When the Maui County prosecutor's office was created Feb. 1, 1977, John Tam was one of its four attorneys.
In the years since, he has held various positions in the office, including first deputy, head of the career criminal unit, District Court supervisor and head of screening. He even worked briefly on special assignment to lead the county Department of Liquor Control.
Deputy Prosecutor John Tam (center), with his wife, Maysie, and Prosecuting Attorney John D. Kim, look over a portfolio with the logo of the prosecutor’s office. It was among gifts he received to mark the 35th anniversary of his employment with the county Department of the Prosecuting Attorney, which coincides with the creation of the office.
The Maui News / LILA FUJIMOTO photo
"John Tam prosecuted murderers and thieves," said Maui County Prosecuting Attorney John D. Kim, the eighth top prosecutor that Tam has served under. "Any assignment, he'll take it willingly.
"He's one of the old guard. He keeps reminding us of how things should be done."
To mark Tam's unmatched 35 years of service, nearly all of the office's 77 employees donned light-blue T-shirts to celebrate what was unofficially called "John Tam Day" at the office Feb. 1.
The T-shirts, in Tam's favorite color, featured an airplane design above "JET 35," for his initials and the years he has been a deputy prosecutor.
"He's our favorite son," said Deputy Prosecutor Jerrie Sheppard, who heads the screening section where Tam now works. "One of the things we count on John for is the corporate knowledge he brings. John helps us evaluate new ideas."
Sheppard pulled together the celebration in just two weeks, after confirming that the milestone was approaching.
Legal clerk Jo Gascon arranged for lunch from Tam's favorite restaurant, Mike's.
Gascon said co-workers often turn to Tam when they need help or feel stressed.
"He's very knowledgeable," she said. "He's so loved over here."
Tam leads twice weekly stretching classes for office employees and has a Chinese gong that he sounds to try to reduce the stress level.
"We call him the zen master," said Gascon, who has worked with Tam for 14 years. "Nothing ever bothers him."
Tam was born in Paia Hospital and grew up in Pukalani.
His father, Edward, worked for 34 years as a police officer, reaching one of the department's top ranks. His now 92-year-old mother, Amy, was an English teacher at Baldwin High School.
Tam attended Baldwin 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.
On Oahu, Tam worked in private practice for Shim, Sigal, Tam & Naito.
He returned to Maui and was hired as a deputy when the Maui County Department of the Prosecuting Attorney was formed by a charter amendment that also created the Department of the Corporation Counsel. Before then, a single county attorney's office handled both criminal prosecutions and civil cases.
In the beginning, Arthur Ueoka was the prosecuting attorney with Boyd Mossman as his first deputy. Second Circuit Judge Joseph Cardoza and Tam were the other two deputies.
"Life was simpler," Kim said.
The new prosecutor's office moved into the fourth floor of the Kalana O Maui building.
At one point, in the late 1980s, faced with the choice of using money to hire more deputies or buy furniture, the prosecutor chose deputies, Kim recalled. With no money for more desks, some worked at borrowed election tables, which were reclaimed when election season rolled around.
Today, the prosecutor's office is located in the historic Wailuku Courthouse, which was still in use as a courthouse during much of Tam's tenure. After being vacated by the Judiciary in 1988, the building was bought by the county three years later and restored. In October 1993, the prosecutor's office moved in.
When he was hired, Tam said, he hadn't necessarily planned a long career in the office.
"I didn't know until I started to do it and I found I really liked it," he said. "It's all the things we do - reviewing cases, evaluating and doing something when we can. Going forward with the cases that should go forward and making decisions when the case shouldn't go forward."
Tam has worked for eight prosecuting attorneys in seven mayor's administrations, including the two of current Mayor Alan Arakawa.
With support from Maysie, his wife of nearly 37 years, Tam said the 35 years passed in a "blink."
Tam was first deputy when current First Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Robert Rivera first worked at the office in 1989. He said Tam doesn't seem to have changed in appearance - or energy - in the years since.
"I remember him as having a lot of energy and a lot of knowledge and experience," Rivera said. "He was very kind and intelligent. He was (relentless) in court. He tired everyone out. John would outlast the Energizer bunny."
Some of those Tam worked with went on to become judges.
"It's been good to see the development of people," Tam said. "Next thing you know, they're getting better, better, better. They turn into top administrators, judges. They get good handling cases and they also advance in their careers."
Kim said Tam has been a unifying force in the office, organizing volunteers to help newly hired deputies move into homes when they first arrive on Maui. "And the price of that was dinner," Kim said. "The person who had their household moved would have to cook us dinner."
In earlier years, Tam also organized football and softball games, pitting prosecutor's office employees against teams from the probation and public works departments.
He was a delegate to Hawaii's 1978 Constitutional Convention, elected after campaigning on "Running for a Healthy Constitution." Instead of holding signs, he asked supporters to run while wearing T-shirts with the slogan.
In his job now, Tam is in charge of editing changes in the prosecutor's office charging manual when laws are amended and sharing information with deputies on other islands. Tam is assigned to advise the liquor adjudication board. And he is the office contact with the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, a role that has become more important with the county prosecution of more defendants defrauding residents through unlicensed activity, Kim said.
Tam would rather call attention to his role as volunteer coordinator for the Maui County employees Lifesavers Club, working with department representatives to encourage people to donate blood.
Last year, county employees gave more than 300 pints of blood, he said.
Trying to "lead by example," Tam himself will reach the 120-pint, or 15-gallon, mark with his next donation. "It's hard to ask somebody to donate if you don't," he said. "I'm very happy that we have county employees who are very dedicated."
When the office celebration was planned, his co-workers weren't sure if they would be able to keep it a secret from Tam. But after rushing to decorate his office with balloons, they had to wait when Tam was a little late to work that day.
"That's how I know he had no clue," Kim said. "He would have been on time. He wouldn't have wanted to put us out."
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at email@example.com.