After 40 years of arguments, Deputy Prosecutor Tam rests

John Tam and his wife, Maysie, celebrate his retirement during a lunch last month in the Old Wailuku Courthouse, which now houses the prosecutor’s office. The building served as the county courthouse when Tam began his career as a deputy prosecutor more than 40 years ago on Feb. 1, 1977. -- The Maui News / LILA FUJIMOTO photo

After serving under eight Maui County prosecuting attorneys and appearing before 13 2nd Circuit judges during a career that spanned 40 years, Deputy Prosecutor John Tam has retired.

“He holds the record as longest-serving deputy,” said Prosecuting Attorney John D. Kim. “We’re going to be losing a lot of history.”

Tam has the longest years of service as a prosecutor in the state, said 2nd Circuit Chief Judge Joseph Cardoza.

“Over the years, he’s been an extremely dedicated public servant, very high energy and seems to have done a great job of maintaining his youth,” said Cardoza, who worked with Tam for 13 years in the prosecutor’s office.

“Forty years in prosecution is quite an accomplishment,” Cardoza said. “People of the County of Maui have been extremely fortunate to have such an energetic and hardworking and dedicated deputy prosecuting attorney.”

Deputy Prosecutor John Tam makes an argument in Wailuku District Court on March 6 during a preliminary hearing in an assault case. Tam has retired from the county Department of the Prosecuting Attorney after a 40-year career. -- The Maui News / MELISSA TANJI photo

Tam was born in Paia Hospital and grew up in Pukalani, attending Baldwin High School before graduating from Punahou School on Oahu.

He earned a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University in 1970 and a law degree from the University of San Francisco Law School in 1973. He worked in private practice for Shim, Sigal, Tam & Naito on Oahu before returning to Maui.

Tam started work at the Maui County prosecutor’s office on Feb. 1, 1977, the month after the county Department of the Prosecuting Attorney was created through a charter amendment that also formed the Department of the Corporation Counsel, Cardoza said.

Before then, a single county attorney’s office handled both criminal prosecutions and civil cases.

The late Arthur Ueoka was the first prosecuting attorney, with now retired 2nd Circuit Judge Boyd Mossman as his first deputy. Cardoza and Tam were the two other attorneys in the office.

After starting out in District Court, handling traffic and misdemeanor matters, Tam later was assigned to screen felony cases and then to prosecute felony cases, including homicides.

“He’s a very hard worker, especially when he’s in trial. He’s very intense,” said Linda Tengan, a law technician who started working at the prosecutor’s office in December 1978. “He always wanted everything to be perfect and to get the right conviction.”

Tam often helped others, including new attorneys in the office.

“He’s just so generous with everybody,” Tengan said. “He’s very helpful with the attorneys, even with the clerical staff. That’s why everybody loves him.”

In 1978, Tam served as a delegate to the state Constitutional Convention.

When Cardoza became the head prosecutor, Tam served as first deputy “and did an outstanding job,” Cardoza said.

Over the years, Tam rarely took time off from work while handling a variety of assignments.

“He’s done everything,” Cardoza said. “He’s performed well in all assignments. The county’s been blessed to have someone of his commitment and knowledge serving for so many years.

“We often kid him that he still has some of the same sports coats. He really hasn’t changed over the 40 years. It’s tremendous that he can stay in such great shape with so much high energy. But that’s John Tam. He really knows how to roll up his sleeves, get into something, work very hard at it and do an outstanding job.”

“Anything asked of him, he’ll do,” Kim said.

In the early 1990s, that included serving as temporary director of the county Department of Liquor Control.

Mayor Linda Lingle asked Tam to take the special assignment for a few months while the FBI was investigating complaints about the liquor department.

“It was all still law enforcement, enforcement of rules,” Tam said. “It was just trying to make sure that the department was run properly and the rules were administered properly. After the FBI finished their investigation, I returned back to the prosecutor’s office.”

Tam was working in the felony screening section before he retired at the beginning of the month.

“I didn’t expect to go 40 years,” Tam said. “But you know what — it’s a combination of just fantastic staff and then good police work, good officers.

“Everybody wants to do something that helps people, and this is the way I have been able to do it.

“I enjoyed it all, whether it was screening the cases, District Court. It’s been all kinds of things. I’ve enjoyed doing them all.”

Tam, who recently turned 70, decided to retire as the prosecutor’s office also marked its 40th year.

“That was a milestone,” he said.

Last month, Tam planned a retirement lunch, providing the food and inviting former office staff members, as well as Police Chief Tivoli Faaumu and other high-ranking police officers. Faaumu is among six police chiefs during Tam’s career.

“I wanted it to be more of a reunion and a celebration,” Tam said.

Tam planned the program, introducing Maysie, his wife of nearly 42 years, and their three children, Cathy Yago of Kahului, Christopher Tam of Groton, Conn., and Claire Sears-Tam of Greenwich, Conn.

Tam was surprised with hula performances by dancers from Halau Kekuaokala’au’ala’iliahi and kumu hula Brandon Paredes, a deputy prosecutor, and his wife, Haunani.

Some office employees joined in serenading Tam with the song “My Guy.”

Wailuku attorney Cynthia Wong said Tam was her supervisor in her first job at the prosecutor’s office.

In addition to being a good supervisor, “he’s incredibly talented, incredibly smart and a good person with a good heart,” Wong said.

“He’s dedicated to justice,” she said. “I learned a lot from John Tam over the years.”

Tengan said she and others will miss the energy he brought to the office.

“Just the presence of him being around — he lights up everybody,” she said. “It was fun working with him. He’s one of the good bosses in the office.”

For Halloween, Tam often would coordinate costumes with the office clerical staff. “It just made everybody so happy,” Tengan said. “We’ll miss him.

“Hopefully now he can take a long, long vacation. I think he should start enjoying his retirement.”

In retirement, Tam said he and his wife will be busy watching their three young grandsons.

As he has for the past 25 years, Tam said he will continue volunteering for the court-annexed arbitration program where attorneys act as unpaid arbitrators to try to settle civil cases before they go to trial.

Tam also plans to continue assisting with police recruit training in constitutional, criminal and traffic law.

“It’s all the interesting cases that I’m going to miss,” he said.

And he plans to continue donating blood, as he has while recruiting county employees to be blood donors for about 30 years.

During his career under seven mayors’ administrations, “all the mayors have always been supportive of the blood bank,” Tam said.

“That’s been a really rewarding thing to work on,” Tam said.

He has donated about 145 pints of blood so far. “That helps with recruitment when people see the recruiter is giving too,” Tam said.

“The county will miss him,” Cardoza said. “But he certainly has earned his retirement. To say something good about him is easy. It was my privilege to work with him for 13 years.”

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at