The fifth of eight children born to Manual and Mary Cravalho was a key player in a political revolution 60 years ago. Small in stature but large in shrewd intellect, Elmer F. Cravalho - he never used his middle name, Franklin - went from a hardscrabble childhood to a financial success that allowed him to legally adopt five children and support the education of 45 others in the Philippines.
The 1954 revolution by union-backed Democrats wrenched political power in Hawaii from the plantation-dominated Republicans. In an hourslong interview in 1987, Cravalho said the overthrow took guts since being aligned with the unions was considered tantamount to joining the Communist Party.
Nothing could be further from the facts. He was a capitalist, through and through - a capitalist with a desire to help his fellow Mauians.
Cravalho's political career is well-known by Maui old-timers - territorial legislator, speaker of the House and mayor of Maui County. He was one of the architects of Maui's early tourism policy: Cater to those who can afford to spend and protect local life to keep from ruining what attracted tourists. His financial acumen is less known.
His father was an elementary school teacher who became a principal. His son said for many years the maximum pay was $150 a month for a teacher and $300 a month for a principal. The large Cravalho family had to make do. "We didn't have any money," he said.
Manual Cravalho did manage to pick up small parcels of land, including the Waiakoa property I call home. Maui's economy was at rock bottom and father Cravalho bought low-priced property on installments. Cash was in short supply on the island. Manual Cravalho later lost all of his holdings.
Those early years of having little or no money in the house shaped Elmer F. Cravalho's ideas about spending. "I have a reputation for being tight. When you don't have much they call you a tight bastard and then after a certain point, you become a fiscal conservative." He told that as a joke, but it has more than a kernel of truth.
Although intent on becoming a farmer, Elmer F. Cravalho found himself a teacher in Haiku, Paia and Kula. Spending $250 and three months campaigning for his first term in the Legislature and getting elected meant he couldn't commit to a year of teaching. He went to work as a $50-a-month janitor at Kula Gym and began building his personal assets by buying a hapai cow for $100 from Joe Medeiros. At the time, Cravalho didn't have $100.
"Joe told me 'you pay me bumbye when the calf comes.' " That sort of trust was a hallmark of Cravalho's policies when he and six others raised $35 to start the Kula Credit Union, which eventually occupied a custom Waiakoa office now used as a veterinary clinic. The KCU had assets of $40 million and a collection rate of 98.6 percent when it merged with Maui Federal Credit Union earlier this year. A big part of the KCU success was due to Cravalho's willingness to loan money on the basis of character.
At one point, auditors went over the books and complained about him loaning money to individuals with little or no collateral. Cravalho simply pointed at the low, low default rate. He knew the borrowers and was confident they would repay the loans. They nearly always did.
Later, Cravalho became office manager for Maui Dry Goods, the parent company of a number of Maui businesses, including a car dealership. He said he made "a couple of bucks" on investments and started a piggery in Puunene. At one point, he had 1,500 pigs in addition to his cattle. A decade after being mayor, his yearly income was "in the six figures."
As mayor, Cravalho was notorious for showing up for work at 6 a.m. to go through the county's spreadsheets, looking for unnecessary expenses and ways of increasing revenue without hiking taxes.
His public life began because of severe drought in 1946. He became a leader of the Kula Independent Ranchers, helping to find range and water for stock. It was also his introduction to negotiating with government bureaucracies during the course of getting permits for government grazing land.
During that wide-ranging interview in 1987, Cravalho said he'd like his epitaph to read "he was one of us."
With the merger this year of the Kula Credit Union and the Maui Federal Credit Union, Elmer F. Cravalho finally retired at age 84. He'd run the KCU without pay for more than 20 years. A capitalist? Yes. With a social conscience? Most definitely.
* Ron Youngblood is a retired editor and staff writer for The Maui News. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.