At the risk of seeming disrespectful, I opened my interview with the governor in my native language: “So what, guv? How you stay?” Without missing a beat, Gov. David Ige replied in kind, “I stay good!”
The audience was delighted and so was I. The rest of our interview was conducted in standard English, but that little bit of pidgin set the tone for a relaxed and candid discussion as part of the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center Leadership Series. Saturday’s event was the third in the series, which will present each of Hawaii’s former (and current) governors before the year ends.
Raised by Nisei parents (his father was a member of the famed 100th Battalion/442nd Infantry), Ige spoke about the traditional cultural values that his parents practiced, rather than preached. “Like many of the 100th and 442nd veterans, my father never talked about his wartime experiences,” he said. “He led by example.”
How, I wondered, do nisei values like humility and quiet endurance reconcile with political ambition? In Ige’s case, as with former Gov. George Ariyoshi, elective office was not his original career choice. Ige was a 27-year-old electrical engineer working for Hawaiian Telephone Co. when he received a call from a former high school classmate asking him to consider entering politics at the state legislative level.
It seemed ludicrous at first. “My plan was to become the first island-born-and-raised president of Hawaiian Tel,” he said. “I’d never considered politics.”
But his friend persisted, and after speaking with leading Democrats, including then-Gov. Ariyoshi, Ige was persuaded. No doubt, other nisei values — sacrifice, sense of duty, debt of gratitude — influenced his decision.
The governor’s appearance was brief but enlightening and entertaining, and I thoroughly enjoyed our talk. As mentioned in this column last week, I’ve been honored to interview, at some point or another, each of the last six Hawaii heads of state. The one I feel closest to is not a fellow Asian-American, but as our first governor of Native Hawaiian descent, John Waihee was raised with local values similar to the nisei ones, including gratitude, compassion, honor . . . translation: aloha.
In 1980, when Waihee ran for his first state House term, I was a rookie reporter for KITV-4 News. I was the only one to show up at his initial press conference, and we laughed about our shared dilemma, paying our dues as the new kids on the block.
Two years later, when he entered the race for lieutenant governor, his press conference was better attended, and he remembered me as the first reporter to interview him at the start of his political career. It didn’t get me any scoops or political favors, just his sincere appreciation and friendship.
A year or so later, I was hired by the Maui County Council to serve as a legislative liaison, sort of the council’s eyes and ears at the Legislature. The county negotiated a small work space for me in then-Lt. Gov. Waihee’s state Capitol office, and when I showed up for my first day on the job, we laughed about how we seemed to be on parallel paths, rookies again.
The liaison position was funded only for one session, and I returned to Maui, leaving behind both politics and news reporting. Eventually, my work with Hale Mahaolu and other nonprofit organizations led to my appointment to the Governor’s Sub-Area Council on Mental Health and Drug Abuse. As is customary, the governor came to Maui to swear in the appointees himself, and yes, it was John Waihee.
He was surprised to see me, as the appointment was made in my legal name, not the professional name by which he knew me, and I was pleasantly surprised that he still remembered me fondly as the first reporter to listen to him and give him a platform.
We reconnected in April, when he was the center’s Leadership Series featured speaker. Both of us are more gray-hair than greenhorn now, and it was nice to share memories and laughter once again.
The next ex-governor scheduled in the series is Neil Abercrombie, and I am eagerly anticipating a lively afternoon. Abercrombie is a gifted speaker and fascinating personality. I don’t think we’ll hear much about “quiet endurance” in his talk; “go for broke” is more likely.
* Kathy Collins is a storyteller, actress and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.