Why 30? ‘Nice round number,’ says Fillazar of break in career

For the first time in 30 years, Lahainaluna High School will open without a familiar face.

Longtime award-winning student activities coordinator Art Fillazar retired June 30, ending his three-decade run at the west-side school he grew to love.

Fillazar, affectionately known by students as “Mr. Fill,” said he finally had enough years to retire and picked 30 years as a “nice round number.”

“Thirty years, that was a goal for a long time,” he later added.

His retirement is a break in his 40-year career in education. He spent some time teaching at private education institutions, including St. Anthony, before his tenure at Lahainaluna.

But his retirement only signifies an end of one era.

“I’m not retired from work. I’m retired from the DOE (Department of Education), but I love to work with kids,” Fillazar said last week.

So when the opportunity came up to continue to mentor students after retirement, Fillazar jumped at the chance.

On Friday, Fillazar will be the new director of admissions and student activities coordinator at St. Anthony Junior-Senior High School in Wailuku. He graduated from the school in 1969.

The 63-year-old already serves as the moderator of the youth ministry at St. Anthony Church.

“Now I can focus on that (but) as it turns out I (also) have a paid job,” he said.

“It will be a shorter ride,” the Kahului resident said with a laugh, comparing his longtime commute over the Pali to his new 10-minute drive to Wailuku.

Although Fillazar is excited about his new venture, he said he’ll miss his Lahainaluna students and the school’s long history and Hawaiian roots.

He said he took pride in seeing the Lahainaluna students “continue to build on that school tradition and history, because it’s so rich. Lahainaluna is very unique.”

Lahainaluna was established in 1831 by the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions to be a work/study program “to instruct young men of piety and promising talents,” according to the high school’s website. The school opened with 25 students, including David Malo. He went on to hold important positions in the kingdom, such as being its first superintendent of schools. The school continues to celebrate a “David Malo Day.” At one point, Lahainaluna was under the control of the Hawaiian monarchy. Currently, it is also one of the few public boarding schools in the nation.

Fillazar is unique, like the school. He is known as the energetic, jack-of-all-trades educator who can be called the face of Lahainaluna student activities. He has been advising yearbook staff, emceeing events and coordinating proms and other activities for decades.

Fillazar said he’s been called the “Cecil B. DeMille of Lahainaluna” for his ornate decorations at proms and his coordination of dances. (DeMille was an old-time film director and film producer.)

One would think Fillazar even graduated from Lahainaluna, given the enthusiasm he showed for the school. But it wasn’t love at first sight between Fillazar and the oldest high school west of the Mississippi.

When he was hired at Lahainaluna in 1984, he was chosen as the head of a new special motivation program. But Fillazar hit a low.

He had a new program that no one knew about. The program focused on giving students another chance to make it at the high school level through one-on-one instruction.

His students were diverse, and he had to teach various subjects, such as social studies, which was not his specialty. He majored in secondary education and English and received a minor in Spanish, all with honors at what was known then as Saint Martin’s College in Washington state.

“I was able to work with these kids. I didn’t have any problems working with these kids,” he said.

But it wasn’t a right fit.

“I hated being there. I don’t know why I was there and what I was doing. I wasn’t comfortable.”

It was so bad he used up all of his sick leave days so he didn’t have to go to work.

Fillazar said he wasn’t used to the long ride from Kahului and felt uninvolved with the school.

But in came fellow teacher Liz Sakamoto, who taught next door to him at Lahainaluna.

He said she told him: “Just hang in there. Just hang in there. It will get better. . . . Wait until graduation at the end of the school year, then you can decide.”

At the 1985 Lahainaluna graduation, Fillazar heard the boarders sing. He saw the ceremonial lighting of the “L” on Puu Pau Pau, or “Mount Ball,” (where Malo is buried).

He also heard the alma mater sung with “a lot of pride.”

“Oh my God, it just hit me,” Fillazar recalled.

“I refer to it as the mana (power) of the school. I felt I belong, and I never left.”

Fillazar took that feeling and turned it into his mantra and motivation for students and especially the incoming freshmen.

“All these years, that’s all I preach.”

Fillazar went on to teach English after his first year at the school and not long afterward became the student activities coordinator.

At student orientations, Fillazar said he has the students stand if their parents or grandparents attended Lahainaluna, which usually draws a group.

“You get chicken skin. . . . That’s the flavor of Lahainaluna. I keep telling them, be proud of the history of the school.”

Fillazar said that his motivation over all these years is “that God gave me this gift to work and motivate kids. I love seeing kids grow. I had a mentor that did that for me. This is my gift.”

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at