Lee Imada reflects on 40 years with The Maui News
Long before he became an award-winning journalist for his hometown paper, Lee Imada wanted to be an astronaut.
He was a child of the ’60s, old enough to remember when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and young enough to believe that could be him one day.
“That era of the rocket, the idea that you could do anything . . . I bet you that there are many people of that time who would say that they wished that they could be astronauts,” Imada said. “I wanted to be an astronaut, and when I got glasses, I was crushed, because I couldn’t become an astronaut.”
But while the career path that Imada followed didn’t take him to the moon, it certainly transported him places – to the edge of a lava flow on Hawaii island, through the backcountry wilds of Haleakala and, in a full-circle turn of events, to interviews with two men who actually traveled to space, Charles Duke, the voice of Mission Control during the first moon landing, and Scott Carpenter, one of the original Mercury astronauts.
“It was a dream come true for me,” Imada said.
In November, Imada wrapped up a long journalism career, stepping down as managing editor of The Maui News where he spent nearly 40 years.
“It’s been getting tougher since I took over in 2012 because staffing has been reduced, but the advent of COVID . . . kind of ran me into the ground,” Imada said during an interview shortly after his departure.
“There were other factors too,” he added. “The landscape of journalism has changed a lot in my four decades. Interestingly when I started, my goal was to give voice to people who normally wouldn’t have a voice, because back then there was no social media. So I was looking for just the average person trying to get their comments and their views on the record.”
First big break
Imada was in his senior year at Maui High School and a reporter with the school’s High Notes paper when he wrote a letter to General Manager Nora Cooper and asked if he could intern at The Maui News.
“I got a phone call from her one day saying hey, come in, you’re going to work with Wayne Tanaka, the sports editor,” Imada said. “So literally two days — I think my graduation was on a Saturday — I came in to work for Wayne Tanaka.”
Imada spent the summer of 1977 writing sports stories, doing layout and learning the ropes. He wrote a story about the first “Run to the Sun,” a grueling race from sea level to the summit of Haleakala, chronicled pro wrestling matches and interviewed a young University of Hawaii volleyball coach Dave Shoji, who came for a club tournament in Lahaina.
While earning his bachelor’s in journalism at Northwestern University in Illinois, Imada came home during the summers to work at The Maui News, and after his graduation in 1981, he was hired full time. He and photographer Matthew Thayer were caught up in the hiring rush for the fast-growing paper. In the early ’80s, the publication went from three days a week to five and then six, and it all happened “relatively quickly,” Imada recalled.
The Maui News was an afternoon paper at the time, with a deadline of 11 a.m. So Imada, who was assigned to the police, education and Haleakala National Park beats, would start his day at 6:30 a.m. He’d check the police logs, sit down with the captain of the Criminal Investigation Division and then come back to the office and hammer out his stories on a typewriter by 9 a.m.
Northwestern had taught him a lot, but “there’s no substitute for experience,” said Imada, who admitted that his early stories “weren’t very good.”
“I always enjoyed writing, which is why I went into this business,” he said. “And then I found out that writing is just the tool that you use, that in journalism it’s really about the newsgathering, and it’s the people who are the newsgatherers — not necessarily the best writers, but the people who are the best newsgatherers — are the most valuable to a newspaper operation.”
Reporting pushed him out of his comfort zone, forced him to approach total strangers and establish an on-the-spot rapport.
“It was difficult for me at first. I’m not outgoing by nature, so it was hard for me to go up to people and talk to them,” Imada said. “That was one of the first things I had to do, was develop a style that would work for me and my personality in order to go up to total strangers and ask them questions.”
Sometimes he’d miss stories, like the time Shoji was back in town with his No. 1-ranked Wahine. Imada went to cover the game and the reception, where he had a chance to talk to future UH Hall of Famer Deitre Collins, but “I was too shy and I didn’t.”
“I always regret that, and I learned from that — that you have to figure out a way to go up to people and get the story,” he said.
Trekking the crater, chasing lava flows
Imada would have plenty of other chances to get the story.
One of his first assignments on the Haleakala beat was to spend a few days following backcountry rangers around the park. The rangers would do a one-week tour of the crater, staying in cabins, cleaning up the park and shooting goats for population control. Imada got to shadow a ranger and stayed at a cabin in Paliku.
He remembered bringing freeze-dried food, prepared to rough it. The ranger brought a chicken that they ate in a “fairly plush” cabin that was equipped with a toilet, shower and stove.
“That was so much fun,” Imada said. “I ended up having to hike up by myself from Paliku Cabin up Halemau’u Trail down to the Hosmer Grove and back to my car at the visitors center, which I don’t think I could do now.”
Over the years, Imada would return to the crater for events like the 75th anniversary in 1991 when reporters spent “a day in the life of Haleakala.” Imada’s assignment was to follow wildlife biologist Cathleen Natividad Hodges in search of the ‘ua’u, the Hawaiian petrel. They walked around the rim of the crater and found a nest that Imada had to crawl between a rock crevice to see.
A photo of Imada at the crater he loved so much sat on his desk for many years.
“At that time I wanted experiences,” he said. “I wanted to be on the scene of the major news stories of the day.”
So, when his bosses Roy Tanaka and Dave Hoff asked if he could cover a lava flow while vacationing on Hawaii island with his girlfriend in the 1980s, Imada didn’t hesitate.
“I left my girlfriend at the time at the Hilo Shopping Center and I drove the hour and a half to the place wearing rubber slippers, T-shirt and shorts, with my camera,” Imada said.
The rental car climbed the hilly terrain to the Royal Gardens subdivision that was in the path of the lava flow and came to a stop by what looked like a big pile of rocks next to a house.
“Where’s the lava flow?” Imada remembered asking the police officer on site. “And he says, ‘Well there it is.’ A couple of rocks roll off the big ‘a’a flow, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh wow, this isn’t what I expected.’ I expected pahoehoe stream, rivers of lava. But actually when I walked up to the edge of the flow in my rubber slippers, you could see the glow, you could feel the heat — it was just really intense heat.”
Imada went as close as he could get without melting his slippers and took a shot that appeared in color in The Maui News.
“That was an experience. That’s one I’ll never forget,” he said.
Imada says he’s “not like most reporters where I have my Watergate story,” but he’s logged plenty of watershed moments in the newsroom — like April 28, 1988, when there was an explosion at the Kahului cannery and the emergency landing of a damaged aircraft all in the same day. He remembered how they’d just rushed to put the paper to bed following the cannery explosion when they heard the call over the police radio about Aloha Airlines Flight 243, which had tragically lost a flight attendant when a section of the plane’s roof ripped off mid-flight. Reporters were quickly dispatched to the hospital and the airport, where the plane was making an emergency descent. Imada was the junior desk person at the time.
“My biggest accomplishment was picking up Matthew Thayer on the other side of the airport so he could get back to his car after he had got onto the runway and shot these iconic photos that ended up in papers around the world,” Imada said.
A heart for hibakusha
While Imada has interviewed many notable characters, from astronauts Duke and Carpenter to Japanese world home run champion Sadaharu Oh and Major League pitcher Tommy John before his famed elbow surgery, perhaps some of his most treasured interviews were with hibakusha, survivors of the atomic bomb explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended World War II.
Imada took a sabbatical from 1984 to 1985 to study Japanese culture and language at Nanzan University in Nagoya, returning in 1987 under a Hibakusha Travel Grant from the Hiroshima Cultural Foundation to interview survivors.
“My interest in that is because my Aunt Yukie, my father’s sister, was a victim of the atomic bomb, something she never talked about until I actually went to Hiroshima at that time and she told the story of what happened to her,” Imada said.
Yukie Imada was born on Maui and raised in Japan, where she inherited the Imada family farm in the hills above Hiroshima. If she had been home on Aug. 6, 1945, she would have dodged the impact, but she was in the city that day, helping to build firebreaks to protect Hiroshima.
“They were creating firebreaks in anticipation of a potential firebomb attack, and instead they were the victims of the nuclear war bomb,” Imada said.
His aunt survived but would suffer the aftereffects of cancer and keloids, the bumpy scar tissue left over from the burns. She lived till she was almost 100.
Imada also interviewed survivor Ruth Kaya, whose family ran Yama’s Restaurant in Wailuku. Kaya had been working in an airplane-making factory in Hiroshima with her sister when the bomb went off. She managed to crawl out of the burning building, but her sister died. In the days that followed, there would be mass cremations of the victims, collected into communal barrels of ashes that families would scoop from just to have a piece of their loved ones, Kaya told Imada.
“That has always left a mark on me,” he said. “As long as I can write and tell stories, those are the things that I’ve tried, when I can, to write stories about my experiences, to give voice to them, to give voice to the hibakusha, the victims of the atomic bomb.”
Imada sent a dispatch back from Japan following a memorial service in 1987 that was published in The Maui News. He also wrote stories about the survivors as a freelancer for the Hawaii Herald, a Japanese-American publication, from 1985 to 1990.
Lessons from space
Imada rose from reporter and page designer to assistant news editor in 1991, news editor in 1992 and managing editor in 2012. Along the way he raised two daughters — Allicia, now an orthopedic resident in Albuquerque, and Tina, a counselor in San Diego — and married his high school sweetheart, Debra Browning, in 2013. The two reconnected when he wrote a story about commercial vendors in Iao Valley in 2005.
And while his dreams of going to space were dashed at an early age, Imada still took the lessons of the galaxies to heart.
“I learned from Star Trek and Star Wars, and one of the things I learned was that you need to always see the bigger picture,” said Imada, recalling how in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” Admiral Kirk tells a young Lt. Saavik that “you have to learn why things work on a starship.”
“In other words, it’s not just, there’s an order or there’s this thing that happens,” Imada said. “You have to understand its role in the context of everything, and I’ve tried to carry that into my reporting, to not just look at an issue but to look at an issue in the context of the bigger picture of its impact on the community.”
Imada credits his colleagues and predecessors for shaping him as a journalist — Managing Editor Earl Tanaka, News Editor Roy Tanaka, City Editors Christie Wilson and Ed Tanji and reporters Tom Stevens and Mark Adams.
“The Maui News and its readers were lucky to have Lee for all those years,” said Wilson, who worked at the paper from 1986 to 2000 and is now deputy content editor for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “Throughout the ups and downs of the newspaper business, he has been one of the paper’s few constants. He was never less than a consummate journalist and newsroom leader who cares deeply about accuracy and ethics and held the staff to high standards. His long tenure at The Maui News also is proof of his commitment to the community.”
Years later, Roy Tanaka can still remember some of Imada’s most memorable stories, like the way he described Haleakala during that backcountry trip.
“He said it was so quiet, he could hear himself chewing his musubi,” Tanaka said. “And when you think about writing for a local audience, that nailed it for me. It was really good.”
Tanaka, who worked at the paper from 1977 to 2009 and was the best man at Imada’s wedding (and Imada the photographer at his), said that “above all, he was a very good friend.”
“He was hard working, dedicated, cared about his readers, cared about his coworkers, cared about the company a lot,” Tanaka said. “He had great respect for the people who came before him who helped build the company into what it was. . . . I think that was reflected in the way that he was as a reporter.”
Hoff, the former editor-in- chief who spent 1977 to 2012 at The Maui News, called Imada his “right-hand man,” a multitalented reporter who could cover anything.
“He’s one of the hardest working people I ever worked with, and most conscientious about his work,” Hoff said. “He took a lot of pride in the craft of journalism and really cared about Maui. It was his home, born and raised, and he really dedicated himself to serving the people of Maui County.”
* Colleen Uechi can be reached at email@example.com.