Elevated Thinking: The High Line in New York City


Explore a uniquely captivating public space – High Line Park in New York City. Recycled from a defunct elevated railroad, High Line Park hovers 30 feet in the air and winds through 22 blocks of Manhattan. This “self-sown wilderness” of woodlands, thickets, prairies and meadows rises above busy streets and runs from the historic Meatpacking neighborhood through the Chelsea Art District to Hell’s Kitchen.


Will Philanthropy Narrow the Gap Between the Haves and Have Nots?


Financial experts predict we’ll see the largest transfer of wealth in history take place over the next three decades. An estimated $16 trillion will be passed on to philanthropic organizations.


What is the financial outlook for philanthropy in Hawai‘i? Will there be new areas of focus? How will individual acts of planned giving impact our local non-profits? And will our strong sense of kuleana for others remain intact as we enter a new era of extraordinary need?


Your questions and comments are welcome via phone, email and via Twitter during the Live Broadcast.


Phone Lines:
462-5000 on Oahu or 800-238-4847 on the Neighbor Islands.




Join our live discussion using #pbsinsights


Sam Cooke



Sam Cooke
Preserving Historical Hawaii


A member of one of Hawaii’s most prominent kamaaina families, Sam Cooke shares his passion for the restoration of Hawaii’s cultural and historical treasures. A descendant of early missionaries who established a business empire with Castle and Cooke, Sam, along with his wife Mary, established the Manoa Heritage Center to promote the stewardship of ancient heiau located near their historic home in Manoa Valley.


Sam Cooke Audio


Download the Transcript




And it was wonderful in the old days. And it’s changed, but… we’ve tried to keep a little of it here, what we’re doing with the Manoa Heritage Center. So we plan to be around for a while.


He bears the name of a kamaaina family and he’s related to other prominent families who came to Hawaii when it was still a kingdom. Sam Cooke shares his passion for the preservation of historic and cultural treasures of the islands.





Open billboard: 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. Anyone who’s lived in Hawaii for any length of time has seen the name Cooke, with an E, in many contexts. In the islands’ missionary history, in the evolution of big business here, in the many philanthropic gifts supporting the arts, environment, education and human services. Samuel Alexander Cooke is a descendant of early missionaries who taught the children of the alii. Over time, family members established a business empire with the company Castle and Cooke. In more recent years, Sam Cooke and his wife Mary have saved a heiau from development a stone’s throw from their historic home in Manoa. And they’ve created the Manoa Heritage Center to preserve the Kukaoo Heiau and an all-native garden they’ve grown around it. The Cooke family dynasty began with the arrival in the early 1800s of Sam’s great-great grandparents, Juliet Montague and Amos Starr Cooke.


He was a teacher, and he wanted to come out and be a missionary in the Hawaiian Islands, but he had to have a wife, and he didn’t have a wife. So the mission said, You can’t go unless you have a wife. So he posted the bonds in the church, and a few weeks later, Juliet Montague joined him as his wife. They were on the boat for a hundred and eighty-eight days, and they arrived in Hawaii in April of 1837. He was asked by King Kamehameha V (sic) to start the Chief’s Children’s School, where he educated… she and he educated all the Hawaiian royalty, including Bernice Pauahi, who was married to Charles Reed Bishop in our house, which is still behind the Kawaiahao Church.


With the evolution of Hawaii, there’s new thinking about missionary contributions. You know that expression about missionaries came here to do good, and they did very well.




What are your thoughts about that?


Well, it all depends who you’re talking about. James Campbell wasn’t a missionary, and he did the best. But the missionaries did start the industry with sugar, which they started, and then it grew to be much bigger than the missionaries. And most of the people that ran those industries, sugar and pineapple, were not missionaries, they were brought in from the continental United States. And they’re the ones that really put those companies on the map. But now, they’re all gone. Except for Alexander and Baldwin and the Bank of Hawaii, there’s no large missionary engendered company left here in the State of Hawaii.


When your original forebear came here, do think  Christianity or education was foremost in his mind?



Both; both, yeah. And then the mission went broke. And so they couldn’t afford to keep the missionaries out here, so they said, We’ll take you home back to the East Coast, or you can stay in Hawaii. And that’s when Amos Starr Cooke and Samuel Northrup Castle started a ship chandler they called Castle and Cooke.


It did ag, it did shipping.


It did ag, it did…




-shipping, it did construction. And in its heyday, it just did about everything that had anything to do with land, and agriculture.


What are some of the other things your family got involved with?


My great-grandfather, Charles Montague Cooke, married Anna Charlotte Rice Cooke, or Anna Charlotte Rice. And she’s the one that started the Academy of Arts. And then so there’s where I get my Rice blood. And I get my Lyman and Wilcox blood from my mother, who was from Kauai, and whose great-uncle, G.N. Wilcox, founded Grove Farm. My grandfather, who built this house, was a scientist. He was a malacologist; he studied Hawaiian land shells. He was a PhD at the Bishop Museum for forty years; became very famous. And then my Uncle George, who was his brother, was a rancher on Molokai. My family had the Molokai Ranch, and George Cooke was the head of it. It was a cattle ranch. It was big; it was about seventy-seven thousand acres. But the thing that made it click was the pineapple leases. We leased to Castle and Cooke, and we leased to California Packing Company, and McNeill and Libby. And pineapple, I think, was great, but in about 1985, we lost the pineapple, because they all went to the Philippines and to Taiwan. So our income just dried up. So in 1986, we sold the ranch to a New Zealander by the name of Birely, and we haven’t had anything to do with it since then. It’s been very controversial, but we’ve exited the ranch, and its been the Birely’s that have had all the trouble, because they’ve tried to run it absentee. That doesn’t work.


It must have been hard to give up the ranch, although-


It was.


it was a financial decision, right?


Well, it’s a financial disaster. M-hm.


But it did support, in good times, many people.


Oh, in good times the pineapple lease, it was a wonderful place. It had deer, it had fish, and it had everything, and we could go there and have fifty thousand acres to ourselves to go do what we wanted to do. I took all my buddies up there; Curtis Iaukea and Gilbert, all those guys. They loved the place. M-hm.


Sam Cooke spent many summers on Molokai, but he grew up on the same Manoa Valley land where he continues to live. After majoring in hotel management at Cornell University, he had every intention of pursuing a career in the hotel industry and took a job with Interisland Resorts on Kauai. But with marriage to the woman he’d met when they were children and with the demands of a new family, he redirected his profession, becoming a stockbroker and senior executive with Morgan Stanley here. One of his clients was the late great Harry Weinberg, who was famously frugal and exacting. Sam Cooke had a long career in a competitive industry. Even back at Punahou School, he didn’t shy away from the fray.


Who’d you play football with?


Oh, with guys like Gilbert Ane, and Curtis Iaukea, and-


All the small guys.


-all the-




All the small guys. I wasn’t any good, but I made the team.






What were they like – what was Curtis “The Bull” Laukea, the future wrestler, like in high school?


Good guy; really good. Still is a good guy. I mean, very successful wrestler. I could never believe that he would do what he did, but he did, and he became very good at it.




He was always the bad guy-


The bad guy.


-on the air, but the-




-nice guy behind the scenes.


Right. And he lives up in Papakolea now. I’ve seen him occasionally. Gilbert Ane was a terror.





Boy, he was a hell of a football player. And Danny, his brother, and David, his brother, and Harry Pacarro, and A.K. Espinda, and Punahou was always thought of as a Haole team, but I think there was only one Haole on the team, and that was me.




Well, tell me; I noticed your grandfather had a very vibrant scientific career, your father was in the finance business, trust, you worked for decades in hotel and for Dean Witter and Morgan Stanley.




Couldn’t you all have just said, I’ve got a trust fund, I have wealth, no need.


Never happened that way.


You could have, though.


Well, yeah. I’ve had cousins that did that, but not me. Mm-mm; mm-mm.


What got you up every morning to go to work?


Oh, I don’t know. I guess I wanted to prove myself. I’ve never been that way. Neither has my wife. So we’ve been very, very active.


So you made money, and now you spend your life giving money.


We do.


In your philanthropic-


We do.




We do here, but we do. We do a lot of philanthropic work. M-hm.


Did you always know you were gonna do that?


No; no. I thought I was gonna be a hotel manager.






Lots to eat, always have a bed.


As a businessman, when you look at people applying for grants, you probably have a different eye than many people do.


Well, we do. And then you really get to know who your friends are.


‘Cause you say no.




You have to say no every once in a while. At Cooke Foundation, we hire the Hawaii Community Foundation to research all the grants. And so we have a pretty good idea of who we want to give our money to. We do twice a year. You’re not taxed when you’re an eleemosynary foundation; you don’t pay taxes. So the IRS takes a very, very strong look at how you give your money away. And if you start giving it away to people that don’t really qualify, you could lose your tax status. And so we’re very careful about that.


Sam Cooke is an avid collector of Hawaiiana that includes paintings, rare books and artifacts. His ongoing philanthropic efforts reflect the Cooke family tradition of sponsoring arts and preserving the cultural heritage of the islands.


Well, principally, my great-grandmother started the Honolulu Academy of Arts. And I was the chairman of the Academy of Arts for sixteen years, and got to know most of the major art people in the United States. And I’ve been told by many of those people that the Honolulu Academy of Arts is probably the finest small museum in America. So it’s a real treasure.


It’s such a legacy, but I sense that for you, it wasn’t a family obligation. You love art.


Yeah, I love art. And it wasn’t an obligation, but it was a very necessary part of the soul of Honolulu, I think. That without it, we’d be wanting. It’s a beautiful museum.


Has it faced challenges that threatened it along the way?


Yes, mostly monetary. My great-grandmother founded it, endowed it, built it, and left her collection there. And then she moved up to where the Contemporary Art Museum is; that was her home. But the challenges that the Art Academy really faced were expansion and growth, and collecting.


I believe you helped to raise, what, fifteen million dollars-




-for a wing. Thirty?




And which people said at the time couldn’t be done.


Right; right. M-hm.


How’d you do it?


Mostly on the mainland, and tremendous support from the local people here in Hawaii, especially the foundations and the corporations. But there’s just not that kind of money here in Hawaii, so we went to the mainland and got support from the Henry Luce Foundation, and all sorts of foundations all over the country that had been here and seen the Academy, knew what we were talking about, and were very happy to help us out.


What kinds of art do you like the best?




I know – Hawaii?


Yeah. Kind of things you see on my wall. M-hm.


I see lots of books about voyages-




-to the islands.


M-hm; m-hm. It’s a fascinating story. The books start with the collection of Cook, and go all the way through the end of the 20th century. After Cook discovered Hawaii, all the European nations came here, and they all published voyages and did beautiful atlases with drawing. Of course, there was no photography in those days, so they all brought artists with them, and the artists did beautiful drawings.


And why are you fascinated with those voyages?


Well, that’s when we all got started, I guess. It really brought Hawaii to the fore in the world. I mean at one particular time, Hawaii was the most literate country in the world; everybody could read.


After the missionaries came.


After the missionaries came.


But Hawaiians were literate in their own language too.


Yes, they were; they were, very. They had a tremendous culture. And on the property here, we have a Hawaiian heiau, which we have rebuilt, and it’s a beautiful piece of work, gorgeous piece of work.


So you live in a nice suburban area of Honolulu, with a heiau in your back yard.




How did that happen?


Interesting. My grandfather moved here in about 1901. He built the house in 1911. There was a heiau out there, and the architects wanted to put the house where the heiau was, because that’s where the best scenery was. He said no; no. His life had been saved by a Hawaiian, so he was very, very true with the Hawaiian people. And he would not let them build a house on the heiau. So he built a fence around the heiau, and it stayed that way up until 1994 when Mary and I bought it from a developer, and saved it and then rebuilt it. So we brought a stonemason from the Big Island by the name of Billy Fields, who is an outstanding mason, and he built it and put it back in shape.


And that’s, I believe, an agricultural heiau.


It’s an agricultural heiau; right, m-hm.


What’s the story about it, and what’s its name?


Well, it’s name is Kukaoo. And there are all sorts of interpretations of Kukaoo, but the one we like the most is of a chief who stood on the mountain in back of us, and threw his oo stick, and it landed there. And that’s where they built the heiau.


Standing oo, step- 


Standing oo. And oo is a digging stick. And Kenneth Emory, who was the archaeologist at the Bishop Museum, did a radiocarbon test out there, and with some ashes, and determined that it was very, very old, perhaps back to the Norman conquest, which was 1088. So it’s been there for a long time. Billy found three different stages of rebuilding in the heiau, so it had been rebuilt. And then we dedicated it in1994 with Bill Kaina, who was the kahu at Kawaiahao Church. And he came up here; he had a very difficult time, giving a little talk about the heiau, because the mana was coming from the heiau bothering him. But he got through it. [CHUCKLE] It’s a beautiful heiau. And it’s the only one on this side of the island, and it’s the only one I’ve seen that has been restored this way.


So you mentioned that a family member had been – his life had been saved by a Hawaiian woman, and he was very indebted to the Hawaiian people as a result, and the Hawaiian culture.





This was your grandfather.


It was my grandfather. He was born down at Kawaiahao Church, and he was not expected to live. He was two and a half pounds, and Western medicine couldn-t take care of him. So my great-grandfather went to Hilo, and got a kahuna lapaau who was named Kaaina. Brought her to Honolulu, and she saved the baby; he lived. And she wrapped him in kukui leaves, and massaged him with lomi lomi, and did all the old things, and he lived. And so he took care of her for the rest of his life. And I have an obituary that talks about her when she died. She was a hundred and fourteen years old when she died. And she went on to say that she had been a kahuna lapaau and had saved many lives. And she never married, but she had a son, a Haole boy by the name of Montague Cooke. So lots of the old-timers around here still remember her. My mother was very perplexed by it, because she was very striking looking and had blue eyes, for a Hawaiian. And her whole name means, the last supper. Because she was born in Kona on the same day that Kamehameha died in 1819. And her parents were converted to Christianity, and when she was born, they named her this big, long Hawaiian name, that meant, the last supper. M- hm. He would take care of her. It was like a mother and a son relationship.


The name of your home is Kualii?


Kualii; right. Kualii was the chief who lived here, and that’s his heiau out there. And Kualii is a big name; it’s like Smith in the English name. There are Kualiis everywhere, I found out afterwards. [CHUCKLE] But he was a chief, and he was the chief of Oahu, a very powerful one. It’s is a great house. It was the first house of its kind in the valley. And there was a dairy up here. My grandfather’s hobby was dairy, so he got a tiny dairy. It went from Cooper Road there, all the way up to Waioli Tea Room. But after the war, people moved into the valley, and they objected to the smells and the sounds of the dairy, so we moved the dairy over to where Olomana Estates is now. And then we started selling off the property. But this has a great, great history, this house. And when Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, all the able-bodied people went to Pearl Harbor to help, but the women and children and the older people came here. There must have been between eighty and a hundred people in this house, and they were sleeping on the floor, and upstairs; there are four stories.


Here, because it’s stone.


It’s stone; it looks like it could handle itself. But a word went out from the authorities that the water had been poisoned, so we filled our bathtubs up. We have three big porcelain bathtubs upstairs. We filled them up with water, and we drank out of the bathtub for three days. So it has many, many fond memories. We had bomb shelters out here. And I think growing up here in the 50s, we all – and the neighborhood gang would come here and play football and baseball, and there was a lot more property in those days, so we had the room to do things like that.


How much more property did you have then?


Well, we had quite a bit more property. I think the place was about eight acres. Now, it;s three. And it was all the way down to the Manoa Road.


And the stones, which surround you, are neighborhood stones.


Yeah. They were quarried here, right where the circle is out in front of the house. And when Mary and I moved in here in 1970, we really had a feeling that we wanted to save the place. Because I think my father, who lived on Maui, would have knocked it down and subdivided, and sold the property off. So we had to bite the bullet, and I made a deal with him, and the house was in terrible shape, awful shape. But over the years, we’ve painted and used chewing gum and everything else I can




The home is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Sam and Mary Cooke established the non-profit Manoa Heritage Center and the Kualii Foundation to secure the future of the home and the nearby heiau site. As long as the couple lives here, the house is not open to the publicbut the heritage center offers guided tours of the heiau and native garden.


And I’ve opened the garden up, not the house, but the garden to tours; small tours. And we’ve done’we do about three thousand kids a year. And I think we can do a little bit more than that, but we’re growing, and we’ll get there soon. But we can’t do much more than that, because of our size.


You’ve restored the heiau, and youve replaced the original plantings with all native Hawaiian- Yes. –plants.


Right; m-hm.


What have you learned about the Hawaiian plants and-


Well, when we-


-in the process?


-first started doing it, we had to get special permits from the State to plant these plants, because they were endangered, and they were protected. And so Mary, my wife [CHUCKLE], had a lot of sessions with the State in bringing monroidendron trees in, and like all these other things that we put in the garden. Now, you can buy them at Home Depot. [CHUCKLE] But we have some very unique things out there that we got from Kauai.


Like, for example?


Well, the monroidendron; it’s such a rare tree. It grows on Kauai. It’s such a rare tree that we’ve forgotten the Hawaiian name; nobody knows the Hawaiian name for it.


I heard there’s one out there that – there’s nothing left in the natural to pollinate it.


Oh, yeah; that’s the brighamia. It looks like a cabbage on the end of a big stalk. And that was found on Kauai and on Molokai, and there was a special insect that pollinated it. And that insect has become extinct, and it can’t pollinate itself by itself, so it has to be pollinated by man. There’s the native Hawaiian hibiscus, which is the State flower, the yellow one.




And then there’s Hawaiian cotton out there. And then there’s akia, the fish poison plant.


How does that work?


You take the leaves and you make it into a poultice, and then you throw it in the tidal pools. And it stuns the fish, and the fish come floating up. And then you grab them and put them in a bag. I’ve never tried it, but it’s something that does work. Well, there’s about sixty different plants out there, all sorts of exotic, rare Hawaiian plants that are kinda fun to see, because you don’t ever see them anywhere. And one of the things that has been so interesting is that when the native people come here to see the heiau, they’re much more interested in the plants than they are in the heiau.


What do you think happened in that heiau? I mean, did you know, right now, it’s an empty enclosure.


Right; right.


What was there? Was anything in there before?


We don’t really know. We speculate that there were some images in there. There was one person who came out to the University of Hawaii who said it was built much like that big stone thing in England called Stonehenge, where it lined itself up to the solstice, the different seasons.




And that you could see the sun coming over this part of the heiau, and that’s where this particular plant was planted.


Oh; that would be so nice to know.


Yeah; it would be nice to know. But there’s nobody to tell us. We have a protocol committee, different local people who come and advise us about once every other year. And we decided that we weren’t going to let anybody walk in there, out of respect to the place. And if you know a chant, it’s very appropriate to chant. We’ve had many chanters out there. But it’s very refreshing to take these kids who are studying Hawaiian history, and all of them know chants, and so they come out there and they do their chant at the heiau. It’s just chicken skin. I mean, it really is. I was terrified that we’d have some sort of reaction from the Hawaiian community, but we have nothing but positive vibes from them. And we’ve tried to include them. Our board has several native Hawaiians on it, and Nathan Napoka has been very, very helpful to us. A wonderful guy. So I think we’re doing the right thing. I mean, I think my kids think I’m crazy, because they don’t get it.



They’re not into the Manoa Heritage Center?


Not really. Cathy is the one that lives here, but they’ll be okay; they’ll be okay. M-hm. They’re not setup such that they could take care of books like this, and paintings, and that type of thing. And we’re going to leave an endowment, hopefully, that will take care of it for the foreseeable future, but these places always need more, more, more, more, more.


Have you ever considered moving away?


No; I would never move away. I would never move away. We go on trips, and it’s always nice to come home.


And you’ve never moved away from the property? 




-where your family has lived for generations.


Right; right. No; no, we’re gonna stay here.


Kukaoo was restored in 1993 and survives as the last intact Hawaiian temple in the greater ahupuaa of Waikiki.


That’s right, Waikiki. The Cookes- Manoa Heritage Center gives tours of the heiau and native garden by reservation only. Our guest Samuel Alexander Cooke could have let his family achievements support him, but instead, he enjoyed a long successful business career and created his own legacy of philanthropy in Hawaii.


Mahalo, Sam Cooke for sharing your “Long Story Short,” and thank YOU for listening and supporting PBS Hawaii. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A Hui Hou Kakou.


For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit


We were very much involved with Molokai. We did a lot of fishing. My dad caught the world’s record oio, bonefish.




And he also held the marlin record that he caught at Lanai. And Mother held the world’s record in the Allison tuna. And so when Dad died, he went in the Fishing Hall of Fame with Herbert Hoover; he was a very famous fisherman. So most of my time was fishing, when I was a kid. I didn’t-I don’t play golf; never been on a golf course. I miss the old ways; I do, I really do. I remember going to luaus at Laie, and seeing my father’s great friend, Haumana Kalili, in a tug-of- war, pulling six Filipinos. I mean, it was this incredible background. Going fishing with him, and going to the koa and praying in Hawaiian, and going out and catching akule by the boatload. And you don’t see that anymore. Mm-mm. We’d go to lobster holes, and out of maybe thirty lobsters in the hole, we’d take two, all we could eat. Now, you go out to the lobster hole, there’s nothing left.


Queen Emma – Her Life and Legacy


Na Mele: Queen Emma – Her Life and Legacy features traditional Hawaiian chants and songs created to honor and record the life of Queen Emma. The Queen Emma Summer Palace in Nuuanu serves as center stage. The Summer Palace, or Hānaiakamalama (nurtured by the moon) as it’s also known, was a place of respite for Queen Emma and her husband, King Kamehameha IV. Despite the tragedies in her life – the loss of her 4 year old son, Albert, and her husband, King Kamehameha IV – Queen Emma had the strength and fortitude to establish institutions that continue to serve Hawaii today: The Cathedral of St. Andrew, The Queenʻs Medical Center and St. Andrewʻs Priory School for Girls.


In the hula performance of “Aia I Nu‘uanu,” the dancers and kumu hula chant, “Aia ka nana i Nu‘uanu, I walea ‘Emalani i laila, Ka ‘olu kohai i ka makani” (There is the beauty at Nu‘uanu, such that Emalani is at ease there, comfortable, swaying in the breeze). The halau dances with the Summer Palace quietly looking over them, as if the Queen herself is observing and appreciating their hula. Also performing hula about Queen Emma and the places she loved is Hālau Haʻa Hula ʻO Kekauʻilani Nā Pua Hala O Kailua and a halau made up of students from St. Andrew’s Priory School for Girls. The Emmalani Serenaders also lend their voices to praise Queen Emma, performing Kaleleonālani and Hole Waimea.


Leslie Wilcox, PBS Hawaii President and CEO, will host the program, alongside special guests from the Daughters of Hawai‘i, St. Andrew’s Priory, and The Cathedral of St. Andrew.


Original air date: Sun., June 7, 7:00 pm


Biography Hawaii: Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani

Biography Hawaii: Princess Ke'elikolani


Air date: Thurs., Oct. 8, 9:00 pm


A formidable presence in 19th-century Hawaii, Princess Ruth Ke‘elikolani refused to speak English, practice Christianity, or leave the Hawaiian Islands. Though her life was darkened by the deaths of her children and her beloved first husband, she was a popular and strong force who resisted the kingdom’s drift toward annexation. In keeping with Princess Ruth’s own devotion to Hawaiian language and culture, this documentary is presented in two versions: English and Hawaiian.


The Hawaiian Version of this program will be shown: Thurs., Oct. 8, 9:30 pm


Billie Jean King


This profile first aired in 2013 to commemorate the 40th anniversaries of the famous Billie Jean King v. Bobby Riggs “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match and the launch of the Women’s Tennis Association. King presents her own story, with perspective from Serena and Venus Williams, Hillary Clinton, Sir Elton John, Maria Sharapova, Gloria Steinem, Chris Evert and Bobby Riggs’ son Larry.


A Strong and Active Faith

Delegate Eleanor Roosevelt at a meeting of the United Nations.


Air date: Tues., June 23, 8:00 pm


Frail and failing but determined to see the war through to victory, FDR wins re-election and begins planning for a peaceful postwar world, but a cerebral hemorrhage kills him at 63. After her husband’s death, Eleanor Roosevelt proves herself a shrewd politician and a skilled negotiator in her own right, as well as a champion of civil rights, civil liberties and the United Nations. When she dies in 1962, she is mourned everywhere as the First Lady of the World.



Lawrence Tseu


Original air date: Tues., Jan. 17, 2012


Nationally Recognized Honolulu Dentist and Philanthropist


Leslie Wilcox talks story with Lawrence Tseu, a nationally recognized Honolulu dentist and philanthropist. As a boy who grew up poor in Kalihi, Lawrence shined shoes and sold newspapers to pay for his tuition at St. Louis. Dr. Tseu talks about the joys and struggles of growing up in a hardscrabble neighborhood and his journey to dentistry.


Lawrence Tseu Audio


Download the Transcript




Like the old saying goes, you can take a boy out of Kalihi, but you cannot take the Kalihi out of the boy. It’s hard to forget the past, where you grew up. It’s always gonna be a part of you, even though you’re not living there anymore.


He was a resourceful kid on the streets of Kalihi and Chinatown during World War II, and his journey has taken him from poverty to the pinnacle of philanthropy in Hawaii, and beyond. The life of Lawrence Tseu of Honolulu 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. In this edition of Long Story Short, Dr. Lawrence K.W. Tseu is accustomed to being asked for money, and he has a soft spot for those in need because he knows what it’s like. He grew up poor during the Depression, started working when he was just nine years old, and eventually rose to become a local titan of philanthropy. Lawrence Tseu once lived with a loving family in what he recalls as a hut on the wrong side of the tracks.


We know you as a kid from Kalihi, but you actually were not born in Hawaii.


No, I was born in Hong Kong, because my dad is from Hawaii, born and raised in Hawaii. And after college, he went to Hong Kong to try his luck in business, and he met my mother who’s from Shanghai, and I was born in Hong Kong. And when I was three years old, we came back to Hawaii.


Now, your father was an educated man with a master’s degree.


Yes. Well, he was in the First World War. He volunteered, actually, at seventeen, forged his parents’ signature to go to France to fight. And he received three Purple Hearts and participated in seven major campaign battles. So, on his way back on the troop ship, he stopped by in New York and decided he wants to get an education. So, he worked his way through Columbia University, and then got his master’s degree from New York University, NYU.


But then, you grew up poor in Kalihi.




Could he not get the job he wanted?


Well, here’s what happened. When he went to Hong Kong to try his business, he was quite successful, met my mother in Shanghai. And my mother, of course, came from a very wealthy family in Shanghai. The father was the major owner of a large department store called Daisun, who was in competition with Wing On Company in Hong Kong and Shanghai. So they were quite wealthy. When my grandfather passed away, my uncle took over the business kinda, and he wasn’t a very good businessperson, so we kinda lost some money. So my dad said, Well, maybe let’s go back home and try our luck back in Honolulu.


And how did it go in Honolulu?


Well, when he came back, he started a rattan furniture business, and all of his supplies came from the Philippines. So when the war started, of course, he lost his supplies and his material to make furniture. So at that point, we were quite destitute. No income, no business, and so we just went bankrupt.


And so, what did he do? How did he fight the Depression?


Well, he was an in engineer, and so, he went to work for the Navy. And then we kind of built ourselves up again from working for the Navy at Pearl Harbor during the war.


What was life like in Kalihi? What street did you live on? What was your neighborhood like?


The area that I grew up on was considered the poorest area of Kalihi. You had the area below the railroad track, and the area above the railroad track. And the railroad track is actually Nimitz Highway right now. Now, the best area of Kalihi was Kalihi Valley. That was considered the Waialae Kahala of Kalihi.


And what was it like living there?


Well, we had a small house, just cold running water, and no garages. It was a very simple small, little hut, actually.


Did you play on the street?


Yes. Yeah.


You didn’t go to parks or anything?


Oh, no; there wasn’t very many parks then. The only place that really had grass was the Bishop Museum. And so, my brothers and I would go to the Bishop Museum every so often, so we can run on the grass to get that good feeling. You know how it feels to run on the—


And how did you get around? How did you get up to Bishop Museum?


Oh, we walked. There was no such thing as a bike, or riding something. We just walked. Everything was walking.


Now, you started working at a very young age, and it wasn’t because you were hired, it was because you made your own job. What was that all about?


Well, right after the Pearl Harbor, my mother said, You know what, now’s a good time to make money. I said, How? She said, Well, you go shine shoes. I said, But I never shined shoes before, I don’t know how it’s done. So, I asked my neighbors, to help me make a shoebox from an orange crate. So my brother and I, my older brother, he’s just about thirteen months older than I am.


And how old were you?


I was nine and a half, and he was ten and a half. So we managed to somehow make a shoebox, and we went to town to buy polish to shine shoes. Now, we never shined shoes before. We don’t have no idea how it’s done. [CHUCKLE]


And how did you set the price?


Well, it was ten cents a shine.


Oh; okay. That, you knew; okay.


Yeah, that, I knew.


Well, where did you go to get your customers?


We’d go to town. And at that time, there were a lot of sailors.


Ah …


See, sailors are the only one that shine their shoes. The soldiers had these boots, so you can’t shine the boots. So sailors were mostly ninety-nine percent of our customers.


What was your corner? Did you have a special place?


Yes. The Kalihi bunch was right across the street from Hawaii Theater on Bethel Street. And we used to call that Battle Street, because we had to defend our area.


Was there competition among the Kalihi boys?


No, no.


All friends?


We all helped each other, yeah.


Do you think that says something about the Kalihi neighborhood?


Well, maybe because the poverty and the closeness, we kinda stuck together. So we were the only ones in town that had what you call a gang to protect our area. So, the other shoeshine boys were just stragglers. They’d come and go, and different areas. But we had our set street, and it was very, very lucrative.


Were there other ways to make money, besides shining shoes?


I don’t know whether I should … well—


It sounds like you should. [CHUCKLE]


[CHUCKLE] Well, there was another way that I used to make my money, besides shining shoes and selling papers. These young sailors, they’d come into town, and they want a good time. Prostitution was legalized, and so they would show me, bad pictures and say, Hey, sonny boy, where can I get some of this? I said, Oh, I know where. And they said, Well, take me to the place. I said, Oh, I’m not gonna take you unless you pay me first. They say, What do you mean? I said, Well, you each give me a quarter, and I’ll take you folks, and show you.


More than shoe shines.


Yeah. Oh, yeah, I clean up. [CHUCKLE] Some days, I really did well.


And you were how old, now?


Ten years old; I was ten. So, once we arrived at the place, I said, Okay. We called them mates. I said, Okay, mate, here’s the situation; this corner is Caucasian. We used to call them Haoles. I said, This corner is Haole girls, it’s ten dollars. Across the street is local girls, but young and pretty, it’s five dollars. And I said, on this corner is older local girls, it’s two dollars.




I used to be the grocery boy for one of the madams. And every Saturday, I would meet her at, I think, about ten o’clock in the morning, and I would go Chinatown shopping with her. And I would carry her bags, and then we would go back to the house of prostitution.


Did your mother know you were doing this?


No, I wouldn’t dare tell her.


And how long did you do that? Starting at nine and a half.


Yeah, until the war ended.


And how much of a help was it to your family? Oh, well, what did you with the money? Did it all go to your family?


What I’d usually do was, at the end of the day, I would cash in the coins for dollar bills. And on a good day, on a Saturday, we’d make as much as ten dollars on a good day. So I would cash it all in for dollar bills, and we’d bring it home to my mother. We’d give it to her.


The whole thing?




You didn’t even go get a soda?


No. In fact, we never ate lunch, when we were shining shoes. We saved as much money as we can. So one day, my mother said, Oh, what did you folks have for lunch? I said, We don’t eat lunch. And she said, Why not? We want to save the money. So she gave us a good scolding and said, From now on, you have to go to eat, and you have to eat lunch. So right on Pauahi and Bethel Street was a fountain. The old fashioned fountain where you come up on a stool, and sit and be served on the counter.


Yeah, right. Ice cream floats, and everything.


Yeah, right, right. So what we did was, between my brother and I, I would eat first, because was younger. So we’d order a tuna sandwich and two Cokes.


And you’d have half sandwich each?






We would split the sandwich. [CHUCKLE]


Because you were saving money.






So I would have my own Coke, and my brother would have half the—I eat half of the sandwich, and then when I’m done, he would hop on the stool and he has his half of the sandwich. [CHUCKLE]


So that ten dollars, how much did that help your family, in the money of that time?


Well, in the early 40s, ten dollars goes a long ways.


I understand you started going to private school, and paying your own tuition?




Could that be true?




As a fifth grader?


The tuition then at St. Louis was only hundred fifty dollars a year. And when you shine shoes and make maybe three, four dollars on a weekday, and then maybe seven, eight bucks on a Saturday—


Oh, you were doing it weekdays, too?


Oh, yeah, after school. So that’s why John Henry Felix always said, Oh, we make more than our parents.


Was that true, literally?


Well, almost. Yeah, we did make some good money.


Now, he was a Papakolea boy that you kind of took under your wing, your gang joined up with.




And he’s your close friend to this day. And he has a PhD, he’s been a City Councilman, he’s a business magnate.


Yes. He is what I call a success story.


Right about this time, you decided you wanted to be a dentist, at this early age.


Yes, from the age of twelve, I told myself, I want to be a dentist.




While I was in Puuhale School, all the poorest of the poor were entitled to go to Palama Settlement for their dental work. To be poor, you don’t qualify. You gotta really be destitute, practically, almost. So I would get my dental checkup by going to Palama Settlement, see? And one time, I had a very, very passionate, gentle dentist that it was so painless, and caring and careful. That impressed me so much that I said, Someday I want to be a dentist and be like him.


And from that time on, you were used to pretty much taking care of yourself.


Yes. After the war, I got a job as a service station attendant, or a mechanic helper, but I’m always working, since I was nine and a half.


So after you graduated from St. Louis, you had a goal to go to college.


Yeah. Well, I wanted to go to college, but didn’t have money, so I joined the service. And so, I joined the Air Force, because I didn’t want to dig foxholes. We come from a very patriotic family. My dad, like I said, at seventeen, signed up for World War I. So, when we became of age, he said, You know, freedom is not cheap. There’s a price for freedom, and I want all of you boys to go in the service. I don’t want to see you guys get drafted. So my oldest brother went in the Navy, my other brother went into the Army, airborne paratrooper, and then my younger brother went into the Marines, and I went into the Air Force.


So you’re in the service, and you’re earning a GI Bill, right?


Yes. So, the GI Bill I got was seventy-five dollars a month, and if you’re married, you had an additional seventy-five dollars. So a hundred fifty dollars, I started college.


You got accepted to dental school after college.


Yes. So of course, in college, I had to work my way through college, because the GI Bill didn’t cover all of it. And then she worked as well, yeah?


And did you have kids while you were still in college?


Yes; yes, uh-huh. So when I started dental school, I had two children already.


And dental school, I always think of that as, it’s a professional school, and people don’t work while they go. But you worked fulltime in dental school.


I had to work. There was no choice. So what I used to do was, school gets through at five, and I would to go to school, and reach my workplace at six. So six to twelve every night, and then I get home by one o’clock. And then I would eat my dinner, and study, until six-thirty, and then I’d get up to go to school.


And was the dental training what you hoped it would be? Did you love it? Because this is something you had decided so long before.


Oh, I enjoyed every minute of dental school. I really enjoyed the challenge, and what I’d learn every day was new, that I graduated tops in my class, in spite of working.


And you went to a very good school, as well.


Yeah. Northwestern, at that time when I applied, was the number one dental school in the country. It was known as the John Hopkins of dental school. Most pre-med students would apply to John Hopkins, most or all pre-dental students want to apply at Northwestern.


So you not only got in, but you were top of class.


Yes. My children would ask me, Hey, Dad, what makes you so motivated? And I would say, I’m tired of being hungry and poor, and people looking down on me, and I want to make something out of myself to escape the stigma of Kalihi.


Now, your kids didn’t have that stigma, and presumably, they didn’t grow up in Kalihi.




So, do you consider them blessed, or do you think maybe everybody needs to grow up in Kalihi and understand the hardship


Well, that’s a very good question. Because I let them know that I grew up in Kalihi, and that it takes a lot of discipline and appreciation to get out of Kalihi, and that what they have now, they should appreciate because they don’t have to go through the hardship to learn what I’ve learned.


But do they have the same motivation you did?


Well, for some reason, they must have, because they all did quite well in their professions.


Have you actually retired? Because it seems like you’re at your office a lot, you’re still involved. And if you retired, you must have done it fairly recently.


Yes. Well, after my wife passed away, before she passed away, she made me promise her that after she’s gone, that I would quit my practice. Because, she feels that even while she was alive, I put so much hours into my practice that without her, probably I might work myself to death. So she said, Okay, Honey, you gotta promise me, when I’m gone, you have to quit your practice and enjoy life. So, a year ago April, April 1, 2010, I officially completely cut myself off from my practice.


And do you miss it?


I miss my patients. The dental work itself is a source of income, but I miss the interaction with my patients. They were like family. Every six months on their checkup, it’s a nice family reunion. I remember their kids, and their accomplishments, and it’s kind of a very, very pleasant reunion. And I miss my patients. I love ‘em all, and they’re really precious to me.


While Lawrence Tseu was busy running his dental practice in Honolulu, a mutual friend introduced him to the woman who would become his second wife. Bo Hing Chan was raised in China, educated in Europe, and lived in Hong Kong. She came to Hawaii to vacation, and to seek business contacts for a jewelry enterprise.


She’s the daughter of a famous general and the former governor of Canton. And she came on vacation to Hawaii, and we met through a friend. I never believed in love at first sight. But after I met my wife … it can happen.


Did she feel that way, too?


Yes, exactly.


She had inherited wealth, and you were self-made.


Most Chinese don’t give the money to the daughters; they give it to the sons. A well-to-do Chinese family would send their children to Europe, at that time, to be educated. And that’s where my wife went, to Oxford, and University of Paris. But the girls are not deprived of any conveniences or comfort, but they don’t inherit money. If they do, it’s a very small amount.


But your wife built a fortune?


On her own. She was quite an entrepreneur.


So you had a very close relationship, and she really influenced your thinking about a lot of things.


She’s very philanthropic in many ways, so she said, With the money that we have, we should share our blessings; so do continue to help the underprivileged and help the poor. You can’t take the money with you anyway, and you can’t spend it all, so do some good with it, and help the underprivileged.


Is that something you had been involved in before?



Well, I think I got part of it from my grandfather. Most people don’t realize it, but my grandfather, when he came from China to help the Damon family, promote religion to the Chinese, he established the um, Palolo Chinese Home with the Damon Family to help the single Chinese men that had no place to go when they got old. So I think I must have inherited some of that tendencies to help.


I have to say that it’s such a blessing to have the money to share with others. How do you decide who to give to?


Well, my criteria is mostly to help the underprivileged children. But it all started because I was poor myself, and my dad always mentioned, and my parents of course, mentioned that education is one way to get out of poverty. So I thought, if I can help educate the underprivileged, that would get them out of poverty. Some people inherit wealth, yeah, and they can do well with the money. But if you have an education, to me, that’s one way to meet up with the wealthy, to be on an equal level playing field, so to speak.


What other projects have caught your attention?


Healthcare is also important. I’m involved with the American Cancer Society, because my sister and my wife passed away from cancer, so I have special feelings to help the American Cancer Society.


What’s the gift you’ve given—and you’ve given millions of dollars to charities. What’s the one that’s given you the most personal pleasure or pride?


University of Oxford is, I think, one of my greatest accomplishments as far as getting involved with that institution. It was through, of course, John Henry Felix, and of course, my wife got her master’s degree from University of Oxford. So that’s how there’s a tie to Oxford.


Don’t you have buildings named after you at the University of Oxford?


The newest building at Harris Manchester College was named after my wife and I because of our contribution to that college.


And you also have contributed to the construction of a medical institute?


Yes, I established the Tseu Medical Institute at University of Oxford to do research in diabetes, AIDS, and cancer.


With the major exception of Oxford University, Dr. Lawrence Tseu tries to put his money to work here in Hawaii. Among the many organizations he supports are the nursing schools at Chaminade University, and the University of Hawaii, the Boy Scouts, his alma mater St. Louis School, and he also sits on a number of nonprofit boards.


Does life look really different to you in retirement? I mean, do you care about really different things?


Not really. Because while in practice, I was also involved in a lot of nonprofit organizations, and when I retired, I just spent more time with the nonprofit organizations. So there’s not any difference, really. In fact, I spend more time now, because I have more time to devote to them.


You were married for most of your life, most of your adult life.




What’s it like being single now?


Well, let’s put it this way. I enjoy my independence. I can come and go as I please, I don’t have to account to anybody what I do. And that’s very comforting.


So it’s a good place to be?


Yes, yes. I had a good marriage, and I enjoyed it, and I don’t think anybody can replace my wife. So, no use looking. So I’m happy with my present situation. Independent, flexible, and go as I please, and come as I please.


You’ve talked about the adversity of being poor. Has there been another adversity that you think has shaped you? Because, you know, you learn more from failure than from success, and from hard times than from successful times and happy times.


What affected me most was the death of my family and my loved ones, yeah? My sister, my parents, and my wife. That kind of made me look at life with a different view, that life here is only temporary, so it’s better to help others than give, than to receive. So that has been sort of my philosophy in life.


The seed of that philosophy had been planted early on, inspired by a poem that resonated with Dr. Lawrence Tseu, even as a young man with few resources and an abundance of ambition.


My sister gave me a book, a poem book my Kahlil Gibran, who was a very famous poet. And I read through the book, and this one poem caught my eye that I felt was something that I would like to do and follow as a way of life in the future. So I can read it if you don’t mind.


I’d love to hear it.


The poem goes like this. I expect to pass through life but once. If therefore, there may be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer nor neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again. So, I feel that if I’m gonna do something nice, I better do it now, because I may not be able to have the opportunity to do it again.


You’ve had a long life, but do you feel life is short?


Well when I was shining shoes, it seems like only yesterday. That’s how fast life went by.


I suppose, if you enjoy your life, no matter how long you’ve lived, it’s not long enough.


Yes. You still want to do more, and you still want to help more. There’s never enough time to finish your objective in life.


Is there something you really need to do, before you pass this way?


Well, I think I’ve done all that I wanted, and accomplished all that I wanted to accomplish. I’m very satisfied camper.


That’s a lot. I don’t know how many people can say that.


M-hm. No, I don’t regret, and I’ve done everything that I wanted to do. I wanted to be a dentist, I wanted to be a pilot and fly, and raise a family, and help people, and establish whatever I can to be a Good Samaritan. So, I’ve accomplished everything I wanted. There’s nothing I regret that I have not done.


Wow. So, does that mean you can hit the snooze button?


I can check out any time. [CHUCKLE]


This conversation took place in 2011. In his eighties, Dr. Lawrence Tseu is not slowing down, let along snoozing. He continues to rise hours before dawn each day, to keep up his commitments, not only writing checks, but connecting people and doing everything he can to support the educational and charitable causes close to his heart. And the kid from Kalihi has made many trips to support work at the buildings at Oxford University in England, which bear the names of Dr. Lawrence and Bo Hing Tseu. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Mahalo for being with us.


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


My dad gave me a lot of advice, and so did my mom. What I remembered very clearly was what he told me one time. He said, Son, the average person learns from experience, but a wise man learns from experience of others. So when I hear things, and I listen, I would learn from what I hear, then I try to avoid that mistake.