Melissa Tanji’s front-page article in Tuesday’s Maui News was a fitting tribute to the life and legacy of William D. “Bill” Tavares, who passed away May 2 at the age of 97. Quoting Gladys Baisa, Peggy Sanches, John Blumer-Buell and the Tavares family, Melissa painted a detailed portrait of a many-faceted man, meticulous and eloquent, yet unpretentious.
I was surprised to read that Mr. Tavares had been principal of Makawao School for less than 20 years. For thousands of Mauians, including myself, his name is synonymous with the Home of the Rams. In fact, because of his tremendous contributions as principal, the Makawao History Museum designated him as a Living Treasure of Makawao, even though he was Kuau-born-and-raised (and retired).
In the 1960s, all of Maui’s public grade schools (except for Wailuku Elementary) included kindergarten through 8th grade. At Makawao, Mr. Tavares knew every one of his students by name, treating us all with the same measure of respect he expected from us. Long before it became a catch phrase, “tough love” was his standard procedure.
Impeccably dressed in a white button-down shirt, necktie and gray trousers, he spent most of each recess in the schoolyard, usually mingling and chatting with us kids, sometimes just observing. Once in a while, ruler in hand, he would approach a cluster of 7th or 8th grade girls to ensure their skirts were no shorter than three inches above their knees. Miniskirts, along with slippers and T-shirts for both girls and boys, were strictly forbidden. Enforcing the dress code was one of Mr. Tavares’ priorities; he also insisted on courteous behavior and devotion to studies, especially reading.
One day, when the entire student body was called to the cafeteria for an assembly, he stunned us all by barging in barefooted, his shoes hanging from his neck by their laces. His shirt was untucked, his pants rolled up to his knees, and his normally slicked-down hair was tousled. Wild-eyed, he leapt onto a table and shouted, “Is this what you want your school, your principal to look like? Does this make you proud?”
I don’t recall the exact words of the ensuing lecture, but even at the time, it didn’t matter. I was struck by the passion of his delivery. Even at 9 or 10 years of age, I could see that he cared so deeply, he pushed himself far beyond his comfort zone to teach us lessons about pride, responsibility and self-respect.
His reputation as a strict disciplinarian was cemented by the big wooden paddle hanging on his office wall. Even kindergarteners knew that being sent to the principal’s office would result in corporal punishment, and we all had heard stories of long-ago students who had been paddled, but in all my years at Makawao School, I witnessed only one such visit.
I think it was my 3rd grade year. One of the boys, a new student, was being especially disruptive in class, though I don’t clearly recall the specific offense. I do remember how shocked we were when our exasperated teacher commanded him to go to the office. Richard maintained his bravado as she scribbled a note and instructed him to deliver it to the school secretary, and he even gave us a cocky grin as he walked out the classroom door.
When he returned to class, teary-eyed and snuffling, he took his seat and didn’t utter a peep for the rest of the day. After school, we barraged him with questions, but he wouldn’t give us any details, and he refused to show us the welts we were sure he sported on his butt.
All these years later, I’m convinced that Richard got off with a stern lecture and was sworn to secrecy. In fact, I doubt that Mr. Tavares ever used that paddle for anything beyond visual effect. He maintained an image of stringent, maybe even militaristic, authority, but he was no bully.
Bill Tavares was a wise and effective mentor, a compassionate and generous father figure. He was, I think, exactly what a school principal should look like and, yes, Mr. Tavares, I am so proud to be one of your kids.
* Kathy Collins is a radio personality (The Buzz 107.5 FM), storyteller, actress, emcee and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.