med student when she decided she would become a surgeon.


You’re talking about cutting.




Cut, cut, cut in sensitive places. What prepared you to do that?


Well, I’m a very … oh, I don’t know how to put it. I’m a sensitive person, but I’m also objective, and I can sort of compartmentalize and not get emotionally distracted. When you’re operating on somebody, or even an animal, you’re focused on what you’re trying to get done.


You were in there for the duration. You were a surgeon. In fact, you started specializing in breast surgery, which at the time wasn’t usual.


That’s right. In fact, I remember interviews with you twenty years ago when I was a breast surgeon.


That’s when your hair was longer, and mine was shorter. [CHUCKLE]


That’s right.


About twenty years ago.


That’s right.


Did you have a scary moment in surgery?


I think the scariest cases were trauma cases where there was massive liver damage, because the bleeding from that is very difficult to find the source. So, I had some scary times when I was in the operating room.

But I’ve heard so many people say it takes so much to get you rattled. I mean, what does rattle you?




You’re very composed.


Well, I guess I’ve always been composed. What rattles me … I get really irate with injustice and unfairness.


What do you do?


What used to get me really upset when I was a kid was, my younger brother and I used to fight, and he would punch me or instigate me, and I’d fight him back. And I’d get him down on the ground, and he’d say, Let me go and I won’t hit you. And I’d let him up, and then he’d hit me. And I would get furious. It’s like that’s not fair. You said you weren’t gonna hit me back. So, when things aren’t fair, when I see people doing unjust things or unkind things to others, that gets me upset.


Well, the healthcare industry is full of inequities, and so there’s a lot of fairness to fight for there.


That’s absolutely right. That may be why I was so passionate about, even though I love doing surgery, actually leaving the practice that I loved so much in order to try to fix healthcare. Because it was wrong; it needed fixing.


That is a huge bite. I mean, you knew that wasn’t gonna be, Okay, here’s my three – year plan.


M – hm.


I mean, you knew that it might be a lifelong adventure, or less than that? What was your thinking?


I’ve always been an adventurer and a risk – taker; calculated risk – taking. And I was following my heart, my gut that healthcare was broken, and I could only do so much in private practice. Even if I brought in a partner and I tried to create this comprehensive care for patients, that I couldn’t do it on my own, that I needed a bigger system to do it, and that we needed, in fact, to fix the whole system of healthcare.


And you worked in government.


Subsequently; yeah.


How far did you get in that endeavor?


Well, I had actually been running a health plan for a while, and then worked at the Department of Health from 1999 ‘til 2002, and was Deputy Director at the State Department of Health. And it was just about the time of the master settlement agreement with the tobacco industry, so there was money coming in for the tobacco settlement. So, I was very fortunate that I was given the leeway to work with those funds and convince the Legislature and the administration that most of that money should go into healthcare. So, that’s when we created the Healthy Hawaii Initiative that was focused on physical activity, nutrition, and tobacco control. And obesity then — this was what, fifteen years or so ago, was beginning to be recognized as a major problem. And here we are fifteen years later, and it’s a bigger problem, but it’s finally being recognized as a real issue.


And that’s one of the eternal frustrations, it seems, of healthcare. We make advances, but sometimes you just don’t see the the results you want.


Well, I’ve always been an early adapter, so I’m always sort of a little bit ahead of the rest. I’ll read things and recognize trends and say, Yeah, it’s very clear that this is what’s happening, and this is what we need to do. But the rest of the world isn’t there with me. [CHUCKLE] I’m always looking out longer term.


Thanks in part to Dr. Ginny Pressler’s long – term vision, Hawaii Pacific Health is recognized as a national healthcare leader. Back in 2002, the organization was an early adopter of electronic medical records, an important piece in streamlining patient care. Throughout her career, Ginny has gone by the name Pressler; that’s her first husband’s name. She’s been married for almost thirty years to Andy Fisher, but kept the name Pressler for practical reasons.


Well, I got married the first time in college, and we were married for about ten years, and then we got divorced. And because I got married in college, all of my diplomas were Pressler. So, from undergraduate, and then my master’s degrees and my doctorate degree were all under the name of Pressler, and I was known professionally as Pressler. And I was thirty – seven or so when I met my current husband. And so, I already had that professional name and chose not to change it when we got married. I actually am legally Fisher, but I kept the name professionally. The funniest part about it is — my husband is such a great sport, because we’ll go places where he gets called Mr. Pressler. It’s bad enough if it were my maiden name, but it’s not even my maiden name. It’s my first husband’s name, and my husband handles it very well.


And your children are Fisher.


They’re Fisher; right.


Your little girl, your youngest child, is adopted.




How did that come about?


Well, we had lost a child, and we wanted to have two children. When we lost our son, we felt that things were unbalanced having just one child, and we’d always wanted to have two kids. So, we tried to have another child, but I was in my mid – forties by then, and after trying some in vitro and other attempts to have another child, we finally realized we love every kid we see everywhere. It’s like it doesn’t have to be our genetics. And so, we decided to adopt. And I’m so glad that we did. It was a wonderful experience.


Now … mothers always say there’s no difference in how you feel about a adopted or a blood kid. But were there differences in her perspective or the way you raised her?


Yeah. When we had Katy, our youngest, I didn’t feel any different. I always felt the same about her as my own. And in fact, since we had lost one child, and I was there for Katy’s delivery, I actually cut the umbilical cord. It was an open adoption, and we’d been chosen ahead of time to be the parents. So, I was able to be there for the delivery, which was wonderful. So, I’ve always thought of Katy as — I forget that she isn’t my own natural born, although she’s a different ethnic makeup than we are. But it’s never really connected to me. It’s like, she’s mine, and there’s no difference in how I feel about her. And so, it was very interesting for me to find out as she was growing up how hard it was for her. She never liked the fact that she was adopted.


So, you did an open adoption. Does that mean there was any continuing communication with the birth mother?


Yes; we had an open adoption, and we did have a connection with the birth mother. But she stopped contact after a couple of years. So …


So, Katy never had a chance to ask her, Could you tell me about the circumstances of my adoption.




Although, sometimes information doesn’t answer a question of the heart.


M – hm. Yeah; she seems to be settled with it now. But you never know. I hear about an awful lot of adopted children who, even in their forties or fifties, still want to go back and connect with their birth mother or father.


Yes; I have an adopted child as well, and she did get to meet her birth parents when she was about twenty – one. And … that’s why I do think that even when there’s love and a chance to get together and get to know, there’s still questions that sort of are unknowable or answers that are unknowable.


Yeah. And I’ve come to understand as much as I can now, which I didn’t appreciate before. And that’s another thing that I’ve learned. I mean, you just take things for granted that, Well, we love her, what’s the problem here, you know.




But from her perspective, I can concede that there’s a loss.


Personal loss is familiar for Dr. Ginny Pressler. In addition to the death of her fourteen – month – old son, she also lost her father at age fifty – eight to a sudden heart attack on the tennis court. She calls her father the kingpin of the family, and a big piece of her life.


He and I had gone out to dinner the night before, and he’d stayed at my place. And I remember waving goodbye to him as he backed out of the driveway and went back to the Big Island. And later that day, I get a call from my sister saying, Dad’s dead. I’m going, No; how can he be dead? I just saw him. And so, it was very, very difficult for me to come to grips with that. ‘Cause it was so sudden and unexpected. So, that changed a lot of things and made me reflect on life, and what was important.


And how short it can be.


Yeah. And then, I think losing our son was a very tragic thing, and it made me really think about balance, and what are the really important things in life. And it makes you reprioritize things.


When you’ve had adversity, it’s been to show you about priorities in life, the value of time and family, and love.


M – hm. How precious our loved ones are, whether they’re family or friends, or whatever.


Do you feel too busy sometimes?




Because healthcare is a busy thing. [CHUCKLE]


Yes. And in fact, I look at that picture that I have from twenty years ago when I was being interviewed by you. At that time, she must have been about six months old, Katy, our youngest, reaching for the TV set, trying to touch Mommy. That picture to me, it means a lot, because it was a time when I was so busy, and I never had enough time with the kids, and I would miss really important events because of commitments in my professional career. Usually, it would be because I had to take care of a patient, and that came first, regardless. And so thank goodness I had a supportive husband. But I always felt being torn, that I wanted to be with my children, and I hated being away from them. And so, that was a perfect example. I think it was an evening interview, and I wasn’t home with the kids, and so my husband puts me on TV so the little one can see me, and she’s trying to reach me, and she can’t, trying touch me through the TV set. I mean, those kinds of moments just are very poignant.


And again, some of the choices you make aren’t bad choices. I mean, choices between good values, family, work.


I don’t know that I would do anything differently. I really value the career that I’ve followed. My kids have turned out fine. I don’t think that I’ve neglected them in any way, and they are resilient, and they are proud of me, I think. And I don’t think it was a mistake.


And certainly, their mom hasn’t had just any job. I mean, essentially, you’re out slaying the beasts of things that drive up the cost of healthcare and bring down the quality of healthcare.


Looking for justice and fairness, trying to get the best to everybody.


I’ve heard so many people say that our healthcare system is broken, and there really isn’t authentic hope on the horizon. What do you think?


Oh, well, I agree it’s broken; that’s why I got involved twenty years ago to fix it. But I think there is hope on the horizon. And it hasn’t happened everywhere in the country yet, there’s big gaps across the country, and within Hawaii too, as far as the progress towards creating a system approach to healthcare for patients. But I am very, very impressed and pleased with the progress that we’ve made, at least at my organization. As I said earlier, some of the things we’re doing now, I never even dreamed we’d be at this point. And it isn’t perfect yet, but it’s moving in the right direction.


And do you think your job will ever be done?


No; no, I don’t.


And that’s okay with you?


Yes. Well, you don’t want you job to be done; right? I think one thing I’ve decided about life is, number one, we’re not expected to know why, and when, and where, and how long, and that it’s all meaningful, and it just makes it more precious.


Precious, indeed. And in case you’re wondering, if Dr. Ginny Pressler were a man, I would still have asked the question about work life balance. It’s not a single gender issue. Dr. Pressler is among those fighting for justice and fairness in Hawaii’s healthcare system, while making time for personal health and wellbeing. She and her husband are regular standup paddlers and outdoor enthusiasts. Thank you, Dr. Ginny Pressler, for sharing your story with us. And mahalo to you for watching. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.


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


So, I’ve always had this sense of urgency and impatience, and as I’ve gotten older, I’m finally beginning to realize, slow down. Even at stoplights, it’s like, don’t get frustrated because that person didn’t pull out yet.


You can’t control it, so let it be.


Yeah. So, I’m becoming a little bit more patient as I get older, and I think children teach you patience.



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